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Kissing Cousins


There are quite a number of connections between James Joyce and D’Olier Street, but that of course can be said of many a Dublin street. However, the connection with James Cousins, a clerk employed in a coal office and shipping business at No 7 D’Olier Street extends beyond the topography of Joyce’s fiction. Cousins was a minor writer and in part the model for the unfortunate Chandler in “A Little Cloud”. He was to have quite a few connections with Joyce who, while not exactly admiring him, was positively disposed towards him even decades after they had both left Ireland.

Cousins was born into a Belfast Methodist family and as a boy witnessed sectarian riots, stone-throwing and police bullets. He moved to Dublin around 1897, which was probably as soon as he could manage. He became a writer but this was in effect a part-time calling; he had a job and lots of other interests, mostly to do with spiritual matters and altering the condition of the world as he found it. His writing, which for the most part featured fairies, druids and similar misty entities was quite removed from the world he had known in Belfast, being situated at the more ethereal end of the Irish literary revival.

Joyce knew Cousins and his wife in the years before he left the country with Nora Barnacle in 1904. Some thirty-five years later he remembered Cousins’s wife as Gretta Guilfoyle; her name was actually Gretta Gillespie, also a Wesleyan but from Roscommon ‑ the oldest in a family of six boys and six girls. As a child she witnessed street fights between Parnellites and McCarthyites. Gretta escaped to Dublin to study music and first met James in 1899. Cousins notes in his diary that on July 10th of that year he spent a half-crown on roses for Gretta, which sounds like a substantial gesture.

Cousins’s boss seems to have been a decent sort, inviting his employee to his home in Monkstown where he once employed the young tenor Jim Joyce to sing at a garden party. The story of the connection with Joyce is one with much detail but it is also one which for now will have to give way to the story of Cousins himself and to some degree his connection with Yeats.

Things between Gretta and James progressed at a sluggish pace, glacial indeed in comparison with Joyce’s relationship with Nora Barnacle, which began on Nassau Street on the other side of Trinity College. (That couple met in June 1904 and eloped in October.) As they sheltered under his umbrella outside her lodgings, a year after the gift of roses, Gretta announced: “You may kiss me if you like.” Emboldened by this clear hint and presuming a successful outcome to the suggested intimacy, James, a little afterwards, on a rock by the sea at Killiney proposed matrimony. It was an event of great moment and one which later inspired him to verse.

And when she sat on the Ring Rock with me,
Earth’s question seemed to cloud her hazel eye:
And on my lip hovered the sea’s reply:
“Love’s bond shall set the aspiring spirit free.”

Sadly however, the feelings of the young couple were not entirely aligned and it seems from the verse that James had some sense of this. Yet she accepted. Gretta, it seems, was of a pragmatic cast of mind: she had decided to accept the proposal because she felt that with a number of attractive younger sisters also coming of age, pressure could soon mount and she might not receive a better offer. It was a situation that, unsurprisingly, never moved her to verse and which she kept to herself until she was much older.

Initially Gretta did not care for Mr Cousins at all. She had long felt that if she was to marry it would be to a tall dark professor with a beautiful voice, whereas poor old Cousins was, as she said “small and fair, an accountant in a business concern and, worst of all, possessed a marked North of Ireland accent”. She cried from disappointment on the night of his proposal. However, with a commendable presence of mind, she did insist on an exit clause: it was agreed that she could back out at any point. So, if a tall professor with a good speaking voice came on the scene, she could give James the hard word.

Unaware of, or perhaps in spite of, Gretta’s reservations, James continued with his literary endeavours and was helping in the project of forming a national theatre. Frank Fay, the manager of an acting group and an important figure in the literary revival, visited him in his office and complained about the lack of Irish material. Cousins suggested they put on AE’s Deirdre, which they did with James playing the role of Ainle. Yeats’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan was also performed on the same evening in April 1902 at the Total Abstinence Hall on Clarendon Street.

James’s own play The Sleep of Kings was performed later in the Antient Concert Rooms on Great Brunswick St – now Pearse Street. Cousins was delighted:

The casting was perfect: Miss Maria Walker as the beautiful Fairy Princess; Frank Fay as the solemn old King; PJ Kelly as his noble son and heir; Dudley Digges as the mysterious Druid ... The Fairy Chorus of invisible children, singing to an archaic Irish melody, greatly heightened the effect of the play.

Yeats, who attended, was impressed and approached Cousins afterwards declaring “Splendid, my boy, splendid.” Yeats’s imperious manner irritated Cousins. Anyway his good opinion does not seem to have lasted very long. Cousins’s next play, which he described as a north of Ireland comedy, was denounced in a letter to Lady Gregory as “rubbish and vulgar rubbish”. He added: “Cousins is evidently hopeless and the sooner that I have him as an enemy the better.” Part of the problem may have been that Cousins’s writing was similar to, though weaker than, Yeats’s own. The final line of his short poem “To a poet who would have me Praise certain Bad Poets, Imitators of His and Mine” reads “Was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?” It seems WB was thinking of James Cousins.

If Yeats was the superior writer things were going better for Cousins on the romantic front. While Yeats was reeling from the news of Maud Gonne’s marriage, Gretta was warming to her husband-to-be. She had agreed to the engagement partly to avoid being the subject of gossip and, as noted, insisted on the right to back out at any moment. As it happens she found it unnecessary to invoke this condition, as with the passage of time she was, as she put it, “completely won over”.

The couple were married in April 1903 in Sandymount Methodist church, the organ being played by Joyce’s friend and correspondent Tom Koehler. At the wedding breakfast Gretta announced that she was becoming a vegetarian, which was another turnaround as his vegetarianism had been one of things she had disliked about James when she met him first.

James was not especially macho and noted: “I was aware to the presence of a considerable admixture of feminine receptiveness and creativeness in my own make up.” He was also aware of “a certain touch of masculine power and initiative” in Gretta and remarked that when he first saw her masterful handwriting it made him brace himself for adventure.

Their adventures were to be more in the fields of vegetarianism, literature, the suffragette movement and theosophy than in the sexual arena. Gretta later recorded that in the first year of the marriage she was “white and thin” from the discovery of “the physical basis of sex”. Later she explained her feelings:

I found myself looking on men and women as degraded by this demand of nature ... nor will I and many men and women of like nature, including my husband, be satisfied, be purified and redeemed, life after life, until the evolution of form has substituted some more artistic way of continuance of the race.

Sexual abstinence and the absence of children gave the couple time for other activities. Wherever they went they left vegetarian and theosophy societies in their wake. They were mutually supportive. Gretta supported James in his fairy writings and he was proud to be the husband of a suffragette, even attaching pieces of lead to her umbrella so that she could break windows in Dublin Castle and serve time in prison for the cause.

Nationalists, according to Gretta, were not especially sympathetic to the suffragette movement and were “ taught by the press to regard us as opponents to Irish freedom”. In 1913, after serving what was her second prison term, the couple left Ireland and settled in India, where they continued their activities for many years. Gretta died at Adyar in 1954 and James at Madanapalle in 1956.

1/9/2015

Source: “‘We Two’ and the Lost Angel: The Cousins Of Sandymount and James Joyce”, Paul Stephenson and Margie Waters, in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol 37, No 1/2, Dublin and the Dubliners (Fall, 1999 - Winter, 2000)