James Joyce’s “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” in Historical Context

Throughout the novel, “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” we see the underlying struggle between loyalty to Great Britain and Irish Nationalism. It was in my interest to identify the causes of this divided nation and the hostility nationalists harbored for Great Britain.

The Great Famine

Also known as The Great Hunger, The Great Famine was a wide spread famine across Ireland between 1845 and 1850. The cause of this tragedy was the attack of a previously unknown fungus upon the potato cops, which much of Ireland depended on. This misfortune was further amplified when Britain neglected to provide support to Ireland. Britain felt that Irish taxes should pay for Ireland’s distress. This caused a wide spread distrust of the British Government and began a further desire to separate from it in many sectors in Ireland.

While The Great Famine is not directly addressed in Joyce’s novel, it is a major cause of the hostility towards Britain. Many of the older people in this novel may remember The Great Famine and this may also be why characters like Mr. Casey react so harshly and emotionally to the support of priests that support the British government.  This was also the time when nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell was born, whom Stephen’s father frequently mentions. He was a profound leader whom Mr. Dedalus and Mr. Casey felt a sort of kinship towards.

World War I  

Beginning in 1914 World War I, is one of the greatest tragedies in the history of mankind. There was a lot of tension in Europe at this time, however the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand marks the start of the war. With Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (the so-called Central Powers) against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan (the Allied Powers), Great Britain hardly saw Ireland as a major threat at this time. The Irish Republican Brotherhood found this war as an opportunity to organize and uprising against Great Britain. With England’s sights set on the threat of Germany, many troops were deployed. The novel does not directly acknowledge the First World War, however as with The Great Famine it brought more and more tension to Ireland. This in turn was reflected in the home of Stephen Dedalus.

Easter Rising  

At just 1,000 men, the Irish Republican Brotherhood rose against Great Britain’s rule in buildings all around Dublin. Despite the odds, greatly against them, they held their ground for a week. This was the first major act of rebellion by Ireland and was not greatly supported. This was due to much of the country being torn on their opinions regarding loyalty to Britain and the Catholic Church and their beliefs in politics being separate from religion. This is evident in Joyce’s novel when we see Stephen witness the argument between his father, Dante, and Mr. Casey.

–          Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her [Dante] from across the table, the language with which the priests and priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him [Stephen] remember that too when he grows up.

–          Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in the sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!

–          They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!

–          Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus can we be free from these dreadful disputes!

This rebellion was also controversial due to the many people that fear the retaliation of Britain’s armed forces. Though the uprising ended in defeat, it caused many Irishmen to see the tyranny they were up against, as men fought and died, unbacked by their church, for the independence of Ireland. With all this tension and controversy over religion, politics, and nationalism, Stephen finds himself estranged from his religious upbringing, while still uncertain of his ideas regarding politics. He decides to leave Ireland and all its debate, to expand his mind and further commit himself to becoming a poet.

Works Cited

Cambrid B. “Easter Rising 1916.”Septs of Ireland, 13 March 2008. Web. 21 Sep. 2013.


“Ireland and The Great Hunger. A Timeline.” An Gorta Mor. Quinnipiac University, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2013.


Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. John Paul Raquelme. New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2007. Print.

Trueman, C. “The 1916 Easter Rising.” The History Learning Site, 2011. Web. 22 Sep 2013.       <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/1916_easter_rising.htm&gt;.

“World War 1.” History.com. History Channel, 2012. Web. 21 Sep. 2013.



4 thoughts on “James Joyce’s “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” in Historical Context

  1. I didn’t know that there was a period of famine in Ireland around this time, but it makes a lot of sense and, I agree with you, definitely ties into a lot of the political issues going on at this time that probably influenced Joyce’s writing in Portrait of the Artist.

  2. Hi!
    I really enjoyed your post, I have a better understanding now of why Ireland and Great Britain had such heated tensions. I totally understand why the Irish were so upset after what you wrote about the Great Famine. Geez, I thought that was so awful. It seemed only right that they should rebel in WWI and in Easter Rising.

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