The national Irish identity and the Irish Nationalism in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The issue of the national Irish identity and the Irish nationalism as an ideological movement that claims to reaffirm this national identity (in many cases as opposed to the English-Britain one) was ubiquitous in the Irish society during the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century.

And as such, it also occupies an important place in the process of personal and artistic growth of Stephen Dedalus, the transversal theme of novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which it is present from the first pages when baby Stephen memorizes the colors used by his aunt to allegorize the Irish politicians Davitt and Parnell (3–4) to the end with a grown up Stephen leaving Ireland and assuming his responsibility to create a conscience of his race (276).

Street scene in turn of the century. Dublin.

Throughout the text a dialectical process of assimilation-confrontation of Stephen with the Irish identity takes place, in which Dedalus (following Joyce) adopts a position that is far from being the most comfortable since it is faced to the predominant maximalist positions. On one hand Sthephen Dedalus, as Joyce, is politically committed to his nation, he feels concerned about the future of Ireland, defends the existence of a differentiated Irish identity that longs to be independent and defends the use art for that purpose but, on the other hand, he rejects any form of regressive conservative nationalism as this would only eternalize the present situation, a tradition heavily dominated by the inflexible Irish Catholicism of the early twentieth century.

From its infancy, Stephen manifests his feeling of belonging to Ireland, like a reality with own nature and clearly differentiated from the British one; in his geography lesson at Clongowes, Stephen develops a hierarchical scale that locates him at the center of a widening concentric macrocosm:

“Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College

Salins

Country Kildare

Ireland

Europe

The World

The Universe” (12)

A list where Ireland is positioned directly within Europe without any reference to the United Kingdom (to which it belonged until December 6, 1922).

Joyce, like other great modernist writers, uses an identity concept linked to the term “race”. In the entry on April 26 of his diary Stephen Dedalus writes “… Welcome oh life! I go 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” (276). Assuming in this way the need to combine the encounter with experience (understanding it as a personal goal) with the forging of the conscience of the race (with all their social and political implications).

The recognition of the importance of his nationality in his art “This race and this country and this life produced me …. I Shall express my self as I am” (220) , does not avoid that he has been considered an individualist and apolitical artist because his rejection overtly nationalistic art or his refusal to endorse the program of the Gaelic League.

Assuming the Joycean theses, Stephen defends that a prosperous future for Ireland and its culture could not be built from a subordinate position (to the culture and politics of the United Kingdom) but neither from an ultra conservatism Catholicism anchored in the past and that in many occasions defends postulates that support the British positions.

This position is clearly reflected in the dialogue between Stephen and Davin, a young nationalist, to whom he refers as “the young peasant [who] worshipped the sorrowful legend of Ireland. […] his nurse had taught him Irish and shaped his rude imagination by the broken light of the Irish myth” (195). For his part, Stephen rejects the affirmation of the Irish identity recovering the Celtic myth and any form of regressive nationalism that would only eternalize the present situation.

Stephen concludes his argument with Davin by saying that “Ireland is the old sow that eats her own farrow” (220). Stephen regards Ireland as unable to develop because it prevents its offspring to grow, causing the self-destruction of those who defend it (the nationalist), instilling them to idealize Ireland’s past instead of progressing by finding their own ways.

Although Ireland was under British rule in the period that Joyce writes about, it was Ireland’s self-oppression what concerned him more than anything else. Through his fictions Joyce wanted Irish people to see themselves and their society more clearly to making them aware of their own contradictions, to push them out of their ancestral conservatism.