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A Group Portrait with the Artist

A Group Portrait with the Artist – Frank McNally on the story behind (and in front of) James Joyce’s graduation picture

A class whose members were fated to live in genuinely troubled times

Irish Times, An Irish Diary, Frank McNally, 25th October 2022



In a UCD graduation photograph of 120 years ago this week (right), James Joyce towers over the mortar-boarded head of George Clancy, a friend with whom he liked to share practical jokes.

Their occasional target at college had been the French Prof Édouard Cadic (seated, with moustache), a mild-mannered Breton who was easily alarmed by their pretence of violent passions.

A typical stunt involved Joyce first scoffing at his friend’s efforts to translate French, causing an enraged Clancy to demand an apology, which would be refused, forcing Clancy to demand satisfaction in a duel.

Then, according to Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann, “the horrified Cadic would rush in to conciliate the fiery Celts”, eventually prevailing upon them to cancel their showdown in the Phoenix Park and shake hands.

But the world was now about to become a lot more serious for that graduation class, whose members were fated to live in genuinely troubled times, none more so than Clancy.

A committed nationalist from his student days, he had set up a Gaelic League branch at university, later joined the Irish Volunteers and, when imprisoned after the 1916 Rising, staged a hunger strike until released.

By the time his former college pal was finishing Ulysses, Clancy had been elected mayor of Limerick. But before that famous book appeared, he was dead, murdered in his home by the Black and Tans in 1921.

As Ellmann notes, no fewer than three of Joyce’s close friends from UCD would later lose their lives in battle, “each for a different cause”.

The other two – Tom Kettle, who was killed on the Western Front, and the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, summarily executed by an insane British army office during Easter Week – are not in the picture.

But then there was Seumas O’Kelly, who is there (front row, second from left), and who, although never wounded in any battle, was arguably a victim of both the Troubles and the first World War.

After college, O’Kelly became a prolific writer of short stories, plays, and novels. He was also, however, a politically committed journalist.

And it while deputising for Arthur Griffith as editor of the newspaper Nationality in November 1918 that he met his untimely end.

It happened on Armistice Day, when Dublin’s loyalists celebrated raucously and attacked the paper’s Tricolour-bedecked offices. O’Kelly, weakened by rheumatic fever and a heart condition although still only 38, defended himself with his walking stick, but suffered a fatal heart attack in the process.

He might be considered one of the last victims of the war or one of the first of the peace. But his fellow nationalist PS O’Hegarty also acclaimed him as a republican martyr: “He died for Ireland as surely and as finely as if he had been shot by a Black and Tan.”

Most of the others in Joyce’s graduation portrait were luckier in their lifespans, including the man who took the picture (although he also managed to be in it – front row, extreme right): CP “Con” Curran.

Curran (1883-1972) went on to enjoy a long and multi-faceted career as a lawyer and writer, living to be nearly 90.

He had borrowed his father’s camera that day, October 31st, 1902, and took one group portrait himself before setting up the second and dashing around to pose while a college porter pressed the button.

The glass negatives are part of an exhibition on Curran’s life now running at the modern UCD, while the printed photograph hangs at the Museum of Literature Ireland, in the old Stephen’s Green campus (where the pictured ash tree still stands) of what in Joyce’s time was the Royal University.

It was after starting work at MoLI in 2019 that John Foyle, to whom I’m indebted, became fascinated with the photo. He spent some of the subsequent lockdown tracing its history and the lives of those pictured, not all of whom are well remembered today.

Leaning against the tree with arms folded, for example, is one Robert Kinahan, who became a successful barrister but died in July 1921, aged only 40, and ended up in an unmarked grave.

From those details, you might assume he too was a victim of the Troubles. But no. After years of poor health, he had a fatal seizure one day while in court, at the Maryborough (now Portlaoise) County Assizes.

He was buried in Glasnevin, where with some difficulty John Foyle eventually tracked down the plot.

It’s a small mystery why such a successful lawyer, with a “wide circle of friends” according to obituaries, has no gravestone. But he was orphaned in infancy, raised by an aunt who predeceased him, and never married. So perhaps there was nobody left to erect one. Or maybe those who might have done so eventually just forgot, distracted by the troubled times.