25 December 2023

Molly Bloom’s
Christmas Card:
where Joycean fiction
meets a real-life family

No 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, Dublin. Was this the birthplace of Leopold Bloom? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The centenary of the publication of Ulysses in 1922 was celebrated in Dublin with a style and gusto in 2022 that James Joyce undoubtedly would have found endearing and entertaining. One of the many places that attracted attention is 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, where a plaque claims that it house is the birthplace of Leopold Bloom.

In Episode 17 (‘Ithaca’) of Ulysses, Molly Bloom is searching through the contents of Leopold’s locked drawers when she finds the document that places the Bloom family at 52 Clanbrassil Street at the time of her husband’s birth. She also finds ‘a Yuletide card, bearing on it a pictorial representation of a parasitic plant, the legend Mizpah, the date Xmas 1892, the name of the senders: from Mr + Mrs M. Comerford, the versicle: May this Yuletide bring to thee, Joy and peace and welcome glee.’

But who were the Comerfords who sent a Christmas card to Molly Bloom? With a hint of self-interest, I have wondered why Joyce chose a couple named Comerford to send that card in 1892.

The card shows a recognition by the Comerfords of Bloom’s Jewish background, though by 1892 he had been baptised on three occasions. Christmas is abbreviated to ‘Xmas’, and the name of the season is not spelt out. There is a reference to ‘Yuletide,’ instead of a nativity scene there is a depiction of mistletoe, and the word Mizpah was a common alternative greeting for Jews sending cards in the late Victorian period.

In her soliloquy, Molly Bloom has good reason to remember Christmas 1892-3: it was a harsh winter, and the Grand Canal, separating Clanbrassil Street from Harold’s Cross, had frozen over in February 1893. Molly and Leopold were invited to a party at the Comerfords that winter, and she recalls how she had too many oranges and too much orange and lemonade at a party in the Comerford home in Clanbrassil Street. She was caught short on the way home that night, and, as she recalls, had to use the men’s toilets in a pub, with great personal discomfort.

Any pub between Upper Clanbrassil Street and Lombard Street, where the Blooms then lived, would have been at Leonard’s Corner, the junction of Clanbrassil Street and the South Circular Road, the main crossroads in the area that became known as ‘Little Jerusalem.’ She recalls: ‘O and the stink of those rotten places the night coming home with Poldy after the Comerfords party oranges and lemonade to make you feel nice and watery I went into 1 of them it was so biting cold I couldnt keep it when was that 93 the canal was frozen’ (Penelope).

Why did James Joyce chose the name Comerford for the Blooms’ friends in Ulysses? Apart from coming across my grandfather’s brother, James Comerford, at 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street in Thom’s Directory, was there another reason the family name caught his imagination?

John Henry Raleigh suggests in The Chronicle of Leopold and Molly Bloom: Ulysses as Narrative that ‘This Anglo, somewhat toffish name, is meant to suggest, I believe, that the Blooms had some friends rather higher on the social scale than previous or subsequent to their Lombard Street West days.’ The Comerford name may also have attracted Joyce’s attention because he claimed some family portraits had been painted by the Kilkenny-born miniaturist, John Comerford (1771-1832).

What had the Comerfords of Clanbrassil Street to celebrate in early 1893, just after Christmas? In 1893 my great-grandfather James Comerford (1817-1902), a stucco plasterer, his sons, James (1853-1915), Stephen Edward (1867-1921) and Robert (1868-1902), and his nephews, James Comerford (1839-1903) and Robert Comerford (1855-1925), were founding members of the Regular Stucco Plasterers’ Trade Union of the City of Dublin. His nephew James Comerford later lived at 50 Upper Clanbrassil Street, and he and his wife had much to celebrate in 1893 with the birth of their youngest child, Robert Thomas Comerford (1893-1958), at 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street. Perhaps, hoever, this was a little too late for Molly’s post-Christmas party, as Bob was born on 27 April 1893.

