Mother Ireland: With Photographs by Fergus Bourke

by Edna O’Brien
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Masterpieces of Women's Literature Mother Ireland Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

The inclusion of Queen Macha of the red tresses early in the quasi-history of Ireland opening her autobiography is a key to the auburn haired O’Brien’s own preoccupations. Macha, the seventy-sixth Irish monarch, ruled Ireland in 377 b.c.e., having defeated one uncle in battle and married another. Disguised as a leper (the ultimate outsider), O’Brien claims, Macha charmed her male opponents and made them her slaves. So much for the romance that is behind much of O’Brien’s Ireland. It is, after all, a country from which many of the best and brightest, such as O’Brien herself and her literary heroes, Joyce and Samuel Beckett, escape as soon as they can.

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Those who escape, however, are often, like O’Brien, blessed and cursed with long memories. Her recall of the minutiae of daily living is astounding. So too are the feelings of guilt, sprung from loneliness, the Catholic church, the family—father and mother—which haunt her. This melancholy is all the more poignant because these sad currents flow in a scene of great natural beauty and among details from all O’Brien’s senses. The reader can smell the reek of turf fires burning, feel the itch of woollen jumpers, taste the sugar-sprinkled bread-and-butter sandwiches, hear the thumbnail crack of lice fine combed onto a newspaper, and see the ink-stained schoolroom floor.

These impressions are conveyed by a keen, if erratic, lexicographer with a burgeoning delight in words. Even if “dirament” is not in the Oxford English Dictionary and “hoi polloi” is wrongly used to suggest the aristocracy, a host of other often latinate terms rush to fill in the Irish scene. The impression of speed in composition is maintained despite the obviously researched lengthy citation of townlands’ English names, official reports, a nameless priest’s letter of consolation, and various anonymous quotations from Irish histories. To be scholarly in this context or any other is anathema to O’Brien. Here, the illusion of romantic furor is the medium for communicating what Ireland was, and romantic love, whatever the evidence to the contrary, seems to be the only ticket out of this inhibiting local and national environment.

Each of the six loosely rendered stages ending in “Escape” is here remembered through a rapid shuttering of dark and light, and through what James Joyce calls “epiphanies”; these are moments when personal truths are revealed. The harsh reality of the Dublin crooner’s bicycle-clips slipped onto his trouser cuffs to keep the chain oil off them is noted in the context of the narrator’s swooning over him. O’Brien, from her vantage point sixteen years “out,” is merciless on herself, on the inexperienced, grasping, and ambitious self that was; therein lies much of the attraction of this account. Like Lord Ullin’s daughter of the ballad-romance or the Irish Queen Macha with whom she began and who is reintroduced “red-maned . . . bathed in blood,” O’Brien makes her own fateful match. The last word of the “Dublin” section is “bride,” leading to the ultimate “Escape” section, which Mother Ireland suggests was accomplished alone. In fact, O’Brien by this time had two sons and a husband from whom she was soon to be divorced in a bitter legal action that gave her custody of the children. Such an omission serves not only to keep the selective focus on the narrator but also to reinforce O’Brien’s sense of the value of fighting back and of pushing on hopefully. What is the alternative to soldiering on? her autobiography asks, which is surely what mothers do. Mother Ireland ends on a note of optimism from the narrator. Mary Hooligan had sounded the same note of defiance in Night (1972), but it was not to last. Subsequent O’Brien heroines fall back into the whining mode and bad choices in men of the early Kate in The Country Girls Trilogy. “Why haven’t her women wised up?” wondered Richard B. Woodward in a lengthy 1989 article. It is evidently O’Brien’s choice to give negative examples; she clearly has, in the Baba of the early trilogy and late Epilogue (1986), a positive voice at her disposal.

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