A Portrait of the Artist and His Young Country: A Joycean Centenary

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    A couple of summers ago I was visiting the Cotswolds and in one of those attractive villages, Stow-on-the-Wold I think it was, I came across a small bookshop. Now there’s a temptation I can never resist, for I love the prospect of a serendipitous discovery. Browsing through the eclectic mix of books quartered there, I stumbled upon a copy of James Joyce’s autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which he charts the childhood and coming-of-age of Stephen Dedalus, a character who also features prominently in Ulysses.

    The volume I purchased that day was not a first edition but a reprint published in 1946. It had been bought originally from a bookseller in Sydney and was owned by someone who, in 1948, had been a student at Auckland University College. I suppose that this young woman had moved to England at some stage and Joyce’s book had meant enough to her to justify carrying it halfway across the world. Perhaps it was Joyce’s preoccupation with exile (‘I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels’) that had made her take it with her on her own journey.

    I bought this copy of Joyce’s novel because I knew that we were approaching the centenary of its publication in December 1916 when I would want to reread a work I first encountered as a student during the 1970s and had dipped into on and off over the years. 1916 was also the year of the Easter Rising, which set Joyce’s homeland on the road to independence.

    Is it a coincidence that Joyce’s three best-known books, Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922), were all published during the most turbulent era in modern Irish history, stretching from the Home Rule crisis of 1912-1914 to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, just weeks before the publication of Ulysses? Unlike W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey, Joyce did not write about the events of that era directly. He took little notice of the Rising which erupted at a time when he was already absorbed with the complex task of writing Ulysses. Indeed, Joyce spent all of those years of political change outside of Ireland, having left in 1904 and paying his final visit in 1912. Yet, he remained in thrall to the country of his birth and his three great books deal exclusively with the Ireland he knew before his departure for a life that would be lived in Austria-Hungary, Italy, France and Switzerland, where he died in January 1941.

    While Joyce often affected a lofty disdain for public affairs, in fact in his younger years he took a healthy interest in Irish history and politics, which were part of the dense fabric of life he sought to dissect through his writings. When he was living in Trieste, he contributed a series of articles to a local Italian language newspaper which incorporated a broadly nationalist interpretation of Irish history.

    Joyce’s work provides an elliptical commentary on pre-revolutionary Ireland. His works are set in a country that was simmering under the influence of a new brand of nationalism infused with cultural preoccupations such as the urge to revive the Irish language. In his story ‘The Dead’, Miss Ivers, a dedicated member of the Gaelic League, chides Gabriel Conroy for taking his holidays in continental Europe rather than in the west of Ireland, favoured by early twentieth century language enthusiasts. In A Portrait, Stephen Dedalus is taken to task by a fellow student for his unwillingness to learn his native language (Joyce did take some Irish lessons, but quickly abandoned this effort, contenting himself with his supreme mastery of the English language). A devoted modernist, he set himself against the Irish literary revival pioneered by Yeats which he viewed as compromised and backward-looking. In A Portrait, Joyce wrote that Yeats and his school remember ‘forgotten beauty’ and ‘the loveliness which has long faded from the world’ while he desired ‘to press in my arms the loveliness which has not yet come into the world.’

    Joyce admired the work of Arthur Griffith, founder of the original Sinn Féin party, who favoured a British-Irish dual monarchy along the lines of that which had existed in Austria-Hungary since 1867, and who is referred to several times in Ulysses. Joyce amuses himself by crediting his fictional Leopold Bloom, who has a Hungarian background, with inspiring Griffith’s ‘Hungarian’ policy.

    The Cyclops episode of Ulysses is a hilarious send-up of what Joyce saw as the excessively narrow nationalism of the period. The main target of this avalanche of hyperbolic prose is ‘the Citizen’, a character based on Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association (founded in 1884), which remains Ireland’s premier sporting body. Written during the crisis of the Great War and its immediate aftermath, Ulysses strikes me as a plea for tolerance in its lionising of Bloom, whose accommodating outlook jars with the more uncompromising attitudes of many of those he encounters during his wanderings around Dublin on the 16th of June 1904. In a key passage, Bloom, an untypical Dubliner, is asked ‘what is your nation?’ to which he replies ‘Ireland, I was born here, Ireland.’ With those words, Joyce seeks to distance himself from the more atavistic political creeds of the early twentieth century.

    The public figure who looms largest in Joyce’s imagination is Charles Stewart Parnell. In Dubliners, the story ‘Ivy Day at the Committee Room’ offers a brilliant insight into the politics of early twentieth century Ireland as election canvassers discuss the impending visit to Ireland of King Edward VII and reflect on the memory of Ireland’s lost leader. An Anglo-Irish landlord, Parnell became the champion of nationalist Ireland and in 1885 persuaded Gladstone to support Home Rule. Then, at the height of his political career, Parnell fell from grace when he was named in a divorce case. The ensuing scandal brought bitter divisions between supporters and opponents of Parnell which continued after his death in 1891. The Irish Parliamentary Party he had headed with such success never fully recovered the verve it had displayed under Parnell’s talented leadership.

