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8. James Joyce Embraced Universal Identity

Sense of Cultural Remoteness and Frustration

Ranelagh Dublin

Typical “Joycean” house in Dublin

Raymond Keogh, author of Shelter and Shadows, acknowledges that he felt cultural remoteness from Ireland because of incompatible inherited memes at the personal level (article #6 GKIS) and because his Gaelic urban identity was not given recognition in Irish society (article #7 GKIS).

James Joyce, who came from the same social background, seems to have suffered a similar sense of frustration—at least at the social level.

It is clear that the perceived absence of a solid “identity” is uncomfortable. We can accept the discomfort, or initiate a lifetime search to determine who we are. If our quest is approached candidly it appears to lead—inevitably—to a single conclusion. That is: our personal and communal identities cannot be considered in restricted terms: they are universal.

However, in any quest to understand identity an exploration of the individual’s personal and social realities are the best means through which progress can be made. Here we describe how Joyce did it:


The most forthright recognition of Dublin’s Catholic business and professional middle-class is found in the retreat scene in Grace in Dubliners. During his homily, Father Purdon delivered a special sermon—It was a text for business men and professional men.[1] In this single phrase Joyce identifies a class of people not often recognised in Ireland. But, the fact that there were sufficient men to fill Gardiner Street Church is a statement about the strength of this social group at the beginning of the 20th century.

Voice of the Native Middle-Class

James Joyce

Joyce expressed the mind of his people

When reading Dubliners it is clear that the city’s middle-class Catholic identity was large and included a substantial Gaelic element. The outstanding marks of the class were found in the main activities carried out by its working population. These activities were strongly related to business undertakings and the professions.

It is without question that Joyce expressed the mind of this community in Dublin, which he understood, for his family was part of it. He was its primary representative in terms of written artistic expression. All his observations about the city—rich or poor—or about Ireland are from this perspective.

Unable to Accept Artificial Definitions of “Irishness”

De Valera

If I wish to know what the Irish want, I look into my own heart

Joyce was unable to accept the artificial definitions of Irishness being created during the early 20th century because it was not inclusive. It excluded him.

In the charged emotional atmosphere of the embryonic state, awash under a tsunami of Celtic verbiage from Pearse and Yeats and Lady Gregory and other so-called patriotic Irish writers, there was no chance for Joyce. Social architects like Eamonn de Valera were having a field-day.

Joyce refused to join the growing movement. He stepped beyond the boundaries laid down by those who were trying to define Ireland in the lead-up to and in the aftermath of independence.

Unlike de Valera, he avoided nursing regressive dreams in the past. Yet he expressed his revelation in the familiar terms of the ordinary middle-class Dubliner. He took his search to its logical conclusion. Without possessing a clearly defined identity, he decided to extract himself from his surrounds and immerse himself in a distinct culture where he could best pursue the self-understanding that his own people had lost. He lived out his frustrations through an extraordinary lifestyle in which he struggled to make sense of his own society through his unique and original writings.

A Homeless Mind

OuttaHereThe closest parallel to the essence of his people was to be found within continental—not English—cosmopolitan culture. In England, the historic British versus Irish antipathy remained and would cloud his analysis.

He rejected, with varying success, Irish nationalism, the Irish language, the Irish literary movement, Catholicism, home politics, English officialdom, Irish rural roots and even Irish friendship. In reality he was not as much rejecting as distancing himself from most of these influences to bring them constantly into sharp focus and clarify them. He possessed a homeless mind, yet did not seek comfort in his quest. Perhaps he went too far. Alternatively, his exile can be described in terms of a metaphor: a musician tensing violin strings to make melodious sounds; for without tension there is no music. Were it not for his pain of loss, there may have been no triumph of his universal art.[1]

Declan Kiberd remarks that Joyce cut himself adrift in continental Europe and became a nomad writer, tangential to the cultural life of both Ireland and England.[2] In the end his outstanding achievement was the discarding of a narrow nationalistic definition of identity in favour of a universal one.


[1] Keogh, R. M. Shelter and Shadows. (To be published in September 2016 as part of The Gerald Keogh Identity Series).

[2] Kiberd, D. 1996. Inventing Ireland. Vintage. UK; p. 327.

GKIS Gerald Keogh Identity Series


Coming Next

Celt in the City: Forgotten Identity here