The impact of the past: from ancient times to the eighteenth century


Dubliners contains many references to the history of Ireland and to its political situation, past and present.  The historical and political issues that run through the stories often determine both their structure and tone and the ways in which the characters are presented. Furthermore, the characters’ reactions to Ireland’s past and to contemporary politics contribute to the themes of the book.

Ireland and the English problem

Much of the history of Ireland concerns its troubled relationship with England.  From the twelfth century onwards, Ireland suffered invasion, repression, settlement, plantation and colonisation from the powerful state across the Irish Sea, and in various ways throughout these years the Irish people struggled to maintain their integrity as a nation and to win independence and the right to self-government.

More on Early Irish history, 400 – 1485?

More on Ireland under the Tudors and Stuarts?

The impact of Irish history on Dubliners

What do distant historical events have to do with Dubliners? There are several ways of answering this question.

The Irish people have a long historical memory. They are very conscious of the period before the arrival of Christianity, when the Celtic chiefs ruled independently without interference from invaders. It is from this period that the great Irish myths and legends developed, which became the focus of the Irish literary and cultural revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

  • In Dubliners, we see this influence on Katherine Kearney in A Mother and Miss Ivors in The Dead.

The Irish are justly proud of the cultural achievements of the fifth to ninth centuries, when their monasteries exerted an powerful influence throughout Europe. However, Ireland’s geographical situation as an offshore island of mainland Britain has meant that, from the twelfth century onwards, the English have seen it as a natural addition to their territory and power. With each invasion, from Henry II in 1171 to William III over six hundred years later, the native Irish have been dispossessed of land and political control, whilst successive ‘plantations’, from the sixteenth century onwards, have been attempts to anglicise Ireland and erase its native culture. 

  • In Dubliners, Joyce aimed to celebrate the rich reality of Irish life.

As time went on, Irish political identity became increasingly embroiled with their religious identity – the conflict between the predominantly Catholic South and the increasingly Protestant North (Ulster). 

  • This distinction is to be found at every level in Dubliners. For example, anti-English feeling is seen in Ivy Day in the Committee Room and The Dead, and although the immediate reasons for these views are related to recent events, their roots lie deep in Irish history.
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