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Julia O'Faolain 1932–
English-born Irish short novelist, short story writer, editor, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of O'Faolain's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 19, and 47.
The daughter of Irish writers Eileen and Sean O'Faolain, Julia O'Faolain has had to carve out her own niche in the literary world. She has developed a unique style with an international scope which has garnered her a reputation as a powerful and intelligent writer. With satirical wit and dark humor, she explores cultural attitudes and themes related to sexuality, male-female relationships, Catholicism, and politics, particularly as these issues concern female characters attempting to establish their identities.
O'Faolain was born on June 6, 1932, in London, England. Her parents were strong advocates of Irish nationalism. They spoke Gaelic in their house and adopted the Gaelic version of their surname. Eileen, a writer of children's stories, kept Julia home from school until the age of eight and used her as an audience for her children's stories. The stories were fantasy-filled tales which led O'Faolain to talk of leprechauns and fairies when she entered school. After being ridiculed for her fanciful imagination, Julia began to look incredulously at anything fantastic in nature, including religion. It was this analytical outlook that O'Faolain later brought to bear in her writing. O'Faolain attended University College in Dublin where she received both a bachelor and a masters degree in the Arts. She also did graduate study at Universita di Roma and the Sorbonne, University of Paris. The fact that she has lived all over the world helps her to set her fiction in various international locales and still evoke a sense of place. O'Faolain married Lauro Martines, a teacher and historian, with whom she edited Not in God's Image (1973).
O'Faolain's collection, We Might See Sights! and Other Stories (1968) has stories set in Ireland and Italy. The stories explore such topics as hypocritical cultural attitudes and young females discovering their sexuality. Many of the pieces in her second collection, Man in the Cellar (1974), examine the power struggles between men and women, including the title story which depicts an English woman who chains her Italian husband in the cellar and attempts to convince him of the inequities in their marriage. The collection Daughters of Passion (1982) contains female protagonists whose identities are shaped by men and characters who adopt political views that suit their immediate purposes. O'Faolain's first novel, Godded and Codded (1971), is a story of sexual awakening. It centers on an Irish graduate student who travels to Paris to free herself from the stifling atmosphere of her family life. Related with bawdy humor, the novel details her sexual adventures and satirizes various character types among expatriates in Paris. In Women in the Wall (1975), O'Faolain builds her fictional tale around a historical figure, but O'Faolain takes artistic license with the details of the story. The novel, set in sixth-century Gaul, is based on Queen Radegunda, a Frankish saint. The main character of the novel, Radegunda, was forced to marry the king who slaughtered her family. She longed to enter a religious life without men and political turmoil. Her husband consented to let her leave and she founded the Convent of the Holy Cross. The story revolves around the reasons Radegunda and two other women have for entering the spiritual life of the convent and the role of women in medieval society. In No Country for Young Men (1980), O'Faolain addresses the issues of Irish nationalism to explicate the destructive, cyclical pattern of her country's history. She follows three generations of a family involved in Ireland's political troubles to develop several themes, including the influence of traditional myths and political tensions on how women are viewed in Ireland and the dubious values sometimes related to patriotism. The Obedient Wife (1982) is set in Los Angeles and centers on an unhappily married woman whose husband encourages her to see other men while he is away on business. O'Faolain explores the conflicts between Catholic values and personal needs through the woman's romantic relationship with a priest. O'Faolain once again switches locales in The Irish Signorina (1984). Set in an Italian villa, the novel concerns a young Irish woman who visits the Cavalcanti family, for whom her mother used to work as an au pair. Her mother, now dead, had never really let go of Italy or the Cavalcanti family. Ann explores her mother's past and develops her own relationship with the family. In this novel, O'Faolain develops a comparison between romanticism and rationalism and explores differing philosophies of life and love. The Judas Cloth (1992) focuses on Rome, the Catholic Church, and Pope Pius IX. It follows the lives of three young men as they struggle with their identities. Also significant in O'Faolain's career is her work on Not in God's Image. She co-edited the book which documents the place of women in Western civilization.
Critics first looked for comparisons between O'Faolain's work and that of her parents. However, she soon garnered a reputation on her own merits and for her own unique talents. J. R. Frakes asserts that "she does not write like her father. And maybe, if [Three Lovers] is a fair harbinger, she'll become the family member whose name is used for identification." Reviewers point out how her international background affects the scope of her work and sets her apart from other Irish writers. Complaints about O'Faolain's fiction include a sense of incompleteness, where story lines are left hanging, and an occasional sense of preachiness. Many reviewers laud her use of satire and the intelligence she brings to her writing. Alan Ross says, "Julia O'Faolain has all the essential gifts—a sense of high comedy, fastidiousness of language and feeling, intellectual control over widely-ranging scraps of knowledge—and she uses them with the lightest of touches." One of O'Faolain's strongest gifts is her ability to expose and bring things to their essential level. Ann Owens Weekes states, "When I first read her work, I was struck by the acid intelligence that strips away layers of tradition, affection, and affection, exposing an often grotesque core." Reviewers often point out the allusive nature of O'Faolain's work, which recalls images from ancient myth and history. Her work is often cited in feminist criticism for its honest portrayal of the role of women in society and women's struggle to define her identity. She is also praised for her deft handling of sensitive political issues, a topic usually considered the territory of male writers.
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We Might See Sights! and Other Stories (short stories) 1968
Godded and Codded (novel) 1971; republished as Three Lovers, 1971
Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians [editor with Lauro Martines] (essays) 1973
Man in the Cellar (short stories) 1974
Women in the Wall (novel) 1975
Melancholy Baby and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
No Country for Young Men (novel) 1980
Daughters of Passion (short stories) 1982
The Obedient Wife (novel) 1982
The Irish Signorina (novel) 1984
The Judas Cloth (novel) 1992
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SOURCE: "Carry on Codding," in London Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 8, November, 1970, pp. 109-10.
[In the following excerpt, Ross praises O'Faolain's Godded and Codded.]
A dotty Irishman, holed up in the jungles of Paris, is one of the chief characters in Julia O'Faolain's first novel Godded and Codded…. [T]his is an immensely stylish and richly allusive performance…. Though not exactly original in its account of the wayward affair between a sexy Irish student from the bogs and a wily, Arab revolutionary, Godded and Codded has so many incidental pleasures that its fairly routine plot about sexual awakening scarcely matters. In a beautifully suggested Paris of cold lodgings, hot passions, trees, restaurants, abortion wards and tutelary roués, among whom the Irish innocents flounder in a haze of romantic longing and booze, enough comes through about living, learning and loving for the odd confusions and self-indulgences to seem irrelevant. Julia O'Faolain has all the essential gifts—a sense of high comedy, fastidiousness of language and of feeling, intellectual control over widely-ranging scraps of knowledge—and she uses them with the lightest of touches.
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SOURCE: "Judas-Hole Vision of Hell," in Book World, June 13, 1971, p. 2.
[In the following review, Frakes lauds O'Faolain's Three Lovers.]
It's reassuring to know that the coming-of-age process still flourishes in Paris—it gives one a sense of continuity and tradition. At twenty-two, Sally Tyndal flies from drowsy Dublin to the seedy banks of the Seine, equipped with a scholarship, a suppurating Catholic conscience, and a determination to lose her Gaelic identity as a "late virgin" and "a mental amorist." And she does indeed lose it—over and over again. Thus the dreary title of this fast, funny, and cruel novel, [Three Lovers]. Lover #1 is Mesli, an Algerian revolutionary, medical student, and male chauvinist, who impregnates Sally, thus setting both the plot and the passions spinning. He also, not so incidentally, considers Camus a sell-out. Lover #3, Raimondo Lupino, "extinct, bizarre, touching and finished," an Italian count and antiquarian, undertakes to complete Sally's education, and the book ends with a tarnished heroine trusting herself to his horny hands. But Lover #2 is the "boyo" you won't forget—Fintan McCann, mad painter from Limerick, fierce and hairy "verbal onanist," lecher, opportunist, and raunchy sentimentalist. "I bite therefore I am," he boasts. Clown and conniver, victim and rebel, provincial and cosmopolite (who refuses to learn French in hopes of protecting himself by incomprehension), McCann is a flaming compound of Leopold Bloom, Gulley Jimson, and Sebastian Dangerfield. Shelves of books should be written about this man, who gives us dozens of reasons to cherish him, my own favorite being his reaction to spring: "I hate the blooming, foaming, egg-laying, seed-sprouting season."
The jauntiness and verve of this book are packed hard with wit, with tingling imagery ("Holy Mother, the sheets are like seaweed": "… a nose like a delft pepper-pot, shiny with blackheads"), and with a worldliness that costs more than sophistication. But all is not glitter and bounce: The abortion scene is as heavy as the ones in End of the Road and Play It As It Lays, and I'll match the harrowing visit to a dying woman in a French convent and Sally's benumbing return to Dublin for Christmas with any other judas-hole visions of hell you choose.
To anticipate your inquiries—yes, Julia O'Faolain is Sean's daughter. No, she does not write like her father. And maybe, if this uncompromising novel is a fair harbinger, she'll become the family member whose name is used for identification.
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SOURCE: "Under Orders," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3813, April 4, 1975, p. 353.
[In the following review, Pulvertaft praises "the clear, tough style" of O'Faolain's Women in the Wall, but complains that the author imposes modern prejudices on the story.]
The Queen Radegund of history, patron saint of prisoners and captives, was born in 518, and as a young girl captured by, and forced to marry, the Frankish king Clotair. She later escaped to God, and founded the monastery of the Holy Cross, where she became famous for her visions, tended the sick, and lived as an ordinary nun, handing the running of the place over to St Agnes.
In Women in the Wall Julia O'Faolain uses the history of Queen Radegund to try to answer fundamental questions about women's role in society, and to discover the reasons behind vocations. In the process, as she admits, she does some violence to history, imagining Radegund to have been involved in a political plot to put an orthodox Christian prince on the throne in order to combat disorder and Arianism. A sub-plot involves Ingunda, the imagined daughter of Agnes by the poet-priest Fortunatus, who, horrified at the discovery of her true parentage, has herself walled-up to expiate her mother's sin. Although this practice is of doubtful historical validity, it here serves well as a symbol for the buried individuality of womankind. Ingunda is accidentally killed as a result of Radegund's involvement in power politics, Agnes turns anchoress, and the monastery is handed over to a cynical woman who will comply with the state's orders to achieve personal ambition.
The story itself works well. It is written in a clear, tough style, and the men and women convince as living people as well as in the sharply contrasting attitudes they represent. Miss O'Faolain, however, judges the past with the prejudices of modern psychology and political theory. She therefore leaves out of account the one explanation for people's actions which was most demonstrably obvious to their fellows: the remarkable change that the Christian faith brought about in some of those who practiced it. In those early days, Christianity was still its true radical self, and its uncomfortable saints were more aware of the guidance of the Holy Spirit than that of Rome. St Cesarius, whose Rule the real Radegund adopted, said:
A man worships that on which his mind is intent during prayer. Whoever in his prayers thinks of public affairs … worships them rather than God.
Miss O'Faolain's characters see the truth in flashes. Ingunda recognizes that God has withdrawn because she has "rubbed out her true self". Agnes knows her real sin is not the paltry one of having slept with Fortunatus, but the large one of failing to have the guts to save herself and her child. However, in her fashionable wish to explain visions as sexuality, vocations as perverted power mania, Miss O'Faolain misses the nub of the matter: that God, through Christ, had challenged women as well as men to be individuals, even if this meant attacking the institutions of society. We might, today, blame Radegund for having accepted the traditional female role in binding up the wounds inflicted by men's violence and ambition: we could hardly accuse her of a desire for personal power.
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SOURCE: A review of Women in the Wall, in America, Vol. 133, No. 5, August 30, 1975, pp. 99-100.
[In the following review, Ferrari lauds O'Faolain's Women in the Wall as "engrossing for its historical detail, its present relevance and its strikingly powerful style."]
Julia O'Faolain's Women in the Wall is an impressive, exciting historical novel. Reading this taut story from beginning to end, the reader is left with a feeling that a fragment of history, the sixth century, the very beginning of the dark ages, has been illuminated brilliantly.
The title refers to a group of women, royal and otherwise, who leave the world to establish one of the few refuges for women in an endangered time. The novel drifts easily and clearly back and forth in time, shaped by the interactions within the convent and the political action outside the convent walls. Three of the convent's 200 women, Radegunda, Agnes and Ingunda, are pivotal in the novel.
The story centers around Radegunda, a mystical, almost saintly ex-queen whose bloody, frightening past is elicited from her by a poet-biographer, Fortunatus. In her pre-convent days, when she was 11, her family was massacred by King Clotair, and seven years later she was forced to marry him. When, after fourteen years of marriage, her husband murdered her brother, she longed for a world of reversed values, a religious life without men and without murder. Her husband granted her request and she founded the convent. Her position as queen in the story leaves her close to the sources of power and political struggle, and her position as an all-but-declared living saint and mystic make her representative of a curiously engrossing brand of Christianity.
Agnes is also very important in the story. Her reasons for entering the convent are at best confused. Radegunda essentially forces Agnes' decision when she tells her that "natural love is cursed by the curse God put on our first parents. Sexual love is linked with death." Agnes' conviction that certain people were happy in the world seemed weak against the queen's reverberating energy. So Agnes enters the convent, and becomes its abbess at Radegunda's will. And it is out of Agnes' conflict between the world's pleasures and the convent's spiritual austerity that her greatest crisis arises and brings to the fore the novel's third important woman. Agnes conceives a child with Fortunatus, the poet-biographer soon to become a priest and eventually a bishop. Though her relationship with this man never flourishes humanly and supportively, Agnes bears their daughter, Ingunda. After initially farming her out to a peasant family to be cared for, Agnes brings the child back to be raised in the convent.
Ingunda is lonely for her peasant family and feels out of place with the high-born daughters in the convent. She becomes an anchoress, burying herself out of guilt and sadness in a space in a brick wall smaller than the shallowest closet, with a slit large enough only to pass food through. She emerges some years later, a starting-eyed, gaunt, almost bodyless creature, when a group of invading barbarians tear down her wall and lance what is left of the creature inside it.
This story, shaped around two decades of convent life in a period previously thought unimportant, and around three central women seeking a life away from men and at the same time attracted to them, is particularly pertinent today because it reverberates subtly but clearly with the struggle of many women now to define the place men should have in their lives.
Women in the Wall is an austere, mind-impacting novel that I have not stopped talking about since I started reading it. It is engrossing for its historical detail, its present relevance and its strikingly powerful style.
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SOURCE: "Diarmuid and Gráinne Again: Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Old Men," in Eire-Ireland, Spring, 1986, pp. 89-102.
[In the following essay, Weekes traces how O'Faolain's No Country for Old Men portrays the relationship between women and the political situation in Ireland.]
Seeking a theoretical model for feminist criticism, Elaine Showalter proposes the Ardener model of intersecting circles representing male and female spheres, a crescent of each sphere free from the intersecting circle. The male crescent, though not experienced by women, is known, because male culture dominates and represents itself. The female or "wild" crescent, the area "spatially, experientially," and "metaphysically" outside the male sphere has been "muted" both in language and power and must, therefore, be examined in an attempt to represent the whole human experience. Showalter asks feminist critics of women's writing to explore this crescent, to reveal the muted plot, the "undercurrent" flowing beneath a text which must participate simultaneously in the dominant culture. As we might expect, the perspective from the "wild" crescent varies from that of the dominant sphere: Carol Gilligan asserts that a different moral perspective is an important result of women's early training in, to use Showalter's term, the "wild" sphere. From studies she conducted on females in different stages of moral development, Gilligan concludes that women tend to base their moral judgments on concern for responsibility, nonviolence, consequence, and context; the model of human moral development, however, sets judgment based on abstract codes of rights or principles as the highest level of human moral development. Based only on the male model of moral development, the model disregards the female process as either deviant or undeveloped. But, Gilligan argues, acceptance rather than exclusion of the female model will result in a more complete, balanced model of human moral development. By and large, however, the female model has not been incorporated: lip-service is paid to the values of caring, but nations and political parties openly pursue only principles. Culture, of which legend and myth are an early and persistent element, seems to authenticate this system of moral dominance. Recognizing the problem, women writers have attempted to develop revisionist versions of ancient myths. As Susan Gubar writes, referring specifically to the Persephone myth, "Writers who are convinced that gender definitions reflect and enforce the terrible recurrence of … myth," must rewrite myth to evade it. But such revision can be more than evasion: In the revaluation of social, political, and economical values that Alicia Ostriker sees as one of the tasks of the revisionists, the "wild" crescent, or the other model of human moral development, with all its restrictions and all its possibilities, can be presented as, if not a substitute model, at least an equally viable one.
