A Mother by James Joyce
MR HOLOHAN, assistant secretary of the Eire Abu Society, had been walking
up and down Dublin for nearly a month, with his hands and pockets full of
dirty pieces of paper, arranging about the series of concerts. He had a
game leg and for this his friends called him Hoppy Holohan. He walked up
and down constantly, stood by the hour at street corners arguing the point
and made notes; but in the end it was Mrs. Kearney who arranged
Miss Devlin had become Mrs. Kearney out of spite. She had been educated in
a high-class convent, where she had learned French and music. As she was
naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school.
When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses where
her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly
circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and
offer her a brilliant life. But the young men whom she met were ordinary
and she gave them no encouragement, trying to console her romantic desires
by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret. However, when she
drew near the limit and her friends began to loosen their tongues about
her, she silenced them by marrying Mr. Kearney, who was a bootmaker on
He was much older than she. His conversation, which was serious, took
place at intervals in his great brown beard. After the first year of
married life, Mrs. Kearney perceived that such a man would wear better
than a romantic person, but she never put her own romantic ideas away. He
was sober, thrifty and pious; he went to the altar every first Friday,
sometimes with her, oftener by himself. But she never weakened in her
religion and was a good wife to him. At some party in a strange house when
she lifted her eyebrow ever so slightly he stood up to take his leave and,
when his cough troubled him, she put the eider-down quilt over his feet
and made a strong rum punch. For his part, he was a model father. By
paying a small sum every week into a society, he ensured for both his
daughters a dowry of one hundred pounds each when they came to the age of
twenty-four. He sent the older daughter, Kathleen, to a good convent,
where she learned French and music, and afterward paid her fees at the
Academy. Every year in the month of July Mrs. Kearney found occasion to
say to some friend:
"My good man is packing us off to Skerries for a few weeks."
If it was not Skerries it was Howth or Greystones.
When the Irish Revival began to be appreciable Mrs. Kearney determined to
take advantage of her daughter's name and brought an Irish teacher to the
house. Kathleen and her sister sent Irish picture postcards to their
friends and these friends sent back other Irish picture postcards. On
special Sundays, when Mr. Kearney went with his family to the
pro-cathedral, a little crowd of people would assemble after mass at the
corner of Cathedral Street. They were all friends of the Kearneys—musical
friends or Nationalist friends; and, when they had played every little
counter of gossip, they shook hands with one another all together,
laughing at the crossing of so many hands, and said good-bye to one
another in Irish. Soon the name of Miss Kathleen Kearney began to be heard
often on people's lips. People said that she was very clever at music and
a very nice girl and, moreover, that she was a believer in the language
movement. Mrs. Kearney was well content at this. Therefore she was not
surprised when one day Mr. Holohan came to her and proposed that her
daughter should be the accompanist at a series of four grand concerts
which his Society was going to give in the Antient Concert Rooms. She
brought him into the drawing-room, made him sit down and brought out the
decanter and the silver biscuit-barrel. She entered heart and soul into
the details of the enterprise, advised and dissuaded: and finally a
contract was drawn up by which Kathleen was to receive eight guineas for
her services as accompanist at the four grand concerts.
As Mr. Holohan was a novice in such delicate matters as the wording of
bills and the disposing of items for a programme, Mrs. Kearney helped him.
She had tact. She knew what artistes should go into capitals and what
artistes should go into small type. She knew that the first tenor would
not like to come on after Mr. Meade's comic turn. To keep the audience
continually diverted she slipped the doubtful items in between the old
favourites. Mr. Holohan called to see her every day to have her advice on
some point. She was invariably friendly and advising—homely, in
fact. She pushed the decanter towards him, saying:
"Now, help yourself, Mr. Holohan!"
And while he was helping himself she said:
"Don't be afraid! Don't be afraid of it!"
Everything went on smoothly. Mrs. Kearney bought some lovely blush-pink
charmeuse in Brown Thomas's to let into the front of Kathleen's dress. It
cost a pretty penny; but there are occasions when a little expense is
justifiable. She took a dozen of two-shilling tickets for the final
concert and sent them to those friends who could not be trusted to come
otherwise. She forgot nothing, and, thanks to her, everything that was to
be done was done.
