Martin Cunningham

Martin Cunningham

In Brief

"Martin Cunningham, first, poked his silkhatted head into the creaking carriage and, entering deftly, seated himself": Hades begins by reintroducing a character from Dubliners. Cunningham appears again in Wandering Rocks and Cyclops, and is mentioned in more than half the chapters of the novel. Joyce drew several of his identifying features, including the hat, from a man named Matthew Francis Kane whose funeral served as a model for Paddy Dignam's. Cunningham stands apart from most Dubliners in Ulysses as unusually sympathetic, competent, and purposeful. But Joyce also gave him qualities that relegate him to second-class status, inferior to the less conventional Bloom.

Read More

In "Grace," Martin Cunningham is one of three men, along with Jack Power and C. P. M'Coy, who show up at the home of their alcoholic friend Tom Kernan to perform an intervention, promising to "make a new man of him" by escorting him to a religious retreat. (M'Coy appears in Lotus Eaters, and Power and Kernan have speaking roles in Hades.) Like Matthew Kane, Cunningham works in Dublin Castle as the chief clerk for the Crown Solicitor. He is older than Mr. Power, who likewise has a law enforcement job in the Castle.

The short story gives Cunningham numerous qualities that figure in Ulysses, many of them inspired by Matthew Kane. "People had great sympathy with him for it was known that he had married an unpresentable woman who was an incurable drunkard. He had set up house for her six times; and each time she had pawned the furniture on him. / Everyone had respect for poor Martin Cunningham. He was a thoroughly sensible man, influential and intelligent. His blade of human knowledge, natural astuteness particularised by long association with cases in the police courts, had been tempered by brief immersions in the waters of general philosophy. He was well informed. His friends bowed to his opinions and considered that his face was like Shakespeare's." This man takes the lead in impressing Kernan with the value of the retreat at the Gardiner Street church, and Kernan is duly impressed. But Cunningham's pronouncements about the Jesuits and the papacy, confidently uttered and spectacularly ignorant, suggest that his immersions in the waters of general philosophy must have been very brief indeed.

In Hades Cunningham possesses enough tact and human sympathy (as well as knowledge of Bloom's family situation) to try to forestall the other men's condemnations of suicide, and Bloom thinks, "Sympathetic human man he is. Intelligent. Like Shakespeare's face. Always a good word to say. They have no mercy on that here or infanticide." In language evocative of Sisyphus, he pities Cunningham for "that awful drunkard of a wife of his." But Cunningham participates in the anti-Semitic banter about Reuben J. Dodd, and when Bloom tries to ingratiate himself into this closed society by telling an unflattering story about Dodd, it is Cunningham who "rudely" cuts him off and finishes the story himself.

Wandering Rocks and Cyclops present Cunningham in the highly positive light of organizing a collection of funds to support Paddy Dignam's destitute family. At the end of Cyclops he appears charitable and prudently proactive as he rescues Bloom from the Citizen's maddened attack, and he has tolerant, sympathetic things to say about Judaism in the midst of the barhounds' bigoted sniping. But he also particpates willingly in their gossip about a suspicious outsider: " — He's a perverted Jew, says Martin, from a place in Hungary and it was he drew up all the plans according to the Hungarian system. We know that in the castle." It seems possible that "perverted" here may mean something like "converted" ("turned" from Judaism to Christianity), but the usual connotations of the word are overwhelmingly negative.

On the afternoon of 10 July 1904 Matthew Kane went swimming from a boat off Kingstown Harbor, suffered a heart attack, and drowned. He was 39 years old. Like Dignam, he had five young children. He also had many friends, and his funeral four days later was much better attended than Dignam's. Among the mourners were James Joyce and his father John. In Surface and Symbol, Robert Martin Adams observes that "Matthew Kane had been widely popular, and was much respected by his associates and superiors in the Castle, as well as in the community at large" (63). Joyce apparently thought enough of Kane to represent him in Ulysses in three different ways. In addition to Dignam's funeral, and the character of Martin Cunningham, he included Kane under his own name, violating not only the neat pairing of real and fictional people but even chronology. In a list of Bloom's deceased acquaintances Ithaca mentions "Matthew F. Kane (accidental drowning, Dublin Bay)," even though the drowning would not take place for another three and half weeks.

JH 2018
Photographic portrait, date unknown, of Matthew F. Kane with the "silkhatted head" which Joyce gave to Martin Cunningham. Source:
Kane's gravestone in Glasnevin's Prospect Cemetery, unveiled on 16 June 1988. Source: