The Works of James Joyce

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Maria's Mistakes

Posted by Imelda on June 6, 2021 at 5:30 AM

Dubliners-Clay Maria's Mistakes


Joyce concluded this seven page short story with Joe’s asking Maria to sing some little song before she went, one of the old songs. Mrs. Donnelly played the prelude and, with Maria blushing very much, Joyce tells us that she began to sing in a tiny quavering voice. She sang" I Dreamt that I Dwelt," and when she came to the second verse she repeated again the first verse instead of continuing. When she had ended her song, we are told that Joe noticed her "mistake" and was very much moved. In this paper, I will discuss what this and other mistakes made by Maria tell us about her.


In Clay, Joyce has us follow Maria from her home in Ballsbridge, The Dublin by Lamplight Laundry, to her destination, the home of Joe Donnelly and his family beside the Grand Canal in Drumcondra for a Halloween gathering. Residents of Dublin in the early part of the 20th century would have recognized the Dublin by Lamplight Laundry and knew of the type of women who resided there. Few know about such places now in the 21st century. "Troubled women, "penitents," were institutionalized in such "asylums" and worked in the laundry for little or nothing"(1)


"The women who ran these refuges played out their maternal role creating homes for the penitent ‘child’. They sought to inculcate in the penitent the correct attitudes and behavior expected of women in this period. Penitents were trained in deference and subordination, the world was protected from them as possible sites of contamination. And they were shielded from the world, the source of possible temptation. The women who entered these refuges were held responsible for their actions and rescue workers stressed the importance of personal discipline to their salvation. Within these asylums the women were not expected to display any individual expression of personality or sexuality". (2)




We know from what details Joyce provided in the story that the Laundry was a Protestant charity and from historical documents that it had a matron and Committee ladies who would meet some of the women who were resident and worked there. In Sally Richardson’s review on "Thomas Edmondson and the Dublin Laundry," she writes:


"Hearn devotes some space to the institutional laundries, putting them in the context of the industry as a whole. Contrary to popular perception, not all were Catholic. Hearn informs us that there were nine Catholic and seven Anglican institutional laundries in the Dublin area in 1901"Thomas Edmondson and the Dublin laundry: a Quaker businessman (3)


In the 1862 Thom’s Almanac, the laundry is listed as the Dublin by Lamplight Institution whose matron was a Mrs. Hanny and whose Chaplain and secretary was the Rev,W.G. Carroll.(4) So we know that in 1905, the laundry was at least 50 years in operation.


Maria, we are told, liked the work at the laundry. She used to have such a bad opinion of Protestants but came to think that they were such nice people. There was only one thing she didn’t like and that was the Protestant "tracts" on the wall. Maria was a Catholic.


"In 1860 The Society extended its operations to Ireland with the establishment of the Dublin-based Missions to Friendless Females. In both capitals, Missionaries were required to approach prostitutes and distribute religious tracts, designed to be read in ‘sober’ moments and divert the women from their vicious lives. A much favored pamphlet, Sins and Sorrows of London, had been written by a founder member of the female Mission Committee, John La Touch, of Newbridge, Co.Kildare. Other titles included the popular Mercy for Misery, god’s Invitation, If I had only heeded, Picking up the Fragments and Come Now.


"By this time a large body of rescue literature existed. As well as the proliferation of tracts, pamphlets and articles always in circulation, Proceedings of Conference were now distribute to affiliated Homes, and most refuges published their own Annual Reports. Popular books on Rescue Work were available , and special volumes of prayers and religious Stories were produced for reading aloud in Refuges, Penitentiaries and Homes (for example, the Religious Tract Society’s Prayer for Homes for women and Rescue Associations. No date, but late nineteenth century)". (5)


The laundry was located in a section of Dublin known as Ballsbridge , "which is a village of St.Mary’s, Donnybrook parish, Dublin barony and county, two miles south east from the General Post Office Dublin" .(6)The laundry was "adjacent to the Johnson Mooney & O’Brien bakery, the oldest bakery in Dublin" . (7)


