Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948
Mrs. Kearney: overbearing mother and socially ambitious member of Dublin middle class
Mr. Kearney: her quiet, ineffectual husband
Kathleen Kearney: her teenage daughter
Mr. Holohan: assistant secretary to the Eire Abu Society
Mr. Fitzpatrick: secretary to the Eire Abu Society
Mrs. Kearney, a socially ambitious middle-class mother, arranges for her daughter Kathleen to play the piano at a fairly prestigious Celtic revival festival in Dublin. In order for the several performances to turn out splendidly, Mrs. Kearney spends extra money on the daughter’s clothes, arranges the program, and orders several tickets for acquaintances. The arranger of the festival and assistant secretary to the society, Mr. Holohan, is so hapless in this planning stage that he accepts Mrs. Kearney’s help gladly.
When the first two concerts arrive, Mrs. Kearney nervously observes that the house is nearly empty and the program poorly run. When told that the third and penultimate concert will be cancelled to guarantee a fuller house on the last night, Mrs. Kearney underscores to the society’s secretary, Mr. Fitzpatrick, that this should not alter her daughter’s contracted fee. Fitzpatrick is non-committal.
On the evening of the final night, Mrs. Kearney once again attempts to confirm that Kathleen will receive her promised sum. When Fitzpatrick pays her four shillings short and doesn’t discuss the remainder, Mrs. Kearney informs him that Kathleen will not play—even though the program has already commenced and the performers need an accompanist. Furious that her daughter’s contract is of so little importance, Mrs. Kearney stubbornly insists, refusing to compromise, although such behavior attributed to the girl could ruin her future in Dublin music circles. Ultimately, Fitzpatrick, Holohan and Mrs. Kearney part, both sides furious with the other, and Kathleen having had no say in her own participation in the event.
The surface incidents in “A Mother” portray Mrs. Kearney as an overbearing stage mother, and, to a degree, she certainly is. However, like the previous story, “A Mother” has political meaning which transcends this plot.
Because her daughter’s name is Kathleen (the traditional name and personification of Ireland), Mrs. Kearney “takes advantage of her daughter’s name” and involves her in the Gaelic revival movement popular among the Dublin middle class at the time. According to the author, this consists merely of learning Gaelic phrases and sending “Irish picture postcards” back and forth to friends; neither Kathleen nor her mother is genuinely politicized. Thus, Mrs. Kearney sees the invitation from the Eire Abu society (a patriotic society whose Gaelic name means “Ireland to victory!”) as the perfect opportunity to showcase Kathleen’s talents and culture. That the society hopes to generate support for and interest in native Irish culture doesn’t seem significant to Mrs. Kearney, but she throws herself into its planning to guarantee a good audience for her daughter’s debut. Taking over almost completely for Mr. Holohan, Mrs. Kearney arranges the program, buys tickets in advance, and provides for Kathleen’s expensive gown.
Therefore, it stuns her to see the near-empty house on the festival’s first night, a clear indicator of Dublin’s lack of interest in things Gaelic. Further, Mrs. Kearney feels a growing frustration with Messrs. Fitzpatrick and Holohan (the secretary and assistant secretary of the society) who laconically accept the poor planning, bad attendance, and mediocre artistic performances.
Mrs. Kearney’s annoyance and the men’s inertia exemplify Joyce’s impression of the Irish political movement: troubled from within by divergent goals and personalities, thwarted from success by inept management. Although there’s obviously a problem in the concert’s planning, only Mrs. Kearney notices it; the others are too involved in the importance of their own roles to focus on the larger good. Additionally, Mrs. Kearney is not a director although she at times behaves like one; as a woman, she has no power to command attention or run the operation. Ironically, her husband, by virtue of his “abstract value as a man” could exercise some authority but is too weak and passive to do so. As a result, the concert, like the Irish political movement itself, is a chaotic mess.
When the society secretaries intimate that Kathleen Kearney’s contract won’t be honored in full, Mrs. Kearney justifiably feels her efforts taken for granted and her daughter exploited. The society, however, fails to grasp the injustice, simply seeing it as a result of the concert’s poor attendance. This also symbolizes Ireland’s dilemma, as the failure of the cause punishes members who have expended a great deal in return for its failure. “We did our best,” shrugs a woman backstage, but this doesn’t comfort Mrs. Kearney who feels bitter about the failure and subsequent deception.
Stubbornly, she insists upon the contract, even when the management offers a lukewarm compromise. Other performers choose sides between the two groups, and the scene backstage resembles a battlefield—or a boxing match—with each warring faction and its supporters in a separate corner.
Due to the conflict, a character remarks, “Kathleen Kearney’s musical career was ended in Dublin.” As an additional affront, Miss Healy, a great friend of Kathleen, agrees to substitute for her, effectively wiping Kathleen’s musical future away. Mrs. Kearney takes no heed of the controversy’s deleterious effects on Kathleen or her future. The society, itself dedicated to Ireland’s victory, feels no unease about swindling a young member. Because of the warring from within, Gaelic culture isn’t celebrated successfully and the union breaks down completely. This poorly managed and bitter experience, Joyce implies, is the future of Irish nationalism, washed up by mutual stubbornness, pettiness, and self-absorption.
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