Constructing an Irish Identity


I wrote this paper to explore the topic of Irish identity using James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and various poems by W. B. Yeats. Irish history is tremendously relevant to this subject and hence I have chosen to post it for my readers here.


Constructing an Irish Identity:

A Profile of the Differing Views of James Joyce and W. B. Yeats

            When filmmaker Neil Jordan prepared to direct his biopic Michael Collins, he already knew he was constructing the most difficult but most important film of his career. In an interview for London Weekend Television’s program The South Bank Show, Jordan comments on how the Irish struggle for freedom reflects another aspect of the Irish consciousness not often examined: “In many ways, the war of independence was not too far from civil war or not too far from a war about different concepts of what it was to be Irish.” Indeed, the issue of what it means to be Irish was pivotal in the time of Joyce and Yeats. But both men have dissimilar views on how to address Irish identity and these conflicting opinions can best be observed in how they approach politics, the Celtic revival, and the role of Ireland’s past.

            William Butler Yeats is often thought of as the key poet of the Irish independence movement. This is true to a certain extent, although Yeats was by no means the only or most ardent writer to capture elements of republicanism. Yeats took several events and Irish politicos as subjects for his poems, most notably “Easter 1916,” “Sixteen Dead Men,” and my personal favorite, “The Rose Tree.” “Easter 1916” directly addresses the Easter Rising and the way it changed Ireland forever. Historically speaking, the Rising represents the classic Irish principle of heroic, glorious failure: a group of outmanned, outgunned rebels standing up to the British Empire even though they knew defeat was imminent. The leaders of the Rising were killed by an English firing squad and their remains interred in the limestone of Kilmainham Gaol. Irish citizens were outraged by these punishments and support for Irish independence was galvanized. Yeats skillfully encapsulates the transformation happening around him in “Easter 1916”: “All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born” (15-6). Similarly, “Sixteen Dead Men” speaks of Irish political martyrs and the need to stop talking and start acting. The first verse is remarkably poignant: “O but we talked at large before/ The sixteen men were shot,/ But who can give and take,/ What should be and what not/ While those dead men are loitering there/ To stir the boiling pot?” (1-6). Ostensibly, Yeats refers to the sixteen men killed in connection with the Rising[1] and how speaking of revolution rather than working toward it was worthless. In the striking work “The Rose Tree,” Yeats recalls an imagined conversation between Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, the two most prominent leaders of the Rising:

“O words are lightly spoken,”/ Said Pearse to Connolly,/ “Maybe a breath of politic words/ Has withered our Rose Tree;/ Or maybe but a wind that blows/ Across the bitter sea.”/ “It needs to be but watered,”/ James Connolly replied,/ “To make the green come out again/ And spread on every side,/ And shake the blossom from the bud/ To be the garden’s pride.”/ “But where can we draw water,”/ Said Pearse to Connolly,/ “When all the wells are parched away?/ O plain as plain can be/ There’s nothing but our own red blood/ Can make a right Rose Tree.” (1-18)

Unmistakably, Pearse and Connolly state that they are willing to give their own lives to see the restoration of an Ireland governed by the Irish. The rather overt symbolism Yeats uses is that of Christ’s crucifixion; Pearse and Connolly believe that Ireland will be resurrected anew if they spill their blood for it.

            James Joyce did not share Yeats’ enthusiasm for Irish politics. Moreover, Joyce refused to encourage or venerate the Irish ethic of failure and he found it self-destructive. Seamus Deane reflects on this in his introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by stating that Joyce thought “the glory of defeat” fueled “the very features of [the Celtic revival’s] colonial-Catholic oppression that it was trying to erase” (ix). Through his somewhat autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus, Joyce rebuffs the topic of politics many times.  Initially in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen remains silent when he hears his friends and family members arguing about history and current events. But when gets into his teens and can better articulate his feelings, he shows much disdain. When MacCann approaches Stephen to sign a petition, Stephen coolly asks, “Will you pay me anything if I sign?” Even more telling than this, however, is MacCann’s response, “I thought you were an idealist” (Joyce 212). Political idealism was an integral part of Irish opinion at the time. It is epitomized in the figure of Padraig Pearse, who possessed all sorts of romantic notions that the blood of patriots would revitalize the downtrodden island. Stephen’s most impassioned speech on the matter comes later in the same conversation when he is completely candid with his peers:

My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for? [. . .] No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first. (Joyce 220)

Stephen’s criticism of Irish politics is well-founded. Contemporarily, a push for ideological purity abides in Irish republicanism. It holds that people did not suffer, die, or kill for Irish independence only to be sold out by hasty compromises. When a leader in the independence movement appears to surrender to the enemy or damage the cause in any way, the purists reject him/her, regardless of how many positive changes s/he has affected. Stephen recognizes this proclivity and condemns it.

            Coinciding with the longing for all things distinctively Irish was the Celtic revival at the turn of the last century. The Gaelic Athletic Association promoted traditional Irish sports, the Gaelic League taught and advocated the use of the Irish language, and authors like W. B. Yeats and John Millington Synge represented the desire to craft a uniquely Irish style in literature. Authors like Yeats “were consciously choosing to see themselves as Irish and to weave another strand into the cultural tapestry of the country rather than to remain aloof and try to be British” (MacAnnaidh 210). Yeats saw this revival as an overall positive thing and his poetry was a way to provoke thought for his audiences. Additionally, Yeats was “preserving and promulgating Irish writers and writing” throughout his life and this cultural preservation should not be ignored (Philbin 253). “The Wild Swans at Coole” is a good example of Yeats’ ability to fuse elements of the Irish landscape with features of the Irish psyche: “Unwearied still, lover by lover,/ They paddle in the cold,/ Companionable streams or climb the air;/ Their hearts have not grown old;/ Passion or conquest, wander where they will,/ Attend upon them still” (19-24). Yeats’ description of the swans’ behavior possesses a strong parallel to the Irish drive for independence. Through centuries of subjugation, economic hardships, and unsuccessful revolts, the Irish still retained zeal, tenacity, and a powerful wish for self-determination.

