In Brief

Ecumenism and religious toleration were scarce commodities anywhere in Europe in 1904 and strikingly so in Ireland, where for centuries distinct communities had been defined by their Catholic or Protestant (or Jewish) faith, not only religiously but also politically, legally, and economically. Allegiance to one faith or another was inherited, but in several chapters Ulysses glances at efforts to convert unbelievers. Although Leopold Bloom is now an unbeliever in the truest sense, distrusting all religious teachings, he is keenly aware of these missionary campaigns, having at different times felt allegiance to Protestantism, Judaism, and Catholicism. He is the textbook example of how conversions often do not last.

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In Lotus Eaters Bloom stands outside St. Andrew's church reading a notice about a mission to convert people in China to the Catholic faith, and it makes him think about recruiting campaigns closer to home: "Prayers for the conversion of Gladstone they had too when he was almost unconscious. The protestants are the same. Convert Dr William J. Walsh D.D. to the true religion." Hoping to make a Protestant of William Joseph Walsh is a preposterous idea: he had been the Archbishop of Dublin since 1885. If some enthusiasts did entertain this unrealistic hope, they were dreaming big: such a conversion would have been a propaganda coup of the first order. Much the same was true of Walsh's own evident desire to see William Ewart Gladstone, one of the leading British politicians of his day, converted to Catholicism: the political bonanza would have been huge.

Gladstone had served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for twelve years, in four different terms stretching from 1868 to 1894. As leader of the Liberals he cautiously embraced several causes dear to Irish Catholics, including disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, legal reforms for tenant farmers, and Home Rule. These policy positions apparently encouraged some Catholics to hope that he might join their fold. Gifford notes that when Gladstone lay dying in May 1898 Archbishop Walsh wrote a letter to the "faithful of the diocese" urging them to pray for him. The letter did not mention conversion, "but it might easily have been so taken since it concluded by suggesting 'a prayer that God, in whom he always trusted, may now in his hour of suffering be pleased to send him comfort and relief to lighten his heavy burden, and to give him strength and patience to bear it, in so far as in the designs of Providence it may have to be borne for his greater good (italics added)'." Slote cites David Williamson's biography of Gladstone as reading the letter in the same way.

In Lestrygonians Bloom thinks of organizations that attempt to poach players from the rival team by the Salvation Army method: feed the hungry, house the homeless, and indoctrinate them with proper religious principles. He is passing by a Protestant bookshop: "Why I left the church of Rome. Birds' nest women run him." An organization in Kingstown called The Birds' Nest that gave shelter to poor children had become a generic name for groups combining charitable assistance with missionary outreach. Bloom imagines that the bookseller is under their sway and thinks of the kind of titles carried in the store. Why I left the church of Rome was a 30 pp. pamphlet published in 1883 by Charles Pascal Telesphore Chiniquy, a French Canadian who became a Catholic priest in 1833 but was suspended and excommunicated by an American bishop in 1856. Chiniquy converted to Protestantism two years later, becoming an evangelical Presbyterian minister in 1860. The rest of his life (he died in 1899) was devoted to converting other Canadian and American Catholics. He sold vast numbers of books—more than any other Canadian author in history, according to biographer Richard Lougheed. Gifford observes that he was said to have converted nearly 30,000 Canadians.

The "Birds' nest" method of conversion prompts more of the dark thoughts about food and predation that preoccupy Bloom in Lestrygonians: "They say they used to give pauper children soup to change to protestants in the time of the potato blight." The stories are hideous: in the darkest hour of Irish history, when tens of thousands of poor Catholic children were starving in cottages and fields, Protestant missionaries reportedly used food to extort submission to the faith of the ruling class. Some historians have argued that the stories are exaggerated, but there must be truth to these anecdotal legacies from people who "supped the soup." In Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988), cited by Slote, R. F. Foster argues that despite studies like Desmond Bowen's Souperism: Myth or Reality? (1971) the practice "cannot be explained away; it was bitterly remembered by the Quaker Alfred Webb in his unpublished autobiography" (329).

Webb (1834-1908), a Dublin-born Quaker activist who witnessed the hard times, wrote: "Upon the Famine arose a widespread system of proselytism, now happily almost at an end. In their despair and misery, our poor naturally caught at any sources of relief, and a network of well-intentioned Protestant associations spread over the poorer parts of the country, which in return for soup and other help endeavoured to gather the people into their churches and schools, really believing that masses of our people wished to abandon Catholicism.... Those who really became Protestants were few and far between. The movement left seeds of bitterness that have not yet died out, and Protestants, not altogether excluding Friends, sacrificed much of the influence for good they would have had if they had been satisfied to leave the belief of the people alone. In matters of conversion in these countries, Protestants are blunderingly and ineffectually above-board, whilst Catholics are more effective and persistent, and, from their own point of view, wise."