    Parnell had an active afterlife in Irish literature. Yeats wrote about him in the 1930s when Parnell had already been dead for more than four decades. And he is an important presence in Joyce’s work. John Stanislaus Joyce was a devoted Parnellite and this provided his son with material for a wonderfully dramatic piece of writing in A Portrait when the family’s Christmas dinner is disrupted by a fierce verbal battle about Parnell.

    In this gripping passage, Mrs Dante Riordan staunchly defends the Catholic bishops in their opposition to Parnell. In her view, the bishops and priests of Ireland had spoken and ‘they must be obeyed’. This brings forth fusillades of anti-clerical sentiment from Simon Dedalus (aka Joyce’s colourful father, ‘a praiser of his own past’ as his son described him) and his fellow Parnell devotee, Mr Casey, whose sorrowed anger at the demise of his ‘dead king’, and the blame he apportioned to the Catholic Church for this, led him to say that ‘we have had too much God in Ireland’.

    A hundred years after its publication, Joyce’s most accessible work is well worth a read. Its prose is constantly luminous as in this evocation of schoolboy ennui – ‘His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.’ The novel deals with universal themes. There are early childhood impressions of a confusing world:- ‘What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began?’ A Portrait depicts the simple piety of Stephen’s childhood where:

    though there were different names for God in all the different languages in the world and God understood what all the people said in their different languages, still God remained always the same God and God’s real name was God.

    But the lion’s share of the book is devoted to Stephen’s (and Joyce’s) struggles with religion, nationality and his own artistic identity. In the Ireland in which he grew up, Joyce believed that ‘nets’ of ‘language, nationality, religion’ were flung at the soul to ‘hold it back from flight,’ but he was determined to fly past those nets even if it meant having to resort to ‘silence, cunning and exile’.

    The novel dwells at length on Joyce’s discovery of the temptations of the flesh and the agonies of conscience and fear of hell and damnation with which he grapples. When he is being tempted to join the Jesuits, he decides that ‘his destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders’ and resolved ‘to learn his own wisdom apart from others … wandering among the snares of the world.’

    The book’s closing chapter consists of an extended exploration of his credo as a writer as he prepares to leave Ireland. Entering University, he describes how ‘his soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood … He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul … a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.’

    Stephen recalls discussions with fellow students about art, nationalism (‘the sorrowful legend of Ireland’) and international issues, where he tangles with the ardent pacifist and suffragist McCann, who represents Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who was summarily executed by a deranged British officer during the Easter Rising in which Sheehy-Skeffington had taken no part.

    A Portrait reaches a crescendo when Stephen stands on a Dublin beach, ‘unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life’ and sees a girl ‘alone and still, gazing out to sea.’ The sight of her elicits a rapturous response. ‘She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.’ The girl looked at him ‘in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness.’ Stephen responds with what he describes as ‘an outburst of profane joy’.

    A Portrait ends with the author’s resolve to leave Ireland and ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ The word ‘race’ in Joyce’s usage has a meaning akin to nation. And one way of looking at Ulysses is to conclude that Joyce fulfilled his lofty ambition. He explored the reality of early twentieth century Dublin, and of the modern world, through a character. Bloom, who was far more rooted in workaday realities than the precocious, aesthetic youth of Joyce’s century-old novel.

    As James Joyce immersed himself in his creative work on A Portrait and Ulysses, Ireland was being reshaped by many of his contemporaries who had remained at home and became involved in the struggle for independence. Those times left a powerful legacy, of political independence and outstanding literary achievement, which would probably not have flowered to quite the same extent against a tamer Irish political backdrop. The Easter Rising has this year been commemorated with honesty and sensitivity. A Portrait deserves its place in our memory as another milestone from that most prolific era in twentieth century Irish history, and in the annals of modern literature. As we say in Irish ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís – ‘the likes of it will never be seen again’.


    Daniel Mulhall has been Ireland’s Ambassador in London since 2013 and has had previous diplomatic postings in New Delhi, Vienna, Brussels, Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur and Berlin. He has maintained a lifelong interest in Irish history and literature on which he has lectured and published widely. His most recent publication is The Shaping of Modern Ireland: a centenary assessment (Dublin, 2016) which he co-edited with Eugenio Biagini. His blog is available via the Embassy’s website (https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/great-britain/). He tweets regularly on Irish-UK relations, diplomacy, literature, history, Ireland’s economy and Irish culture @DanMulhall. During 2016, he has been active in commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising and of Irish participation in World War 1.