Classmates, Correspondents, Counterparts: James Joyce and Conn Curran

February 2nd marks the 138th birthday of UCD’S most famous alumnus, James Joyce, who was born in 1882. UCD Special Collections holds an important collection of Joyce letters and signed editions which are part of a larger collection that belonged to Joyce’s UCD classmate Constantine Curran and his wife Helen Laird Curran. Although these letters have been held in Special Collections for almost 50 years, 2020 marks the first time that restrictions on them will be lifted and researchers and scholars will be able to read the letters in full without edits or redactions.

Joyce's 1902 BA degree class

The 1902 BA degree class with Professors. James Joyce is standing second from the left. Curran is at the far right in the front row. (Reproduced by kind permission of Helen Solterer)

Joyce and Curran attended University College, Dublin together between 1898 and 1902 when the University was located in Newman House on St. Stephen’s Green (now home to MoLI). While there, Joyce studied English, French and Italian.

Joyce remained friends with Constantine Curran throughout his life. His letters to Curran, spanning the period 1904-1940, are held in UCD Library Special Collections. In 1972, UCD Library acquired the Curran-Laird collection which, alongside Joyce’s letters, includes extensive correspondence with various key players in the Irish Literary Revival as well as photographs, ephemera and books.

The bulk of Joyce’s letters to Curran date from the period 1930-40 which was one of considerable turmoil in Joyce’s life. While these letters did see publication in Stuart Gilbert’s Letters of James Joyce (1957), some were presented there in a heavily edited form. Joyce’s sign-offs to Curran, which frequently show great warmth and friendship, were omitted by the editor in most cases. Considerable redactions were also made by Gilbert where the content of letters was deemed too personal to publish at the time. As a result, Joyce’s own feelings regarding numerous family matters were not fully expressed in the published letters. The edits of 1957 meant part of the emotional reality of the letters was removed; with their unedited release a fuller picture can now emerge.


Envelope addressed to Constantine Curran from James Joyce.

Curran’s granddaughter Helen Solterer observed in a recent Irish Times feature that reading the unedited personal correspondence is ‘a good challenge to recognize different sides of those people you thought you knew inside out’, and that collections like Curran’s offer ‘an invitation to meet new people in old things released from decades of cold storage’. The letters from Joyce to Curran, when viewed together and in their entirety, reveal the enduring and trusting friendship that existed between them – the depth of which may not otherwise have been fully understood.

The letter Joyce sent to Curran following the death of Joyce’s father in December 1931 (CUR L 183), demonstrates the closeness of the two men. It also hints at the practical help that Curran afforded to Joyce:

Dear Curran:

Forgive me if I do not write to you for a few days. I want to write to you a long letter but I am still far too broken down to attempt it. I hope you received my solicitors’ cabled remittance (£20) and that you will let me know what I owe you for fees etc. I thank you from my heart for your great kindness to me in this dark hour.

Sincerely yours, James Joyce, 2.1.1932,

P.S. I hope this year will bring all you wish to you and yours, J.J.

Joyce letter

Letter to Curran from Joyce following the death of Joyce’s father, December 1931 (CUR L 183)

Several of the letters from the 1930s refer to other family affairs, in particular the part that Curran and his wife Helen played in supporting Joyce’s daughter Lucia when she was in need of help.

An excerpt from a letter dated 31st July 1935 (CUR L 187) reads:

‘Dear Curran and Mrs Curran: …These lines are simply to send you our thanks for the ceaseless kindness and patience you have shown to Lucia and, even more than that, for the unerring tact with which you behaved…..Accept this scribble of thanks and I beg you both to believe in our deep gratitude.’

Less than 2 weeks later on 10th August, 1935 Joyce again wrote to Curran – a long letter most of which related to Lucia, her illness and her treatment. One line in particular portrays Joyce’s great love for his daughter and the bond between them. It simultaneously demonstrates his trust in Curran and his great fondness for him:

‘I suppose that if there is any person in Ireland capable of understanding why I am once again in lonely isolation in my view of Lucia among so many for whom she is a glandular case, a schizophrenic case, a spoiled child, an inferiority complex case and all the rest of it, that person can be only you.’

Joyce family

Photograph of the Joyce family (CUR P 7)

The correspondence within the Curran-Laird collection also includes letters from important associates of Joyce such as Harriet Weaver, Paul Léon and Maria Jolas. The letters from Paul Léon, who wrote to various people on Joyce’s behalf throughout the 1930s, demonstrate again the high regard in which Curran was held by Joyce. There are letters which refer to family financial affairs such as Joyce’s father’s will and funeral expenses. Others relate to Joyce’s son Giorgio, the birth of his grandson Stephen, and of course Lucia’s progress and her ongoing illness. In all of these things Curran is trusted to handle sensitive information with discretion and to take action on Joyce’s behalf. The confidences and loyalty shared by the two men and their extended families as documented in these letters is both striking and endearing.

Joyce depended on his extended network of friends in various ways and through the letters Curran saved we can also see how that group interacted with one another in their constant efforts to do their best for their mutual friend. Different perspectives on the same incidents come to light as the letters are read. The dedication shown to Joyce, and the willingness of his friends to go to great personal lengths to help him, underscores once more that behind any of the many public personas that exist of Joyce there was an ordinary man treasured by those closest to him.

To find out more about this intriguing collection of correspondence, read the newly published Irish Times article by Conn Curran’s granddaughter Helen Solterer on the Curran- Joyce correspondence L for Lucia Joyce and her Lettrines: opening UCD’s Curran Collection.

  • This post was researched and written by Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections, UCD Special Collections.

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