Mother Ireland: With Photographs by Fergus Bourke Critical Essays

Edna O’Brien

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Mother Ireland Analysis

“I believe that memory and the welter of memory, packed into a single lonely and bereft moment, is the strongest ally a person can have.” Apart from giving a sense of the author’s style—note, for example, the tonality of that sentence’s subordinate clause—this quotation from Mother Ireland speaks to one of the text’s most obvious strengths, its power of recollection. Set in the impoverished and repressive atmosphere of Ireland in the 1930’s, the years of World War II, and their unenlightened aftermath, Mother Ireland is at its most persuasive when presenting revealing moments of the provincial life of those provincial times.

At the heart of the text is an irregularly coordinated series of epiphanies illuminating experiences of, and typifying attitudes toward, class, religion, education, and entertainment. These epiphanies are almost invariably given expressive life in the context of daily, material life; Mother Ireland is replete with the common nouns of dress fabrics, tableware, high tea, and related staples of domesticity, whether the domicile is the author’s home or the convent boarding school in which she spent most of her adolescence. Such a context clearly emphasizes the mothering theme of the work as a whole.

One limitation of this approach is that it seems to preclude the world of men and work outside the home, with the possible exception of priests, who are treated as rarefied, unworldly creatures, worthy of the greatest respect and whatever culinary honors the family can confer. The lack of a social sense that conveys a sense of manners in the broad meaning of the term deprives the reader of insights regarding life on the land during a relatively undocumented period of economic difficulty and sociopolitical uncertainty. On the other hand, such an omission creates space for this work’s deft, impressionistic sketches of character and faintly gossipy overview of local life. Thus, although there is a certain unsystematic air about Mother Ireland, one gathers—by virtue of its persistence, if by nothing else—that this air is being deliberately cultivated in order to create an impression of the randomness and inevitable selectivity of recall.

In addition, this book’s disregard of the systematic prevents O’Brien from developing a specifically feminist perspective governing her portrait of the artist as a young girl. Nevertheless, the question of what manner of woman emerges from such a context is implicit throughout, particularly in the closing chapter, where young Edna is now an...

(The entire section is 1053 words.)