Which Ireland?

Mark O’Connell writes this in a piece on James Joyce’s proposed reinterment in Dublin:

Joyce could neither live nor work in the Ireland of his time – a suffocating theocracy that foreclosed every possibility of freedom: intellectual, sexual and existential. “Do you know what Ireland is?” as Stephen Dedalus puts it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”

Joyce left Ireland in 1904 (his last visit home was in 1912) and died in 1941. It’s hardly possible to speak of a single, monolithic “Ireland of his time” without at least specifying which of that time was truly his. The Ireland of the young Stephen Dedalus might well have been that cannibalous old sow but it can’t have been a theocracy. The Free State, Ireland-Éire, and the Irish Republic, sure. British-ruled Ireland? Come on.

On the other hand, did all those power-hungry clerics and clericalists really pop up fully formed, in the manner of Flann O’Brien’s characters, from the mists of the Twenties? Once the young artist’s antagonists, they would become the building blocks, the nuts and bolts of what was still, in 1904, a theocracy in the waiting.

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