Mother Ireland: With Photographs by Fergus Bourke

by Edna O’Brien
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Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Mother Ireland Analysis

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1053

“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.

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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 economically and emotionally independent young lady. Here, however, as events suggest, the life for which she had been equipped, its vocabulary of brand names providing a characterization of material adequacy, is not particularly attractive to her. On the contrary, it is to the emotional and sexual side of her nature—the areas of existence for which no guiding provenance have been offered—that she finds herself wanting to devote most of her individual energies. In these areas it is clearly impossible to sustain for long the designation of self in the second person; in the family home, the local school, and the convent school, however, the author frequently describes herself as a “you,” an anonymously typical product of the times.

Thus, Edna O’Brien finds that it is the normality of life in Ireland from which she finds herself in exile. This normality—its pretensions, its tastelessness, its crass tone and dull manner—induces the author to describe its practitioners as inhabitants of “Godot-land,” an allusion to the works of Samuel Beckett which follows through on Mother Ireland’s curselike epigraph from Beckett’s work. (Scholars of O’Brien’s work may, indeed, date her increasing familiarity with, allusions to, and writing on Beckett’s works from the publication of Mother Ireland.) In the opening chapter, and rather in contrast with the work’s overall tone, there are references to a return trip to contemporary Ireland and various scathing remarks about the quality of life there, including artistic and cultural life:No great philosophers, no great psychiatrists, no achievement where logic is paramount; a great literary endowment, true, but lean offerings over the past thirty or forty years. Romantic Ireland, quite dead, you say, when you are sitting down to high tea, . . . imploded with drop scones, apple pie and soda bread.

The connection between logic and romantic Irleand is tenuous at best, and the rather adventitious sense of form conveyed by Mother Ireland suggests that the author is not perhaps the most qualified to make the connection more substantial. It is not surprising, therefore, that romantic Ireland is what has earned O’Brien’s allegiance. Her frequent quotations from the rich, and not infrequently kitsch, repertoire of Irish story and legend (not all of which comes from the school anthologies of her generation) reveal part of the substance of that allegiance, as do some of the book’s concluding statements: Ireland “is a state of mind as well as an actual country. . . . Ireland insubstantial like the goddesses poets dream of. . . . The impassioned, and often-violent, imaginative backdrop to the land of Ireland is invoked to colorful effect by the simple and telling means of giving the origins of the Irish place-names as they occur naturally in the course of exposition. This material, the basis for which is to be found in redactions of old Irish sagas, speaks of exalted feeling and deeds characterized by destructive finality—the antithesis, clearly, of quotidian life. In addition, there are numerous references to matters of documented Irish history and an unanalytical sense of the manner in which such matters become transformed because of their endurance in the popular mind. There is the implication that the preservation of certain grandiose, stylized versions of events in the Irish imagination has an inevitable compensatory function.

Yet, because of her country’s imaginative appeal, O’Brien retains her attachment to it. This, perhaps, is the ultimate denouement of the title’s parenting metaphor. For all its flaws, Mother Ireland’s indestructible umbilicus still provides psychic sustenance. O’Brien’s position with regard to this primal parent is typical of offspring. She remains indebted to the influences of her formative environment, while desiring to articulate, with an independent mind, her resistance to those influences. The most revealing evidence in Mother Ireland of that divided yet reconciled condition is the interplay between memory and imagination.

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