Julia O'Faolain is one of several contemporary Irish women writers who are attempting a revision of Irish myths, history, cultural and political attitudes. Apparently telling a tale of the sequence of Irish "Troubles" in No Country for Young Men, O'Faolain uncovers a destructive pattern that, despite its inevitable trail of personal and political disaster, persists through myth and history into the present time. O'Faolain's central character, Gráinne O'Malley, alerts the reader to O'Faolain's myth, when she tells the American film-maker James Duffy that she is named after the central figure in the Diarmuid and Gráinne legend. According to Eóin Neeson's rendering of the legend, Fionn Mac Cumhal, the general of the Fianna warriors in Ireland, decided to assuage his loneliness by marrying Gráinne, the beautiful daughter of King Cormac. But Gráinne, reluctant to marry the aged Fionn because she loved Diarmuid, one of Fionn's young warriors, put geasa, similar to obligations of honor in an Arthurian legend, on Diarmuid, and he was obliged to flee with her. Furious, Fionn sent hosts of the Fianna after the runaway lovers, to battle the forces supporting Diarmuid and Gráinne. Much land was destroyed and many lives lost before Fionn, aided by magic, succeeded in killing Diarmuid. Still desiring Gráinne's favors, Fionn remained away from the Fianna pleading his cause. When, for the sake of her children, Gráinne finally consented to return with Fionn to the Fianna, Oisin, bitter at the destruction, blamed, not Fionn for what he had wrought, but Gráinne.
Order then is restored to the Fianna when Gráinne foregoes her own desires and accepts the principle of conquest. As a woman, Gráinne is related to Ireland. Indeed, a modified version of the sexual paradigm of territorial conquest that Annette Kolodny "unearths" in American "herstory" and literature could also be used to describe Ireland, "Mother Ireland" and "the Old Woman"—hence a less sexual figure than the young America—in much of Gaelic and Anglo-Irish literature. As a source of disorder, Gráinne, in both the myth and O'Faolain's novel, is related to that aspect of the country that resists control. Gráinne O'Malley, however, does not capitulate in order to restore the "order" derived from male principles; in this, O'Faolain's novel proves more optimistic than the controlling myth.
O'Faolain's novel moves between the Civil War in 1922 and the "Troubles" of divided Ireland, in 1979. The central characters are part of a political dynasty—a frequent occurrence in Irish politics, the de Valéra and Cosgrave families are examples—founded by the hero Owen O'Malley in 1922. The 1916 Rebellion is over, but the Irish imagination is still fired by the idealism of those heroes whose execution turned their minority cause into a popular one. O'Faolain's work probes the source of the political conflict in the Republic of Ireland today, a conflict that was born in 1922 when some members of the Irish government repudiated the Treaty signed by their representatives in England. These members and their followers, insisting they were following the principles of the executed heroes, took up arms against the Treaty forces, thus beginning a protracted and deadly civil war. Owen O'Malley was such a man. American money and sympathy had flowed to the revolutionaries following the 1916 executions; such money, coming generally from Americans of Irish descent, was available as long as England was seen as the enemy. Irish Americans, however, might falter at the idea of financially assisting Irishmen to kill Irishmen. Men like O'Faolain's Sparky Driscoll were sent to Ireland from the American aid societies to monitor the situation and to recommend groups for financial support. Winning Sparky over to the antitreaty cause is, therefore, very important to Owen O'Malley. In 1922, after months of fighting, the country exhausted and success remote, the leaders of the antitreaty party agreed to rejoin the government they had abandoned, but some of their followers refused to accept their decision and resorted to guerrilla attacks against both the Republic and the Six Counties. These men, the Irish Republican Army, have been sporadically active since 1922, and, when trouble flared again in the 1960s over reforms in the Six Counties, the IRA received a much-needed transfusion of purpose and men.
Judith Clancy, sister-in-law to the dead Owen O'Malley, links the two periods. Her release from the convent where she has spent more than fifty years into the care of her nephew and niece, Michael and Gráinne O'Malley, triggers the plot. Owen Roe O'Malley, son of Owen, uncle of both Gráinne and Michael, now a member of the present Irish government, worries that "mad" Aunt Judith may reveal something, never specified but perhaps best left hidden, to James Duffy, an American film-maker recording stories of the early troubles. Indeed James's quest is clandestine: His employers desire a propaganda film to increase American financial contributions to the "Banned Aid" society that seeks to undermine both the Six County state and the Republic, and which has been condemned by the government of the Republic. Judith who, we are told, often refers to her memory as a bog, "referring as much to its power of suction as to its unfathomable layers," is thus linked with the sources of disorder who may disrupt the established pattern.
Judith first introduces us to a pattern which should remind the reader of the Gráinne myth. As Gráinne was condemned for the disorder that followed Fionn's pursuit of his desire, so women have been condemned throughout Irish history. Judith thinks back to her history lessons: All Ireland's troubles, the girls were told, were due to the "frail morals" of a woman. It is worth examining the facts from which this principle of Irish history is derived. In the 1100s, when Ireland was torn with internecine struggle, one Diarmuid Mac Murrogh, king of Leinster, carried off Dervorgilla, wife of the Lord of Brefni. Like the mythic Gráinne, Dervorgilla invited the handsome Diarmuid, and although peace was finally declared, a deadly feud ensured between the rival lovers. When fighting broke out again in 1166, Ó Ruairc repaid the trespass, by allying with Mac Murrogh's rebellious chiefs, invading Mac Murrogh's land, and forcing him into exile. Mac Murrogh, accompanied by his beautiful daughter Eva, took refuge in England, where he appealed for Henry II's aid in restoring his kingdom. Eva became the "matrimonial prize" of Strongbow, the soldier who conducted the invasion of Ireland. Thus began the long history of English involvement in Irish affairs. Of Dervorgilla we know no more, but history, as Judith Clancy notes, holds her responsible for Ireland's fate, as if historians like myth-makers believed in woman's magic, irresistible lure. The struggles for land and women are curiously linked and similar in their destructiveness: Fionn devastated the land in order to attain the young Gráinne; O Ruairc seized Mac Murrogh's land because the later had taken his beautiful, presumably young, wife; Mac Murrogh exchanged his young daughter for repossession of his land. Seizure or exchange of land and of women is balanced, suggesting an equality between the two commodities. If we substitute Ireland's symbolic name for the land, we have violent exchanges of old women for young women, and vice versa.
In myth and in history adherence to principle allows men to follow a particular course without consideration of its effect on the community, on women and the common people. Adherence is made easier, is in a measure justified, if women or the people are seen as inferior to the leaders. In 1979 Gráinne O'Malley realizes that most Irish men still think of women as chattel, though this basic notion is disguised in the 20th century by sentimental, romantic, or "realistic" rationalizations. The androcentric pagan religion and Fianna warriors are represented in the 20th century by the equally androcentric Christian religion and the Irish Republican movement. The priests and the warriors define women. Judith remembers the priest, home from World War I, counselling the young girls to go forth as inspirations, lamps held up to light men's ways. Proud of their virtue, the girls fully realize that such virtue can only be preserved by ignorance. "Eve's sin"—desiring knowledge and naming things—must be avoided at all costs. From Virginia Woolf to Simone de Beauvoir, 20th century writers have revealed the limitations and distortions of this vision of woman as man's inspiration, but in 1916, this was the picture that inspired such idealists as Patrick Pearse. In its asexuality, this ideal is linked to the ideal of the land as the "old woman."
Owen Roe, son of a warrior and himself a warrior-in-waiting, sees, not the angel in the house, but the debased earth goddess. Sexual relations to Owen Roe are simply necessary animal functions; the creation of an emotional or intellectual relationship with one's sex partner is, he thinks, an artificial, female, and unnecessary structure. Gráinne asks him why he broke off their brief affair: was she too demanding? the wrong partner? Because he likes "bed," Owen Roe answers, is no reason to think that he spends his time thinking about it. "Bed's simple really," he asserts. Women mess things up by making a "production" about "bed." It is all the nuns' fault, he continues; convent girls end up believing they have "the holy grail" between their legs, "and some knight is going to come and find it." Women and sex are a means to physical pleasure for Owen Roe; he has no objection to their receiving the same from him, but rational discussion of sex and emotions, implying, as it may, a woman's ability to objectivize, and exposing, as it may, Owen Roe's fears and ignorance, is apparently unthinkable. Later that night, reflecting on why neither passionate men, like Owen Roe, nor frigid men like her husband, Michael, can discuss sex, Gráinne concludes that the church is responsible: "Monastic tradition described woman as a bag of shit and it followed that sexual release into such a receptacle was a topic about as fit for sober discussion as a bowel movement." Although Gráinne's summary seems closer to Owen Roe's views than to those of the romantic priest, both are similar in their refusal to acknowledge sexual relationships, a refusal that may have at its source the superstitious fear of woman's lure.
Owen Roe's perspective is more pervasive in a secular world than that of the priest. Sensing Gráinne's discontent and aware of the deterioration of their marriage, Michael O'Malley thinks he "Didn't fuck her enough. Women wanted it … because it confirmed their sense of themselves … Basic creatures really." Again, Michael tells Duffy that women masquerade, "being ashamed of their essential function." Like Owen Roe, then, Michael thinks that frequent sex should keep a woman happy, but he also realizes that since he cannot, or is unwilling to, satisfy Gráinne, she does need another relationship. At this point, Michael acts as do women Gilligan has studied in the second, immature, phase of female moral development. Michael has accepted the code of mutual caring, but the balance is undermined because one partner, Michael in this case, is in a position of psychological dependence. Needing Gráinne, he tricks her into returning to him when he takes their Great-Aunt Judith into their home. Desolate, not at the idea of Gráinne's infidelity, but at her leaving and disturbing his rhythm, Michael wonders could she not have got the sex she needed in Ireland? Must she go to America for that? Michael's Grandfather Owen O'Malley explained his opinions to another American, the Republican fundraiser, Sparky Driscoll, in 1922:
"The 'people' are clay. You can do what you like in their name but, as Aristotle said of men and women, the formative idea comes from the male and the clay is female; passive, mere potentiality. The clay here is the people who has no self and no aspiration towards determining anything at all until we infuse it into them. We are their virile soul. We are they."
Woman is not a creature with an individual destiny: defined either as inspiration, source of physical satisfaction, or as clay, the necessary intermediary between a great man and his descendants, she is in every instance seen only as she relates to man.
Accepting these definitions is destructive to women. In 1922, Judith Clancy adopts the angel myth and forcefully pushes knowledge of sex away, repressing it along with other forbidden knowledge in the unfathomable layers of her bog-like mind. She realizes that her sister, Kathleen, is more attracted to Sparky Driscoll than to her fiancé, Owen O'Malley. Sparky constantly reminds Judith of animals, whereas she sees the ascetic, priest-like Owen as incorruptible. Appalled, however, when she finds her own body betraying her by responding to Sparky's kiss, ashamed when she remembers an image of dogs coupling as Sparky warns her that Owen may be a homosexual and therefore not an appropriate husband for Kathleen, Judith represses both knowledge and emotion. In every vision of physical attraction, Judith sees animals: Sparky looks at Kathleen with "dog's eyes"; he is a "ferret" who summons "the worst, most buried filth." Alarmed at her own response, fearing that Kathleen will leave Owen and go with Sparky to America, and fearing also that Sparky will upset Owen's plans by reporting negatively on Owen's decision to fight the Treaty and thus cause Owen to lose the American funds he needs to carry on the fight, Judith kills Sparky. Judith has responded as much to her emotional as to her political convictions. Her intellectual acceptance of the priest's definition of woman and her repression of the evidence of her emotions necessitates acceptance of sex as "buried filth." The text often comments ironically on itself: Owen Roe tells Gráinne, referring, he thinks, to Aunt Judith's secret, but also, of course, to her repressed sexuality, "Even harmless secrets … because of being hidden, breed maggots." Judith's saving action cannot, of course, be acknowledged—this would certainly dry up American funds—so Judith is spirited into a convent by Owen O'Malley and Sparky's murder is blamed on forces of the British crown. Judith's madness is the result of accepting male definition and of acting in the male mode—of being willing to sacrifice for the sake of Owen's principle, not only Kathleen, Sparky, and the Irish people in war, but also her own imminent sexuality. Deprived of her family, her freedom, her future, and almost of her memory—for Owen prescribes electric shock to soothe her—Judith herself becomes one of the sacrifices on the altar of Owen's ambitions.
The Diarmuid and Gráinne myth is reenacted in Kathleen's life with only a depressing variation. Engaged to Owen O'Malley, whom prison has made "cold as ice" and "A machine run on will power"—a man who cares for causes, not people—Kathleen is in love not only with Sparky Driscoll, but with the possibility of another life created by herself and for herself. She resolves to go to America with Sparky to escape the war Owen is determined to unleash and to build this new life. When Judith, to forestall this impulse of disorder, kills Sparky, she ironically helps deprive Kathleen of a self-created life, a life the mythic Gráinne experienced, at least for a time.
From this point on, Kathleen appropriately disappears from O'Faolain's text, defined only by her male relatives—even her wedding is a blank in Judith's memory. Absence from the text, indeed, is a recurrent motif in the stories surveyed: Gráinne disappears from Fianna legends once she acquiesces to Fionn's wishes; Dervorgilla disappears from "his story" once she returns to Ó Ruairc from Mac Murrogh. Years later, when Judith complains to Owen of his locking her away in a convent, causing her to disappear, Owen retorts: "What's wrong with being here?… You should see poor Kathleen struggling with the kids. She looks ten years older than you do." Judith asks whether Kathleen is "still pretty," and Owen replies, "Kathleen … is the mother of six children with another on the way." As for her happiness, Owen says, "She has her children. She knows she is useful." Owen Roe later confirms this picture of Kathleen as a tired, disillusioned woman whose single importance was to be the "clay" that O'Malley molded, the potentiality from which HE created his political descendants. Like Gráinne, Kathleen ends her life caring for the man who destroyed her personal happiness and nurturing warriors who will preserve his destructive vision.
The Diarmuid and Gráinne myth spins out finally in the 1979 story of Gráinne O'Malley, Michael O'Malley, and James Duffy. Married to the alcoholic Michael when little more than a romantic school-girl, Gráinne has never had a satisfying sexual relationship. She left Michael hoping to save her "unsuccessful, comfortable marriage," and she returns to him hoping to spark some life into both Michael and the marriage. But Michael apparently lost both his voice and his interest in sex in the brawl following his renunciation of Theo—the one woman for whom he'd ever felt passion—because of her unsuitability to be the wife of an O'Malley. Weary of her half life, Gráinne turns to Owen Roe, looking, as she remembers, "for more than sex, or more through sex." But Owen Roe, as noted earlier, responds only physically. A year after the brief affair, he strides into Gráinne's life again to warn her to dismiss James, her American friend who is probing too deeply into Judith's memory. Gráinne consents on the condition that Owen Roe stop taking her son Cormac to Republican gatherings. His refusal makes Gráinne realize that he would sacrifice Cormac's safety to his own political ambitions. Seeing Gráinne's distress at his "lethal" selfishness and the danger this poses for Cormac, Owen Roe seeks to calm her: "Silly Gráinne," he smiles, and reaches for her breast, "cupping it with authority." Owen Roe's reaction is a "natural" result of his definition of women: comfort a woman sexually, he assumes, and one will also soothe away the irritating questions, questions he believes to be his prerogative rather than Gráinne's. Gráinne responds at the level Owen Roe has assigned her: like an animal protecting her young, she bites his hand and continues to do so even after she tastes his blood. He, in turn, slaps her face back and forth, in a brutal, irrational fury that continues after she releases his hand. "Mad harridan," he cries as he slaps her. Indeed, in his terms, Gráinne is mad—mad to resist the pattern which the powerful males will impose, mad to resist the physical comfort these males may grant.
This resistance is Gráinne's first real step towards freedom: the earlier flight and return to Michael were false moves, ultimately ineffectual. She continues to resist by seeing James and by exploring the bog-like depths of Judith's memory. Traditional roles are reversed in James and Gráinne's relationship. Gráinne feels her body to be inferior in beauty to James's "gorgeous" body; she delights in sensations she had never dreamed of, in making love for her pleasure. James is horrified at Gráinne's insistence on secrecy, despite her delight in and love for him. This secrecy seems to make him "a nineteenth-century whore," "a promenading penis," and "a secret sex object." Like both the mythic Gráinne and Kathleen, Gráinne decides to go away with her lover, realizing that Michael's dependence will not change and that she cannot save Cormac. Considering her responsibilities and the consequences, Gráinne makes a moral choice. But the forces of order, Owen Roe and the Irish police, aided unknowingly, but appropriately, by Owen Roe's retarded disciple, Patsy Flynn, combine to forestall Gráinne's departure. Flynn, Judith's successor in the new "old" pattern, condemns sexuality as Judith had done. As Judith responded, against her wishes, to Sparky's kiss, so Patsy, as he lies in wait to kill the "Californicator," feels the emotion of James and Gráinne "locked into his own, maddeningly, like the pedal of someone's bike getting locked into yours." Political concerns, however, outweigh the unusual emotional involvement for Patsy: to preserve the honor of the O'Malley family and to safeguard the dynasty set up by Owen O'Malley for his heirs, Owen Roe and Cormac, Patsy kills James. Having said goodbye to Michael and Cormac, Gráinne is left standing alone, waiting unknowingly for the dead James. The text, not the woman, then disappears.
To return to an earlier point—Owen O'Malley's yoking of women, land, and the people—Irishmen see woman, not as an equal but different principle, but as deviant. This deviancy asserts itself in action disruptive to the established, male pattern, hence must be repressed in the interest of order. This same order extends to nature, which man cultivates or tames. We first meet the young Judith Clancy as she contemplates, from the rigorously ordered garden of the convent, the less tamed aspects of nature.