The concerts were to be on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. When
Mrs. Kearney arrived with her daughter at the Antient Concert Rooms on
Wednesday night she did not like the look of things. A few young men,
wearing bright blue badges in their coats, stood idle in the vestibule;
none of them wore evening dress. She passed by with her daughter and a
quick glance through the open door of the hall showed her the cause of the
stewards' idleness. At first she wondered had she mistaken the hour. No,
it was twenty minutes to eight.
In the dressing-room behind the stage she was introduced to the secretary
of the Society, Mr. Fitzpatrick. She smiled and shook his hand. He was a
little man, with a white, vacant face. She noticed that he wore his soft
brown hat carelessly on the side of his head and that his accent was flat.
He held a programme in his hand, and, while he was talking to her, he
chewed one end of it into a moist pulp. He seemed to bear disappointments
lightly. Mr. Holohan came into the dressingroom every few minutes with
reports from the box-office. The artistes talked among themselves
nervously, glanced from time to time at the mirror and rolled and unrolled
their music. When it was nearly half-past eight, the few people in the
hall began to express their desire to be entertained. Mr. Fitzpatrick came
in, smiled vacantly at the room, and said:
"Well now, ladies and gentlemen. I suppose we'd better open the ball."
Mrs. Kearney rewarded his very flat final syllable with a quick stare of
contempt, and then said to her daughter encouragingly:
"Are you ready, dear?"
When she had an opportunity, she called Mr. Holohan aside and asked him to
tell her what it meant. Mr. Holohan did not know what it meant. He said
that the Committee had made a mistake in arranging for four concerts: four
was too many.
"And the artistes!" said Mrs. Kearney. "Of course they are doing their
best, but really they are not good."
Mr. Holohan admitted that the artistes were no good but the Committee, he
said, had decided to let the first three concerts go as they pleased and
reserve all the talent for Saturday night. Mrs. Kearney said nothing, but,
as the mediocre items followed one another on the platform and the few
people in the hall grew fewer and fewer, she began to regret that she had
put herself to any expense for such a concert. There was something she
didn't like in the look of things and Mr. Fitzpatrick's vacant smile
irritated her very much. However, she said nothing and waited to see how
it would end. The concert expired shortly before ten, and everyone went
The concert on Thursday night was better attended, but Mrs. Kearney saw at
once that the house was filled with paper. The audience behaved
indecorously, as if the concert were an informal dress rehearsal. Mr.
Fitzpatrick seemed to enjoy himself; he was quite unconscious that Mrs.
Kearney was taking angry note of his conduct. He stood at the edge of the
screen, from time to time jutting out his head and exchanging a laugh with
two friends in the corner of the balcony. In the course of the evening,
Mrs. Kearney learned that the Friday concert was to be abandoned and that
the Committee was going to move heaven and earth to secure a bumper house
on Saturday night. When she heard this, she sought out Mr. Holohan. She
buttonholed him as he was limping out quickly with a glass of lemonade for
a young lady and asked him was it true. Yes, it was true.
"But, of course, that doesn't alter the contract," she said. "The contract
was for four concerts."
Mr. Holohan seemed to be in a hurry; he advised her to speak to Mr.
Fitzpatrick. Mrs. Kearney was now beginning to be alarmed. She called Mr.
Fitzpatrick away from his screen and told him that her daughter had signed
for four concerts and that, of course, according to the terms of the
contract, she should receive the sum originally stipulated for, whether
the society gave the four concerts or not. Mr. Fitzpatrick, who did not
catch the point at issue very quickly, seemed unable to resolve the
difficulty and said that he would bring the matter before the Committee.
Mrs. Kearney's anger began to flutter in her cheek and she had all she
could do to keep from asking:
"And who is the Cometty pray?"
But she knew that it would not be ladylike to do that: so she was silent.
Little boys were sent out into the principal streets of Dublin early on
Friday morning with bundles of handbills. Special puffs appeared in all
the evening papers, reminding the music-loving public of the treat which
was in store for it on the following evening. Mrs. Kearney was somewhat
reassured, but she thought well to tell her husband part of her
suspicions. He listened carefully and said that perhaps it would be better
if he went with her on Saturday night. She agreed. She respected her
husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as
something large, secure and fixed; and though she knew the small number of
his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male. She was glad
that he had suggested coming with her. She thought her plans over.
The night of the grand concert came. Mrs. Kearney, with her husband and
daughter, arrived at the Antient Concert Rooms three-quarters of an hour
before the time at which the concert was to begin. By ill luck it was a
rainy evening. Mrs. Kearney placed her daughter's clothes and music in
charge of her husband and went all over the building looking for Mr.
