Colm Tóibín​​: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist​, 100 years on​

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man begins with the confidence, ease and innocence of a story told to a child and ends with a tone that is hesitant, suspicious, fragmented and estranged. Between the two comes the education of one Stephen Dedalus, as the nets of race, religion and family attempt to ensnare his tender soul and complex imagination.

Stephen is a born noticer and an attentive listener. He is also someone who can take himself and his experiences with immense seriousness and then, a few pages later, put on an ironic disposition, as though his own very thoughts and the sufferings he endured were made to be fictionalised. (The earlier version of the book was called “Stephen Hero”.) In A Portrait, there is a constant and nourishing conflict going on between the artist and the young man, the artist concerned with style and texture and the refraction of experience, the young man with registering what he saw and remembered, how he grew.

For many Irish male writers who came after Joyce, from Frank O’Connor to John McGahern to Seamus Heaney, the sifting of early memory, the detailed description of parents, domestic space, school, religious belief, came with the matching account of the young artist’s effort to navigate these through solitude and reading, through knowledge and language.

In an essay written in 1982 to mark the centenary of Joyce’s birth, the Irish poet John Montague, who died earlier this month, a writer who had also mined his own childhood, wrote of the influence of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “No one could overestimate the effects of [the book] on later Irish writers … Or on the national psyche: many young Irishmen came to painful consciousness reading those corrosive pages. The Dublin of my student days was strewn with versions of Stephen Dedalus, including myself, though I wonder what the women thought of it!”

“Little failed saints,” Montague wrote, “we knew eternity too early.” Almost every section of Joyce’s book belonged to common Irish Catholic experience. Aged eight or nine, once a week, in Enniscorthy Cathedral, with the lights dimmed, we heard the priest intone: “Death comes soon and judgment will follow, so now, dear children, examine your consciences and find out your sins.” When I read the hellfire sermon in A Portrait, I had heard some of those very words, even though I was born 40 years after the book came out.

The Christmas dinner scene, with the bitter argument about Parnell between Stephen’s father and his aunt, could easily have come from many Irish tables in the 1970s and 80s as families rowed over what was happening in Northern Ireland.

Since corporal punishment in schools continued until as recently as the early 80s, anyone who had the misfortune to be educated by priests or Christian Brothers (or indeed nuns) would have fully recognised the scene where Stephen is unfairly punished. It happened to us all.

When I went to work as a language teacher in Barcelona in 1975, with many English people among my colleagues, I was constantly aware that how they spoke and how they saw language was utterly different from how I did. When there was discussion over the pronunciation or meaning of certain words (or the use of “bring” and “take”, which are different in Ireland and England), I felt much as Stephen did when he met the English Jesuit. “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”

But, like Joyce, I soon got over this feeling and saw that the best English was spoken in Lower Drumcondra. I soon took the view also that received pronunciation was, like all language, both a gift and a burden, and the distance between us a sort of joke. “It seems history is to blame,” as Haines the Englishman says in Ulysses.

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