In addition to drawing heavily on Joyce’s personal life, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man also makes numerous references to the politics and religion of Ireland from around 1880 until 1922 when the Irish War of Independence resulted the formation of the Irish Free State (Ireland except for six mostly Protestant counties in the north). When Joyce was growing up, Ireland had been under British rule since the 16th century, and tensions between Ireland and Britain had been especially high since the potato famine of the 1840s that led to Ireland’s population being decimated by disease and immigration to the United States, Australia, England, and elsewhere. In addition to political strife, there was considerable religious tension: the majority of Irish, including the Joyces, were Catholics, and strongly favored Irish independence. The Protestant minority that was heavily concentrated in the north of the country, on the other hand, mostly wished to remain united with Britain.

Around the time Joyce was born, the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) was spearheading the movement for Irish self-governance as a Member of Parliament in London. Parnell’s popularity with the Irish, both at home and abroad, led him to be proclaimed “the uncrowned king of Ireland.” In 1890, however, Parnell’s longstanding affair with a married woman was exposed, leading the Catholic Church to condemn Parnell (himself a Protestant) and causing many of his former followers to turn against him. Many Irish nationalists blamed Parnell’s subsequent death on the Catholic Church. Indeed, we see these strong opinions about Parnell surface in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man during an emotional Christmas dinner argument among members of the Dedalus family.

By 1900, after many years of Irish Home Rule bills being stalled in the British Parliament, the majority Irish people felt largely united in demanding freedom from British rule. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young Stephen's friends at University College frequently confront him with political questions about this struggle between Ireland and England.