Holohan or Mr. Fitzpatrick. She could find neither. She asked the stewards
was any member of the Committee in the hall and, after a great deal of
trouble, a steward brought out a little woman named Miss Beirne to whom
Mrs. Kearney explained that she wanted to see one of the secretaries. Miss
Beirne expected them any minute and asked could she do anything. Mrs.
Kearney looked searchingly at the oldish face which was screwed into an
expression of trustfulness and enthusiasm and answered:
"No, thank you!"
The little woman hoped they would have a good house. She looked out at the
rain until the melancholy of the wet street effaced all the trustfulness
and enthusiasm from her twisted features. Then she gave a little sigh and
"Ah, well! We did our best, the dear knows."
Mrs. Kearney had to go back to the dressing-room.
The artistes were arriving. The bass and the second tenor had already
come. The bass, Mr. Duggan, was a slender young man with a scattered black
moustache. He was the son of a hall porter in an office in the city and,
as a boy, he had sung prolonged bass notes in the resounding hall. From
this humble state he had raised himself until he had become a first-rate
artiste. He had appeared in grand opera. One night, when an operatic
artiste had fallen ill, he had undertaken the part of the king in the
opera of Maritana at the Queen's Theatre. He sang his music with great
feeling and volume and was warmly welcomed by the gallery; but,
unfortunately, he marred the good impression by wiping his nose in his
gloved hand once or twice out of thoughtlessness. He was unassuming and
spoke little. He said yous so softly that it passed unnoticed and he never
drank anything stronger than milk for his voice's sake. Mr. Bell, the
second tenor, was a fair-haired little man who competed every year for
prizes at the Feis Ceoil. On his fourth trial he had been awarded a bronze
medal. He was extremely nervous and extremely jealous of other tenors and
he covered his nervous jealousy with an ebullient friendliness. It was his
humour to have people know what an ordeal a concert was to him. Therefore
when he saw Mr. Duggan he went over to him and asked:
"Are you in it too?"
"Yes," said Mr. Duggan.
Mr. Bell laughed at his fellow-sufferer, held out his hand and said:
Mrs. Kearney passed by these two young men and went to the edge of the
screen to view the house. The seats were being filled up rapidly and a
pleasant noise circulated in the auditorium. She came back and spoke to
her husband privately. Their conversation was evidently about Kathleen for
they both glanced at her often as she stood chatting to one of her
Nationalist friends, Miss Healy, the contralto. An unknown solitary woman
with a pale face walked through the room. The women followed with keen
eyes the faded blue dress which was stretched upon a meagre body. Someone
said that she was Madam Glynn, the soprano.
"I wonder where did they dig her up," said Kathleen to Miss Healy. "I'm
sure I never heard of her."
Miss Healy had to smile. Mr. Holohan limped into the dressing-room at that
moment and the two young ladies asked him who was the unknown woman. Mr.
Holohan said that she was Madam Glynn from London. Madam Glynn took her
stand in a corner of the room, holding a roll of music stiffly before her
and from time to time changing the direction of her startled gaze. The
shadow took her faded dress into shelter but fell revengefully into the
little cup behind her collar-bone. The noise of the hall became more
audible. The first tenor and the baritone arrived together. They were both
well dressed, stout and complacent and they brought a breath of opulence
among the company.
Mrs. Kearney brought her daughter over to them, and talked to them
amiably. She wanted to be on good terms with them but, while she strove to
be polite, her eyes followed Mr. Holohan in his limping and devious
courses. As soon as she could she excused herself and went out after him.
"Mr. Holohan, I want to speak to you for a moment," she said.
They went down to a discreet part of the corridor. Mrs Kearney asked him
when was her daughter going to be paid. Mr. Holohan said that Mr.
Fitzpatrick had charge of that. Mrs. Kearney said that she didn't know
anything about Mr. Fitzpatrick. Her daughter had signed a contract for
eight guineas and she would have to be paid. Mr. Holohan said that it
wasn't his business.
"Why isn't it your business?" asked Mrs. Kearney. "Didn't you yourself
bring her the contract? Anyway, if it's not your business it's my business
and I mean to see to it."
"You'd better speak to Mr. Fitzpatrick," said Mr. Holohan distantly.
"I don't know anything about Mr. Fitzpatrick," repeated Mrs. Kearney. "I
have my contract, and I intend to see that it is carried out."
