Likely Stories: Mad, Bad Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce by Colm Tóibín

Feb 14, 2019

Excellent examination of three fathers of noted writers: W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, & James Joyce


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies. 

Colm Tóibín is an extraordinary writer.  He has written eleven novels of great beauty and powerful emotions.  He tells stories of difficult situations imposed on his characters by circumstances beyond their control.  Any of his characters will hold a story to keep a reader entertained, informed, and hungry for more.  His latest book is non-fiction.  In it, Colm describes the fathers of three well-known and important writers: the poet W.B. Yeats, the writer Oscar Wilde, and my favorite, James Joyce.  The title of this book is apt, to say the least: Mad, Bad Dangerous to Know.

While I admire Yeats and Wilde, I do not have the background for these two interesting parents.  James Joyce on the other hand is not only one of the most important writers of the 20th Century, but he is one of the most import writers to my way of thinking.  The fact that my family name appears in his masterpiece Ulysses, does have something to do with my love of his works.

In his introduction, Colm writes, “There is a peculiar intensity about some streets in Dublin that gets layered the longer you live in the city and the more stray memories and associations you build up.  With time, thoughts thicken and become richer, connect more.  Sometimes this aura in the city can be greatly added to by history and by books” (1).  While Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce provided a solid foundation, Tóibín has allowed the reader to peer into the closely held details of Joyce’s family, which add immense and important details of how Joyce became the respected writer he is.  Of course, I enjoyed his shout out for the importance of books and reading.

Richard Ellmann writes, “From the Urals to Donegal the theme recurs, in Turgenev, in Samuel Butler, in Gosse.  It is especially prominent in Ireland.  George More, in his Confessions of a Young Man, blatantly proclaims his sense of liberation and relief when his father died” (183).  Ellmann lists several examples.  Even Freud mentioned the difficulties between fathers and sons.

Tóibín writes, “John Stanislaus Joyce was perhaps unlucky he had lost his job, and unlucky too that he did not know how to manage his finances, and unlucky also that he had so many children to feed, but his worst piece of luck may have been the brooding presence in his household throughout his fall from grace of his second living son, Stanislaus, who charted what happened to the family with bitterness and in some detail in two books, both published after his death.  My Brother’s Keeper in 1958 and The Complete Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, published in 1971.  //  In the first of these, Stanislaus recalled the household once his father had lost his job and sold his properties” (193).  Apparently, alcohol played a major role in the family’s decline.

When the elder Joyce was in his early 40s, he had a university degree, and he was in good health.  He had a job as a tax collector, but he was suspected of skimming money.  He lost his job and only received the smallest of pensions.  He was unable to pay his rent, and that began a steady slide into poverty.  In many of James Joyce’s novels, he placed words of his father in a number of his characters.  Mad, Bad Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce by Colm Tóibín is an interesting look at some of the problems many people face.  Hopefully, Colm’s book can help allay some problems today.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!