This region [the bog] was as active as a compost heap and here the millennial process of matter recycling itself was as disturbing as decay in a carcass. Phosphorescent glowings, said to come from the chemical residue of bones, exhaled from its depths. "Bog" was the Gaelic word for "soft" and this one had places into which a sheep or a man could be sucked without trace.
The bog was pagan and the nuns saw in it an image of fallen nature. It signified mortality, they said, and the sadness of the flesh, for it had once been the hunting ground of pre-Christian warriors, a forest which had fallen, become fossilized and was now dug for fuel.
Similar in its relation to Showalter's "wild" area of female experience, the bog, in its peripheral position between culture and totally untamed nature, also resembles the area that Sherry Ortner finds assigned to women "outside and around" male culture. The danger of the bog is stressed repeatedly: Owen Roe, Cormac's political mentor, also initiates Cormac in the "risky" sport of riding on the bog. Dealing with Owen Roe, Gráinne thinks, is as dangerous as walking across a bog: "You never knew when the ground might give way under your feet." In its ability to swallow men, the bog symbolizes the male fear of the female, "fallen nature," or the trap of sexuality in the nuns' eyes. The bog, however, is essential. It provides the commonest and cheapest source of fuel for Judith Clancy's class. Men cut into it and take its peat to their homes as a source of cooking and heat. And it is more than this. Trying to explain the Southern Irish attitude to the IRA, Gráinne tells James:
"We double think. In practical terms we're dead against them, but in some shady, boggish areas of our minds, there's an unregenerate ghost groaning 'Up the rebels.' Most of us keep the ghost well suppressed, but children, drunks, unemployable men, and emotional misfits can become possessed by it."
In its ability to preserve and regurgitate often contradictory materials, the bog also symbolizes Judith's memory. Whatever its meaning, symbolic or natural, the bog, despite its essential role, is potentially a source of disorder, a constant threat to the established order.
The common people also threaten the established order. In 1922, Sparky Driscoll and the Clancy family, except Judith, plead with Owen O'Malley not to destroy the material improvement the people have achieved as a result of their successful struggle against Britain. But O'Malley is unwilling to give up the principle of a wholly free Ireland. The people, he says, are not the best judges; he dismisses their right to self-determination and to a better life, asserting that the people must "be goaded for their own good." Judith realizes, many years later, that Owen, like Fionn, could not distinguish what was good for the country from what was good for himself. Michael, too, realizes that his grandfather, who "helped forge change through violence, ended his days guarding the outcome from any further change." For, realizing the time was not yet ripe, Owen O'Malley cynically preserved a status quo contrary to his ideals, but beneficial to both himself and his heirs. Owen Roe swings full circle: as Owen O'Malley's pragmatism guided him from his principles into a successful career of compromise, so Owen Roe lives this compromise, but works towards the ideal of the dead Owen. Gráinne realizes that Owen Roe, too, cares nothing for individual human beings, but will risk Cormac's life and another civil war, believing the ensuing chaos may bring him to power. The same arrogance that allows these men to dictate women's actions also abrogates the rights of an entire nation, decreeing bloodshed and violence to restore a principle they believe in, thus confusing in their madness the country with themselves.
The madness that forces women to act against their best judgments and against their best interests is, in No Country for Young Men, associated with the political confusion that has affected Ireland for over sixty years. The possibility of immediate change is remote, but there are some optimistic glimmerings in O'Faolain's work. In a work that emphasizes the preservative power of the bog, we might expect Judith's memories to be preserved, and we are given strong suggestions that she has taped, and so preserved them. In another instance of intertextual commentary, Owen Roe tells Gráinne referring to the 1922 troubles—but the remark ironically applies to Judith's secret—that "In memory as in matter, Nothing … is lost. It comes back in another form."
But O'Faolain offers more than symbolic hope, based on the laws of nature. In the final revision of the myth, Gráinne is brought to the point of awareness. Despite the loss of James, Gráinne has experienced existential freedom: "fatigue, habit, heritage," she realizes, are merely illusionary stakes which she can thrust aside any time she wants to. Return to Michael and her old pattern is not inevitable. The text falls from Gráinne, not she from the text. When the voices cease to define her, she, and the country by implication, can proceed to define herself. Re-creating, or re-assembling myth and history from her "crescent," O'Faolain has, like the bog, transformed and preserved the material. The "phosphorescent glowings" come, not from the "chemical residue of bones," but from the artistic distillation and purification of history. For, as O'Faolain's text preserves the truth about the fictional O'Malley family, so the myths and texts of history have preserved, albeit in scattered formations, the truths of the past. O'Faolain challenges her readers to a new beginning, then, not through the traditional Irish way of physical revolution, but through textual revolution. The "glowings" are uncertain; Gráinne stands alone, but male history itself is, O'Faolain shows, a record of the consequences of following principle at the expense of community. A wider perspective in general leads to a wider level of tolerance; faint as they are, O'Faolain's "glowings" suggest the benefit to the Irish people in political leaders' abandoning the predominantly male model of human judgment and establishing instead a wider model, one that incorporates both male and female moral perspectives. Incorporating the vision of the Gráinnes and the Kathleens, this wider model might eventually incorporate the vision of the majority of the Irish people, north and south, Protestant and Catholic. But it is the women who will have to effect the change: being largely unaware of the injustice and danger inherent in a pattern which benefits them, men will act only when women place a compelling vision of human harmony before them—a vision which, if clearly seen, may finally prove as irresistible as and may, indeed, be Gráinne's ancient geis.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334
SOURCE: A review of The Irish Signorina, in America, Vol. 156, No. 17, May 2, 1987, p. 371.
[In the following excerpt, Hill states that "In The Irish Signorina, Julia O'Faolain has written a novel of beginnings and no endings so that a pervasive incompleteness to both character and plot takes a heavy toll on the reader, but especially on the work itself."]
As usual, the news from Ireland is both good and bad. First the bad news. In The Irish Signorina, Julia O'Faolain has written a novel of beginnings and no endings so that a pervasive incompleteness to both character and plot takes a heavy toll on the reader, but especially on the work itself. Anne Ryan, the signorina of the title, comes to Italy at the invitation of the ailing Marchesa Cavalcanti. Her arrival would set the stage for the unraveling of a family mystery and personal self-discovery. Of sorts.
Anne's mother, whose recent death prompted the Marchesa's invitation, had lived 20 years earlier as an aupair in the Cavalcanti villa in Tuscany. Suddenly, under a cloud of embarrassment, she was forced to return to Ireland. There she had married a dull but apparently devoted Irishman, an officer in the Irish army, who had subsequently been killed while dismantling an I.R.A. bomb. Growing up alone with her mother, Anne comes to realize that she had never fully left Italy or the Cavalcanti family. Something, someone, unnamed, held her mother so fast as to cast an unending shadow of regret and nostalgia.
Whether Anne exorcises these ghosts or deepens the shadows is a matter of guess work. For it is not so much a mystery as the plot itself that unravels before the reader. Neither Anne's stilted affair with Guido, the scion of the Cavalcanti clan, nor her contrived involvement in the dark side of contemporary Italian politics, nor, for that matter, the Marchesa's melodramatic death-bed revelations about Anne, can rescue what refuses to be rescued. "Is this novel a tragedy?" one might ask. Yes and no….
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6387
SOURCE: "Julia O'Faolain: The Imaginative Crucible," in Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition, University Press of Kentucky, 1991, pp. 174-90.
[In the following essay, Owens Weekes discusses O'Faolain's deconstruction of ancient Irish myths and tradition.]
Probably all parents influence their children more than the children care to admit. Some of their values are imbibed like milk; others sour mind and heart and are rejected. Occasionally we are mature enough to examine our opinions apart altogether from the emotional moss they have gathered through parental association. Writers, more than other people, mine the source of their own reactions, or maybe they just seem to do so because they write of this activity. Certainly Julia O'Faolain has frequently considered the influences of her writer parents, Sean and Eileen O'Faolain, on her own work. Her father, she believes, is an incurable romantic: indeed both her parents reacted romantically and enthusiastically to the birth of the fledgling Irish state. They Gaelicized their names, spoke the Gaelic language at home, and embraced the original principles of de Valera's republicans. Although he would become as disillusioned with the Republic as with the older empire, Sean attempted to expose his own children to "the romantic Ireland of his youth … which did and didn't exist." Eileen too led her daughter to and, as happens, away from romantic Ireland. A writer of children's stories, Eileen kept the child Julia home from school until she was eight, audience for Eileen's own work. When Julia finally did go to school, the "pookas, leprachauns, magic coaches, fairy forts" of her mother's stories were more real than the "angels and demons" the nuns invoked. Ridiculed after rashly exposing her credulity, O'Faolain notes that she "determined never to be caught out again and started casting a cold eye on the devils and angels too." Neither was the growing girl unaware of her father's conflicts with church and state; indeed a desire to be on his side, whatever that was, probably nurtured her resistance to and criticism of authoritarian control. Summing up her reactions to her parents' commitments, O'Faolain notes: "He and Eileen, a pair of reluctantly disillusioned romantics, made romanticism impossible for me."
The reader of Julia O'Faolain's work readily consents to the truth of this statement. Valuing and employing the detachment of the eighteenth-century writers she admires, O'Faolain is a long way stylistically from her father or indeed from her Gaelic-Irish predecessors Kate O'Brien and Mary Lavin. When I first read her work, I was struck by the acid intelligence that strips away layers of tradition, affection, and affectation, exposing an often grotesque core. O'Faolain's kinship with Swift and Edgeworth … is evident here. It is impossible to remain passive when faced with O'Faolain's vivid and exuberant grotesques: John Mellors, for example, finds "Man in the Cellar," an early short story, "brilliantly disturbing"; Robert Hogan finds the same text "horrific." The no-holds-barred approach to sensitive political topics, to male territory in fact, also seems closer to the Anglo-Irish writers Somerville and Ross than to O'Faolain's Gaelic female predecessors. Finally, O'Faolain's cosmopolitan lifestyle—Irish herself and married to an Italian-American, she lives in London and Los Angeles—along with her nonromantic tendencies allow her to view her various societies with detachment and a cold eye for pretense, the same cold eye Molly Keane turns on the past. Indeed a hilarious bedroom scene in an early O'Faolain story "A Pot of Soothing Herbs" anticipates Keane's equally preposterous, ridiculous, and pathetic scene in Good Behaviour.
But if Sean and Eileen were partially responsible for the substitution of an analytical rather than a romantic perspective, the early romantic deposits were not without effect. Just as the bog of the epigraph swallows, preserves, and transforms the forest, so the mind swallows, preserves, and transforms the deposits of childhood. Indeed the nuns are rightly wary, for the legends of the pagan past dwell as certainly in the imaginative crucible of the collective memory of the nation as does the forest in the bog. All the old Fenian legends, all the old historical fictions, and all the more recent romantic tales (perhaps close to those Eileen and Sean told their children) of "raids, curfews, and dancing in mountain farmhouses with irregular soldiers who were sometimes shot a few hours after the goodnight kiss" collect in, transform, and infect the national consciousness.
This collection and preservation is, short of catastrophic occurrences, as inevitable as the process of nature. But if we accept the myths and legends passively, then they, like the bog, will contain and transform us, making of us mythic fuel with which to warm a future generation. Reacting against such passivity, O'Faolain the nonromantic declares an interest in demystifying, not mystifying. "Myths like lego constructions, can be taken apart: a double bonus for the writer, the magnifying effect of invoking myth in the first place, plus the energy involved in revoking its agreed values. Destruction releases energy." This, then, is often the O'Faolain project, similar to that Alicia Ostriker associates with the revisionist poets, of treating "existing texts as fence posts surrounding the terrain of mythic truth but by no means identical to it." O'Faolain does not limit her deconstruction to ancient or Irish tales but dismembers fictions of history and of contemporary culture alongside those of legend. Indeed one could argue that contemporary myths are more pernicious in an age or country that ignores history; consequently O'Faolain subjects both the macho Italian and the romantic Hollywood images to the same penetrating scrutiny she turns on traditional myths. Aiming to expose the cage "of assumptions," the mythic, national, religious, and familial bonds which too often imprison a people, O'Faolain releases the confined energy, the alternate materials repressed by these central cultural assumptions.
The early story mentioned already, "A Pot of Soothing Herbs," enacts the problems facing the writer who would find her own voice despite restrictive traditional patterns. The protagonist of the story, Sheila, is depicted as attempting to understand both her own and her country's approach to sexuality, to experience. The story is prompted by the mother's anger at Sheila's spending the night with a fast crowd. She little knows that Sheila's detested virgin status was unthreatened when she shared a bed with the homosexual Aiden and the lovers, the Anglo-Irish Rory and the English Claudia. To protect Sheila, Aiden had placed a "barricade" of pillows down the bed; Sheila had lain between pillows and wall, bitterly aware that Aiden's hand, reaching under the pillows to grasp hers, was extended only in a "fraternal" clasp. Neither was her knowledge of the mechanics of love increased: her head prudently covered by Aiden, Sheila intuited the activity of Rory and Claudia only by "the heavings of the mattress." Sheila tries to understand why her mother, who with her peers thrills to tales of remembered romance and adventure "as if sex, in Ireland, were the monopoly of the over-fifties," should upbraid her so. And revealing the scars the national contradiction has cut through her own psyche, she ponders why she has been unable to make love for the experience only as would, she thinks, the rational eighteenth-century fictional figures she admires.
Sheila accurately defines part of her problem as a retreat behind the covers of language. Wanting to explore and to analyze her situation, she immediately, almost instinctively it seems, protects her privacy with a humorous, self-deprecating reference to "the Irish." Abruptly, jerkily, the narrative halts, as the narrator attempts to probe and justify her rhetoric: "It is typical of us to say 'the Irish' instead of 'I': a way of running for tribal camouflage. I am trying to be honest here, but I can't discard our usual rituals. In a way, that would be more dishonest. It would mean trying to talk like someone else: like some of my friends, sheep in monkeys' clothing, who chatter cynically all day in pubs, imitating the tuneful recusancy of a Brendan Behan." Caught between the Scylla of regurgitating the familiar words, the phrases of another time that define and disguise her, and the Charybdis of a new style also alien to her, Sheila stumbles, one moment falling into the romantic traps of her parents' generation, the next into the cynical ones of her peers'. Her identity shaped by styles that seem alien, Sheila's position is similar to though more extreme than that of the diver in the Adrienne Rich poem referred to in chapter 1: the mermaid "whose dark hair / streams black, the merman in his armored body.
It is as if language shapes Sheila, not she it. Considering her refusal to make love with the elegant Robert, she notes, "I only know that I am attracted where I sense tensions and dissatisfactions—I prefer the fat, panting Hamlet to Hotspur." She thus resorts to the abstractions of literature to explain her refusal. Later, feeling sympathy toward the upset party-giver, Edna, Sheila looks back to the solitary figure: "But he was an unappetising sight: mouth caked with the black lees of Guinness, sparse, pale stubble erupting on his chin, and a popped button on his chest revealing the confirmation medal underneath." In this instance Sheila resorts to specific language as if she observes only the negative outward aspect, which apparently marks her as an objective, even cynical, observer. But the rhetoric is deceptive: Sheila is a romantic. The outward appearance and the confirmation medal are potent, not because Sheila is modern, in search only of experience, but because these aspects of Edna effectively neutralize her potentially romantic reactions.
In linking the myth of Cuchulain, the stories of Sheila's parents, and the story of Edna, the text suggests an equivalence in all three situations. As Sheila leaves the party with Aiden and Rory, Edna, the grandson of a 1916 hero, attempts to detain her, brandishing his grandfather's gun and threatening Aiden and Rory. Removing the gun, Rory pushes it barrel-down into a pot of geraniums, admonishing, "Steady, how, fellow, steady! Remember that old Irish hero, Cuchulain, whose weapon used to get out of control and had to be put in a pot of soothing herbs? I think that's what we need here." Ribald weapon jokes pervade the saga of Cuchulain. One story tells how Aife, a woman warrior, defeats Cuchulain and smashes his "weapon." All she leaves him, it concludes, is "a part of his sword no bigger than a first." Another story tells of the king's calming of Cuchulain's war-fever by standing the maidens of Ulster naked between the mad warrior and the city. On seeing the maidens, the saga continues, Cuchulain quivers in shame and is quelled finally when the warriors of King Conor plunge him into three vats of cold water. The warrior Cuchulain, like the warrior Edna who wears the confirmation medal of a soldier of Christ, becomes a figure of comic impotence rather than one of romantic potency.
The Cuchulain/Edna gloss colors the evocative, stirring stories of the parents. When Edna's gun is first mentioned, Sheila wonders whether guns are "dangerous after three generations." The answer is obviously no, as Edna, armed with the weapon of the 1916 warrior, becomes a figure of bathos rather than power, his weapon, like Cuchulain's, immobilized. The tales of the troubles can also be seen as brandished leftover weapons that retain their power only when unquestioned, when not put to the test. O'Faolain's linking of the 1916 heroes and Cuchulain is not simply humorous. A statue of the mythic hero adorns the general post office in Dublin, center of the 1916 resistance—Cuchulain, the warrior, was the inspiration of this resistance.
