Priests are important figures in Dubliners as they are representative of the Catholic Church, a vitally important part of life in the city of Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century, when these stories were written. Joyce thought that the Catholic Church had altogether too much power over the lives of ordinary Irish people, was too conservative in outlook and helped to keep the people in a kind of mental subjection.
Not every story in this collection features a priest, but the influence of institutionalized religion looms large over the stories as a whole, forming an inextricable part of life in this city which generally appears rather bleak and restricted. Joyce had broken with the church himself, and his distaste for the institution comes across in his writings. When priests do feature in these stories, they do not appear in a very flattering light. The most notable case is that of Father Flynn in the particularly sombre opening piece, ‘The Sisters’, who appears to have some sort of mental breakdown before dying of a stroke. The story is related by an uncomprehending young boy who was friendly with him but can’t understand what went wrong with him. His trouble is never really disclosed, but he appears as a miserable, pathetic figure, and one clearly left unfulfilled in his religious calling.
Other priests that appear in Dubliners include Father Keon in ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ who cuts a rather sorry figure, like ‘a poor clergyman or a poor actor’ and also appears less than successful in his religious role, as he seems to be in some kind of trouble with the Church authorities. Then there is Father Purdon in ‘Grace’, who appears to be of a materialistic rather than a spiritualist bent, as he holds a retreat for businessmen. (The name Purdon, incidentally, smacks of fleshly corruption, Purdon Street being part of Dublin’s notorious red-light district around this time.) Also, in 'Araby', there is mention of a dead priest who was a tenant in the house of the narrator, and who is associated with the sense of sterility and decay that hangs around the place:
The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers.
To conclude, the figure of the priest is important in these stories as it contributes to the overall sense of the oppression of the city. Dublin appears as a rather stifling environment, with many of its inhabitants longing for escape in one form or another; and the priests appear rather ineffectual to help, unable to provide spiritual sustenance to others or even to themselves.
In his work Dubliners, James Joyce employs details in such a way that they transcend mere description and rise to the level of symbolism. The priests and nuns of the stories in this volume, therefore, come to represent the spiritual paralysis of the Irish as well as the stultification of opportunity. For, in some cases, with the unopposed authority of the Church and its position in society these representatives of the Catholic Church turn people into victims. For one thing, secular women could not hold the better jobs of nurses and teachers as these went to those women in the religious orders. Men, too, were offered more social respectability in the priesthood since the taking of holy orders symbolized an upward move in society. But, the Irish citizens had little hope of upward social movement. In "Eveline," for example, Eveline holds a position as a mere clerk, scolded constantly by Miss Gavan. Morever, she is haunted by the "familiar objects from which she has not dreamed of being divided: "a yellowing photograph" of the priest whose name she has never learned that hangs above
...the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque.
These religious pictures, that should bring comfort, instead are disturbing, with the yellowing photograph and the picture of Mary which should inspire domestic tranquility both perverted in their significance as yellow is always symbolic of corruption--perhaps, why the priest's name is never told to Eveline--and the picture of tranquility perverted by the abuse of Eveline's father.
The symbolic meaning of the priest as representative of the failure of the Catholic Church to inspire faith and protect and inspire its followers runs throughout the stories of The Dubliners as previously mentioned. Significantly, the opening story, "The Sisters" presents priests as "sinful being[s]" rather than spiritual leaders. Father Flynn's unknown sins that prohibit him from taking Communion, although he desires this sacrament as his lips are "so moist with spittle" along with the lurid way his tongue rests upon his lips is an image that perverts the image of the recipient of Holy Communion, and especially the priest who consecrates the hosts. Like Peter, Father Flynn nods his head "twice or thrice." Further, as the narrator remembers his catechism with the priest, who put him through "the responses of the Mass," there is a palpable tension in Father Flynn's dual nature as instructor of the faith and a fleshy and perverse-appearing figure. Indeed, the Catholic Church and its representatives, especially the priests, fail to provide the spiritual guidance needed by the Irish; rather, they confuse, disappoint, and restrict the action of the people, causing their spiritual paralysis.