Modern Portraits


I wrote this essay in the early 1980s in Galway where I had been living since I moved there as a twenty-two year old graduate student in 1974. The city back then was still a relatively small bi-lingual market town. I was entranced by it — the canal ways, the winding streets, the flowing river Corrib, all opening out to the grand Atlantic coastline. The first flat I lived in was right smack in the old town, in Abbeygate Street, around the corner from Bowling Green where Joyce's partner Nora Barnacle had family in-laws, and a stone's throw away from Nun's Island, the apocryphal shadowland of 'The Dead'. Joyce was a real presence for sure. Some of the old folks we knew recalled Richard Ellmann visiting in search of local information on James for his masterful biography. In Belfast in the sixties I had read Joyce's Dubliners and A Portrait and it was that first contact which led to the writing of 'An Acquired Speech' for the Irish University Review, one of the country's longest-established and most respected academic and literary journals. The special issue (Vol. 12 No 1 Spring 1982), published to mark Joyce's centenary, was edited by Maurice Harmon and included, among others, Brian Moore, Francis Stuart, Brian Coffey, Des Hogan, John Montague, Ita Daly, Terence Brown and John Banville. 


An Acquired Speech

The first book I remember reading with enthusiasm was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. My uncle, recently demobbed from the Royal Air Force, presented it to me one Christmas and I was entranced by its remote adventure, the mystery of Ben Gunn and the fabulous island escapades. The second book was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I had won a prize for what was called ‘Social Economics’ at Belfast’s Orangefield Boys’ School when I was about fifteen and, with the book token, had purchased Joyce’s novel, licking the prize citation into the flyleaf. I am sure that in the years between I read other novels but these have receded into the background, leaving Stevenson and Joyce as testaments of that time in the early 60s.

A Portrait of the Artist made a great impression on me in two ways. It confirmed in me the belief that I wanted to be ‘an artist’ like Stephen and, in order to achieve this, I would have to put up with all kinds of deprivations, knowing I was more than compensated by the nightly ‘poems’ I committed to the graph paper of science notebooks. It also showed me what ‘real’ Roman Catholics were like: not the ones I lived and went around with in Belfast. We never talked about religion in any serious fashion—it was pointless. I was thrilled by the sermon (‘Hell is a strait and dark and foul smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke’), absorbed Stephen’s guilt, shivered at the brittle Dean’s calm dominance and groped some of the way along the intellectual path as Stephen debated with his peers the supremacy of Art over Life. Later, at the time not consciously aping Stephen (although I am sure now that it was under the influence of Joyce’s book), I stamped around the miserable streets of warehouses and empty office blocks, observing and talking with the prostitutes who stepped out of doorway shadows saying, ‘Two pound a play-around,’ the huge dome of the City Hall capping the night sky.

Thinking of A Portrait without the marvellous intimacy of those first readings, I see the novel as a great moment of intellectual and artistic liberation, embodying the complexity of daily life with an imaginative integrity and a feeling for what Joyce himself called ‘the most wonderful language in the world’—English. These contrary points are nicely shaped in Stephen’s famous talk with the Dean of Studies, revealing rhetoric much debated to this day:

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.

The power relationship distilled here is universal and relates not only Stephen’s sense of an uncertain identity (personal as much as social) but also the actual struggle between generations—that individualised battle of the young for independence and self-will. On another level, however, the passage tells us something about Joyce himself, as an artist, for he was willing and able to justify his own acquisition of both the foreign and the familiar, the commonplace and the extraordinary. In doing this, he freed Irish writing from thematic conventionality.

He showed us there were imaginative ways around the historical nightmares and recurrent dreams that made up ‘his’ Ireland and still do ‘our own’. Ironically, what seems to have happened is that this legacy of Joyce’s has not been looked after with the same attentiveness as that of his personality—the image of his artistic ego. It is this other legacy which dominates both popular and literary ideas about Joyce.

A high price has been exacted thereby, for many tried, in vain, to emulate the example of Joyce’s life rather than his work. (I remember listening to an Italian writer talk of Joyce as if he were a kind of Christ-figure: the writer, like Coleridge’s ‘enamoured rustic’ who does not ‘know he makes the shadow he pursues’). Similarly, the questions, moral, social and artistic, which Joyce’s work poses, have generally, in Ireland, been unheeded or obscured in the caricatured lifestyle of the man himself.

