The publication of Portrait in book form in 1916 coincided with one of the most important events in modern Irish history: the Easter Rising (also called the Easter Rebellion), which initiated a bloody war of independence followed by several months of civil war in Ireland. By 1922, in the wake of these conflicts, Ireland had thrown off British rule and transformed itself into the Irish Free State-a body comprising all but the six counties of Ulster (the modern-day British province of Northern Ireland); in 1949 the Free State became Eire, the Republic of Ireland. The Rising began when a citizen army of around 1,000 people occupied Dublin’s General Post Office and several other key sites around the city, read aloud a proclamation of an Irish Republic, and raised republican flags. Britain’s response was swift, violent, and apparently effective: thousands of troops were brought into Dublin; a gunboat was deployed in the river Liffey; bullets, shells and incendiary bombs destroyed much of the city and resulted in approximately 1,500 casualties. Within five days, the rebels surrendered. In the weeks that followed, the leaders of the Rising were executed by a firing squad. These highly-publicized executions sent waves of revulsion across Ireland, made martyrs of the rebels, and solidified public opinion in Ireland against British rule. In the words of Joyce’s contemporary, the playwright Sean O’Casey, “1916 became the Year One in Irish history and Irish life.”
In the Ireland of Portrait, which is set in the last two decades of the 19th century and the earliest years of the 20th, all this is yet to come, but the powerful currents that were to engulf Ireland after 1916 are already very much in evidence in Joyce’s novel. Stephen’s infancy and his childhood are an initiation into the divisive world of Irish politics during the final decades of British rule. Among his very earliest memories are that of his nurse Dante’s brushes, one of which, he already knows, “the brush with the green velvet back,” stands for Charles Stewart Parnell, a key figure of contemporary Irish Home Rule movement whose public disgrace and ensuing death coincide with the first chapter of Joyce’s novel. In 1889 the Protestant Parnell was named as co-respondent in a divorce case; the ensuing scandal turned many Catholics against him, including Michael Davitt, the one-time nationalist ally of Parnell represented by Dante’s matching maroon brush. The proceedings also deeply divided the Nationalist movement at a crucial moment, just as a Home Rule bill appeared to have at least some chance of being passed by the British Parliament. For many nationalists, Parnell’s death in 1891 signaled the death of their dreams of Home Rule. The depth of feeling at the time is suggested by the bitter argument between Dante, Simon Dedalus and Mr. Casey during the disastrous Christmas dinner that takes place shortly after Parnell’s death.
“History,” Stephen Dedalus says at one point in Ulysses, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” but in the world of Portrait there is no escape from the unresolved tensions of contemporary Irish history. Even the very language out of which Stephen would make his art is colored by Ireland’s political situation, as an exchange with the English dean of studies over a single word reveals. The priest is struck by Stephen’s use of the word “tundish” rather than the “funnel” with which the priest is familiar. This apparently innocuous exchange is, for Stephen, a would-be writer, cause for torment, reminding him that it is not only Irish land that is colonized, but Irish minds and tongues as well. “I cannot,” he reflects, “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.” Infused with such tensions, both political and cultural, Joyce’s novel is very much a product of its historical moment.