Joyce’s choice of 52 Clanbrassil Street as the birthplace of Leopold Bloom has led to the presumption that he was referring to Upper Clanbrassil Street, and not to Lower Clanbrassil Street, which is actually at the heart of Little Jerusalem. Two doors away from No. 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, a Comerford family was living at No. 50 in 1904, the year in which Joyce sets Bloomsday. My grandfather’s cousin, James Comerford, lived at this No. 52, and this may have prompted placing the plaque at No. 52, claiming this was Bloom’s birthplace.

Although members of the Comerford family were living at No. 50 Upper Clanbrassil Street on the first Bloomsday on Thursday 16 June 1904, my grandfather’s cousin, James Comerford, had died the previous year, 1903, and his widow Ellen was living in the house in 1904.

But what if Rudolph Bloom was born not at No. 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street but at No. 52 Lower Clanbrassil Street, and the plaque was erected on the wrong house? It is more credible to suggest that in Christmas 1892 Joyce is asking us to imagine the Comerford and Bloom families were actually living in Lower Clanbrassil Street, which was then at the heart of the Jewish community in Dublin.

If Joyce actually intended to place Leopold Bloom’s birth at No. 52 Lower Clanbrassil Street, then who are the Comerfords referred to in Ulysses? In the short space of a half century or so, immediate members of this one branch of the Comerford family had addresses in at least 15 houses in Lower and Upper Clanbrassil Street, and many more lived in the warren of streets off Clanbrassil Street, in Little Jerusalem, in Portobello and around Charlemont Street.

If I add their in-laws, their cousins and their nieces and nephews, it must have been impossible then to walk along Clanbrassil Street without meeting and greeting a member of the Comerford family. Family lore recalls it seemed every second person on Lower Clanbrassil Street then was either a Jew or a Comerford.

Joyce used the 1904 edition of Thom’s Directory to locate key Dublin characters and figures in Ulysses. In the 1901 census, N.o 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street was shared by three families: my grandfather’s eldest brother, James Comerford, his wife Lena, and their five children; their cousin, James Comerford, his wife Ellen; and the Keegan family.

Previously, this house had been the home of my grandfather’s cousin, Thomas Comerford, a plasterer, and his wife Mary Anne (Ludlow), who lived there in 1862-72, along with his sister Elizabeth and her husband Denis Cuddy. In 1874 it was the home of another family member, Thomas Comerford and his wife Mary Jane (Cusack). However, by the time of the 1904 edition of Thom’s Directory, 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street was no longer divided into flats. Instead, the house stands out from all the tenements on the street as being occupied by only one family, the home of my grandfather’s brother James Comerford and his family.

By 1911 this James Comerford and his family were sharing 82 Lower Clanbrassil Street with his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Francis Coleman, and their family, and with Isaac Joffe, a 58-year-old Jewish shopkeeper from Russia and his Russian-born Jewish wife, Hannah.

So, if the Blooms got a Christmas card from the Comerfords in 1892, and Molly was at a party with the Comerford family two months later, it must have been Joyce’s intention to refer to the Comerfords at No. 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street, and not at No. 50 Upper Clanbrassil Street. Today, the site of 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street is the premises of Capital Glass.

As for Leopold Bloom’s birthplace, it was more convenient to erect that plaque in Upper Clanbrassil Street because No. 52 Lower Clanbrassil Street no longer exists: it has long been demolished in road-widening schemes.

Sources and Further reading:

James Joyce, Ulysses (various editions).
John Henry Raleigh, The Chronicle of Leopold and Molly Bloom: Ulysses as Narrative (Berkeley: University California Press, 1977)

‘TMolly Bloom’s Christmas Card: where Joycean fiction meets a real-life family’ is published in Christmas and the Irish: a miscellany, ed Salvador Ryan (Dublin: Wordwell Books, 2023, 403 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1-913934-93-4), pp 151-155, with the photograph of 50 Upper Clanbrassil Street on p 155.

The list of contributors includes this note on p 400:

Patrick Comerford is an Anlican priest living in retirement near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. He is a former adjunct assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin

‘Christmas and the Irish: a miscellany’ was launched in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, on 30 November 2023

Daily prayers during
the 12 Days of Christmas:
1, 25 December 2023

Christmas images in Lichfield Cathedral and Saint Mary’s Church (The Hub), Lichfield (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Christmas Day (25 December 2023). I was at the Midnight Eucharist in Saint George’s Church, Wolverton, last night, and later this morning I hope to be part of the choir at the Christmas Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford, and tonight. But, before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer, reflection and reading this morning.

