Ireland is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island in the world. The island is divided into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a part of Great Britain. For much of its history, its fate has been closely connected to that of neighbouring Britain. England invaded and conquered her neighbour repeatedly, bringing about religious and political conflicts that still cause problems today.
The main religion in Ireland is Roman Catholicism, a faith which has had a great impact on the culture and history of the island. The invading English introduced Protestantism to Ireland. This, combined with other factors, eventually led to the partition of Northern Ireland and caused a bloody political division between Protestants and Catholics.
At the turn of the century, when Joyce sets his novel, Ireland was wholly under British rule. This was not to change until the Easter Rising of 1916 (the year of the novel's publication), which sparked off a war that led to the Republic of Ireland's independence.
In the 1840s, Ireland suffered a terrible famine, caused by bad weather and a potato mould accidentally imported from America. One million people died, out of a population of 8 million, and more than a million emigrated, largely to the United States. Ireland has never recovered to pre-famine population levels: today's population is around six million (4.2 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.8 in Northern Ireland).
Clongowes Wood College is located in and around Clongowes Castle. It can trace its history back to the 15th century, when it was founded by Jesuits. As well as James Joyce, the school boasts Ryanair founder Michael O'Leary among its alumni.
Cork is the Republic of Ireland's second largest city. It is a major seaport and a thriving cultural centre, with theatres, galleries and schools of music and art.
County Cork is known as the "Rebel County" for its role in the English Wars of the Roses.
The Irish capital appears towards the end of the novel, during the period of Stephen's Belvedere studies. It is the Dublin of Joyce's youth, which places the book somewhere around the year 1900. Horse-drawn trams still operated, and Ireland was not yet independent of Great Britain.
Dublin is also the setting of Joyce's Ulysses.