The tales the parents tell—like those they are based on—belong to the fantasy world of myth. Although Sheila suggests this, she fails to realize it, perhaps because, dreamily confusing life and art, her mental life like that of the young Elizabeth Bowen has been shaped so much by tale. Characters from life are seen as characters from fiction; fictional or historical characters are replaced by those from life. Thus Sheila sees the tortured, insecure Aiden as Hamlet but replaces Yeats's Maud Gonne and Proust's Odette de Crécy with Claudia Rain. Her mother's upbraiding sounds like a "foreign language" because, misreading her parents' tales for reality, Sheila has mistaken their values. Their talk, like that of all the Irish she identifies initially, "is not about activity. It is about talk." Retreating behind the barrier of language, Sheila is concealed but is also unable to pierce the barrier, to uncover the activity hidden by language. Like the barricade that Aiden erected, the language of Irish myth effectively conceals experience, ironically projecting a romantic image rather than the "fraternal" clasp with which Aiden penetrated the pillows.
In No Country for Young Men, O'Faolain uncovers multiple layers of myth—ancient, historical, and contemporary—and, enacting in the development of her novel the preservation and transformation of these deposits, tests the myths. Further, No Country for Young Men suggests that a nation's cultural myths are differently received by men and women. The title revises the Yeatsian myth of an Ireland exuberant with life and rejecting its "aged monuments." The young, not the old, are threatened in O'Faolain's Ireland, a country that, pace Yeats, valorizes history, or a particular version of history, rather than humanity. Indeed by aligning himself in "Sailing to Byzantium" with Oisin, Yeats collaborates with a figure that is negative in both O'Faolain's novel and her personal pantheon. The poet of the Fianna, Oisin, like Yeats, sought a nonhuman land, a land of eternal—static—youth, and released in his poems the myths that would shackle future generations.
Concentrating on the two recent sequences of Troubles, those of the 1920s and 1970s, O'Faolain traces a pattern that reaches back through Irish history into Irish myths and is ultimately destructive. Cuchulain of "A Pot of Soothing Herbs" was merely sterile, a domesticated hero in a particular tribe, but Fionn, whose myth shadows No Country for Young Men, and his warrior Fianna were a group of fighting men, not part of any tribe but lending their services where needed. Grainne O'Malley, the protagonist in O'Faolain's novel, alerts the reader to the myth when she tells the American filmmaker James Duffy that she is named after the central figure in the Diarmuid and Grainne legend. According to legend, Fionn Mac Cumhall, the general of the Fianna warriors, decided to assuage his loneliness by marrying Grainne, the beautiful daughter of King Cormac. But Grainne, reluctant to marry the aged Fionn because she loved Diarmuid, one of Fionn's young warriors, put a geasa (similar to an Arthurian obligation of necessity and of honor) on Diarmuid, and the lovers fled together. Furious, Fionn pursued them with hosts of the Fianna. Years of war ensued; men and land were destroyed before Fionn succeeded through magic in killing Diarmuid. But the Fianna was still demoralized, for its leader remained away wooing the reluctant Grainne. Finally, for the sake of her children, Grainne returned with Fionn to the warriors. Oisin, Fionn's son and Yeats's model, bitter at the destruction, blamed not Fionn for the indulgence, despite honor and duty, of his whim, but Grainne. The myth itself, despising the obvious logic of the events it recounts, thus concludes with an irrational masculinist interpretation.
The restoration of order to the Fianna, then, depends on Grainne—whose name, as Grainne O'Malley notes, means love—forgoing her own desires and accepting the principle of conquest. As a woman, Grainne (of myth and of O'Faolain's novel) is related to Ireland—"Mother Ireland," "the old woman," or "Dark Rosaleen" in much Irish literature. Exemplifying in miniature the intoxicating and addictive power of national myth, O'Faolain has a young warrior sing "Dark Rosaleen" at the Clancy house during the civil war. When "in the last verses, the softer sentiment disappeared and menace pounded on alone," a listener remembers, "the boy had caught the mockers in his cadences. Rapt, they nodded to his beat and even the Da [who loathes the violence] applauded." Jennifer Johnston too, as we shall see, considers this mindless, emotional espousing of war disguised as love to be a form of intoxication. The image of Ireland as injured woman whose wounds call her sons or lovers to war is not unlike the sexual paradigm of territorial conquest that Annette Kolodny "unearths" in American "herstory," and O'Faolain's and Johnston's work suggests a universality in this pattern. The Irish mythmakers, whether lauding mythical or historical Irish leaders, pictured Ireland as a woman constantly in need of male protection and represented woman on her own, Ireland or Grainne without a lord or without the one "righteous" lord, as a source of disorder.
When O'Faolain's novel opens in the 1920s, Ireland and the Irish women have little choice but to submit to the demands of the competing forces of warriors. But within the country, as within women themselves, uncertainty, perhaps the residue of another order, stirs. This potential disruption is configured initially in the person of Judith Clancy, Grainne's great-aunt and the connecting link between each period. We first meet her as a young woman contemplating the untamed aspects of nature from the rigorously ordered garden of her convent school:
This region [the bog] was as active as a compost heap and here the millennial process of matter recycling itself was as disturbing as decay in a carcass. Phosphorescent glowings, said to come from the chemical residue of bones, exhaled from its depths. "Bog" was the Gaelic word for "soft" and this one had places into which a sheep or a man could be sucked without trace.
The bog was pagan and the nuns saw in it an image of fallen nature. It signified mortality, they said, and the sadness of the flesh, for it had once been the hunting ground of pre-Christian warriors, a forest which had fallen, become fossilized and was now dug for fuel.
A natural palimpsest, the bog can be read both as the repository of a nation's culture and as an archetypal feminine place. In the latter context the bog becomes a particularizing of that peripheral area assigned to women "outside and around" male culture and of the "wild" area, the crescent of female culture unknown to men. In its ability to devour men, the bog is also symbolic of the ancient male fear of the female, a fear perhaps of the older matriarchal tradition of the great goddess discussed in chapter 4. Here too Irish myth is relevant: the depiction in Irish legends of the overthrow of female oppressors by male heroes—Queen Maeve, for example, by Cuchulain—can also be read, as are many of the myths of the Near East, as a reenactment of the overthrow of the goddess.
No Country for Young Men presents Owen Roe O'Malley as heir to this militant political tradition. Son of the "hero" Owen O'Malley who fought the British government in the early 1920s and then his own countrymen when they accepted the treaty negotiated with England, Owen Roe is a devious politician. The first Owen arrogantly refused to accept his government's and his people's wishes and, like his mythic ancestor Fionn, insisted on fighting a war that would devastate his country. Carrying on the tradition of the poet Oisin, Michael O'Malley, Owen's grandson and Grainne's husband, writes the revisionist history of the first Owen. Owen Roe also contributes to the glorification of his father, expecting to inherit the mantle of Owen's political office and willing, like his ancestor, to plunge the country into civil war again if this would achieve his goal. Intent, like Oisin, on squashing the potentially disrupting female account, Owen Roe attempts to have Grainne silence Judith—the reservoir of the secrets of 1920.
But Judith and Grainne O'Malley are linked by Grainne's sympathy for her aunt and also referentially to bog images. Grainne, for example, thinks that "dealing with Owen Roe was like walking across a bog. You never knew when the ground might give way under your feet." She worries that Owen Roe takes her son riding on the bog, her concern extending both to the mythological bog of Irish history and the physical bog of Calary. To be pulled into the bog is to accept the myths passively, to be shaped by them; to explore the bog, while still dangerous, is to question the history, the myths, to take control of one's own life. Throughout the text Judith's memory is described and portrayed as having the boglike power of absorbing, concealing for years, and regurgitating. Although James wishes to exploit Judith's memory and Owen Roe wishes to suppress it, it is appropriately Grainne who will explore that female place, crucible of individual and racial memory.
Within the bog of the Irish communal memory O'Faolain traces the patterns of the Diarmuid and Grainne myth in the male and female imaginations. The mythic triangle is represented in the 1920 grouping of Owen O'Malley, founder of the political dynasty; Kathleen Clancy, the woman he marries; and Sparky Driscoll, the American fund-raiser. Kathleen wishes to go away with Sparky, but her young sister Judith, who admires Owen, kills the outsider to prevent his interference with Owen's plans. The young Kathleen has loved Owen, but years in prison have made him, as Kathleen tells Judith, "cold as ice. A machine run on will power," a man who cares for causes rather than people. From the boglike depths of Judith's mind, whence most of the 1922 story comes, we are allowed to see that Kathleen is correct, that Owen is another Fionn. Determined to ignore the treaty that the legitimate representatives of the Irish party have signed, Owen, to advance his own political future, fights on despite the people's desire for peace. Explaining his stance to Sparky, who opposes fighting against the people's wishes, Owen says, "The people are clay. You can do what you like in their name but, as Aristotle said of men and women, the formative idea comes from the male and the clay is female: passive, mere potentiality. The clay here is the people who has no self and no aspiration towards determining anything at all until we infuse it into them. We are their virile soul. We are they." This convenient rationalization allows Owen to act as Fionn, to ignore the resistance of women, people, and country in pursuit of individual desire.
O'Faolain suggests that just as the bog accretes materials through the centuries so too does the history of Ireland. Laid down over mythic layers, Irish history is affected by them. In 1922 we see the young Judith Clancy remembering the history lesson: "the frail morals of a woman were first responsible for bringing the English to Ireland in 1169—so women bore inherited guilt." Irish women thus carry a double load—the fall of "mankind" and the fall of Ireland. Given the placement of this wry reflection in a narrative overtly demonstrating the manipulation and reinterpretation of recent Irish history, the reader naturally reconsiders the events that led to Ireland's "fall," to "her" being "possessed" by an alien warrior. In the 1150s the woman in question, Dervorgilla, was married to the Lord of Brefni whose political rival was Diarmuid MacMurragh, Lord of Leinster. Dervorgilla left Brefni for MacMurragh, and though she did return, Brefni never forgave Diarmuid for the loss of face. In the course of the 1160s' internecine feuding, Brefni took the opportunity to invade Diarmuid's land. Diarmuid was forced to flee to England, where he sought Henry II's help and proffered his daughter, Eve, as gift to Strongbow, leader of the revenge expedition. Thus began the English occupation.
Like Oisin of old, historians, Judith notes, blame Dervorgilla for the devastation wrought by her jealous lovers on country and people. Imaginative patterns, especially those that justify particular courses, change very slowly. The Aristotelian principles that Owen quotes simply justify manipulating human beings in general and women in particular for his own benefit. Control is obviously necessary, the interpretations imply: witness what unfettered women, Grainne and Dervorgilla, wrought. The ascetic Irish Catholic church, Grainne O'Malley realizes, adds its layer to the justification. Considering why neither frigid men like her husband Michael nor virile ones like her former lover Owen Roe can discuss sex, Grainne blames the church. "Monastic tradition described woman as a bag of shit and it followed that sexual release into such a receptacle was a topic about as fit for sober discussion as a bowel movement." The legends of Ireland's ascetic monks—St. Kevin of Glendalough, for example—do indeed suggest the righteousness of the saint's disposing of, killing, woman, the fallen temptress.
The blame assigned, myth-and history-makers write Grainne and Dervorgilla out of their texts. O'Faolain, however, delves into the bog of Judith's memory to uncover the fate of her female characters. A quick learner, the young Judith absorbs all the lessons. She knows woman's duty, a duty reinforced in her school days by the warrior/priest home from World War I who counsels the girls to go forth as inspirations, lamps held up to light men's ways. Virtue, he tells the girls, can only be preserved by ignorance. "Desiring knowledge—Eve's sin—and naming things" are prime threats to their virtue, they (unlike Elizabeth Bowen's Lois) obediently believe.
Inspired by this ideal, Judith admires what she sees as Owen's ascetic purity, what Kathleen sees as death-giving ice. When Kathleen confesses to Judith that she loves the American, Sparky Driscoll, Judith even thinks in Owen's idiom: "Sparky was a spoiler and a giver of bad advice. In Kathleen he had found soil only too receptive." Judith sets the two men up as good and evil, and Sparky "proves" her hypothesis when he kisses her, for her body behaves so wildly she wonders if she is mad. Seeing her own response as wild, Judith sees it as disordered, as the problem of women in fact, the problem of Grainne, of Dervorgilla, and of her sister, Kathleen. Ironically, then, her reaction to Sparky's kiss does not confirm her own and other women's sexuality but the ascetics' lessons, and the experience of her own body is discarded in favor of the authority of the fathers. Whether the early church fathers really believed female sexuality was evil matters little now. They promoted this useful idea and, as Phyllis Chesler shows in Women and Madness, psychiatrists and psychologists have continued to treat female sensuality as unfeminine and deviant, recognizing in it a threat to established institutions. Having adopted the male paradigm of the good woman's asexuality, Judith sees her own reaction as a response to evil. So when Sparky would interfere with Owen's plans for war, Judith is in her own mind justified in killing the evil opponent of good.
Her psyche self-repressed, Judith is forced by Owen into a convent, where electric shock is administered to quiet the dangerous memory. But the recollections surge back, and Judith tells Owen she fears for her sanity, for not even her confessor believes her story. Fearful lest anyone should, Owen, unaware of the irony, calms Judith: the priest, he suggests, "probably thinks it's sex…. Half the women in here are probably suffering from suppressed sex." But although Judith's adoption of the male paradigm with its subsequent repression of forbidden knowledge has driven her to the verge of madness, O'Faolain suggests a triumph. Judith does recover her story, for the bog is a potent preserver, as the "phosphorescent glowings," Judith's story in O'Faolain's work, attest.
If madness threatens Judith for accepting definitions other than those of her own psyche and her own intelligence, then deletion, another kind of madness, is Kathleen's fate, as it was Grainne's. In Judith's memory, in the bog of Irish history, no trace of Kathleen arises after her marriage but those registered by her male relatives. Years after 1922 Owen attempts to prevent Judith's leaving her convent: "What's wrong with being here?… You should see poor Kathleen struggling with the kids. She looks ten years older than you do." Judith asks if Kathleen is "still pretty" and if she is happy. Owen retorts, "Kathleen … is the mother of six children with another on the way." As for her happiness, "she has her children. She knows she is useful." Owen Roe confirms this picture to Grainne many years later. Repressive marriage, then, even more than convent life, effectively negates the independent woman, neutralizes her sense of self, her sensuality, and indeed, from a male perspective, effectively solves the problem of women's disorder. Kathleen's sole purpose, a private one, is to give birth to the clay that O'Malley has infused.
In the final triad of Grainne, Michael, and James, O'Faolain takes her characters to the point of awareness but does not define, finish, or circumscribe their story. Married to Michael when she was little more than a romantic schoolgirl, Grainne has been sacrificed, albeit happily and ignorantly, to protecting the O'Malley name from the scandal her alcoholic, free-living husband might attract. Ensconced by his powerful family in a "safe" job, Michael continues his drinking and offers Grainne only a half life. Weary of this, Grainne turns to Owen Roe, not so much for erotic gratification but for "more through sex." In the tradition of the lusty warriors of myth, however, Owen Roe takes his sexual affairs lightly: "Your trouble," he tells Grainne after the affair, "was scruples. Making mountains out of molehills…. The wrong woman for a politician. Do you know that the Sicilians say 'politics is sweeter than sex'? Yes. Well, no reason not to combine them—until one starts to threaten the other. That happens when the woman—it's always the woman—makes a big production out of going to bed. Bed's simple really." Grainne reflects, "He talked with assurance, driving, mashing up things—love, politics—the way a garbage-disposer mashes them to unrecognizable, recyclable, grey fritters." The bog transforms but does not destroy. Owen Roe destroys. His linguistic destruction is paralleled by his and Owen O'Malley's refusal to recognize sensuousness and their consequent violation and attempted annihilation of women's sexuality—Owen O'Malley by incarcerating Judith in a convent and by treating Kathleen as a "mode of production," and Owen Roe by his exploitation of women's bodies.
With the foreigner, James Duffy, however, Grainne establishes a fulfilling sexual relationship, one which Owen Roe sees as a threat to his political empire. By making this relationship primarily sexual (therefore ultimately limited), O'Faolain stresses the importance of responding to sensual needs so long denied women in Ireland. The warrior figure has not improved through the centuries: Cuchulain, the mythic hero of the 1916 Irish Republican Army, killed his only son rather than risk his own boasting honor; Fionn tricked Grainne into living with him by promising to protect her children; Grainne O'Malley promises to stop seeing James Duffy in return for Owen Roe's promise not to take her son, Cormac, to dangerous republican gatherings. When Owen Roe refuses, Grainne, like her namesake and like Kathleen, decides to escape with James. Once again, as in the case of Judith and Sparky, the irrational interferes on the side of the law. Patsy Flynn, whose madness is evident in his acute sexual suppression, kills James, much as Judith did Sparky, to preserve the O'Malley name and hence dynasty that is threatened equally by the outsider's sensuousness and by his political stance. But indeed sensuousness is political in Ireland. It is not a quality to be associated with mythical, historical, or fictional heroes, neither with Fionn nor Cuchulain, nor with, for example, Cuchulain's symbolic successor, Patrick Pearse, or Fionn's fictional successors, Owen and Owen Roe O'Malley.
