Joyce and Irish Tweed: A Family Affair
In 1888, my great grandfather, Valentine James Roche, founded the Dublin Woollen Company on the banks of the River Liffey in Dublin; the firm has remained in the family ever since. Up until the late 1960s, its principal product was the sale of lengths of many varied hues of Irish tweed (principally from the Foxford mill) from which customers could have suits and dresses made up. A piece of family lore current when I was growing up was that James Joyce had been an agent for the firm in Trieste, selling lengths of Irish tweed to the Triestines who sought him out to learn English. And when my uncle Terry [Terence] Roche met Nora Joyce on a yacht in the 1940s, they had discussed this relationship.
The notion of James Joyce, the great modernist writer, as a businessman is one that was either dismissed or scorned for many decades. It flies in the face of how we tend to conceive of Joyce and the purity of his all-consuming artistic motivation, standing above the ruck of mere commerce, indifferently paring his fingernails. It also suggested a Joyce who wished to keep some contact with his native land even after he had left it. The notion of Joyce as businessman has gained more ground in recent years. Joyce himself was the first to build the association. When his first biographer, Herbert Gorman, noted that nothing came of the commission for Irish tweed, Joyce corrected this in the proofs and supplied his own footnote indicating that he had had some success with his tweed enterprise.
Richard Ellmann’s classic biography of Joyce confirms that when Joyce returned to Dublin in October 1909 to set about opening the Volta cinema (another and better-known of his business ventures), he went to see Valentine James Roche at the Dublin Woollen Company on the same occasion and secured the Triestine agency for Irish tweed. He was on his own in Dublin, a rare separation from Nora, and the fevered letters they exchanged have become notorious. Joyce, anxious to patch up a row with her (over the question of sexual fidelity), sent a present which included twelve yards of Donegal tweed. Clearly, this did not exhaust the supply of samples Joyce had been given by Valentine Roche because he still succeeded, as Ellmann put it, in ‘eventually clothing several of his Triestine male pupils in Irish homespuns’.
The biography does not supply much detail. So, when I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Ellmann at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo in 1985, I introduced myself and asked about the Joyce-Dublin Woollen Company association. Ellmann replied that he had contacted my family’s firm during the 1950s when working on the biography, and they replied that they no longer had the correspondence with Joyce. I confirmed that this was true, since there had been a fire in the original Bachelor’s Walk premises in the 1930s in which the correspondence had been destroyed and that the firm had then moved to its current premises beside the Halfpenny Bridge. But I continued: ‘How did you know about the association if there was no correspondence?’ Ellmann gave a sly little smile, since I had ‘got’ him, and replied with the five memorable words: ‘There are receipts at Cornell.’ A Joycean friend of mine in the US contacted Special Collections at Cornell University about their Joyce holdings. And so it proved. Joyce’s claim was borne out when 21 receipts arrived, spanning 1910 and 1911, sent from the Dublin Woollen Company, 15 Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin, to Mr. James Joyce, Via Della Barriera Vecchia, [Trieste] 32, 111. The receipts are emblazoned with the firm’s motto: ‘An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory.’ (Readers of the more arcane critical writings on Joyce will sympathise with this.) The pitifully small sums of money involved, few of them exceeding a pound, do not bear out Joyce’s related claim that he had brought hundreds of pounds into Ireland through his work as agent. Several of his students are named repeatedly (women as well as men, pace Ellmann), the most frequent customer being Professor Guido Constantini. The Dublin Woollen Company received the orders from Joyce (allowing him 10% commission) and sent the cloth directly to the customer in Trieste. Across the two years are listed dozens of such transactions, attesting to Joyce’s characteristic energy.
But Joyce could be a difficult customer too, and there are several letters from Valentine James Roche on matters financial. My favorite reads as follows: ‘Enclosed two items that have not been squared for, and please note these prices were cut down to the lowest for prompt cash.’ To be fair to Joyce, a subsequent receipt shows the sum being dispatched and the account squared within the next ten days. A further letter hints that ‘there seems to have been a misunderstanding as to payment, prices, Commission, etc.’ but goes on to state that ‘we will allow whatever you claim as fair’ and to thank Joyce ‘very much for the interest you have taken in pushing our Irish goods’. The relationship appears to have survived such short-term financial misunderstandings and there is no record as to why it did not continue after 1912. But that was the fateful year in which the sheets of Dubliners that George Roberts of Maunsel and Co. was to publish were destroyed and Joyce, who was in Dublin with Nora and the children to oversee the publication, left Ireland for good. His relationship with the Dublin Woollen Company does not seem to have survived the sundering. But perhaps a final tribute to the association may have been textually inscribed in Ulysses by his decision to give Mrs. Marion (Molly) Bloom the maiden name of ‘Tweedy’.
Anthony Roche is Associate Professor in the School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin