‘Topnobbers’—James Joyce and Louis Werner

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Volume 28

‘Louis Werner is touring here, Mr Bloom said. O yes, we’ll have all topnobbers. J.C. Doyle and John MacCormack I hope and. The best, in fact.’

(James Joyce, Ulysses)

By Eugene Dunphy

Above: Louis Werner—while there is no evidence that they ever met, we can assume that James Joyce was aware of Werner’s long-established reputation as a pianist, conductor, arranger and choirmaster.

From boyhood into manhood, James Joyce was immersed in music. At the Martello Terrace family home in Bray, he often witnessed his father John and mother Mary gathered around the piano singing operatic arias or Irish folk songs. In later life he enjoyed singing, playing guitar and piano, and listening to opera, so it is hardly surprising that his novel Ulysses included many references to musicians, one of whom was Louis Werner (1856–1941). There is no evidence to suggest that they ever met, but one can reasonably assume that Joyce was made aware of Werner’s long-established reputation from reading newspaper reviews and advertisements, from seeing concert billboard hoardings in Dublin, or from listening to family, friends or associates talk about his skills as a pianist, conductor, arranger and choirmaster.

Aldershot To Ardoyne

Louis Werner was born in the English garrison town of Aldershot. His German-born father, also called Louis, was a civilian bandmaster and clarinetist in the British army, his mother Helena an amateur soprano. Hoping that he would pursue a secure career in the civil service, his parents enrolled twelve-year-old Louis as a boarder in the Gymnasium Collegiate School for Boys in Montabaur, Germany. He showed little aptitude for accountancy, however, but displayed a particular flair for playing piano and violin. When deployed to Ireland in 1872 to serve with the 27th Inniskillings of Foot, the bandmaster and his wife set up home in Hollyhill, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. Bringing their bilingual teenage son back from Germany, they enrolled him as a boarder in Rockwell College, near Cashel, Co. Tipperary. While at Rockwell, Louis excelled in the study of music and also acquired a reasonable grasp of Latin and Greek.

On Christmas Day 1875 he was appointed as organist and choirmaster to the Holy Cross Passionist church in Ardoyne, Belfast; a few months later, he was appointed as piano accompanist to the Belfast Philharmonic Society, an established group of some 50 musicians. Though lauded on the concert platform for his work with the Philharmonic, he was described as a modest man of ‘a retiring nature’. If rehearsing for a show, however, he impressed upon his fellow musicians the importance of good timekeeping, demanded their utmost performance and did not tolerate any prima donna behaviour from soloists, whether professional or amateur.

In 1883 he composed music for Prière, a poem written by French essayist and poet Sully Prudhomme, who subsequently became the first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Originally penned in French, the words were rendered into English by Limerick-born writer and theatre critic Frank Frankfort Moore, whose spouse, Grace, was a sister of Florence Balcombe, wife of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. While acting as conductor and choirmaster for music societies in Portadown, Markethill and Dungannon, Werner fell in love with Harriett Faith Moore (1867–1935), an amateur soprano originally from Cloyne, Co. Cork. In the ensuing years, the married couple lived at a number of addresses in Belfast and had five daughters, Amanda, Helen, Marie, Dorothy and Vera. By way of marking his service to church music, Pope Benedict XV conferred on Werner the pro Ecclesia et Pontifice of Leo XIII, the gold Cross of Honour being sent by post from Rome to Ardoyne in June 1917, accompanied by ‘a handsome diploma in Italian’ signed by Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Vatican secretary of state.

Towards Ulysses

Frank Frankfort Moore frequently attended the Holy Cross Sunday Mass to hear the ‘accomplished and versatile’ Werner play the organ or conduct a small orchestra and choir whose ranks were often increased by visiting singers from the Carl Rosa, an opera company alluded to in Ulysses. Joyce also mentions Dublin-born baritone William Ludwig (or William Lewidge), a friend of Werner’s who had established an international reputation as a soloist with the Carl Rosa. If performing in Belfast, it was Ludwig’s customary practice to cross town and visit the Holy Cross organist in Ardoyne.