Yet Grainne is not absorbed as her physical and mythical ancestors were. As she shares a drink with Michael, who is deeply enmeshed in her life, Grainne feels that he is trying to "web her in." "Fate, he was implying, fatigue, habit, heritage, were stakes planted around her, holding her there, limiting her choices. Poor Michael, she thought, how wrong he was. She could go anytime she like." What Grainne intuits here is the existential freedom Stephen Dedalus achieved when he thrust aside nets of country, religion, and family. But these stakes, though unfairly binding, are powerful, and the sexual relationship with James, like that of a later O'Faolain heroine with her foreign lover in The Obedient Wife, is ultimately a poor thing compared to the deep, twisted relationship Grainne has with her husband. O'Faolain sees no need to supply defining endings: the text leaves Grainne searching for James, whose body has been absorbed in another bog, the river Liffey. She may act on her existential realization, or like Carla in the later work, she may return to Michael. If the latter occurs, the text of Judith's memory awaits her. What seems important, however, is that the writer releases her character, refuses to constrict her as did the myth-and history-makers. The text, as one observer notes, falls from Grainne, not she from the text.
Seeing myth as limiting, O'Faolain naturally offers no alternative tale, no simple equation of current female liberation with mythical and historical incarceration. Indeed she expresses deep fear of "myth-mongers, whether religious or political." Believing that they alone have the answers to the great questions makes them, she thinks, "dangerous, and in the end unlovable." Grainne and Michael's bonds, woven over fifteen years, are elastic enough to take the strain of Grainne's defection. More independent than her ancestors, Grainne O'Malley can seize more freedom than they could. But as mythical and historical patterns cut their own shape in a nation's imagination, so long-standing relationships cut their patterns in individual imaginations. For Julia O'Faolain sees human beings as essentially social creatures.
The bond between Grainne and Michael unites their individual psyches. Returning to her home early in the novel, having left Michael for several months, Grainne feels "bereft" at finding an empty house. "Why wasn't Michael home?" she wonders. "She had a physical illusion that she would be whole again only when she held him in her arms. Did that merely mean that he was to her as routine was to laboratory mice?" Michael too, when he suspects Grainne will leave him, agonizes at the idea of a break in their pattern. Another O'Faolain character, Una of "The Man in the Cellar," tries to explain the "fetid bubble of dependence and rancour" that traps her with the wife-beating Carlo: "Between a man and a woman who are deeply involved sexually—atrocious injuries can be forgiven." (The text does not, of course, suggest that Una should remain trapped; having escaped, she attempts to explain why she remained there so long.) The intimate marital relationship, it appears, carves its pattern as indelibly on individuals as does the mythic pattern on a nation.
Despite the mutual bruising endemic to long-standing relationships, the union itself is usually seen as positive in O'Faolain's work. In The Obedient Wife, O'Faolain depicts an Italian family temporarily residing in Los Angeles. Carla has taken a lover while her husband works and plays in Italy, and she must decide whether to remain with this considerate lover or to return to Italy to her chauvinistic husband. Reluctantly deciding in favor of her husband, when—and because—he hurries from Italy to persuade her, Carla accuses her lover, Leo, of having no real need of her: "You're invulnerable, strong, fenced in. You believing Christians have an enormous ego, massive pride. I imagine it comes from the notion that your first duty is to save your own soul—that's breathtaking egoism, after all, and yet you learn it as a duty, a maxim and foundation-stone to your moral system.
Although the strands are very twisted and although the sacrifice of the individual is rejected, the O'Faolain novel ultimately valorizes communal over individual values. This, I think, separates O'Faolain from those Anglo-Irish ancestors to whom I linked her earlier—Maria Edgeworth, Somerville and Ross, and Molly Keane. This valorization contrasts too, as we shall see, with the heroines in the later Jennifer Johnston novels, heroines who believe that the communal relationship is subordinate to that soul-saving activity of writing or painting. O'Faolain's Carla refuses to stay with Leo because his "giving" does not bring them close: "Fighting and wounding," Carla asserts, do engender a human empathy. "A flowing together takes place. It's not just rational. It's more intimate, almost tangible. I can't explain it in words. Lots of life evades words, Leo, but you live by them." Life, O'Faolain reminds us constantly, cannot be separated into the isolated compartments of logic or art.
Like a crucible, then, the bog melds a nation's myths and history into national imaginative patterns. All elements are preserved within this reservoir, though they are transformed by contact with each other and by time. Thus the top layers of the palimpsest show traces of the earlier writing: the great Danu is not only preserved, but she has acted throughout the centuries so that the comic Maeve, the warrior queen whom Cuchulain fights; the repressed Grainnes and Dervorgillas; and the Judiths, Kathleens, and latter-day Grainnes all bear her mark. Recall Sheila's early plaint: "The depressing thing about our talk is that it is not about activity. It is about talk." Exactly. So the literature, the stories of the historians, the myths—all the shaping material is ultimately not the reality of the past situations but the talk, the words, the literature about the material. And O'Faolain's texts, along with those of other contemporary women writers, add a new reviving, ameliorating, restorative layer to the palimpsest, a layer which not only alters the future but which also restructures the literary past. This is the optimism of O'Faolain's essentially comic image. In the feast that ends comedy, that harmonizes without the domination of any single melody, the contradictory visions of Cuchulain and Emer, Fionn and Grainne, Grainne and Michael coexist and temper each other. As I have noted elsewhere, the unexplained geasas may be nothing more than the harmony of opposites. But what more could we ask? The magic does not simply belong to a golden age. As O'Faolain detects the "phosphorescent glowings," the traces of her characters in the bog of Judith's mind, so we too can uncover our history in the bog of national literature and myth. In a typical O'Faolain irony, Owen Roe, the suppressor and distorter of history, observes: "In memory as in matter, Nothing … is lost. It comes back in another form."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3752
SOURCE: "Triangles and Entrapment: Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men, in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 9-16.
[In the following essay, Moore analyzes the triangular relationships at work in O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men.]
An exploration of the triangular relationships among the characters in Julia O'Faolain's 1980 novel No Country for Young Men reveals a paradigm of control and entrapment of women throughout Irish history. O'Faolain, who has published several other novels and short stories, also co-edited with her husband in 1973 a collection of readings concerned with the historical position of women, Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians. In No Country for Young Men she details "how devastating to a society the mistreatment of women, the misuse of their energies and gifts, really is." Political intrigue, Irish nationalism, social commentary, clever mystery, and abundant literary and mythological allusions flesh out the narrative, but O'Faolain's primary focus is the women.
The novel comprises two interwoven plots, one in 1922, the second fifty years later. The first concerns Irish-American Sparky Driscoll, murdered by young Judith Clancy to protect American funding for the IRA; the second deals with Grainne O'Malley, Judith's grand-niece, and her affair with James, a Californian visiting Ireland to tape political reminiscences for a film. The two time periods interweave throughout the novel, intersecting at the climax as Judith witnesses James's murder. An overlayment of French critic René Girard's theory of "triangular desire" brings into focus the forces at play in the triangular relationships in the novel.
In the opening essay of his critical study, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, Girard sets forth the energies at work on fictional characters and the objects—or persons—they desire. Since Don Quixote (one of his primary illustrations) pursues the perfect chivalric existence represented by Amadis of Gaul, "he has surrendered to Amadis the individual's fundamental prerogative: he no longer chooses the objects of his own desire—Amadis must choose for him." This model of chivalry which Don Quixote aspires to is what Girard terms "the mediator of desire. Chivalric existence is the imitation of Amadis in the same sense that Christianity is the imitation of Christ." In Girard's schema Don Quixote and Amadis are connected by a horizontal line indicating Don Quixote's (the subject's) desire to attain Amadis' (the object's) perfect chivalric nature. But above this horizontal line "radiating toward both the subject and the object" is the mediator, the model of chivalric existence. Girard sets out this three-part system as a triangle, cautioning that "the triangle has no reality whatever, it is a systematic metaphor."
Flaubert's Emma Bovary is Girard's other primary illustration. Emma pursues a conception of a romantic heroine which, as Girard says, has been created by "the second-rate books which she devoured in her youth [which] have destroyed all her spontaneity." She is similar to "the vaniteux—vain person—[who] cannot draw his desires from his own resources":
A vaniteux will desire any object so long as he is convinced that it is already desired by another person whom he admires. The mediator here is a rival, brought into existence as a rival by vanity, and that same vanity demands his defeat.
The intensity of the subject's desire for the object is governed by "the imaginary desire which he attributes to his rival." Girard's theory of mimetic desire does not require that the mediator be a rival, but, as in the cases of Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, simply a desired end. If the subject and mediator are rivals for the object, Girard terms this "internal mediation." Conversely, external mediation is "when the distance is sufficient to eliminate any contact between the two spheres of possibilities of which the mediator and the subject occupy the respective centers."
The three points of Girard's "'triangular' desire" metaphor are always subject, object, and mediator. Spontaneity, another key term in his system, is the opposite of vanity. A spontaneous character is unfettered by an outside desire—he has retained his individuality and his freedom to choose (Don Quixote and Emma Bovary have relinquished both) and would be excluded from Girard's system.
O'Faolain immediately suggests her focus on triangular relationship in choosing to name her central character Grainne. Daughter of Cormac, King of Ireland, Grainne was the "object" of the rivalry between Diarmuid and Finn. In Grania, Lady Gregory's play based on the myth, Finn in his old age desires the youthful Grania, and Diarmuid and Grania must flee to escape him. Diarmuid, however, faithful to Finn, swears "It is not as wife I will bring her" and that he will "show respect to her till such time as [Finn's] anger will have cooled." Diarmuid in his perfect youthfulness possesses what Finn desires, and Finn in his pursuit of Grania has forfeited his freedom to choose, a pattern of internal mediation according to Girard's model: Finn the subject, Diarmuid the mediator and rival, Grania the object. In 1880 Lady Gregory married Sir William Gregory, thirty years her senior. Critic Mary Fitzgerald points out that the Grainne myth "had such strong autobiographical significance for its author that she did not allow its production during her lifetime" and that the play "contains some of her most lyric speeches and an intimate understanding of the complexities of love between the young and old."
In Act II of Grania, seven years after the couple has fled, Grania says to Diarmuid: "It was not love that brought you to wed me in the end" but "jealousy, jealousy of the King of Foreign, that wild dark man, that broke the hedge between us and levelled the wall." Girard points out that "Jealousy and envy imply a third presence: object, subject, and a third person toward whom the jealousy or envy is directed. These two 'vices' are therefore triangular." Girard explores this further, noting that "like all victims of internal mediation, the jealous person easily convinces himself that his desire is spontaneous," whereas in reality "true jealousy is infinitely more profound and complex; it always contains an element of fascination with the insolent rival." We see a direct illustration of this dynamic of triangular forces when Grania explains to Diarmuid, following the fight with the King of Foreign by the pool, that "it was not till you saw another man craving my love, that the like love was born in yourself." In the same speech Grania goes on to explain to Diarmuid that if they return home their love "will be kept kindled for ever" by his hearing kings' sons saying "'It is no wonder Diarmuid to have gone through his crosses for such a wife!'" and by her overhearing "their sweethearts saying: 'I would give the riches of the world, Diarmuid to be my own comrade.'" We sense Lady Gregory's acute insight into all four of these triangular situations (ordered here as subject/object/mediator): Finn/Grania/Diarmuid, Diarmuid/Grania/the King of Foreign, Diarmuid/Grania/jealous admirers, and Grania/ Diarmuid/jealous admirers.
In No Country for Young Men we see Grania's namesake, Grainne O'Malley, in three relationships, each time occupying a different position in Girard's metaphorical triangle. First, in the Grainne/Thea/Michael triangle which is played out in Rome, Grainne assumes the role of the mediator (and eventually rival), with Thea as subject and Michael as object. Thea wants Michael so she can "marry up" the way several of her friends have, but Michael hesitates, knowing his father will disinherit him if he marries below himself socially. Michael says, "He'd cut me off. We've got to move warily." When Thea turns to Grainne for advice, it becomes clear to Thea that, cousin of Michael's or not, Grainne has become a rival. Thea, the "brassy, disillusioned shopgirl," can never, even with her "readiness to adapt," become acceptable to Michael's family. Grainne becomes both rival and mediator as "the trio" dines out "almost nightly," and Grainne senses she may "be being backed into the role of predatory little deb who swipes the heroine's man." Thea wishes to imitate Grainne, the model of the socially acceptable and thus marriageable woman, in the way Emma Bovary wishes to imitate her model of the romantic heroine engendered by her reading of those "second-rate books."
Although Grainne becomes the rival of Thea for Michael, Thea and Grainne could not exchange their respective positions of subject and mediator. Not only does Thea not represent Grainne's desired image, but even in their courtship there is little sexual energy between Michael and Grainne; Michael substitutes drink for sex. Later Grainne recalls that "sex had been of such minimal importance in her marriage" and is stunned to learn, when Thea and her Columbian lover visit Dublin, that with Thea "Michael, in that department, was memorable." Something is amiss with Michael in his near incestuous marriage, in his inept fathering of Cormac, and in his sexuality as well: it was the episode of his "buggering a sheep" on the monastery farm when he was a schoolboy that had persuaded his father to send him "to Rome to have his voice trained for the Grand Opera."
In the second triangular situation, Grainne's pursuit of James, she becomes the subject, James the object, and the mediator her vision of the "free" woman (at first represented by her friend, Jane, Director of the Halfway House for Battered Wives in London) whom she wants to imitate in the same way Don Quixote attempted to imitate Amadis of Gaul. She had run off to London to be free: "Grainne was certainly not the cart-horse breed. Bad at pulling burdens, she'd slipped her harness five months back and left for London with their son, Cormac, leaving Michael to dry out alone." She had freed herself of Catholicism and had entered willfully into an affair with her cousin Owen Roe, one of O'Faolain's vain, brutal males like Fintan McCann from her early short story, "Turkish Delight," who "collects scalps" and "doesn't even like the women he takes to bed!" At the rendezvous at the cottage James tells Grainne: "So you propose a double bind. Like your namesake did to that poor guy she forced to run off with her. In the Celtic saga. What's his name?"
O'Faolain reminds us of the myth of Grainne and Diarmuid at this moment of incipient lovemaking because it is just such a "bind" of love and commitment that Grainne is bent upon avoiding: she wants James (the Girardian "object") only insofar as he represents freedom and temporary sensuality. Her mediator is that free woman, not sexual interdependence. Feminist critic Ann Weekes points out in a discussion of the novel that Grainne's fury at Owen Roe's advances is her "first real step towards freedom" and that she continues "to resist the pattern which the powerful males will impose" and "to resist the physical comfort these males may grant" by continuing to see James. It is clear, as Weekes also mentions, that "traditional roles are reversed in James and Grainne's relationship." It is Grainne whose fingers are "rough" "like sandpaper" and James whose flesh is "fluidly perfect," unlike the situations Grainne is used to where "she is the desirable one to whom they were beholden."
The third positioning of Grainne in the metaphor of triangular desire is as object, desired by James. A mediator similar to Grainne's ideal of freedom is at work here since James is also fleeing a static marriage, "a box" he calls it, which he would need "a powerful spring" to escape from. O'Faolain's epistolary portrait of James is clearly derisive in its focus upon his self-absorption and his hypocritical concern for his wife. Therese, "the older woman" who "had got him to bed, to the registry office and through his Ph.D.," fears it is her "lumpy thighs" that have driven James off. James is being, in his own words, "a selfish and insensitive bastard," and the letters strike at Therese's fears of her waning sexual attractiveness with the animal imagery he uses to describe the affair with Grainne: "I am like a dog barking at a door behind which he smells a bitch on heat: glaze-eyed, hot-tongued, maddened." Later Grainne is "like some piece of animal bait with which Ireland trapped me." We have silence from Therese. O'Faolain includes only one letter from her before James's letters begin with the news of his affair with Grainne.
By observing Grainne in the three corners of Girard's triangle, her cage and her struggle to free herself come into clearer focus. She moves from corner to corner—from mediator to subject to object—but spontaneity eludes her. She sees beyond; she cannot get beyond. And in another triangular relationship in the novel a curious interplay of forces emerges.
In 1922 both Judith and Kathleen (Judith's sister) respond sexually to Sparky Driscoll, Kathleen willingly, Judith reluctantly. Kathleen falls in love with Sparky: "I'm in love for the first time" (thereby setting up yet another triangle of Kathleen/Owen/Sparky), and Judith is overcome when Sparky kisses her: "Her body was behaving wildly. Were they both mad?" And it is Judith as temptress and self-sacrificial savior, acting spontaneously and outside of Girardian triangular forces, who murders Sparky to keep him from going back to cut off American funds for the IRA. Judith retains her spontaneity, "saves" Ireland, but sacrifices herself in the process—another long-suffering Irish heroine, like O'Casey's Juno Boyle or Synge's Maurya in Riders to the Sea. Ann Weekes sees Judith's decision here and other such self-defeating acts as a "madness" which is "associated with the political confusion that has affected Ireland for over sixty years." And it is Sparky, ironically, who reminds Judith that her namesake "is the sacrificial Judith of the Bible."
In the story from the Apocrypha the biblical Judith, beautiful and "dressed in her gayest clothes" (Judith 10:3), tricks the Assyrian enemy, King Holophernes, into believing he may seduce her. While he sleeps in his tent, she murders him:
She went to the bed-rail beside Holophernes' head and took down his sword, and stepping close to the bed she grasped his hair. "Now give me strength, O Lord, God of Israel, "she said; then she struck at his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head.