My reflections each morning during ‘the 12 Days of Christmas’ are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a verse from the popular Christmas song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’;

2, the Gospel reading of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The 12 Days of Christmas … 12 wreaths on doors in Beacon Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The 12 Days of Christmas: 1, A Patridge in a Pear Tree:

Most of us have been singing Christmas carols rather than Advent carols for the past few weeks – even in our churches. I imagine if I were to ask most people to list the 12 days of Christmas they would probably answer 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25 December.

But today, 25 December, is the First Day of Christmas, not the Twelfth Day of Christmas. This is Christmas Day. The festival and the festivities begin today. Christmastide has arrived.

In mediaeval England, the 12 Days of Christmas marked a period of continuous feasting and merrymaking that reached its climax on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas Season. Often, a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the revels.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is 5 January, and our celebrations of Christmas traditionally end on the Twelfth Night, which is then followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. The Twelve Days of Christmas are a festive period linking together these two Great Feasts of the Nativity and Theophany, so that one celebration leads into another.

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a traditional Christmas song that counts out a series of increasingly generous gifts given by the singer’s ‘true love’ on each of the 12 Days of Christmas.

The song may have French origins, but it was first published in England in 1780. It may have its beginnings in a Twelfth Night ‘memories-and-forfeits’ game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake. The player who erred at the end then had to pay a forfeit, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet.

The earliest well-known version of the music of the song was recorded by English scholar James O Halliwell in 1842. However, the early 20th century arrangement by the English composer Frederic Austen has since become the standard.

If my true love followed through with the 12 Days of Christmas, I would end up with 224 birds in all: 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 colly (or calling) birds, 40 gold rings (pheasants), 42 geese and 42 swans.

Since 1984, the cumulative costs of the items mentioned in the song have been used as a tongue-in-cheek economic indicator, a custom began with and is maintained by PNC Bank. Two pricing charts are drawn up, referred to as the Christmas Price Index and The True Cost of Christmas. The former is an index of the current costs of one set of each of the gifts given sent by the True Love to the singer of the song; the latter is the cumulative cost of all the gifts with the repetitions listed in the song. Of course, the people mentioned in the song are hired, not bought.

The original cost of all goods and services at Christmas 1984 was $12,623.10. The total costs of all goods and services according to the Christmas Price Index this year (2023) is $46,729.86. The True Cost of Christmas in 1984 was $61,318.94; this year it is calculated at $201,972.66.

One explanation of the song suggests that the gift on each day represents the food or sport for each month of the year and the lines that survive today are merely an irreligious travesty.

However, another explanation suggests that the lyrics were written as a catechism song to help young people learn their faith, at a time when celebrations of Christmas were discouraged, frowned on, or prohibited, during the Cromwellian era (1649-1660), or when Roman Catholics suffered under penal laws.

But this attempt to antedate a relatively modern song is without foundation, and all the truths affirmed in this interpretation are common to Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and are shared too by the traditions that developed out of the Cromwellian era, including the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists.

The first verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me …
a partridge in a pear tree.

Christian interpretations of this song often see the partridge in a pear tree as a figurative representation of Christ on the Cross, so that God, in his infinite love, sent on Christmas Day the gift of Christ the Saviour. As the poet Christina Rossetti wrote:

Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas:
star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
love incarnate, love divine;
worship we our Jesus:
but wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token;
love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
love for plea and gift and sign.

A mother partridge feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ (Luke 13: 34).

The Christmas Gospel, John 1: 1-14

John 1: 1-14 (NRSVA):

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The West Door, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Monday 25 December 2023, Christmas Day):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Love at Advent and Christmas.’ This theme was introduced yesterday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (25 December 2023, Christmas Day) invites us to pray in these words:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today (Phillips Brooks, 1835-1893).

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
may the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.

Additional Collect:

Lord Jesus Christ,
your birth at Bethlehem
draws us to kneel in wonder at heaven touching earth:
accept our heartfelt praise
as we worship you,
our Saviour and our eternal God.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

An image in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org