Though the first Home Rule bill was defeated in the House of Commons in 1886, the prospect of Ireland’s having a devolved parliament in the near future served to heighten sectarian and cultural divisions in Belfast, realities which did not escape Werner’s attention. He resolved to keep the concert platform neutral—a shared space for Catholics, Protestants, nationalists and unionists alike. Much to his disappointment, however, the highly politicised William Ludwig decided to test the allegiances of a Belfast audience. From the end of August until early September 1889, newspapers ran a series of advertisements announcing a Werner/Ludwig concert on 6 September at the Ulster Hall at which the baritone (billed as a former member of the Carl Rosa) would sing a number of well-known operatic arias, as well as the rather innocuous but safe ‘Irish song’ Molly Bawn. On the night of the concert, nationalists cheered and unionists jeered when he strayed from the scheduled song list and sang instead The Wearing of the Green, followed by another Irish rebel ballad, The Boys of Wexford. When he ignored Werner’s repeated calls to desist, Werner left the stage. One reviewer was appalled at having been subjected to ‘come-all-yees … tuneless shouts which had nothing but their vindictive party sentiment to recommend them’.

Though the dispute between the musicians was short-lived, Werner set out to protect his professional integrity by penning a letter to the press: ‘Had I known beforehand Mr Ludwig’s intention in this respect, I should not have undertaken management of the concert’. His reaction to Ludwig’s choice of song is reminiscent of a scene from Ulysses, namely Leopold Bloom’s response to the music rendered by the barefoot newsboys:

‘The noise of two shrill voices, a mouthorgan, echoed in the bare hallway from the newsboys squatted on the doorsteps: We are the Boys of Wexford who fought with heart in hand. Exit Bloom.’

Werner’s skills as choirmaster and conductor were soon availed of by the journalist, writer and director of the Irish Industries’ Society Thomas William Rolleston. In November 1895 Rolleston helped organise the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in Dublin, a showcase for Irish industry loosely modelled on the British Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 held at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Audience members at the Werner concert included Earl George Henry Cadogan, lord lieutenant of Ireland; Sir Thornley Stoker, surgeon and brother of Bram; Charles Cameron, newspaper owner; Lady Fingal (Elizabeth Burke-Plunkett); Sir Thomas Deane, architect; and Walter Sexton, jeweller. Also in attendance was Louis [Valentine Joseph] Werner (1858–1936), an eye surgeon and Dublin Music Society committee member, not related to the Holy Cross organist. All of the aforementioned are cited in Ulysses.


Above: Carl Gilbert Hardebeck, resident organist at the Holy Family Catholic church in north Belfast. At the first Feis Ceoil in Dublin in 1897 Hardebeck met and subsequently befriended Werner. (Capuchin Annual)

When the first Feis Ceoil was staged in Dublin in May 1897, Werner played first violin with the Feis orchestra at the Royal University Buildings in Earlsfort Terrace, the 79-piece orchestra and chorus performing the winning anthem God of my Salvation by the blind musician Carl Hardebeck, resident organist at the Holy Family Catholic church in north Belfast. While at the Feis, Hardebeck met and subsequently befriended Werner as well as the Dublin-based organist, choirmaster and vocal coach Vincent O’Brien. Most notably, O’Brien became singing tutor for the tenor John McCormack and, indeed, James Joyce, gold and bronze medal-winners at the Dublin Feis in 1903 and 1904 respectively. Both O’Brien and McCormack are mentioned in Ulysses, as is the Dublin-based baritone J.C. Doyle. At the 1904 Feis, Doyle sang the prizewinning song At Parting, the music of which was composed by Hardebeck, a frequent Feis prizewinner often seen with a white cane negotiating the busy Dublin streets while linked to the arm of his guide. Upon joining the Gaelic League, the blind musician learned Irish and travelled to Irish-speaking districts collecting traditional Gaelic songs, many of which he arranged and self-published. In his estimation, Joyce’s fellow student at University College Dublin, Galway-born Seumas (James) Clandillon, was one of the finest exponents of traditional singing in Ireland. A photograph taken in 1902 shows Joyce, Clandillon and others standing beneath a tree in the grounds of the College. Like Joyce, Werner showed little interest in learning Irish but he subsequently assisted Hardebeck in raising funds for the language movement by performing at venues such as St Mary’s Hall in Belfast.