In Clay, Joyce did not inform the reader why the women are there, but a Dubliner in his day would have known. In 1905, Joyce sent his story "Clay" to his brother in Dublin and asked him to bring it into AE, George Russell, hoping that he would publish it in his broadsheet "The Irish Homestead". Russell refused to publish saying "The implication of the name was that the laundresses were kept off the streets."(8) Dublin was a hive for Prostitution in the later part of the 19th century and early 20th century and these Magdalen laundries were refuges for women who wanted to reform. It did not suit Russell’s image of his New Ireland, and he refused to publish it. He probably concluded, like most others of the time, that it was best that these women stay hidden. The women were mostly former prostitutes, but others in the early 20th century were taken in because of various reasons. Some were transferred directly from the Industrial Schools,(9) and some like Maria, who did not have much wits about her and could not manage on her own in the outside world, where sent there also for their own safety.


To get from Ballsbridge, on the south side of the River Liffey, to Drumcondra, on the north side, Maria, we are told, took a tram. My research informed me that the trams then were very frequent, running about every three minutes. The tram was served by the Dalkey line to Nelson Pillar on Sackville Street ( now O’Connell Street). The tram wore the Dublin United Tramways Company (DUCT) livery of Prussian blue and ivory. The symbol on this line was a green shamrock, superimposed with the letter K on cars working between Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire)Town Hall and the Pillar. The fare to the Pillar was 2d (two pence). On Sackville Street, she would have had to take a second tram the tram to Drumcondra. The tram Maria would have taken from the Pillar to the Royal Canal had a Maltese Cross symbol. It ran at a frequency of every seven or eight minutes with a fare of 1d(one penny). (10)


From the story, we can calculate how many coppers Maria had in her purse when she set out that evening for the Donnelly’s. Including her return journey, Maria paid out 6d (sixpence) in total and in her purse after the tram fare was paid she was left with 5 shillings to spend (two half-crowns). Maria thought out all her plans, she counted her money, but she didn’t think of what would happen when she went into the shop in Henry Street to pick up some cakes to bring with her to the Donnelly’s. At the cake shop, the assistant was impatient with her and over-charged her for a slice of plum-cake, demanding "2 and four." She paid without questioning the amount. Her first mistake. That sum would have been a very high price for a slice of cake. When she started out she thought how nice it was to have money in her purse and be independent. Within half an hour she had almost spent everything she had and only had a dozen penny cakes to show for it. She was not very worldly wise. Her time in the laundry would have taught her not to be questioning.


When Maria was on the tram to Drumcondra, she had one bag with her. A gentleman engages Maria on the tram. We are told that he supposed "the bag" was full of good things for the children. So we know she only had one bag on the tram and the stylish young lady behind the counter at the cake shop had parcelled the plum-cake up. I would say when Maria was suiting herself in the cake shop in Henry street and the shop assistant impatiently asked her "was it a wedding cake she wanted," this would have been typical of how an assistant would have spoken to someone who was holding up the whole shop.


Maria got off the tram carrying her bag in Drumcondra at the Royal Canal most probably at Binns Bridge. She walked "up" the terrace. This detail tells us that Joe lives on the west side of Drumcondra,(11), as going up is west and going down would have been the east.


The two big girls from next door were at Joe’s house and Maria gave the bag of cakes to the Donnelly’s eldest boy Alphy. She had bought something special for Joe and Mrs. Donnelly and when she couldn’t find it she asked the children whether they had eaten it by mistake. Her own mistake here was that what was about to happen to her wouldn’t have if she hadn’t accused the children of eating the special surprise within the cakes. When it was time to play Hollow-Eve games, the children blindfolded her. The children were guiding her and lead her over to the saucer where she picked the saucer of red clay. The children worked to embarrass her because of Maria’s earlier mistaken accusation. The children were just being bold and making fun of her. And she was no match for them.


In the family parlor, Maria was asked to sing a song. She initially declined but Joe insisted. Maria was prevailed upon by Joe to sing a song for old time sake. Mrs. Donnelly plays the prelude and signaled her by saying "Now, Maria!" And Maria blushing very much began to sing in a tiny quavering voice:


I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls,


With vassals and serfs at my side,


And of all who assembled within those walls,


That I was the hope and the pride.


