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University Days: Becoming James Joyce
Professor Anne Fogarty

Education carries a peculiar symbolic weight in the works of James Joyce. Few writers have recreated more faithfully the experience of going to school, the trials of being a child, and the excitement, turmoil and importunate eloquence of student life.  In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we track Stephen Dedalus through his escapades at Clongowes Wood College, Belvedere College and University College Dublin.  His triumphs and humiliations at the schools he attended – being unfairly punished by a teacher and the recriminations and sexual excitement that occur in and around the staging of a school play ‒ are vividly and minutely re-imagined. 

Above all, the merciless conversations between schoolboys and the free-thinking but opinionated conversations between university students are resurrected and become the stuff of art.  Unlike for other twentieth-century modernists such as Marcel Proust or Thomas Mann, for Joyce the significant scenes in a young person’s life happen by and large outside the home while at school and in the presence of his peers.  Family still matters; but it is resolutely entwined with the school, the university and the life of Dublin streets.  In Joyce, the domestic interior and the classroom dissolve, giving way to an improvised set of public spaces in which language and talk reign supreme.

This Joycean emphasis on the educational milieu is no accident.  It mirrors the charged debates about the role of schooling in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish society.  Education was as divisive and electric a topic in this period as Home Rule.  Indeed, the two areas were often linked as educational and political aspirations were held to be two sides of the same coin.  Issues of denominationalism, nationalism and access dominated the discussion of primary and secondary schooling.  Similarly, the ambition to create a national university outside of Trinity College Dublin for the Catholic population of the country got bogged down in debates about the breadth of the curriculum, state funding and the role of religion and political ideology.  

The national schools set up in 1831were originally intended to be multidenominational but quickly became segregated by religion.  The idealistic university set up by John Henry Newman at 86 St Stephen’s Green in 1854 failed to deliver the student numbers expected due to lack of state support.  Newman’s liberal Catholic institution was handed over to the management of the Jesuits in 1883 and retitled University College.  The ethos of Newman’s foundation began inevitably to mutate in this new guise as the politics of the Catholic middle classes in Dublin became increasingly nationalist and separatist. 

James Joyce thus enrolled in a relatively young university in September 1898 and one that was still in flux.  It is often presumed that Irish society following the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891 went into a period of stagnation.  Trauma about the disgrace and betrayal of Parnell, however, gave way to lively dissent as competing visions of the country were formulated in numerous different arenas. 

Joyce’s fellow students at UCD were a singular generation but their careers and political ideologies with which they aligned themselves provide an insight into the conflicts and divided allegiances of the era.  They included, amongst many others, Tom Kettle the poet and nationalist politician who joined the Irish Volunteers and was killed in combat at Ginchy in September 1916, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, pacifist and suffragette, who was falsely imprisoned and shot by British forces in the skirmishes attendant on the Easter Rising in April 1916, George Clancy an ardent nationalist who was elected Mayor of Limerick and killed by the Black and Tans in an ambush on his house at Thomondgate in March 1921 and Constantine Curran, the art historian and memoirist, who later became Registrar of the Supreme Court.

Given such associates, it is not surprising that energetic and prolonged debate dominated Joyce’s student days.  It is perhaps more surprising to discover that the writer wholly directed his energies in this direction.  He passed his exams with ease but never took them seriously.  As he endeavoured to shape himself into the artist endowed with what Stephen Hero terms “ineradicable egoism,” English was the subject in which he most loudly protested against the templates into which he was supposed to fit.  Tellingly, his marks in English for his BA examinations in 1902 were lower than in his other subjects, French and Italian, as they had been throughout his university career.

The intimacy and the talkativeness of UCD and of the Dublin cultural scene afforded Joyce the possibility to begin to give birth to himself as a writer.  In A Portrait, he moulds his experiences and presses home his case for the artist who is at once part of the crowd and resolutely individual.  In Stephen Hero, we are told that Stephen skips lectures wholesale because he is “educating himself.”  This process of self-education becomes even more central in A Portrait to the heroic notion of the writer that Joyce puts forward.  Stephen Dedalus debates nationalism and aesthetics in a lively and continuous flow of conversations with his College friends and teachers after and between all those missed classroom sessions.

Joyce also actively involved himself in UCD’s Literary and Historical Society, a debating forum which had been set up by Newman and recently revived after a period in abeyance.  In two of the most famous talks that he gave to that society, “Drama and Life” on 10 January 1900 and “James Clarence Mangan” on 15 February 1902, he propounded his vision of creative freedom and announced his intention to revolutionise Irish art by letting in “fresh air.”  As a student, Joyce already shaped himself as a Dublin writer who is unapologetically European and who sees no contradiction between being Irish and international. 

To this end, he precociously broke out of the Dublin scene to write a review of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken – having taught himself Dano-Norwegian ˗for the Westminster Review in April 1900, putting to good use ideas that he had already tested on his College friends in his L and H talk earlier in the year.  His 1901 essay “The Day of the Rabblement”, which was a broadside against Yeats and the Irish Literary Theatre, however, pitched him into the midst of the energising disputes of Dublin life, as he loftily cast aspersions on the literary revival, denounced Irish audiences as “rabblement” and declared the Irish in general to be the “most belated race in Europe.”

Joyce is frequently seen as having pitted his vision of the solitary creator against the messy local squabbles of revivalism.  The artist Stephen declares in A Portrait “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”  The insouciant stance of this version of the Joycean artist may, however, also be seen not just as strategic disengagement but as a projection of the studied nonchalance of the undergraduate debater and the rebellious student.  Like Joyce in 1904, Stephen may take flight from Dublin at the end of A Portrait but he does so only in order to re-stage the city and above all its litigious, unquiet voices with renewed force in the works that he is always just about to create: “Welcome, O life!  I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Joyce’s several masterpieces, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, tell and unravel many stories.  Their prodigality, linguistic energy and inventiveness relate one central narrative: they plot the course of how to become the writer James Joyce.

Joyce may be the master of supremely poised endings, but he is above all the artist of process and becoming. In 2012, as the texts published during the writer’s life come out of copyright for the first time, the boundless possibilities of Joyce’s works are opened up even more fully to his many audiences in Dublin and all around the world.  Their revolutionary force now more than ever belongs to his readers.


Anne Fogarty is Professor of James Joyce Studies at UCD and President of the International James Joyce Foundation.

University Days: Becoming James Joyce