When she came back to the dressing-room her cheeks were slightly suffused.
The room was lively. Two men in outdoor dress had taken possession of the
fireplace and were chatting familiarly with Miss Healy and the baritone.
They were the Freeman man and Mr. O'Madden Burke. The Freeman man had come
in to say that he could not wait for the concert as he had to report the
lecture which an American priest was giving in the Mansion House. He said
they were to leave the report for him at the Freeman office and he would
see that it went in. He was a grey-haired man, with a plausible voice and
careful manners. He held an extinguished cigar in his hand and the aroma
of cigar smoke floated near him. He had not intended to stay a moment
because concerts and artistes bored him considerably but he remained
leaning against the mantelpiece. Miss Healy stood in front of him, talking
and laughing. He was old enough to suspect one reason for her politeness
but young enough in spirit to turn the moment to account. The warmth,
fragrance and colour of her body appealed to his senses. He was pleasantly
conscious that the bosom which he saw rise and fall slowly beneath him
rose and fell at that moment for him, that the laughter and fragrance and
wilful glances were his tribute. When he could stay no longer he took
leave of her regretfully.
"O'Madden Burke will write the notice," he explained to Mr. Holohan, "and
I'll see it in."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Hendrick," said Mr. Holohan, "you'll see it in,
I know. Now, won't you have a little something before you go?"
"I don't mind," said Mr. Hendrick.
The two men went along some tortuous passages and up a dark staircase and
came to a secluded room where one of the stewards was uncorking bottles
for a few gentlemen. One of these gentlemen was Mr. O'Madden Burke, who
had found out the room by instinct. He was a suave, elderly man who
balanced his imposing body, when at rest, upon a large silk umbrella. His
magniloquent western name was the moral umbrella upon which he balanced
the fine problem of his finances. He was widely respected.
While Mr. Holohan was entertaining the Freeman man Mrs. Kearney was
speaking so animatedly to her husband that he had to ask her to lower her
voice. The conversation of the others in the dressing-room had become
strained. Mr. Bell, the first item, stood ready with his music but the
accompanist made no sign. Evidently something was wrong. Mr. Kearney
looked straight before him, stroking his beard, while Mrs. Kearney spoke
into Kathleen's ear with subdued emphasis. From the hall came sounds of
encouragement, clapping and stamping of feet. The first tenor and the
baritone and Miss Healy stood together, waiting tranquilly, but Mr. Bell's
nerves were greatly agitated because he was afraid the audience would
think that he had come late.
Mr. Holohan and Mr. O'Madden Burke came into the room. In a moment Mr.
Holohan perceived the hush. He went over to Mrs. Kearney and spoke with
her earnestly. While they were speaking the noise in the hall grew louder.
Mr. Holohan became very red and excited. He spoke volubly, but Mrs.
Kearney said curtly at intervals:
"She won't go on. She must get her eight guineas."
Mr. Holohan pointed desperately towards the hall where the audience was
clapping and stamping. He appealed to Mr Kearney and to Kathleen. But Mr.
Kearney continued to stroke his beard and Kathleen looked down, moving the
point of her new shoe: it was not her fault. Mrs. Kearney repeated:
"She won't go on without her money."
After a swift struggle of tongues Mr. Holohan hobbled out in haste. The
room was silent. When the strain of the silence had become somewhat
painful Miss Healy said to the baritone:
"Have you seen Mrs. Pat Campbell this week?"
The baritone had not seen her but he had been told that she was very fine.
The conversation went no further. The first tenor bent his head and began
to count the links of the gold chain which was extended across his waist,
smiling and humming random notes to observe the effect on the frontal
sinus. From time to time everyone glanced at Mrs. Kearney.
The noise in the auditorium had risen to a clamour when Mr. Fitzpatrick
burst into the room, followed by Mr. Holohan, who was panting. The
clapping and stamping in the hall were punctuated by whistling. Mr.
Fitzpatrick held a few banknotes in his hand. He counted out four into
Mrs. Kearney's hand and said she would get the other half at the interval.
Mrs. Kearney said:
"This is four shillings short."
But Kathleen gathered in her skirt and said: "Now, Mr. Bell," to the first
item, who was shaking like an aspen. The singer and the accompanist went
out together. The noise in hall died away. There was a pause of a few
seconds: and then the piano was heard.