Indeed, there is a fierce attractiveness about Joyce—his superstitiousness, his dogmatic self-awareness, his vulnerability and his exposure of and resistance to the mumbo-jumbo of national, emotional and sexual taboos in Irish life. Joyce accepted the modern world with all its trivialisation and seediness. Yet his acceptance was never to give up on the world in despair or keep to an embittered, intellectual arrogance. Others took that road, mistaking it for the one he had travelled along. Reading A Portrait, the sympathy his novel communicates is profoundly moral in the sense of challenging our own understanding of the world around us—specifically the Irish one—with its glum complacencies over brooding historic injustice and its lack of concern with change today.

Joyce’s life was a radical thing; his work a constant reassessing. This is why he could look at the English language he used, thought in and heroically (perhaps tragically) tried to rewrite. He transformed it into an object of scrutiny and entertainment and, in doing so, tried to purge it of complicity in the social and cultural oppression of our past. He really makes English Irish and, in that act of nationalisation, takes a huge step towards making the language familiar (‘of one’s family’), seen on the page as people in Ireland speak it (or think they speak or hope they speak it!). The forging of this image, cracked and all, mirrors an ancient uncertainty about power, control and identity. Paradoxically, it finds a focus in that off-putting self-consciousness of Stephen Dedalus.

Where else, need one ask, could an Irishman find his most profound, independent identity but as ‘an artist’? Maybe this is why it is still easier to fall for the image of ‘Joyce the artist’, rather than read the lesson according to Joyce, squinting at his country with the tolerance of one who knows how to hate it and why he cannot. Joyce’s act of acquiring speech has made it possible for others, not necessarily novelists, to follow, shuffling in often deeper shadows but certain that, in this blind-man’s-bluff called the ‘imagination’, there is someone up there at the front who can lead the way:

Stephen, disheartened suddenly by the dean’s firm, dry tone, was silent, and through the silence was a distant noise of many boots and confused voices came up the staircase.

 —In pursuing these speculations, said the Dean conclusively, there is, however, the danger of perishing of inanition.

First you must take your degree. Set that before you as your first aim. Then, little by little, you will see your way. I mean in every sense, your way in life and in thinking. It may be uphill pedalling at first. Take Mr. Moonan. —He was a long time before he got to the top. But he got there. —I may not have his talent, said Stephen quietly. —You never know, said the dean brightly.

Such consolation—Joyce’s not the Dean’s—lasts long and one of the things about A Portrait is that Joyce, irrespective of his theorising, put so much of his own experience into the novel that it is bound to impress upon the young receptive reader the sense of what it is like to want to write and to express life as a writer. Yet, as the famous later passage in the work describes, it is never that simple:

 —This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.

—Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.

 —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?

 —For our freedom, said Davin.

And there we are back to the battlefields and battle cries; that idealism of Davin’s which calls so little into question, other than deeds of sacrifice and blind hope, is the faith of fathers Stephen rhetorically disarms with, ‘Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made?’ The past is confronted with the present, the whole scaffolded meaning of history topples down around that belligerent question of subjectivity, of what really matters to the individual rather than what one is expected or presumed to revere. Skipping generations, we find, in Neil Jordan’s fine story, ‘A Love’, the kind of image Joyce inspired: Neil, the narrator of the story, focuses on the funeral in Dublin of Eamon de Valera that is taking place as he meets an older woman with whom he has had an affair:

We walked outside then and the brass music became a deafening thud. We walked slowly down the street, we couldn't talk, the music was so loud. I bought a newspaper at the corner of Abbey Street and saw a headline about the funeral that was crawling along behind us. We passed a TV sales shop where a crowd of people were staring at a white screen, staring at the death being celebrated behind them.

The image of time telescoped and history estranged by the media conveys the irrelevance of the parade itself to the young man’s search for a meaning that is not dictated to but found (or lost) by the individual. ‘I shall express myself as I am,’ says Stephen. In acquiring this confidence, I think we need to look at James Joyce and acknowledge that it was he, more than any other Irish writer, who gave substance to the expression and articulated some of the ways of being what we are without deference to another country or seeking pious confirmation in our own.


Gerald Dawe’s latest poetry collection, Mickey Finn’s Air was published by The Gallery Press in 2014. He has also recently published Of War and War’s Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing with Cork University Press (2015). He teaches at Trinity College Dublin.