Old Mrs Riordan

Old Mrs Riordan

In Brief

A blaringly outspoken figure from the early pages of A Portrait of the Artist returns in Ulysses, much muted, as both Bloom and Molly think back to the last days of "old Mrs Riordan." In Ithaca Stephen and Bloom discover that they both knew Dante Riordan: she served as a governess in the Dedalus household and later lived in the same hotel as the Blooms. Molly's dislike of the woman puts a kind of coda to the story of this bitterly pious old zealot, whose real-life model John Joyce's biographers have called "fat and formidable" (128).

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Joyce modeled Mrs. Riordan on a Cork woman named Mrs. Elizabeth Conway who may have been a distant relative of John Joyce and who was governess to his children from 1888 through the end of 1891. Devoutly religious, Elizabeth Hearn entered a convent but left before taking her final vows when her brother died in 1862, leaving her a large inheritance of £30,000. She married Patrick Conway in 1875, but after living with her for two years he left Ireland for Buenos Aires with most of her money and did not return. The experience seems to have permanently embittered Elizabeth.

In My Brother's Keeper, the anti-Christian Stanislaus Joyce devotes several pages to a richly detailed portrait of Mrs. Conway. He calls her the "first educator" of his brother James, who began the family tradition of calling her "Dante," "probably a childish mispronunciation of Auntie." Among other subjects, she taught James "a good deal of very bigoted Catholicism and bitterly anti-English patriotism." Stanislaus recalls that Mrs. Conway "was unlovely and very stout," dressed primly, loved to have the children bring her "the tissue paper that came wrapped round parcels," and regularly complained of back pains "which I used to imitate pretty accurately for the amusement of the nursery." "She had her bursts of energy, however": when an elderly man stood up, hat in hand, at a band's playing of God Save the Queen, she gave him "a rap on the noddle with her parasol" (7-11).

For Stanislaus, the intelligence and occasional tenderness of the governess were far outweighed by her fondness for original sin, divine judgment, and eternal damnation. "Whatever the cause," he writes, "she was the most bigoted person I ever had the misadventure to encounter" (9). The "cause" must have had much to do with her unhappy marriage, for she also possessed an unusual degree of vengeful sexual prudery. Jackson and Costello recount an incident in which she convinced John Joyce's wife to burn his photographs of his former girlfriends while he was out of the house. May tried to take the blame, but John knew at once that the real instigator was "that old bitch upstairs" (159).

The opening section of A Portrait glances at the governess's patriotism and her small kindnesses to young Stephen: "Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper." (Stephen recalls these details in Ithaca.) It then evokes her vicious religious intolerance. Stephen says that when he grows up he will marry Eileen Vance, the Protestant girl next door, after which he is shown hiding "under the table" as his mother says, "O, Stephen will apologise." Dante: "O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes." Mesmerized, the little boy repeats the refrains "Apologise" and "Pull out his eyes," making of them a small rhyming poem.

The O'Shea divorce scandal ended Mrs. Riordan's love of Charles Stewart Parnell, as it did for many puritanical Irish Catholics. Joyce evoked this watershed in the most powerfully emotional scene in his fiction, Mrs. Riordan's ferocious argument with Mr. Dedalus and Mr. Casey at the Christmas dinner of 1891, several months after Parnell's death. Young Stephen watches the religious and patriotic halves of his education collide as the two men abominate the Catholic bishops for betraying Parnell and the governess spits hatred back at them.

The boy understands that Mr. Casey "was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father: and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God save the Queen at the end." But the church's hatred of sexual immorality has trumped allegiance to the great parliamentary leader. At the climax of the argument, fulfilling the promise of her sobriquet, Dante bellows, "God and morality and religion come first. . . . God and religion before everything! . . . God and religion before the world!" "Very well then," Mr. Casey replies, "if it comes to that, no God for Ireland! . . . We have had too much God in Ireland. Away with God!" The governess screams, "Blasphemer! Devil!...Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!"

Ulysses sounds only faint echoes of this vivid personality. Ithaca notes that after leaving the Dedalus household at the end of 1891, and before dying in 1896, Mrs. Riordan lived "during the years 1892, 1893 and 1894 in the City Arms Hotel owned by Elizabeth O’Dowd of 54 Prussia street where, during parts of the years 1893 and 1894, she had been a constant informant of Bloom who resided also in the same hotel." Bloom was kind to the old woman: "He had sometimes propelled her on warm summer evenings, an infirm widow of independent, if limited, means, in her convalescent bathchair" to the North Circular Road, where she would gaze on its traffic through his binoculars. And Hades reveals that when she lay dying in Our Lady's Hospice in the Mater, he visited her there.

Molly thinks that these "corporal works of mercy" manifested an ulterior motive. Like the Dedalus children hoping to receive rewards for bringing tissue papers to the governess, Bloom "thought he had a great leg of" the old woman and would inherit something at her death, but "she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever." The narrator of Cyclops too remembers this episode: "Time they were stopping up in the City Arms pisser Burke told me there was an old one there with a cracked loodheramaun of a nephew and Bloom trying to get the soft side of her doing the mollycoddle playing bézique to come in for a bit of the wampum in her will and not eating meat of a Friday because the old one was always thumping her craw." One of the hallucinations in Circe represents this view that Bloom was angling for a bequest. When Father Farley accuses Bloom of being "an episcopalian, an agnostic, an anythingarian seeking to overthrow our holy faith," one adherent of the Catholic faith responds warmly: "MRS RIORDAN: (Tears up her will.) I’m disappointed in you! You bad man!"

But Bloom knows a sadder part of the story that Molly does not: Mrs. Riordan's means were indeed "limited," as Ithaca notes, her wealth "suppositious." When the real Mrs. Conway died in November 1896, her assets totaled only £40 6s. 6d. And, in a supreme irony, administration of the estate was granted to Patrick Conway, her husband, mysteriously recorded as living at Dominick Street, Dublin. 

Molly hated Mrs. Riordan's constant complaints and her prudish piety but she respected her learning, and she thinks that Bloom was not entirely mercenary: "telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear them I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope Ill never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats especially then still I like that in him polite to old women like that."

JH 2021
Unsigned framed drawing by an unknown Greek artist (possibly Alexandros Karavas?) on a wall of the Café San Marco in Trieste, photographed in 2019 by Senan Molony. Source: Senan Molony.
16 November 1896 Dublin South death certificate for Mrs. Elizabeth Conway. Source: Senan Molony.