            Joyce was on the opposite side of the spectrum; he saw the Celtic revival as a sham and did not align himself with the likes of Yeats and Synge. Interestingly, Joyce actually attempted to learn the Irish language himself but did not complete the task. He enrolled in a class taught by Padraig Pearse[2] and, after hearing Pearse belittle English as a language, Joyce dropped out (Golway 213). Joyce and Yeats both felt it was important for the Irish to assemble a clearer sense of identity, but disagreed on how to do it: “What Parnell had tried to do politically, with the help of the Fenians, Joyce envisaged himself as doing in art, with the very minor help of shadowy forerunners like James Clarence Mangan and in despite of the fake Celticism of W. B. Yeats, Synge and company” (Deane xxxv). “Fake Celticism” is a scathing indictment to be sure and this denunciation returns to politics. Joyce shunned “all the established versions of cultural nationalism” and thus it is no wonder he dismissed Yeats as reflecting something false (Deane xix). To Joyce, Yeats echoed the type of intense patriotism he wanted to escape. Stephen Dedalus’ chums and schoolmates parrot republican rhetoric back and forth to one another day after day and he tires of hearing the constant squabbling. Correspondingly, Joyce wanted to see the Irish define their identity as more than an oppressed people fighting for independence.

            Yeats was a poet fascinated by the past and curious about the future. “The Second Coming” has a dark, frightening tone as Yeats asks, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (21-2). Yeats believed that history was defined by cycles that repeated every 2000 years and that each new rotation would be “inaugurated by a dramatic cosmological revelation” (Reilly v). As already stated, several of Yeats’ poems take Irish history as their focus and Yeats also manages to incorporate his own personal past in his writings. He recalls some not so pleasant aspects of his youthful school life in “The Scholars”: “Bald heads forgetful of their sins,/ Old, learned, respectable bald heads/ Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love’s despair/ To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear” (1-6). Furthermore, Yeats attempted to divide Ireland’s history into segments. The first being the Flight of the Earls when Ireland’s Gaelic nobility left the country because of English subjugation. The second being the Battle of Boyne when William of Orange, a Protestant, defeated James II, a Catholic and Irish sympathizer, for rule of England in 1690. The third being the birth of Ireland’s revolutionary spirit in the 1780s and the last being Parnell’s death (Deane xxxvii). In light of all this, it is not surprising that Yeats supported the idea that part of Ireland’s future must come from its past.

            Joyce saw Ireland’s past as a roadblock to progress. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen writes in his journal, “Welcome, O 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” (Joyce 275-6, emphasis mine). I believe it is important to note that Joyce does not write about “the uncreated conscience” of himself; he speaks of his race. He is leaving Ireland and all its trappings precisely so that he can develop a new, productive Irish identity. Another primary part of the republican movement (both historically and currently) is a deep reverence for the past. Events that happened one hundred years ago are as significant to the Irish as if they had happened in the past month. Events that happened a decade ago are as crucial as if they had happened yesterday. Joyce observes this phenomenon and wants to end it:

It is the imagined future, not the re-imagined past of Ireland, that Stephen seeks. He is a post-modernist beside the modernist Yeats. For him, the past cannot be assimilated to the present; this would only make the difference between them invisible. [. . .] He (Stephen) is going to make Ireland part of History by making it open to the future. Endlessly repeated experience, a reality encountered for the “millionth time,” is going to be made into something that has so far remained “uncreated.” (Deane xli)

What this means is that, according to Professor Deane, Joyce is ahead of his time. Yeats falls in with his modernist contemporaries while Joyce divorces himself from history and contemporaneous writing trends to fashion his own style. Joyce contends that it is exactly when Ireland releases its past that it can join the pantheon of great nations.

            Examining the works and opinions of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats is a great way (I believe) to discover more about the conflict over Irish identity. Throughout the centuries Ireland has been controlled by England, many Irish have fought and died because of this disagreement and it deserves far more attention than it typically receives. To some extent, this dilemma continues today and it is worthwhile to observe the aforementioned authors’ feelings on politics, the Celtic revival, and Ireland’s past in an effort to better understand how and why this paradoxical quandary persists.


[1] Fifteen of the Rising’s leaders were killed in the May that followed. Sir Roger Casement, the sixteenth man, was hanged in August for his role in obtaining weapons for the rebellion.

[2] This was indeed the same Pearse who led the Easter Rising.

Works Cited

Golway, Terry. For the Cause of Liberty. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Jordan, Neil. The South Bank Show. London Weekend Television. 27 Oct. 1996.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Seamus Deane. New York:

            Penguin Books, 1993.

MacAnnaidh, Séamas. Micropedia Irish History. Bath: Paragon Publishing, 2001.

Philbin, Tom. The Irish 100. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1999.

Yeats, William Butler. “Easter 1916” and Other Poems. Ed. James Reilly. New York:

            Dover Publications, 1997.