Belfast concert on Bloomsday

Ulysses recorded a series of events that happened on 16 June 1904, now known as ‘Bloomsday’. At a gala concert held on that day, month and year at Belfast’s Ulster Hall, Werner acted as accompanist to Ludwig and his daughters, Florence and Winnifred. Also on the bill were cellist Clyde Twelvetrees and American-born actress Miss Mary Anderson (Madame de Navarro), both of whose names are cited in Ulysses. It’s interesting to note that tickets for the Belfast concert were also sold at outlets in Dublin, from Cramer’s in Westmoreland Street and from the Four Courts Hotel at Inns Quay. The day after the concert, Miss Anderson and her husband, Antonio de Navarro, were given a guided tour of Belfast by Father Malachy Gavin, rector of Holy Cross.

Having auditioned some of the best singers from churches in the greater Belfast area, Werner established a new choir, the Ardoyne Choral Society. On 1 May 1912 he conducted the Society at Belfast’s Central Hall, where soloists sang songs later popularised by John McCormack such as She is Far from the Land and Lily of Killarney. Additionally, the choir sang Crossing the Bar, a poem by Lord Tennyson (Joyce’s ‘Lawn Tennyson’), which Werner had set to music and dedicated to the memory of his acquaintance Thomas Andrews, chief architect of RMS Titanic, who had drowned when the liner sank sixteen days earlier.

After Ulysses

Above: Ulysses, first published in Paris in February 1922, was welcomed by some as ground-breaking literature but shunned by others as an immoral, blasphemous work. (NLI

First published in its entirety in February 1922, Ulysses was welcomed by some as ground-breaking literature but shunned by others as an immoral, blasphemous work. Since the novel portrayed an Inniskillings officer (‘Captain Slogger Dennehy’) as a sexual deviant and parodied aspects of the Catholic Mass and faith, it may well be the case that Werner adopted the latter position but, unlike the outspoken young Catholic literary reviewer Patrick Ignatius O’Leary, the reserved musician elected to keep his own counsel. In October 1922 O’Leary surmised that Joyce’s ‘amazing gifts’ had been wantonly squandered on the promotion of decadence: ‘I have, to my regret, because it was wasted time, read his Ulysses … Joyce is debased and debasing’. Redirecting his ire to other literati such as W.B. Yeats and George Russell (‘AE’), he concluded: ‘The modern Irishman who wishes to understand Ireland must be Catholic’.

Above: James Joyce (standing, second from left) with the professors and students of the University College Dublin BA degree class of 1902, including Seumas (James) Clandillon (standing, second from right), who in Hardebeck’s estimation was one of the finest exponents of traditional singing in Ireland. (Helen Solterer)

As the debate raged on, Werner continued with his work. On Christmas Day 1925 he celebrated his golden jubilee at Holy Cross, the Vatican awarding him the Order of St Gregory for 50 years’ service to church music. Such was his ‘passion for modesty’, however, that when the Vatican offered to make him a papal count (an honour subsequently accepted by John McCormack) he politely declined. Christmas Day 1935 marked his 60th year as organist and choirmaster at Holy Cross, from where he had seen a total of seventeen rectors come and go. To commemorate his diamond jubilee, he was photographed in the church sitting at the Evans and Barr organ, the Papal Cross of Honour pinned to his jacket lapel.

Above: Louis Werner’s gravestone in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast.

James Joyce died in Switzerland in January 1941. Later that year, in the early hours of 4 April, 84-year-old Louis Werner died peacefully ‘in his sleep’ at home at 150 Antrim Road, Belfast. The journal of the Inniskillings, Sprig of Shillelagh, subsequently recorded that he had been the victim of a German aerial assault on Belfast (‘enemy action’)—highly unlikely, as the Luftwaffe bombing of the city did not commence until the night of 7 April. Following morning Mass at Holy Cross on 7 April, he was buried alongside his wife Harriett and daughter Vera in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast. His daughter Rosamund donated her grandfather’s clarinet, baton, cap and tunic to the Inniskillings Museum. The Irish Independent remembered her father as ‘one of the best known musicians in Ireland’. As Joyce would have it, ‘the best, in fact’.

Eugene Dunphy is a music teacher in Belfast; he is currently writing a biography of Carl Hardebeck.


V. Igoe, The real people of Ulysses: a biographical guide (Dublin, 2016).


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