When the narrator is out shopping with his aunt in his Dublin community, he notices “drunken men and bargaining women,” workers cursing at each other, butchers shouting out to potential customers, and people singing songs about Irish independence. Rather than find comfort in the bustling streets, he instead thinks of his crush (Mangan’s sister) and pictures himself rescuing her from the scene, alluding to Catholic imagery in the process:
These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.
Comparing Mangan’s sister to a chalice, the narrator alludes to the Holy Grail, a reference that makes sense given his position in an Irish Catholic community. In Catholicism, the Holy Grail is the cup that Jesus drank out of at the Last Supper and its symbolic power led to the Catholic Church’s use of similar-shaped chalices in their church services.
This allusion implies that the narrator’s religious devotion has shifted, through the force of his infatuation, toward Mangan’s sister and away from God. Further, in viewing the Dubliners around him on the streets as “foes,” he separates himself even more from his community, implying that he seeks to escape from the everyday drudgery of his working-class Irish Catholic life.
As the narrator walks through the streets of Dublin, helping his aunt with her shopping, he notices all the different types of people on the streets around them. The crowd includes a group singing songs about O’Donovan Rossa, an allusion to the Irish nationalist movement:
We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land.
The members of the Irish nationalist movement used songs (or "come-all-yous") as a way to spread their message in the streets, pubs, and other public places. This particular song is about Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, a real historical figure who was a leader of the Irish movement for independence from Britain’s colonial rule in the mid-1800s. By the time that James Joyce wrote this story (1904–1906), O’Donovan Rossa had become a symbol for the movement as a whole. It is important to note that, while lauded for his efforts, O’Donovan Rossa was not successful at overthrowing the British government from Ireland. In fact, he lived out his final years in the United States after being exiled from Ireland, becoming a martyr in the process.
While O’Donovan Rossa was an inspiring figure to some, he clearly does not hold much power over the narrator of “Araby,” whose daily life is still impacted by Britain’s control over Ireland—his aunt and uncle are in debt, for example, likely due to Ireland’s struggling economy. The narrator does not sing along with the “ballad about the troubles in our native land” and refers to the singing as “nasal,” suggesting his lack of alignment with (or belief in) these efforts for change. The narrator’s lack of interest in these protest songs—combined with his obsession with the exotic Araby marketplace—suggests he is more interested in finding ways to escape Ireland than in fighting for its freedom.