Likewise, Judith Clancy leads Sparky to believe he may seduce her. Alone with Judith in the Devereux mansion during the storm, Sparky touches her, his fingers playing "on the base of her neck, curling and uncurling her short, escaping hair." Then Judith, temptress and savior like her name-sake, takes the bayonet Sparky had removed from the wall and drives "the blade up under his rib cage, through the pit of his stomach and into the woodwork on the back of the divan." The executions fuse in both method and motive here, the Israelite Judith believing "The Lord will deliver Israel by my hand" (8:33), Judith Clancy believing she will deliver Ireland by keeping Sparky from "going back to America to cut off their only source of arms."
In the Kathleen/Owen/Sparky triangle Judith is afraid that Kathleen and Sparky's attraction for each other will provoke a fight between Owen and Sparky. Easily jealous, Owen believes Kathleen was dancing with Sparky in their clandestine visit to the Devereux Estate. However it is difficult to separate love from politics here, to set out cleanly the operative forces in this triangle. Judith herself says in answer to Grainne's question about the bad feelings between Owen and Sparky: "Politics? Oh. I suppose it came into it. What didn't it come into in those days? But no, I can't remember exactly." Judith's bog-like memory tenaciously keeps its secrets, "its unfathomable layers" revealing only occasional "phosphorescent glowings." And Sparky's death defuses the triangle.
Memory, a controlling motif throughout the novel, becomes mediator in a triangular relationship of Judith as subject and "empowerment" as object. If Judith can integrate her memory of 1921 with her present, she will reassemble her divided world. As the novel advances, Judith's memory, "shocked" into disarray, becomes progressively more lucid. Early in the narrative, "memory" is obscure, is polluted. As Michael walks Judith home from the convent they pause at the canal (where Judith will later see James murdered), and Judith comments that it "Looks dirty." Michael replies that it is "Polluted … like memory's stream." Mary, the present maid, becomes Bridie of 1921, further signaling Judith's two worlds. Her will to fuse these two worlds, to reassemble events, is clear when she tells Grainne "I'm seeking a memory" as she jabs at the cushion (Sparky) with Cormac's hockey stick (the bayonet). But at the end Judith wrongly believes that "she [is] in command of her faculties" as she relates James's murder to the unbelieving Owen Roe. Too terrifying for her to bring to her consciousness, the horror of Sparky's murder remains a dream, "dirty in her mind … like a stain … in the long Irish twilight." Her quest for memory, for empowerment, is as futile as Don Quixote's quest for chivalric perfection.
No Country for Young Men portrays what has become an expectation in Irish literature: women capable of sacrifice and men disabled by drink or jingoism. Eamonn, Judith's brother, is killed in the fighting in 1919; Owen O'Malley, "who doesn't really like women at all," is devoured by his patriotism; Michael is a drunk, incapacitated as husband, father, or provider; Owen Roe brutalizes women and manipulates Cormac for political ends; drunken, smelly Pasty Flynn, "invigorated" by death and caught once putting "bombs in post boxes," is an assassin; and even James is ineffectual, lost, wavering between his wife and his mistress. It is the women who act: Judith bayonets Sparky; Grainne tries to leave, first her marriage, then Ireland. Yet both women are undone by the men and their politics.
Another Irish heroine, Deirdre, "object" in a triangular affair, makes the hard decision to return to Ireland after fleeing with her lover, Naisi. In Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows she says: "It's seven years we've had a life was joy only, and this day we're going west, this day we're facing death, maybe, and death should be a poor, untidy thing, though it's a queen that dies." Like Grania in the myth, Deirdre has married against the wishes of the King, and like Grania she must return home to face him. The mythical Grania is, as Ann Weekes puts it, "condemned for the disorder that followed Fionn's pursuit of his desire" just as "women have been condemned throughout Irish history." Few of O'Faolain's characters, male or female, operate outside of Girard's triangle of forces; few have retained their "spontaneity"—the freedom to choose—and those who have are thwarted. Judith is forced into a convent by the men after she kills Sparky Driscoll; Grainne is defeated at the end by Patsy spying from the jakes and by her son Cormac who runs off to alert Michael.
Cormac, as noted earlier, carries the name of the mythological Grainne's father, Cormac Mac Art, who, in the Ossianic Cycle, had appointed Finn chief of the Fenians. In accordance with the myth O'Faolain suggests a father/son role exchange in the last scene as Cormac assumes control of the family; he races to fetch his father in the Heraldry Commission; he gives Michael "a chance" to dissuade Grainne, then himself makes the final plea: "You can't just leave us." Michael, chewing peppermints to cover his midday drinking, is silent until Grainne has left, and, as if to underscore the shift to ages in this final scene, Cormac says his mother is "behaving as people near his age were expected to behave." The son becomes father; paternal control is reasserted.
Girard feels it is "the simultaneous presence of external and internal mediation in the same work [that] seems to us to confirm the unity of novelistic literature." Both are evident in No Country for Young Men, and the structure of the novel is highlighted by the overlayment of Girard's triangle. But the "'triangular' desire" motif also brings into focus the suffocating interdependence of the ineffectual Irish man and the male-dependent Irish woman. The triangular forces become a cage, entrapping and preserving the characters like Heaney's "little adulteress" in his poem "Punishment" who is uncovered in the bog and who, like Judith, is a "poor scapegoat." Judith, entombed in her bog-like memory, is suspended in a similar stasis in time. Grainne attempts to leave—she does leave Cormac and Michael in the final scene of the novel—but the ending is ambiguous. It is Judith who sees James's car slide into the water, who sees Patsy bang with a spade or an oar "the hands of the chap who is trying to clamber out" as Owen Roe interrogates her about the ancient murder of Sparky Driscoll. James's murder and Sparky's murder coincide at the apex of the novel and are alone observed by Judith, and, true to O'Faolain's depiction of Judith throughout, no one believes her this time either: "'Bonkers!' [Owen Roe] mouthed 'Harmless.'" She is not a "vainteuse" confined by forces of triangular desire, but is preserved, cloistered by the men who have electroshocked her memory from her, the "young men" of the novel's title.
"Sailing to Byzantium," from which O'Faolain shapes the line for her title, depicts Yeats's image of escape from modern confusion and disorder, where "… all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect," to a country of high artistic integrity, the sort of escape from a chaotic present that O'Faolain's characters are unable to effect. They have given up their individual wills: the men to Ireland and to drink, the women to Ireland and the men. Judith's ideal, indeed the one she murders for, is an Ireland run by young men. She tells Sparky:
"Kathleen's fellow, Owen, will be in the Dail for sure. It'll be a country run by young men."
"What about the women? They'll have a say now too, won't they?"
She shrugged. "The men in this country would never let women have a say."
No Country for Young Men is a gloomy depiction of the energies at work in contemporary Ireland, and a superimposition of Girard's triangular forces on the novel only gives Ann Weekes's feminist reading increased validity. At the end we are left with the hollow sound of Grainne's boots "clumping" along the canal, like the sound of Nora's door slamming, but we wonder if Grainne will get beyond "the old place," their rendezvous spot, where James lies dead and mutilated in his car.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5033
SOURCE: "Woman Across Time: Sister Judith Remembers," in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 17-26.
[In the following essay, Vandale traces how "Through Judith [in O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men] we see how the lives of women in Ireland have been, are, and no doubt will continue to be affected by war, politics, men, and the Church."]
No Country for Young Men by Julia O'Faolain, "one of the most accomplished Irish writers of her generation" is, as Jay Halio has described, "a darkly comic stor[y] concerned with the position of women." Dark in that it certainly has its share of death and mystery, the novel nevertheless retains a twisted touch of comedy, which challenges the readers' emotions; we laugh sometimes only because otherwise we would cry. This sense of painful comedy is embodied by the women characters throughout the story. For, despite a title which might lead one to believe otherwise, No Country for Young Men is unavoidably about Irish women. In particular, it is about Judith Clancy, the old mad nun great-aunt of Grainne and Michael. Through Judith we see how the lives of women in Ireland have been, are, and no doubt will continue to be affected by war, politics, men, and the Church. What sets Judith apart from other women is that she has dared act on her own initiative—refusing to be completely squelched by the limitations generally placed on women—and has suffered punishment for doing so for the rest of her life. Furthermore, Judith is symbolic of Ireland itself, bringing to mind the Caitlin Ni Houlihan/Shan von Vocht myth. Although Ireland ultimately controls her behavior, Judith never loses her passionate love for it; indeed, she lets nothing stand between her and what she believes to be the good of Ireland and its people.
A cross-generational story, No Country for Young Men employs old Judith's amazingly lucid flashbacks of her youth to tell essentially two stories at once. In the one we have a young Judith surrounded by political upheaval in the troubled Ireland of the 1920s. Through her associations with Owen, her sister's revolutionary fiancé, and Sparky Driscoll, an American IRA supporter come to evaluate the situation and drum up funds back in the States, Judith is entrenched in the fight for a free Republic. In the other "present-tense" story, the aging Sister Judith finds herself removed from her familiar convent surroundings and placed in the home of her great-niece Grainne and family. Another "American for the Irish cause," James Duffy happens to enter Judith's life and—along with Grainne—works towards uncovering some of the unclear details of past IRA actions. The two stories, seemingly completely independent of one another except for Judith's existence in both, are actually intricately interconnected as we read of generations of deceptive, volatile relationships and the parallel deaths of two relatively innocent young American observers.
Essentially it is Judith, the link between past and present, about whom Ann Weekes writes when she says, "The madness that forces women to act against their best judgments and against their best interests is, in No Country for Young Men, associated with the political confusion that has affected Ireland for over sixty years." Operating within this political confusion, Judith would probably not agree that she acted at all against her best judgment or interest when she killed Sparky Driscoll. She was doing what she thought necessary not only to protect Owen's political and marital position but also to protect her sister from the winsome ways of the persuasive young American. But subconsciously, on an emotional level somewhere beneath her fiery exterior, Judith is obviously bothered by what she has done, for she represses the entire event—not to mention much of the history of that time—and only remembers many years later through the constant jarring of her memory by practically everyone she encounters. In her position as a woman, her rash behavior is seen as madness; madness, however, was not what caused Judith to kill Sparky. His death was the result of a blurred definition of "acting in the best interest," which grew out of that chaos commonly called politics.
Whether or not she consciously recognizes it, Judith's entire life has been influenced and shaped by politics, although in an interview with James Duffy Judith says, "Politics? Ah, I'd be no help to you there…. They kept me in the dark. I'd be no help to you about politics." The "political confusion" Weekes refers to was unavoidable to a girl of seventeen whose family thrived on the turmoil:
What bound the family together was their Republicanism. In the yard, behind the family pub, a coal pile and stacked porter barrels provided a ladder for quickly scaling the back wall in time of need. Unknown young men came and went unquestioned, sleeping on the kitchen settle or in the guest bedroom, Kathleen's fiancé, Owen, was active. Eamonn, their elder brother, had been killed when Judith was fifteen. Seamus too was with the lads. Only their father held back…. What difference was it going to make if and when they got their Republic? he asked…. But he was over-ruled in his own house.
For the young Judith, political unrest was so much a part of her daily repast that she failed to see any of it as "politics"; at the Clancys', "patriotic" support was a common fact of life.
But Judith wants more than token patriotism. Rather than passively standing aside observing and serving the flow of the men and weapons through their doors, as Kathleen did, Judith is infected with the spirit of the men. Sparky himself calls her a revolutionary, and, although she never openly agrees with him, the reader has the privilege of access to Judith's inner thoughts: "[After the signing of the treaty] Owen came home to find the house full of Free Staters with only Judith—who wasn't revealing her opinions—a secret diehard." Her political views have been especially shaped by Owen, whom she unadmittedly, and no doubt unintentionally, adores. Her adoration encourages thoughts most "unfeminine," as she acknowledges that "She was viscerally on Owen's side. The clash of wills excited her." This political fervor appears to have survived the years of electrotherapy, for even as a daft old woman her political stance remains firm. When Cormac, Grainne's son, questions Judith about the IRA, she confesses that as a nun she cannot make a monetary donation to the Army, but she does still support the revolutionary group. When Cormac pushes her about concern over the methods of the IRA and the fact that "The Church condemns wars which cannot be won since they expose people to needless suffering," Judith changes the subject rather than have her opinion altered by her supposed devotion to the Church. Her IRA ties are none too subtle; exhausted by an encounter with drunken Michael, old Judith must be carried up the stairs, but as she is she sings a fight song from somewhere deep in her past:
"But the boys of Kilmichael were ready,
And met them with powder and shot,
And the Irish Republican Army
Made bits of the whole shaggin' lot!"
Judith may sing her song from days gone by, but Cormac's hitting her up for a donation to the IRA is evidence that the song is not exactly anachronistic. Her life and associations intertwining the past with the present, Judith is the link between the political unrest of the 1920s and that of the 1970s, the two periods in which the action of the novel takes place. Sadly, she is witness to the fact that there have been few important changes in the political situation of Ireland during that time. Even as adolescent Judith permitted her emotions to be overrun by her political convictions, in typical IRA fashion, so do the youth of Ireland sixty years later. Time has not changed the fact that, even for women, it is nearly impossible to be Irish and not be political in some way, whether or not one chooses to act on those beliefs and ideals.
Politics cannot be separated from two other aspects of Judith's life which are mentioned early in the novel as the cause of strains in her family: sex and war. In her youth Judith cannot escape the impact that the closely intertwined forces of war and men (who are representative of sex) thrust on her life. Because her mother died while Judith was still quite young, she has not had much female influence in her life—other than her older sister Kathleen—but has been molded by the men surrounding her, by Seamus and Sparky as well as Owen. The younger of two daughters and sent away to school for many years, Judith has not had to endure quite the same male oppression as Kathleen; yet she is still well aware that, as a female, certain expectations and limitations are placed on her. Her home was male-dominated, and devoid of motherly influence:
Home was male territory. Judith's sister, Kathleen, struggled without hope…. The house was full of men's boots, smells of unemptied chamber-pots, a clutter of unassigned hats and macintoshes…. On the chimney-piece there had once been china figures but the maids had done for them. Their mother's collection of Waterford glass had gone the same way.
Judith has been raised in an atmosphere which hints at the convention that she is supposed to be something lesser because of her womanhood. Her father reinforces the notion that even God feels this way about women when he says, "What do you need … tormenting Almighty God? Don't you think he has better things to do than to listen to the ulagoanings of females?"
In the convent schools Judith has, from an early age, been "reminded that it was an Irishwoman's frail morals which led to the English first coming [to Ireland] in 1169. Women bore inherited guilt." Thus girls are expected to be pure and holy and virtuous, as if this will somehow make up for all the wrongs committed by women through the centuries. They are indoctrinated with the confusing knowledge that they must remain in their places as women; otherwise their powerful influence over men might be damaging. Judith recalls the reaction she and her fellow convent girls had to the visitation of one particularly teary priest: "'My darling and beautiful and pure and innocent little girls,' said the priest, and a ripple of nervous hilarity ran from bench to bench. 'How can I ever tell you the joy it brings to my heart to see innocence abloom today in this ancient, holy and sacred land of ours?'" Weeping all the while as though in pain, he went on to talk to them about the danger of "Eve's sin," desiring knowledge. In the end the girls were "alight with vanity at the effect their feminine virtue had seemed to have on him, a ruined creature but martial, holy, and moreover male."
With this kind of repressed background it is no wonder that Judith "carefully kept herself from knowing about soppy things like love and courting" and is painfully aware of how "truly shameful … mention of sexual matters" would be. She is embarrassed by Sparky's forward manner and unsure of what to make of him when he shows her some attention:
"[Kathleen]'s pretty," [Sparky] acknowledged now, "but you're more beautiful. Will be."
[Judith] didn't believe she'd heard him right. Her?
"Didn't you know?"
She blushed and hated him.
"What for?" she had to ask.
"Dragging you out of childhood."
"You have no small opinion of yourself!" There was a supply of such remarks.
"You see, it's happened," he teased, "you're flirting."
The impudence! But she wouldn't believe him. Redheads were rarely beautiful.
It is Sparky again who later torments her with talk of sex, bringing to her mind images which frighten her and cause her to run off, leaving him behind. He knows her naiveté and insists on capitalizing on it:
"Why are you frightened of sex, Judith? You're a country girl, after all," said Sparky. "You must have seen animals."
"Stop. I won't listen." But he was blocking the path….
"Why are you so prudish?" he asked. "A revolutionary should be able to look at things the way they are…."
Revolutionary or not, Judith denies any attraction to men, chides Kathleen for her behavior towards Sparky, and is furious with herself when she discovers she has little control over her own physical reaction to the American when he kisses her. She eventually comes to an acceptance that Sparky belongs lumped into the general category of unreliable men:
She finally decided that poor Sparky Driscoll had a deformed mind and that she should empty her own of the bilge he had poured into it. Men were unstable creatures…. It could be unsafe to come too close to them and this wasn't only true of the American.
For all their instability, however, Judith seems resigned to the fact that the men are the ones making the decisions regarding her country. We might believe that she has been convinced by Owen's declaration that "the formative idea comes from the male and the clay is female: passive, mere potentiality…. We are their virile soul." Time stands still for Owen in regard to women. He thinks of them only in relation to their usefulness for men; his big hope is that the "ancestral virtue" of "maidenly modesty" would flourish in the "new, free and Gaelic Ireland." Judith apparently acquiesces to this idea of male dominance when in a conversation with Sparky she talks of the future leadership of Ireland and comments:
"Kathleen's fellow, Owen, will be in the Dail for sure. It'll be a country run by young men."
