The music the Joyce’s loved was an eclectic mix of romantic ballads by Irish composers such as Tom Moore, the operas of William Balfe (his Bohemian Girl being a particular favourite) and traditional Irish ballads known as ‘come-all-ye’s’. John Joyce loved to sing M’Appari from Flotow’s Martha. The Joyce children were also encouraged to sing and James’s party piece was a ballad called Houlihan’s Cake. James’s younger brother Stanislaus had his favourite which, significantly, was the popular Dublin ballad Finnegan’s Wake. At the early age of six, in 1888, James was considered good enough to join his talented parents in singing at an amateur concert in the Bray Boat Club.
As John Joyce’s drinking increased, and his fortunes declined, the Joyces were forced to leave Bray and return to Dublin in a series of moves that finally brought them to rented accommodation in the North inner city. James was removed from the Jesuit controlled boarding school of Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare and had for a time to mix with the ‘Paddy Stinks and Mickey Muds’ at a Christian Brothers’ school. He never referred to this in any of his writings. Due to a chance meeting between John Joyce and the Jesuit Father Conmee, James and his brother Stanislaus were taken on as day-boys at the Jesuit School of Belvedere College in Dublin’s North Great George’s Street. Conmee had been a teacher in Clongowes and had become Prefect of Studies in Belvedere.
At Belvedere, James became friendly with David Sheehy the son of David Sheehy who was an Irish MP at the Westminster Parliament. The Sheehy’s were also a musical family and held musical evenings at their home in Mountjoy Square. Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce, describes how James loved to be asked to sing at Sheehy’s and how once in the street he stopped a friend of his father’s, Alf Bergan, with a peculiar request. Bergan had been a frequenter of the Joyce household in Bray and James asked him to sing McSorley’s Twins a comical ballad. James committed the song to memory on the spot and sang it at the Sheehy’s that evening.
James Joyce had his father’s eclectic taste. He loved all forms of songs : sentimental, humorous, ballads, and opera. He sang Irish songs and English songs and his favourite was Take a pair of sparkling eyes from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. One of his party pieces was a bouncy version of The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. He later revealed a fondness for bawdy songs and when he and Oliver St. John Gogarty (Buck Mulligan in Ulysses) shared the Martello Tower in Sandycove, Joyce discovered that he shared a taste for such songs with Gogarty who wrote many of them. He included three of Gogarty’s bawdy ballads in Ulysses.
Music is inseparable from Ulysses. Blazes Boylan is a concert impresario who is organising a concert in the seaside town of Rostrevor, a town in Northern Ireland similar to Bray. Molly Bloom is a professional singer, and an entire episode of Ulysses – The Sirens – is set in a hotel bar where the character Simon Dedalus (who is based on Joyce’s father) sings sentimental nationalist songs. The song which is the motif of this episode is The Croppy Boy, a song of a youth executed in the rebellion of 1798.
Music and song, whether of the sentimental nationalist kind, the seaside girls promenading on a pier, or the passion of opera, form a significant part of Ulysses. And as we say in Ireland, with regards to music and Joyce, “he didn’t lick it off the ground”.