Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1916 – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

James Joyce’s first novel, published not in Dublin but in New York and London, is an intensely Irish book

Before the Easter Rising of April 1916 the banner that hung from Liberty Hall in Dublin read “We serve neither king nor kaiser but Ireland”. At the end of that year, in another declaration of independence, the semi-autobiographical central character of James Joyce’s first novel, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, adopts a personal motto: ‘Non serviam’ – ‘I will not serve’. These rebellions were not unrelated, but Joyce’s was even more radical. The nationalist rebels would have approved of Stephen Dedalus’s assertion that “this race and this country and this life produced me . . . I shall express myself as I am.”

Much more problematic would be his insistence that he wished to be free not just of king or kaiser but of much of what seemed to constitute that Irish life: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” Here was a paradox that Irish culture would struggle with over the next century: to express Ireland might not be the same as serving its most cherished ideas about itself.

It was significant in itself that ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ was published not in Dublin but in New York and, shortly afterwards, in London. It is an intensely Irish book, charting the growth from infancy to early adulthood of a would-be writer in Dublin between roughly 1882 and 1903. But although Joyce started an early version in Dublin in 1904 he was already in self-imposed exile in Trieste when he finished it, in 1914.

That Joyce's relationship with the emerging Ireland would be a difficult one was already evident: the radical Dublin magazine 'Dana' declined to publish an early version. It was instead serialised, at the urging of the American poet Ezra Pound, in the London avant-garde review the 'Egoist', during 1914 and 1915. Joyce's modernist methods, with varying styles, fractured narrative and concern with Stephen's inner consciousness, was more important to his champions than the book's relationship to Ireland.

Yet Joyce was as much concerned with Irish freedom as were the young political revolutionaries who staged the Rising. In his book the personal is political: the weakness of Stephen’s father, Simon, is inextricable from the failure of the Parnellite cause he espouses. In the penultimate sentence of ‘A Portrait’ Stephen proclaims his ambition “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”.

The book itself probes that uncreated Irish consciousness, asking what a free Irish mind might feel like. The answers include a raw, urgent sexuality and a revolt against the power of the church – not quite what most of the political rebels imagined. There was already a tension between artistic and political visions of what it meant to be a free country.