It sometimes seems that the fissures of Irish history are inscribed directly into Irish modernism’s contorted literary forms. In the 19th century, the English developed a rich realist literature that drew together individual and social significance in its scenes and characters. In Ireland, during the same period, we have the wild and gloomy Gothic tales of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas. Hard on their heels were modernists like Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien employing fragmentation, montage and stream-of-consciousness.
Joyce was not a detached cosmopolitan but part of an emergent generation of university-educated Catholics with a stake in debates around nationalist Ireland. This generation also included his friend Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist and suffragist, later murdered by a British officer in the Easter Uprising of 1916. For all his rejection of narrow-minded nationalism, Joyce engaged the discussion about what cultural, political and economic forms Irish autonomy and self-determination should take.
Joyce gives voice to this impulse very strongly at the conclusion of A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus declares:
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated consciousness of my race.
Joyce here seems to share with cultural nationalism a desire to will independence into being via some transformative act of the imagination. The charge within Joyce’s modernism, however, stems from bringing such aesthetic acts into contact with the “reality of experience” found in the modern world.