Much like Eastern Europeans, the Irish seem to have an uneasy relationship with “the continent” Europe. Yes they are economically and geographically part of Europe but they always seem to be outsiders looking in. The Irish, like the Russians and the Hungarians do not have the perceived cultural heritage of, say, the Italians or Greeks with all their glorious Ancient History. That’s not to say Ireland and other nations do not have a vibrant history, but when we think of “refined Europe” we immediately think of England, or the French, or the Spanish Empire, or the German kings and their castles.
And so when reading Joyce I always get the feeling he is doing everything he can to make the case for Ireland and the Irish people to be noticed, to be taken seriously, to include the Irish as equals among states who have looked down on them for centuries. Joyce shows us a people just as deep in thought and sensitivity as any other people, but who are also afflicted by the oppression of the Church, of England, of their own poverty and shortcomings. Joyce shows us the art of his people to be just as rich as that of an English gentleman or tragic Greek hero.
This, I believe, is the aim of any artist: to be noticed. Not in necessarily for selfish vanity (though that often happens), but to force other people to take notice of what the artist is trying to teach us. Here Joyce is trying to teach us – show us – the lives of regular Irish people with all their hopes, fears, failings, humor, love, vice, and beauty. And Joyce isn’t trying to make the Irish to be better than any other people but he is trying to say “We are people, too”.
I suppose it might seem odd to think the Irish would need a cultural champion when there are peoples in other places in the world who have been prosecuted and murdered for millennium, but from another perspective that belittling attitude is eternally frustrating, it’s like being invited to the ball every year, but you’re made to sit at the kids table and wear a bib. Yes you’re “included” but its patronizing and belittling.
This is the power of any great art, to force us to empathize with someone we never would have otherwise even thought about. And this was Joyce’s gift to art in his ability to take us into the mind of so many different people in an absolutely realistic way. All his characters feel as if they could step right off the page and take up residence in our own lives and so we are forced to deal with these people. We might not like all of them, or even understand all of them, but we at least now know them and if we do a bit of work on our side and try to look at the world through their eyes then we might learn something and be just a little less selfish and self-centered.