While Dublin, Ireland, has seen change since the turn of the twentieth century, when Joyce wrote “Araby,” many of the conditions present then remain today. In 1904, all of Ireland was under British control, which the Irish resented bitterly. The nationalist group, Sinn Fein (part of which later became the Irish Republican Army—the IRA), had not yet formed, but Irish politics were nonetheless vibrant and controversial. The question of Irish independence from Britain was one of primary importance to every citizen.
Ireland’s major religion, Roman Catholicism, dominated Irish culture. Many families sent their children to schools run by Jesuit priests (like the one the narrator in “Araby” attends) and convent schools run by nuns (like the one Mangan’s sister attends). Folklore, fairy tales, and homespun stories—told and retold for generations—provided a common form of family entertainment. Many turn-of-the-century stereotypes about the Irish came from their cultural traditions. Some common ones included large families, drunkenness, poverty, and imaginative storytelling.
The large families seen in Ireland at the turn of the century stemmed largely from the Catholic religion. Divorce went against church doctrine, and abortion and birth control were considered mortal sins. It was also a mortal sin for husbands and wives to refuse to engage in sexual relations to prevent having more children. As a consequence, it was not unusual for Irish Catholic families at the turn of the century to be quite large. While the modern Catholic church does not exercise quite as much influence, these issues still figure strongly in Irish culture today.
There were no televisions or radios for entertainment at the turn of the century. Many homes had no electricity and were heated only by a central fireplace. Therefore, the custom of storytelling after dinner (or “tea”) was one common form of entertainment. In light of these living conditions, it is clear why an event like the bazaar in “Araby” could cause such great expectations.
The stereotype of the drunken Irishman arose partly in response to the poverty experienced by the majority of people in Ireland after the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. Beer was cheap and often more sanitary than the water. The Irish were also famous for their whiskey, which many still claim to be the finest in the world. The local public house— or pub—was the central gathering place of the village, and also served as a small hotel for weary travelers. People were certain to find warm hospitality, good beer and mutton stew, and good stories around the hearth to lift their spirits there. In the evening, the men would gather at the pub to drink, talk of politics or sports, and hear music. Unfortunately, this led to many men wasting their families’s meager resources, thereby reinforcing the stereotype of the drunk, irresponsible Irishman. The narrator’s uncle in “Araby,” who keeps the narrator and the pawnbroker’s widow waiting before coming home drunk, fits this mold.
In larger cities like Dublin and Belfast, many Irish cultural stereotypes have disappeared as Ireland has become modernized. In many parts of Ireland, though, poverty still exists and the pub is still the town’s social center.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, James Joyce, Published by Gale, 1997.