"What about the women? They'll have a say now too, won't they?"
She shrugged. "The men in this country would never let women have a say."
Yet it is precisely this restriction that Judith, whether consciously or not, fights so forcefully. She refuses to play by the rules and stand along the sidelines cheering on the boys. Whether it was the influence of all the men in her life, or the lack of a mother to discourage "inappropriate" behavior, or a subconscious rebellion against the upbringing of the convent, Judith is stimulated by the idea of the war and energized to the point of wanting to fight herself. After the Treaty has been signed, she experiences a sense of regret:
Judith did not want the Treaty to hold. This was wrong of her for war was a means and not an end. To want it to go on was wicked—but she did want it to. She had grown up in the expectation that it would be her adulthood, her confirmation as a person. And now, when she was ready to join in it, it had stopped.
Seamus is one of the few who is aware that there are indeed women who share Judith's passion; in response to a sharp remark uttered by Judith, he exclaims, "Jesus … the women in this country are fire-eaters. You'd be afraid to be alone with one on a dark night." He is the one who recognizes Judith's need for revolutionary involvement, and he teaches her how to charge with a bayonet:
Judith had insisted on using a hay-fork. She attacked the bolster with such vigour that Seamus said he'd let her have a try with a real bayonet as soon as he could get his hands on one. It was a pity women weren't being armed, he said. It might calm them down to do a bit of real fighting. As it was, they had no outlet and were a sight more blood-thirsty than the lads.
During that restlessness of her seventeenth year, Judith is involved in her own personal revolt—against her approaching "womanness"—as well as in the political one. She equates her own developing self with sex, as something that should be suppressed: "Judith never reached the stage of being vain since she never discovered whether she was plain or pretty. She had a suspicion that she might be about to blossom, but put off the moment by slouching and wearing unbecoming clothes." Judith takes pleasure at being thought a tomboy for wearing bits of "masculine gear" and enjoys her time spent with the "boys." She resents Sparky for always being the one to remind her that she is actually an attractive young woman, and for responding to her as such. Judith would much rather spend her time charging the bolster with her hayfork in defense of the Republic of Ireland than playing the silly games men and women seem destined to play.
The confusion caused by these two intertwining and destructive forces—her passion for Ireland and her passion against her sexual awakening and attraction to men—ultimately overwhelms Judith, and she reacts by killing Sparky. Not only does he taunt her physically and emotionally, but also politically, which simply breaks the final thread of Judith's already tenuous self-control. He begins arguing with her against Owen's cause and in favor of the new Irish government, claiming that a revolution at this point would lack all justification: "She walked agitatedly away from him. Why wasn't Owen here? This man could convince anyone. He was convincing her. What hope had Owen's party with a man like this going back to America tonight to cut off their only source of arms?" So when Sparky, having no idea of Judith's emotional instability at this point nor of her practice with the hayfork, hands her a bayonet from the wall with the challenge: "Here, feel it. Weigh it. Imagine you're driving it into the guts of a real man. You wouldn't do it. Your nerve would fail you. I know," Judith meets him on his own terms. Sparky obviously didn't know what he was talking about; he had no idea that Judith's devotion to Owen and the fight for Ireland was enough to drive her to murder.
Ironically, Judith sacrifices her future on behalf of a man who cannot even thank or respect her for it. In Owen's opinion women have no place in the war; rather they belong in the "domestic sphere," to which he later confines his own wife. The general assumption is that "women's role was more of a back-up one, wasn't it, in the old Republican movement?" as the Reverend Mother queries Michael when he picks Judith up at the convent. Judith's superior doubts that Judith could have been truly "active" before entering the convent—although she has been told Judith was—because "active" was not something women did. Even Judith, during her disturbed years and having little recollection of the past, oscillates between memories of having contributed something to the Republican movement and the feeling that she must have played no part at all. In a visit with Owen about ten years after entering the convent, she confronts him with what she believes have been less-than-satisfactory political results from the movement:
"It's funny," she said. "When the fighting was on, even during the Civil War, we felt the future was ours. If the past was as bad as ours was, then we had to own the future. It was our due, inevitable, do you remember, Owen? Ours!" She let her eyes shine out at him with irony. Judith was twenty-eight that year. She had recovered from years of almost catatonic silence. "You got your future!"
And years later in a conversation with Cormac she begins to talk about what "we" were fighting for, then corrects herself to say that "they" were fighting for a new Ireland, as if the war were something she had observed but not in which she had participated.
Ultimately, though, it is Judith's participation, her "accepting male definition and … acting in the male mode" which leaves her mad and commits her to the convent. She is punished for stepping out of bounds, not only those of femininity but also those of political correctness. The crime is not so much that she killed Sparky, but that she did not disguise the murder as an accident. It was more than convenient for the IRA to have Sparky out of the way. What could not become public was that he had been killed by those he was supposedly there to assist. So, although Judith thought she was doing something to assist Owen, she only succeeded in getting herself locked up for the rest of her life. Her punishment for "acting in the male mode" is living in a place where there are no men, where she must redirect her dedication for her country towards a life in the Church.
We have hints throughout the story that Judith did not choose her vocation, but the reason behind her forced participation in convent life is not revealed until near the end of the book. Devotion to God really had nothing to do with her becoming a nun. Strangely, in a book which is centered around the life of a nun, there is a blatant absence of God in the novel. The irony of Judith—a nun without any definite faith in God—is richly symbolic of a Catholic Ireland without any definite faith in the Church. The Irish people in No Country for Young Men display a lack of adherence to a pronounced faith, despite how much the Church dictates their lives, especially the women. As Judith is eventually rejected by the Church, so the Irish people seem to feel abandoned by God. They have turned their sights towards other rewards, as Michael suggests when he calls the people of Dublin "success-worshippers, as materialistic as the inhabitants of any other city." Owen Roe further claims that the Church no longer has any power and that the country is run by the Catholic laymen, rather than Church officials. The Church is present yet essentially powerless in Ireland, and present but essentially meaningless to Judith.
Resonating with Owen Roe's claim of the ineffectiveness of the Church is the speech by Sister Mary Quinn, one of the new "modern" nuns, professionally styled and tailor-dressed. In defense of changes taking place in the convent and as encouragement to other nuns to follow suit in her "dynamic commitment" to change, she says, "The Church … is a living organism. An organism which fails to adjust to change risks being fossilized and ultimately exterminated." As part of this change, the young nuns are to move to poor parts of cities and find work there. Some of them are assigned to look after the "oldies" who "may be more of a hindrance than a help in the society to which [they] are returning." But Sister Judith is a "special" case, and we see her practically rejected by the Church. The Reverend Mother justifies sending Judith away into the arms of not-overly-welcoming relatives with,
"Now that we are going public, it would jeopardize the impact of our overall effort if…. Can you imagine Sister Judith Clancy who, as we all know, regrettably—well, she's seventy-five and a bad seventy-five and there are things distressing to consider which must be considered nonetheless…. You do know that her delusions are not all religious?"
Judith is abandoned on the premise that she might damage the Church's image—an argument coming from one who has supposedly vowed to put aside "worldly things," like catering to others' opinions. Michael refers to Judith as a repudiated bride of Christ, and Grainne certainly sees Judith's removal as a betrayal when she says to James,
"From what I can make out, she seems to have had an appalling life."
"Why? Because she was a nun? But mustn't that have been a free choice?"
"… It wasn't her having gone into the convent I meant but the fact that she then had to come out. Imagine: after fifty-five years! The monastic alternative was never gay but used to be reliable. Repudiation was never in the contract when you became a bride of Christ. If Jesus is a Judas … then…."
No one is more distressed or confused by the staggering changes in her life than Judith herself. Although she sometimes considered God a "fair-ground trickster" playing with her mind, she had become relatively comfortable in her life as "an abducted bride" of Christ and does not follow the new routine in the new place. Grasping for something recognizable, she asks Grainne for her habit, not realizing she's not worn one for six months, since the sisters abandoned them. Her disrupted life "back in the world" has left her feeling as isolated as ever, if not even more so:
Sister Judith felt she was living behind a sheet of glass. A shroud. Some insulating chemical. She was cut off and had no rights. No place of her own. No privacy. Words dripped away, rolled, disappeared, like beads from a broken rosary. She was getting too tired to try and find the right ones for what she felt…. Judith wished she was dead herself. She nearly was. Diminished. Isolated. Glassed in. Glassed out.
Judith fears that she is an "uncharitable old thing. And proud" and that now she must be doing her Purgatory on earth for sins committed during her life.
But what are these great sins for which Judith is paying? When the men were rewarded for so-called revolutionary killings and made heroes of, it is patently unjust that Judith receives a life sentence in the convent for a killing that protected the cause. Here is something more than merely a political cover-up. In addition to Judith's being the archetype of the struggle of Irish women, she ultimately symbolizes Ireland itself. The country has a long history of conflict and disruption, political confusion and emotional turmoil, and people acting out of passion rather than in their own best interests. And, in spite of the attempts to hold women responsible for all of Ireland's problems, there really is no definite source of blame for Ireland's incessant violence. As Judith feels she is serving time for something she does not completely understand, so are the Irish still paying a price for inherited conflicts. Judith demonstrates the destructive pattern of which her country is also a victim: haunted by the past, bewildered by the present, and uncertain of the future. Like Judith's mind with its "power of suction" and "unfathomable layers," Ireland's history is a bog, composed of centuries-old layers of peace and strife, and sucking up generations in its never-ending quest for some sort of stability.
As a representative of her country, Judith additionally invokes the portrayal of Ireland in Irish folklore. While the characters of Grainne and Kathleen redact the Grainne-Diarmuid tale, Judith's presentation in the novel reminds us of the legend of Caitlin Ni Houlihan/Shan von Vocht. Judith, the displaced old woman taken into the O'Malley household for shelter, elicits the memory of the Shan von Vocht in Yeat's "Cathleen Ni Hoolihan." She brings to the family tales of the past, of fighting and death of a time gone by. She is "Mother Ireland," a figure who somehow does not quite fit into the current times; Cormac labels her "one of the dead generations." Like Yeats's Old Woman, Judith's heart is not quiet and she is troubled by too many strangers in the house. She has visions of men who have died and men who will die. And she herself is responsible for two men who, although not Irish, die as a result of their associations with her. Judith appears to be harmless, helpless old woman, but she is cursed and carries death with her as a burden of her past history.
Because of the construction of the novel, Judith, the dried up old hag, is simultaneously the dynamic young figure of Caitlin Ni Houlihan. As a vibrant, passionate young woman she symbolizes the "magic, irresistible lure" described in the old myth. Kathleen's statement "[Sparky]'s starry-eyed about Holy Ireland. Caitlin Ni Houlihan … has yer man's interest" is loaded with implications of Judith as Caitlin once we discover Sparky's attraction to the younger sister. This Caitlin Ni Houlihan, however, struggles against any attraction men may have for her, perhaps because of her superstitious fear of the luring power of a woman. Yet, intentionally or not, she does finally lead a young man to his death for the sake of the Ireland she loves.
In their youth, Judith, Owen, and the rest of the "revolutionaries" cling to an idyllic image of a united Ireland where differences are forgotten and peace replaces violence as the common fare. They are willing to attain this dream through fighting, the only way they know to make themselves noticed. W. B. Yeats wrote that Ireland is "no country for old men," but O'Faolain argues further that neither is it a country for young men. Hopeful for their futures while they are young, they live to see visions erased as the violence persists, but the united Republic never emerges. If death does not take them first, as in the case of Judith's brothers, political moves come to determine their lives, as happened to Owen, who was raised into a position of political success while lowering Judith into the void of electroshock and lost memories.
Yet Judith, not a man at all, survives with her revolutionary drives intact. Despite her shattered hopes and disturbed mental state, the forces of war, politics, the Church, and male domination cannot suppress Judith's spirit. Although she has paid the price for her youthful "rash behavior, we are left with the sense that, if she were to go back to her seventeenth year, Judith would repeat her performance. For such "repeated performances," are embedded in Ireland's history. The rashness of youth is juxtaposed with the confused identity of old age. Finally, the painful irony lies in the possibility that Judith is indeed "Mother Ireland." A not too hopeful picture is painted of a fractured Ireland, a country which, like Judith, is caught between the struggles of past and present, aware that its young men have died before, but unable to control the events leading them once again down the path towards devastation.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 758
SOURCE: "A Question of Infallibility," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4669, September 25, 1992, p. 24.
[In the following review, Gilmore praises O'Faolain's The Judas Cloth as "[a] powerful, original and intelligent novel."]
As I began reading The Judas Cloth, I could not help recalling Lampedusa's remarks on the beginnings of Scott's novels: each was "veramente insopportabile", he declared, an endless parade of people and places too often and too meticulously described. But as I read on, I remembered his observation that, after page 100, "one realizes that the faces and places have remained imprinted on one's memory…. And the drama is described in masterly fashion: the psychology of the characters is solid, the action alive and rapid."
These judgments might fairly be applied to Julia O'Faolain's immense work, although the action is occasionally held up by the complexities of nineteenth-century papal finance. A powerful, original and intelligent novel, The Judas Cloth is spread over a giant canvas, centred on Rome but stretching to Bologna and later to Paris. The papal city, bewildered by the challenges of nationalism and revolution, is vividly evoked: a sinister place of intrigue and corruption, of denunciations and anonymous letters, a city of blackmail and "ancient odours", where Jesuit priests instruct children to spy for God. The fetid atmosphere is curiously reminiscent of the Vienna of Measure for Measure.
From this world, at first seemingly over-peopled by aspiring monsignori and cardinals with similar names, the author pulls three young men and interweaves their lives with that of the besieged Church. Prospero, the son of a liberal count, ends up among the most intransigent of the Ultramontane bishops. Flavio, streetwise orphan, discovers that he is the son of his mother's brother and inherits the dukedom of his nominal father. And Nicola, another supposed orphan who spends much of his time ruminating on the identity of his parents, eventually finds his mother but refuses to reveal himself. It would be too operatic, he decides, too like Figaro. As for his father, he speculates about various people, including a cardinal, a Bonaparte and his mother's uncle, before he finally finds out.
The novel's real protagonist, however, seldom appears in the flesh. He is Pope Pius IX, the hope of the liberals at his election in 1846, the despair of all liberal Catholics soon afterwards. The author takes us through those fateful years of disastrous decisions which have bedevilled Catholicism ever since: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Syllabus of Errors, the final megalomaniac proclamation of infallibility. She gives Prospero the role of defending it all—"See how pernicious freedom is! The faithful have a right to be protected against errors which could make them lose their souls"—but she has no sympathy with his leader.
Described by her publishers as an ex-Catholic who "still sees Irish Catholicism as the root of her writing", O'Faolain is neutral on the politics of the Risorgimento: no romantic enthusiasm for the nationalists, no (Harold) Actonian nostalgia for the Bourbons, and certainly no support for the temporal power. Her compassion is for the Catholic moderates, who lost out then as they have lost so often since, for the men who believed there must be an alternative to that persistent denial of the modern world. "Repeated prohibitions to think", declares Cardinal Amandi shortly before his murder, "will not defeat modern science nor put out its light."
The novel ends among the embers of the Paris Commune, but its climax occurs just before, at the Vatican Council, where the elections to the commissions have been rigged and the Pope is forcing the dissentient bishops into line. Nicola, who was a protégé of Amandi, is now titular Bishop of Trebizond and is dismayed by the infallibility debate. He retains a respect for truth, has led a largely blameless life—a single afternoon of youthful love resulting in a boy, adopted by Flavio—and cannot stomach the evils of papal politics. But at this moment he discovers, to his understandable horror, that Pius, whom he now scarcely accepts as his spiritual father, turns out to be his human father as well. As fictional coincidences go—and there are many in this book—this may be stretching things. It is certainly too much for Nicola, who begins to go to pieces, although it is not until he has been caught up in the savagery of the Commune that he finally pulls off his cassock, the "Judas cloth", and renounces the Church. Our last sight of him is in layman's clothes, at his father's funeral, rejecting the handshake of Bishop Prospero.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3592
SOURCE: "Stephen Dedalus in Paris?: Joycean Elements in Julia O'Faolain's Three Lovers," in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 244-51.
[In the following essay, Mastin analyzes Fintan McCann from O'Faolain's Three Lovers as a refiguration of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus.]
In his now famous vehement interchange with Davin in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus declares that "Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow." Fifty-some years later, in the world reflected in Julia O'Faolain's Three Lovers, Ireland continues to evoke the same criticism and be wrapped in the same strictures. When O'Faolain's Fintan McCann sees the "squat little map" of Ireland on a letter addressed to him, he sees a "foetally folded Ireland, stretching out embryo arms" to his Paris haven, threatening to consume him in its "all-devouring Irish muck." For O'Faolain's characters, Ireland is not just the "old sow that eats her farrow," it is even more inimical, a "suppurating womb of a place, [a] soggy bog of lies and loneliness." Stephen's misogynist image is here replaced by one that carries particular poignancy in a country where abortion and contraception are illegal and where a mother's life is secondary to her child's. This image suggests a land that not only destroys its people but that also jeopardizes its reproductive future. In O'Faolain's fictional world there is no easy escape from Ireland's "embryo arms."