The first part of the concert was very successful except for Madam Glynn's
item. The poor lady sang Killarney in a bodiless gasping voice, with all
the old-fashioned mannerisms of intonation and pronunciation which she
believed lent elegance to her singing. She looked as if she had been
resurrected from an old stage-wardrobe and the cheaper parts of the hall
made fun of her high wailing notes. The first tenor and the contralto,
however, brought down the house. Kathleen played a selection of Irish airs
which was generously applauded. The first part closed with a stirring
patriotic recitation delivered by a young lady who arranged amateur
theatricals. It was deservedly applauded; and, when it was ended, the men
went out for the interval, content.
All this time the dressing-room was a hive of excitement. In one corner
were Mr. Holohan, Mr. Fitzpatrick, Miss Beirne, two of the stewards, the
baritone, the bass, and Mr. O'Madden Burke. Mr. O'Madden Burke said it was
the most scandalous exhibition he had ever witnessed. Miss Kathleen
Kearney's musical career was ended in Dublin after that, he said. The
baritone was asked what did he think of Mrs. Kearney's conduct. He did not
like to say anything. He had been paid his money and wished to be at peace
with men. However, he said that Mrs. Kearney might have taken the artistes
into consideration. The stewards and the secretaries debated hotly as to
what should be done when the interval came.
"I agree with Miss Beirne," said Mr. O'Madden Burke. "Pay her nothing."
In another corner of the room were Mrs. Kearney and her husband, Mr. Bell,
Miss Healy and the young lady who had to recite the patriotic piece. Mrs.
Kearney said that the Committee had treated her scandalously. She had
spared neither trouble nor expense and this was how she was repaid.
They thought they had only a girl to deal with and that, therefore, they
could ride roughshod over her. But she would show them their mistake. They
wouldn't have dared to have treated her like that if she had been a man.
But she would see that her daughter got her rights: she wouldn't be
fooled. If they didn't pay her to the last farthing she would make Dublin
ring. Of course she was sorry for the sake of the artistes. But what else
could she do? She appealed to the second tenor who said he thought she had
not been well treated. Then she appealed to Miss Healy. Miss Healy wanted
to join the other group but she did not like to do so because she was a
great friend of Kathleen's and the Kearneys had often invited her to their
As soon as the first part was ended Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Holohan went
over to Mrs. Kearney and told her that the other four guineas would be
paid after the Committee meeting on the following Tuesday and that, in
case her daughter did not play for the second part, the Committee would
consider the contract broken and would pay nothing.
"I haven't seen any Committee," said Mrs. Kearney angrily. "My daughter
has her contract. She will get four pounds eight into her hand or a foot
she won't put on that platform."
"I'm surprised at you, Mrs. Kearney," said Mr. Holohan. "I never thought
you would treat us this way."
"And what way did you treat me?" asked Mrs. Kearney.
Her face was inundated with an angry colour and she looked as if she would
attack someone with her hands.
"I'm asking for my rights." she said.
"You might have some sense of decency," said Mr. Holohan.
"Might I, indeed?... And when I ask when my daughter is going to be paid I
can't get a civil answer."
She tossed her head and assumed a haughty voice:
"You must speak to the secretary. It's not my business. I'm a great fellow
"I thought you were a lady," said Mr. Holohan, walking away from her
After that Mrs. Kearney's conduct was condemned on all hands: everyone
approved of what the Committee had done. She stood at the door, haggard
with rage, arguing with her husband and daughter, gesticulating with them.
She waited until it was time for the second part to begin in the hope that
the secretaries would approach her. But Miss Healy had kindly consented to
play one or two accompaniments. Mrs. Kearney had to stand aside to allow
the baritone and his accompanist to pass up to the platform. She stood
still for an instant like an angry stone image and, when the first notes
of the song struck her ear, she caught up her daughter's cloak and said to
"Get a cab!"
He went out at once. Mrs. Kearney wrapped the cloak round her daughter and
followed him. As she passed through the doorway she stopped and glared
into Mr. Holohan's face.
"I'm not done with you yet," she said.
"But I'm done with you," said Mr. Holohan.
Kathleen followed her mother meekly. Mr. Holohan began to pace up and down
the room, in order to cool himself for he his skin on fire.
"That's a nice lady!" he said. "O, she's a nice lady!"
"You did the proper thing, Holohan," said Mr. O'Madden Burke, poised upon
his umbrella in approval.