I had riches too great to count, could boast


Of a high ancestral name,


But I also dreamt, which pleased me most,


That you loved me still the same.


And what she didn’t sing was


I dreamt that suiters sought my hand,


That knights upon Bended knee,


And with vows no maiden heart could withstand,


They pledg’d their faith to me;


And I dreamt that one of the noble host


Came forth my hand to claim.


But I also dreamt, which charmed me most,


That you lov’d me still the same…


That you lov’d me, you lov’d me still the same


That you lov’d me, you lov’d me still the same (12)


No one but Joe recognized her mistake. He knew all about Maria and he understood that she did not know the words to the whole song from the Opera The Bohemian Girl by Michael Balfe.


All the way through this short story we see Maria walking through as if she were blind to everything around her. She did not see anything on her way from Ballsbridge to the Pillar on the tram. She did not see any other shops where she could have bought something very special for Mama and Papa, she only saw the cakes, which she could have bought much more affordably next door to her residence, If we look back to where Maria lived and the building adjacent to her we can get an idea of why she could only think of cakes as a present. Johnson Mooney & O’Brien was the oldest bakery in Dublin and adjacent to the laundry. Because Maria had such a small vision of her surroundings, I suspect that in the laundry the women often smelt the bread, biscuits and cakes being baked next door. Joyce did not tell us the bakery was next door, but Dubliners would have known at the time. In fact this bakery was still situated in Ballsbridge up to the early 1990’s, and is still in existence in Dublin but has moved location over to Finglas. Maria could have saved a lot of money had she gone next door and bought some end of the day not sold cakes. As she left before 7p.m. the deliveries would have stopped and any cakes, biscuits and bread not sold that day would have been given at half price, but still fresh. No Maria couldn’t see herself standing with the women who often came at the end of the business day with their pillow cases to buy at half price. She thought of herself as independent with money in her purse, which she had almost spent the lot in half an hour. She hardly had any money left and the next day was a holy day of obligation (All Saints day) and she had not much left for the collection.


With the amount of money in Maria’s purse we can also see that she probably did not get paid from the laundry. Her bread and board was probably free and she worked in the kitchen for her keep. In Ireland usually when a person gets a purse as a present, the gift giver always puts some money into the purse as this is known as good luck and it’s said the person who receives the gift will never have an empty purse. Maria just about made it with the few pence she had left. We see Maria’s mistakes, but she can’t see them. She was not the full shilling as the saying goes. Others recognized her mistakes but did not tell her. They did not want to hurt her feelings. It was that they stay unspoken of and hidden as AE thought the laundries should be.


The children and the girls next door in Drumcondra were just playing hollow-eve games and really did not intend any sinister meaning for Maria. She just happened to pick this trick, blindfolded. She was blind the whole way through the story. Blind to what was going on at the laundry, blind to the girl in the cake shop, blind to the gentleman on the tram and blind to think that she could be a veritable –peacemaker between the brothers Joe & Alphy. When they were young and she looked after them, she probably made them make-up when they had fights, but now they are adults, and she’s blind to think she can fix this situation.




"In "Clay" with a different situation, we are subjected to the same treatment. The epiphany of the storey comes no more than at the moment when an old laundress stands up and sings "I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls". She is made to boast of wealth, rank, beauty, and love-none of which she has ever possessed-"in a tiny quavering voice". A listener affected by this pathetic incongruity, explains his tears by remarking that there is no music for him "like poor old Balfe". "Here, as so often in Joyce, the music is doing duty for the feeling. The feeling is deliberately couched in a cheap phrase or a sentimental song, so that we experience a critical reaction, and finally a sense of intellectual detachment. Emotionally sated, we shy away from emotion." (pg 41James Joyce "A Critical Introduction" Harry Levin. Faber).


At one point in the story of Clay, Joyce wrote that when Maria laughed her grey-green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness and the tip of her nose met the tip of her chin. Maria’s mistakes demonstrate how a person like her struggles to get through simple tasks in her life in Dublin.


 (c) Imelda Murphy 2004

Categories: Dubliners

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