This insight would seem to apply fairly well to Bloom's father, whom he recalls in the next sentences: "Society over the way papa went to for the conversion of poor jews. Same bait. Why we left the church of Rome." The Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews was a London-based Anglican organization that had a Church of Ireland branch office on Molesworth Street, the short lane that Bloom is about to enter "over the way" after crossing Dawson Street. "Same bait" and "poor jews" suggest that the lure was primarily economic. Ithaca makes clear that Rudolph Bloom was indeed "converted from the Israelitic faith and communion in 1865 by the Society for promoting Christianity among the jews)," but his subsequent actions—settling in a Jewish neighborhood and educating his son in the rituals of Judaism—suggests that it was no more than a matter of convenience.

Questions are also raised by Rudolph's adoption of this particular faith. If her words in Circe can be trusted, his bride Ellen Higgins was raised Catholic. Did Rudolph convert before or after he met her? Did he find nominal embrace of Protestantism easier than submitting to rigorous Catholic instruction? Did he see material advantages in choosing the church of the ruling class?

Fifteen to twenty years later Bloom repeated his father's act of conversion, but from a different starting point. The passage from Ithaca quoted above observes that "To Master Percy Apjohn at High School in 1880 he had divulged his disbelief in the tenets of the Irish (protestant) church...subsequently abjured by him in favour of Roman catholicism at the epoch of and with a view to his matrimony in 1888." The two dates sketch a span of time, age 14 to age 22, when the young Bloom first questioned the teachings of his inherited faith and then chose the church of his spouse. The example of his father's premarital conversion from Judaism to Protestantism might suggest that this premarital conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism was undertaken in a purely pragmatic spirit. But Ithaca will go on to suggest that the situation was more complicated.

According to a later passage in the chapter, Bloom has been baptized three times: "by the reverend Mr Gilmer Johnston M. A., alone, in the protestant church of Saint Nicholas Without, Coombe, by James O'Connor, Philip Gilligan and James Fitzpatrick, together, under a pump in the village of Swords, and by the reverend Charles Malone C. C., in the church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar." Saint Nicholas Without was a Church of Ireland church in the Coombe, not far from the neighborhood where Bloom grew up. Its priority in the list suggests that it was the site of his first baptism, which fits with the fact that he was born into the Anglican faith. Later, he seems to have consented to be baptized by three laymen (no titles precede or follow their names), using water from a well in a village north of Dublin. And then he was baptized a third time, more formally, in the Three Patrons church in Rathgar.

Overlaying this passage on the earlier one, it seems clear that the Rathgar baptism must have been the one undertaken "at the epoch of and with a view to his matrimony in 1888." The church there was Catholic, and it was located in a southern suburb not far from where both Bloom and Molly grew up. The outdoors Catholic baptism must have been performed earlier, and was probably conducted by high school friends. Having confessed his doubts about Anglican teachings "To Master Percy Apjohn at High School," Bloom evidently let O'Connor, Gilligan, and Fitzpatrick initiate him into the island's predominant faith.

Clearly the conversion did not stick. Nor, for that matter, did the Judaic practices that Rudolph Bloom tried to impart to his son, teaching him to read Hebrew and initiating him into rites like the Seder service. Conducted in covert defiancd of the Anglican faith in which he had had his son baptized, this home schooling must be counted as another conversion attempt. But in the same years when he discarded the Church of Ireland, Bloom was also expressing disbelief in these traditional Jewish teachings—a matter of rebellious adolescent pride then, but a source of terrible guilt now. His attachment to the Jewish community lasted a while longer: after their marriage, for several years he and Molly lived close to his childhood home on Clanbrassil Street. But now that link too is gone. In the middle of his life Bloom makes his way in a largely Catholic circle of acquaintances, but without sharing their faith.

JH 2022
Photographic portrait of William Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin, probably taken in the early 1890s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photographic portrait of William Gladstone taken in 1892, held in the Patrick Montgomery Collection. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photographic portrait of Charles Chiniquy taken in the early 1860s, held in the Patrick Montgomery Collection. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photographic portrait of Alfred Webb, dated 1909. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Title page of a book published by the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amonst the Jews. Source: