The Utilization of Catholicism for an Irish National Identity in James Joyce’s “Grace”

Unity Through Faith

Essay, 2013

7 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


Influence of Catholicism in Irish Social Life

Analysis – Papal Infallibility




James Joyce’s short story “Grace”, published amongst a collection of various other socio-critical stories about the life in Dublin, offers a subliminal insight into the influential role of the Catholic Church in Irish communities of the late 19th and early 20th century. At first glance, “Grace” could simply be labelled as a mocking satire of disingenuous Irish believers using Catholicism merely for the purpose of social integrity.

A further look although unfolds a deeper lying, much more sophisticated layer of criticism addressing the impact of the Church as a surrogate authority justifying nationalist movements in the Irish society. The Irish, in strong need of a common identity that was clearly distinguishable from alien forces, left a vacuum for clergymen to fill and thus exchanged Irish Gaelic traditions with Catholic faith and its dogmas. Nationalists utilized this new established bond to unify the Irish for political purposes, hence drew a psychological demarcation line between Ireland and the British invaders.[1] Interpreting certain parts of “Grace”, it is arguable that Joyce could have held the Church’s worldly ambitions responsible for the political stasis of the Irish. The aim of this paper is to find out whether this theory can be validated or not. Whilst referring to historical evidence given, two passages of “Grace” will be examined to investigate how and why Joyce displayed features of Catholicism in the daily routine of the Irish.

Influence of Catholicism in Irish Social Life

The partition of Ireland into different politically autonomous constituencies engendered the possibility for the Catholic clergy to influence especially rural areas on a local level. (Miller 45) The Church was “[…] touching all the essential aspects of life – birth, marriage, sickness, death: the moments that provide purpose and meaning in the existence of both humble and famous people.” (McCafferey 528) Ecclesiastical representatives, respected because of their exceptional position, often outweighed layman’s votes in important decisions such as elections of delegates. (Miller 45) Miller notes that “In many districts it would be rare for a layman to challenge openly the spiritual leadership of the parish in such a situation”. (45) This superiority was mainly the result of a successful indoctrination due to the Church’s “control of schools” (McCafferey 49) which was successfully able to shape the minds of their followers.

Joyce reveals the quite conservative religious education in so called “penny-a-week schools” (Joyce 167) when the conversation between the men approaches the topic of Pope Leo XIII who was known for a more liberal access to worldly matters. Mr Cunningham refers to the poem Pope Leo had written “on the invention of the photograph – in Latin, of course.” (Joyce 167) Mr Power further adds: “We didn’t learn that, Tom […] when we went to the penny-a-week-school.” (Joyce 167) Catholic schools had greatly benefited from public funds, evidently more than non-Catholic schools.

“As a consequence of the funding thus made available the number of Catholics receiving intermediate education increased from 12,064 in 1881 to 31,742 in 1911. During the same period there was an overall decline in the number of non-Catholics receiving this type of instruction from 12,629 to 11,395.” (Titley 8)

Mr Power’s statement implies Joyce’s criticism about the narrow and backward type of education Catholic children had received in schools but is immediately suppressed by Mr Kernan’s support of the “old system”. “The old system was the best: plain honest education. None of your modern trumpery.” (Joyce 167) Joyce might be insinuating here that there was in fact an Irish desire for liberal progress which was constantly oppressed by the Catholic establishment, hence thoroughly condemned cultural, intellectual and finally also political progress to stagnation. Those in fear of social disapproval rather obeyed the clergy and its supporters than being excluded from their community, ultimately causing an uncritical attitude towards priests. Mr Kernan, as a former Protestant, agreeing to attend the retreat strongly indicates the social pressure non-Catholic Irish were exposed to. Catholicism was apparently taken granted as a requirement of Irish communal life.

Consequently, this submissively obedient behavior of the Irish was soon to be taken advantage of by nationalist politicians. Not just recognized but also actively supported by priests and bishops the Irish parliamentary party ran for office. The Archbishop Walsh of Dublin even donated 50 £ to its cause. (Titley 11). While the Church was trying to secure its position within the Irish people, members of the nationalist movement fought for Irish independence. (Titley 11)

Joyce emphasizes that the Church successfully attempted to preserve the status quo in education, additionally being able to quash any reforms proposed to the clergy because of a highly beneficial allegiance to nationalist politicians.

“Consequently, when the church was faced with the prospect of educational reforms which it deemed undesirable, it had two great weapons at its disposal: the alliance with the parliamentary party and the ability to influence public opinion at the parish level.” (Titley 11)

Nationalists such as supporters of Sinn Féin[2] took this opportunity to recruit Catholics for their purposes opposing Protestants, who were seen equal with despised English despots. Referring to Joyce’s view on the openly expressed disdain towards Irish Protestants, O’ Connor argues that “such a congruence would be anathema to Joyce who declaimed against the foolishness of denying Irishness to anyone who might be “the descendent of a Cromwellian settler (that is, Protestant) […]” (32)

Mr Kernan’s declining career and his alcohol problem could be representative for the Irish being stuck in dogmatic habits. Although one could argue that the Irish stereotype of an excessive drinking culture is a significant element of this stagnation, the Roman Catholic approach to this problem, a campaign promoting abstinence, still remained moderately fruitful. Perhaps also because the “pledge can be renewed at any time, especially as a part of New Year’s resolutions, as Freddy Malin’s mother urges him to do in the “The Dead“.” (O’Connor 30) Mr Power, trying to pull his friend out of the vicious circle of addiction, appears to be the hope for a changing attitude of the Irish towards their denominational leaders. The collective attendance of the retreat at the end hosted by a priest of the perhaps most liberal groups of Christians, the Jesuits, may reveal an existing chance for the Irish people to end the stasis of their nation by abandoning intellectually paralyzing and old fashioned Catholic dogmas and approach new paths, following the example of the priest who addresses his audience of businessmen in a palpable way to bring about a profound change in their minds.

Analysis – Papal Infallibility

Investigating the matter of an Irish identity and its connection to Catholicism, the conversation between the men about the infallibility of Popes offers the most intriguing passage in “Grace”. In essence, the discussion revolves around the first Vatican council that was to define the matter of papal infallibility in an absolute doctrine. In a convention of 435 Bishops only two voted against the proposed decree. Interestingly, Mr Cunningham claims John McHale to be one of the central figures in voting against papal infallibility besides another unspecified father. As a matter of fact, McHale had not attended the last ballot (even though he had come to the council), hence technically did not cast a relevant vote. (Keenan 107)

This incidence raises the question why Joyce included this discussion and what the men’s emphasis on the resistance of McHale against the doctrine could stand for. To examine this particular matter it is essential to recognize that John McHale pursued nationalist causes for an Irish independence under legislation of a Catholic moral code before his appointment as the Archbishop of Tuam. (Keenan 43) His futile struggle against the papal doctrine depicts that Joyce could have found the Irish identity only being blended in with Catholicism to amplify an unruly attitude towards the superiority of the English Empire because MacHale insisted on his position despite adverse circumstances. “Irish Catholicism can be understood as a constitutive part of the country’s rebellious identity.” (O’Connor 35)

Nevertheless, he publicly accepted the doctrine after returning to his diocese when it had been defined eventually. MrCunningham saying that MacHale confidently accepted the dogma by shouting “Credo” out loud is most likely not true either. Here, Joyce portrays the unshakable faith that was superior to any convictions the Irish might have had. With further reference to Ireland, this reluctant concession of Bishop MacHale represents the harshly disillusioning reality the Irish had to face which enforced obedience upon them whenever their nation had the opportunity to progress.

The Pope being claimed as infallible symbolizes the divine legitimation of an authoritarian hierarchy which basically prevented anyone to question ideas or decisions of the Church. When writing this passage of “Grace”, Joyce could have had in mind that Catholicism, through the meek compliance of its disciples, just paved the way for nationalist leaders to remain relatively untouched by criticism.


The involvement of Catholicism in politics made Ireland de facto a theocracy which “frequently prevented Irish nationalism from achieving the cosmopolitanism defined by its founders and claimed by its spokesmen” (McCafferey 531). Joyce, who immigrated to Italy, had seen the failure of Ireland to position itself in a modern Europe and displayed this situation in ”Grace”.

Mr Kernan, representative for Ireland, finds himself being a puppet of outside influences, predominantly alcohol and social pressure, not able to take action of his own but constantly receiving a somewhat forced assistance instead. In parallel, Ireland of the early 20th century seemed to be in full control of a Catholic Church that neglects the chance to turn Ireland into a sophisticated and intellectually independent nation. In order to preserve their positions, the clergy’s aim was merely to maintain the contemporary conditions. The definition of papal infallibility offers the best example for this: Even though the infallibility of the pope ex cathedra was a commonly accepted, unwritten rule within clergy, the Vatican council decided to codify it in dogma.

However, Joyce does not seem fully untouched by his former Catholic education in a Jesuit school. Father Purdon, holding the sermon at the retreat, is in fact a Jesuit and might represent a positive aspect of Joyce’s strangely ambivalent relationship to the Catholic Church.

“Joyce’s attitudes towards the Catholic Church were complex: appreciation and loyalty paradoxically coexisting with devastating critique and passionate rejection.” (O’Connor 36)

Father Purdon’s quite unconventional approach to spread Catholic faith stands contradictory to ordinary Christian services. It pursues Joyce’s idea that more liberal streams of Catholicism were existent but not fully embraced by the majority of the Irish. Hence, conservative movements of the Catholic Church were in charge that “made it difficult for nationalism to develop social and economic ideas and programs essential to the needs of modern society, it has also limited the response of the church to the challenges of the contemporary world.” (McCafferey 533)

Claiming that Ireland “has served only one master well, the Roman Catholic Church” (Joyce, “Home Rule Comet” 155), Joyce condemns the total submission Irish people were compelled to in the effort of establishing a unifying identity. Mr Kernan's situation in where he finds himself being the object of a conversion to Catholicism might be inspired by this position.

The end of “Grace” is left to the imagination of the reader. It is not clear whether the sermon has permanently affected Mr Kernan to change his life, although, in correspondence to other short stories of “Dubliners”, it is highly doubtful. But one aspect remains dead certain: The only way to help Mr Kernan escape perpetual stagnation is through unconventional, liberal ideas and methods as they are offered by the Jesuits. Equally, only a secularly administered or at least religiously independent Ireland is able to prosper culturally and intellectually.

“Changes in theological opinion, interpretations of the moral law and liturgy go down much better in Catholic communities where religious and ethnic identities are divorced or vague.” (McCafferey 533)


[1] See Whyte p. 48 “Historical Fusion of Catholicism and Irish Nationalism“

[2] Irish nationalist movement, presently existent. See: “Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years (History of Ireland & the Irish Diaspora)”

Excerpt out of 7 pages


The Utilization of Catholicism for an Irish National Identity in James Joyce’s “Grace”
Unity Through Faith
University of Trier
James Joyce: Dubliners
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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James Joyce, Catholicism, Dubliners, National Identity, Ireland, short story
Quote paper
Parwez Paryani (Author), 2013, The Utilization of Catholicism for an Irish National Identity in James Joyce’s “Grace”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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