Published in 1970 as Godded and Codded, Julia O'Faolain's first novel was republished in the United States in 1971 under the title Three Lovers. In this work O'Faolain has transformed the character of Stephen Dedalus into one Fintan McCann, an Irish painter in Paris, and thus adds an interesting coda to Joyce's Portrait. While Fintan is not an exact replica of Stephen, as the Irish artist in Paris he does re-enact a significant part of Stephen's quest to "forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated consciousness" of the Irish race. Fintan makes no bones about his reasons for leaving Ireland: "I don't have to remind you that there's hardly an Irish artist left at home, yez missed the boat badly with a number now dead and have a lamentable record generally for yer treatment of those of us living abroad." Joyce would heartily concur.
Stephen Dedalus' Ireland flung nets of "nationality, language, [and] religion" at the souls of Ireland's citizens to hold them "back from flight." For O'Faolain, as well, the religious net, in the form of Irish Catholicism, is one of the most repressive that threatens Irish men and women. As Seamus Deane has noted, Catholicism "disallows life, it disavows freedom and it is a friend to imperial oppression and an enemy to the desire for liberation that even a maimed nationalism retains."
Fintan does not fare very well in Paris because he is unable to fly high enough to escape the nets of language, religion, and nationality. For this thirty-five year old Irish artist, Paris initially represents freedom: "There was Paris for you. You could yell your frigging head off and who gave a damn." Yet he carries with him the mannerisms and belief system of Ireland, "partly a countryman's habit." His own weapons are those with which Stephen Dedalus armed himself as he went forth on his journey: "silence, exile, and cunning." Fintan is "an odd creature: a mixture of ingenious cunning and naïveté." Steeped in neo-colonialism, he is determined to escape colonial domination, to throw off the mores of a post-colonial society.
What is troublesome and somewhat ironic from the perspective of Three Lovers is that Fintan's refusal to take on the dominant Irish male role of colonial hegemony leaves him in an ambivalent position with Irish women. None of the Irish women Fintan encounters are able to respond to him appropriately and recognize a masculine presence not built on domination and usurpation, the acceptable norms of masculine behavior for characters living in Ireland's neo-colonial society. As he himself tells Sally Tyndal, the female protagonist of the novel: "I'm harmless and who thinks the better of me? Tell me that now. Honestly. You make use of me, right? 'Poor Fintan, a harmless, decent skin' can be called in to decant another man's bottle. That's about all he's good for." Sally admits that she does not think of Fintan as "a man. Men are the enemy." Instead she wants their relationship to be filial: "Let's be brother and sister like the pair in the old fairy story who lay in the wood comforting each other and for whom the birds made a coverlet of leaves." Sally is willing to share a bed with Fintan but not have sex. As Fintan tells "Miss Tyndal, I'm not a conventional man," she seems further perplexed. In effect, she becomes Fintan's Emma Cleary.
The women Fintan ends up involved with are all Irish, just as repressed as he is, and they ironically judge him by the standards set up by a patriarchal, post-colonial society. It is Fintan, nonetheless, who tries to point out to Sally that Irish patriarchy places her in a secondary, subservient role. He tries to make Sally recognize the myopic manner in which she views her Algerian revolutionary lover Mesli. As she continues to tease Fintan, he recounts that:
They used to make a holy man, a hermit usually, anyway a sex-starved poor bastard, sleep with a pointed breasted virgin…. The virgin was risked to test the man's resistance. His virtue was judged in the morning by her condition. A favorite game of the early Celtic church we're told. They did it in Glendalaugh to St. Kevin if I remember aright and he threw her over a cliff. The point was she didn't count. The matter at issue was his sanctity.
The role of colonizer and colonized is played out in relationships in the novel, with men typically being the colonizer. However, to underscore how Ireland has warped her children, O'Faolain includes the attempted seduction of Fintan by Letty, an Anglo-Irish friend of Sally's mother, thereby reversing the usual male/female patterns established in the novel. Full of bathos, this episode's subtext nonetheless personifies Letty's position as colonizer and Fintan's as the colonized. The Anglo, or British, part of Letty's heritage is emphasized in this scene. She becomes England, the usurping aggressor, and Fintan becomes identified as the passive colonized Irish, "a servant of … [t]he imperial British state," as Stephen Dedalus remarks of himself. As England then, Letty quite literally sucks the life from Fintan through oral sex. Having unwittingly been lured into the position of sharing a bed with Letty, he is left helpless as she takes full advantage of the situation:
[T]o his horror [he] felt her reach for his penis…. He tried to remove her hand but it was firmly clamped and it would be ludicrous to wrestle with her…. Stiffly, he lay with hands plastered to his sides. Suddenly, Letty put her head beneath the sheets, dived, dolphin-like, doubling on herself. He felt her satiny breasts against his things and—Oh, Holy Saint Michael-Mary-Joseph-and-Patrick! No 'No, Letty,' he implored, pinned by her considerable weight … 'Come up outa that! STOP! For God's sake stop that! Stop, stop. STOP!' Vice, he thought. THIS IS VICE! Evil. Of the Devil. Wrong. Why is she doing it?…
Damning and humiliating me…. The whoor of hell, he thought…. Head back, teeth bared like a mad horse's, released, overwhelmed and limp, he lay staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
Fintan is heir to rather disquieting relationships with women, seeing them, as Stephen Dedalus tends to do, as saints, virgins, or whores.
As he reflects on the one-sided sexual encounter with Letty, Fintan berates her: "Damn and blast her, wasn't it because he liked and respected her that he couldn't … because with some whore he might, oh he might have enjoyed the plunge into debauchery and the rich, boiling cauldron of the rabid flesh. With some she-devil whom afterwards he could deny himself, some lost—though recuperable—creature who would burn him clean." Fintan can only think of Letty, in her role as seductress, as a whore from Hell, rather than as a lonely woman who finds him sexually attractive. He must invoke the power of Catholic saints to protect himself from the evil power attributed to sex. When he thinks of his other lover, a woman in Dublin whom he may have impregnated, he castigates himself endlessly about the episode. "Ah, the flesh was weak, the foul treacherous flesh, pale and harmless without, rabid-red within." But then, the woman becomes the temptress, the whore figure from Joycean days, "so beguiling, mindless, kittenish, wanton." Progressively the image of woman as saint creeps into Fintan's mind, and he inevitably experiences the guilt bequeathed by Catholicism, "the supplementary guilt at leading another soul astray." On the other hand he calls Sally "Saint Sally," and the reader suspects that part of the reason for Fintan's exile to Paris is to get away from the young Irish woman whom he suspects is now pregnant. Unable to deal with this guilt, Fintan decides to try to avoid women and takes to telephoning them, in lieu of meeting them face to face, as a distorted means of self-defense. "A telephone call? Wasn't it the very instrument of spiritual communication? It disembodied, as no convent grills could do. Dante would have hailed Beatrice on the phone if he'd had the convenience of it." While Fintan can see the marginalization of women in Irish society, he can't consistently extricate himself from the webs that ensnare him in the same knee-jerk repressive response to women.
The confusing and contradictory image of woman, both as virgin and as temptress, that the Catholic church inevitably sets up for its flock, catches Fintan in a net that is thickened by his practical relationship with the church. Ironically, Fintan is on a "bishop's scholarship to study at the School of Art" in Paris. This scholarship has been awarded by a country that had removed all nude sculptures from its principal art gallery, the Municipal Gallery. Even in art, as in Irish life, sexuality is masked and suppressed. When Fintan takes part in an art session, paints a rather blasphemous Madonna figure, and gives the artist the status of "seer," a clerical/biblical role and one that Stephen Dedalus shares, the session is abruptly terminated by an Irish priest, "a member of some Irish Arts Committee," who tries to re-establish the status quo. Fintan finds himself caught in the snare of Irish censorship. Paralleling Sally's father, the clergy serve as the parental figures who apply the cosmetic of silence and conformity to deny and thwart the realities of Fintan's attempted nonconformity. Fintan's exile and freedom are threatened by the loss of his scholarship. If he fails in his artistic endeavors, he will have to "teach drawing in a monks' school down the country." In the end, as he sees the clergy closing in, as it were, Fintan decides to flee Paris for another European haven, leaving an anonymous guest with a hurley stick at his art exhibition to remark that he had enough material to do a thesis "to the effect that the worst thing that could have happened to Ireland was the coming of St. Patrick."
The art exhibition reverberates with the emotional turmoil and montage effect created in the "Circe" chapter of Ulysses when Stephen smashes a lamp. Fintan attempts to paint a picture of the Madonna, never one that he can envision without getting lost in a labyrinth of emotion, and in his mind it is replaced with images of Sally's aborted fetus and his guilt at assisting her with the abortion. The images of woman as saint and as whore become fused in his drunken stupor. Feeling the claustrophobic inhibitions of Ireland closing in on him, unable to smash any lamps and free himself from the ghosts that haunt him, Fintan flees Paris for Barcelona. Like Stephen Dedalus, he is also haunted by his relationship with his mother, similarly associating her with washing and with the domestic sphere, and within his equally ambiguous feelings toward her.
His mother had washed for him once. Poor Ma. Poor stranger. He thought of her with—Christ, to be truthful nothing. Not even guilt, though he was good at that, more with a sort of wonder that she should exist: feeling of the be-gilled and agile fish for an amoeba. Did I, with my fins and mouth and speed and lively eye, come out of you? And what can I do for you?… You had a deadening life and, as we were eight, it was one-eighth my fault.
Although the allusion to eight children may remind us of the Dedalus family and Stephen's mother's hard life in Drumcondra, it also underscores that little has changed since Joyce wrote Portrait. Irish women, burdened with too many children, with no control over their reproductive futures, have bleak lives.
Fintan McCann's inclusion in this narrative does more than simply allow O'Faolain to add an interesting coda, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Paris, or to provide the needed peer mentor for Sally as the female protagonist. Additionally, Fintan throws the reader back into the images of colonial Ireland that Joyce painted. The stifling air of Dublin's capital carries itself to Paris in the person of the Irish Ambassador with the "thin gombeen man's face," the Irish priest who stops Fintan's art exhibit, and the "rosarybeads of green Connemara marble" hanging in the apartment of Shewawn Donnelly to exclude men and sex. The reader finds in these Joycean comparisons that post-colonial Ireland and her citizens act and think very much like their predecessors. The yoke of England may be gone, but the legacy of colonialism lingers on. Fintan McCann finds it impossible to fly free of the nets described by Stephen, and there is still no room for the Irish artist in Ireland. Fintan reminds us that "He'd never used a real handkerchief or a flush lavatory," while Joyce would have reminded us that the lavatory was an English invention, and an English word.
However, to trace the Joycean influences in O'Faolain's work is not to suggest that she, or other Irish women writers, write in the shadow of Joyce, but rather to suggest, as Elaine Showalter and Adrienne Rich do, that women writers (re)Joyce, translating, adapting, and expanding Joyce to fit their stories, and even filling in the gaps in stories, whether those gaps be caused by gender, culture, or other realities. As Catherine Stimpson points out:
The fact that Stephen Dedalus is male is no mere contingency but a crucial element of his identity—his relations to literature, country, and church; his relationships to others. A portrait of the artist as a young Catholic woman in late nineteenth-century Ireland might have a family likeness to Joyce's work, but at most only a family likeness. What, for example, would her dreams be of priesthood? Delirious fantasies?
Conscious, then, of Joyce's literary innovations and thematic concerns, O'Faolain forges her own novel's course by doing more than just filling in the gender gaps that a mere rewriting of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman might entail, such as the possible re-visioning of Emma Cleary as Sally Tyndal, or of Stephen as a female sensibility.
The portraiture of Fintan is, in many ways, a portrait of Sally's male counterpart, "whelped by the same Holy Mum," Catholic Ireland, as Fintan notes, and it adds contrast to a novel whose emphasis falls heavily on exploring the impact of post-colonial Ireland on its women. By re-visioning Joyce, O'Faolain takes advantage of the vehement outspoken voice of Stephen Dedalus wrestling with the nets of cultural repression to provide her female protagonist Sally Tyndal with a needed mouthpiece, a voice that can see the nets and name their oppressive, stifling reality. Sally is unable to give voice to her repression throughout much of the novel, so colonized is she by Irish patriarchal hegemony that she can only speak to herself or Fintan McCann and not to her oppressors. With Stephen Dedalus' character, Joyce provided an Irish male voice capable of producing, in Seamus Deane's view, "a native statement free of the trappings and prevalent ideological assumptions of the colonizer." In choosing to adapt this voice for her purposes, O'Faolain is neither myopic nor repetitious. Nor is she reticent to employ formal Joycean structures, including interior monologue, pastiche, propaganda, and a myriad of literary allusions, for her contemporary perspective on Ireland. After all, "Words," she tells the reader, "words were [Fintan's] strength."
O'Faolain weaves an intricate narrative web where Cromwell, the Shan Van Vocht, the Famine, Simone DeBeauvoir, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Sweet Afton cigarettes, the Brontë characters of Heathcliff and Rochester, and Camus are beaded into an intricate web of meaning, the slightest touch of any strand producing a reverberation of narrative significance. For example, invoking the winged man of mythology, Stephen Dedalus' namesake, O'Faolain intertwines the image of flight with an Alice-in-Wonderland reference to remind the reader that the nets O'Faolain's characters have flung at them are decidedly male. These nets and webs have not been spun by Penelope. As Sally dreams, she remembers that it is her colonized Algerian lover, inseparable in identity and value from her Father, symbol of puritanism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism, who
was pulling me into a mile-deep well—like Alice falling. I was happy until I noticed the bottom crawling with reptiles. I'm petrified by snakes, I suppose because we have none in Ireland. I kicked him away and began to soar. I could fly but, as I was reaching the top, the power left me and I began to fall again. At the last moment I saved myself from the reptiles who were spitting white poison from below. I started to rise but again, as I was gaining confidence that I'd made a getaway, I began to fall. And so on: up and down….
O'Faolain shows the interconnection between repressive Irish Catholicism and sexual relations, and the inevitable guilt that haunts both Sally and Fintan regarding sex. Both genders' view of each other is distorted, most especially when it comes to sexual relationships. Sally struggles to get away from the "all-devouring Irish muck" of Irish Catholicism, which "equates sex with shame," yet sees herself as a "sort of mud creature … whose native habitat is a swamp of undefined guilt." While Sally finally breaks free from the grips of these repressive nets, Fintan is not so successful.
If indeed Seamus Deane is right, and all of Joyce's novels "formally … enact the liberation of a voice from paralysis, silence, suppression," then the many Joycean elements in O'Faolain's Three Lovers can be attributable, in part, to her desire to enact that same liberation. Ultimately, however, O'Faolain elects not to rewrite Joyce totally; instead she agrees with him that there is no room for the male artist in Ireland and leaves Fintan McCann very much as Joyce left Stephen Dedalus in both Portrait and Ulysses, walking off in search of a self that never seems to achieve self-actualization. We remember Stephen's parting words to Cranly in Portrait: "I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning." Those weapons are not enough for O'Faolain's Dedalus to battle through the nets of language, religion, and nationality. Indeed, in many ways, they seem to have made him even more vulnerable. Suspicious and cunning like Stephen, Fintan "would not try a new language [French]. He had come [to Paris] to be alone. Incomprehension was to have protected him. Or so he had planned it." Like Stephen, who declares to Cranly at the end of Portrait that he does "not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave," Fintan initially thinks that he too can survive alone without human intercourse. However, when he recognizes that "no one had accepted him into the fellowship of ordinariness," Fintan discovers that he misses that "fellowship and the odd bit of friendly contact he could get in tearooms at home," and he pines for a woman's affection. At first, his sometime Irish drinking companion's rechristening of Fintan as "Singularis McCann … the boar who lived apart from the herd" does not perturb him. However, by the end of the novel Condon's appellation serves to haunt the artist as he flees Paris, alone and exiled once more.
When it comes to the woman artist (Sally is after all a writer, although not an active one in this book), O'Faolain holds out more hope. Although she too has walked away from Ireland, Sally demonstrates that she can cut through the nets of cultural patriarchy. She breaks away from silence, marginality, and oppression. Unlike Fintan, Sally is able to let go of her Irish identity, and in so doing is liberated to an embryonic state of growth. "She would nurse herself" later to a level of maturity and peace. The end of the novel leaves the reader with a glimpse of Sally in the process of reassembling the "ragwoman's barrow of oddments" into something acceptable to herself, although not to Ireland. In contrast, our last word from Fintan, that with a cryptic lack of specificity echoes Portrait's closing paragraph, is a note on his door that reads: "Gone to Barcelona."
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 142
Hargreaves, Tamsin. "Women's Consciousness and Identity in Four Irish Women Novelists." In Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature, edited by Michael Kenneally, pp. 290-305. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, pp. 1988.
Analyzes the search for identity and existential meaning found in classic fairy tales and the work of Julia O'Faolain, Edna O'Brien, Molly Keane, and Jennifer Johnston.
"Subjection and Seclusion." The Economist 246, No. 6756 (17 February 1973): 107.
The review gives credit to the talents of O'Faolain and fellow editor Lauro Martines for making Not in God's Image "a source-book on the history of women … [which] stands in a class quite of its own."
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