Mother Ireland: With Photographs by Fergus Bourke

by Edna O’Brien
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

Mother Ireland is Edna O’Brien’s first book-length work of nonfiction, a medium to which she has not devoted very much attention during her prolific writing career. In certain respects, the book is a consolidation and repetition of material which the author had already treated fictionally in her first three novels—The Country Girl (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964)—and more graphically and with greater art in A Pagan Place (1970). The autobiographical content of Mother Ireland, however, is presented in the context of the author’s general observations about her native land and her native place within it, which is in rural County Clare, in the west of Ireland. Thus, while the seven chapters of Mother Ireland cover O’Brien’s childhood, education, and immediate after-school life in Dublin, culminating in her emigration to England, each chapter contains more than a mere recitation of strictly autobiographical data. It is for this reason that the work is ultimately one of cultural, rather than strictly personal, interest and significance. Clearly, readers wishing to know more of the background of one of the least likely, but best-known contemporary Irish writers of fiction will find a considerable amount of color and detail regarding Edna O’Brien’s origins, together with an intriguing amplification of episodes from the early novels.

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O’Brien’s point of departure for presenting this material typically is an Irish myth or some representative scene or experience from Irish life. Each chapter opens with a comparatively impersonal preamble leading into the more intimate, autobiographical matter. There seems little thought, however, that the personal is necessarily clarified by being presented in the context of a more generalized perspective. No explicit links are made between the two modes of discourse, and the text frequently rambles from one to the other, conveying the senses of spontaneity and improvisation which mark the author’s autobiographical fiction.

The result is an idiosyncratically human document in which the possibility of ideas about Ireland is subtly repressed in favor of a representation of the emotional and psychological bequest of that country’s culture and Catholic-derived mores. In keeping with the work’s title—a title which is a commonplace honorific designation of Ireland—the author’s emphasis is on the nurturing and domestic aspects of Irish life more than on what might be considered more eye-catching areas such as history, politics, or art.

The text is accompanied by a number of photographs by Fergus Bourke. For the most part, these have no direct bearing on the text (an exception is a superb portrait of the author’s father). The reader unfamiliar with the land and people of Ireland, however, will find them illuminating, and their grainy black-and-white texture and pearly light contribute effectively to the work’s overall atmosphere. Readers familiar with Ireland will find their sense of familiarity stimulated.

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

Mother Ireland is Edna O’Brien’s first book-length work of nonfiction, a medium to which she has not devoted much time during her prolific writing career. Most often, she writes short stories, novels, and plays. She did, however, follow Mother Ireland with the edited anthology Some Irish Loving (1979). In this wide-ranging collection, O’Brien paints a rather gloomy picture of women’s biological destiny, which causes their exclusion from real connection, with men in particular, which is where their fate lies in O’Brien’s fictions. Subsequently, too, O’Brien wrote James and Norah (1981), about Irish fiction writer James Joyce’s marriage, and she read Brenda Maddox’s Norah for The New York Times Book Review. O’Brien shows no great sympathy for what she calls “latent feminist combativeness whereby Norah has to be put on a pedestal.” Mother Ireland undoubtedly sprang from popular interest in O’Brien and her background because of her successful fiction writing, particularly The Country Girls Trilogy (1986) and A Pagan Place (1970).

After its initial “Land Itself” chapter, Mother Ireland continues to examine O’Brien’s life for six short chapters: hometown, classroom, books, a convent, Dublin, and escape. The impressionistic, highly subjective account she gives here suggests the extent to which she uses versions of her own experiences in all of her fiction.

O’Brien’s heroines generally fit very uneasily, except as negative role models, into the world of feminism. Unlike their creator, who engineered her own success, O’Brien’s heroines—she almost never has a male central figure—often fail from a lack of that self-reliance that she has demonstrated in her own career. The rather bleak picture of Ireland in the 1940’s and 1950’s that she evokes in Mother Ireland may well have much to do with both her success and the lack of it among other women who are not so motivated.

Fergus Bourke’s thirty-five excellent, subdued, black-and-white photographs of people and places in the Republic make up “the other half” of this little book. Northern Ireland and all nationalist political or economic comment are properly excluded because they are irrelevant to O’Brien’s parochial development in the 1950’s. Bourke’s photographs are accompanied by lengthy, whimsical captions, often including quotations for which sources are unfortunately not always given. Some of the arresting human portraits, such as that of the enigmatic, anonymous “Mother Ireland,” leave the reader wondering about the model and a possible family relationship to O’Brien in this highly personal journey. There is nothing anonymous about the menace suggested by the seated Michael O’Brien, the author’s father. All in all, Bourke’s photographs complement perfectly the black, white, and dappled effect of O’Brien’s rather breezy, breathless, deliberately nonscholarly account of her native place and people and their contradictory legacies to her.

Mother Ireland is an ambivalent figure for O’Brien, embodying the love-hate relationship evident in all of her fiction set in Ireland. The mother is here seen as violated by a succession of men, including priests, and the result, says O’Brien, is a “trinity of guilts”: Christian, for the land, and for the mother “frequently defiled by the insatiable father.” It is in this oppressive context that all O’Brien’s melancholy Irishwomen search obsessively in the wrong places, and without much success, for a love connection that will bring happiness.

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Starting with the “mother” symbol for Ireland, O’Brien is early on the attack. Her second sentence, with its preponderance of negative connotations, runs, “Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare.” For this reason, O’Brien fled the powerful influence of Mother Ireland, and her own joyless, martyred mother, as soon as she could. Her own mother, she has said, was “horrified” by the sexual forthrightness of her daughter’s early books, which were banned in the Republic of Ireland; anticlerical sentiments and priests in compromising roles also played parts in the censorship decision.

More fundamentally opposed to mainstream feminism, as has been suggested above, is the procession of sentimental, romantic, whining heroines on which O’Brien focuses her fiction. Based on the claim, which O’Brien has made repeatedly, that men and women are fundamentally “different species,” her typical heroine accommodates herself to the man in her life. Men in this scheme of things are almost always depicted as users and abusers of their women. On a couple of occasions in her fiction, as in The High Road (1988), lesbian feelings are discreetly consummated, but this is a rare occurrence in O’Brien, and it brings no more lasting happiness than her heterosexual relationships seem to do.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

Eckley, Grace. Edna O’Brien. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1974. This excellent but brief sympathetic study needs to be updated in its primary and secondary materials. It is the only book-length publication on O’Brien.

Guppy, Shusha. “The Art of Fiction: Edna O’Brien.” Paris Review 26 (Summer, 1984): 22-50. A lengthy and comprehensive interview including O’Brien’s views on other women writers and her place in the literary continuum. “I am not the darling of the feminists. They think I am too preoccupied with old-fashioned themes like love and longing,” she says.

O’Brien, Edna. “A Conversation with Edna O’Brien.” Interview by Philip Roth. The New York Times Book Review 89 (November 18, 1984): 38-40. A lengthy, perceptive, restrained, and generally sympathetic interview with a fellow novelist. Roth elicits very personal avowals from O’Brien; for example, on hating her father and overloving her mother. “Obsessive” is the word she chooses in speaking about her attitude toward her childhood.

O’Hara, Kiera. “Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O’Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Summer, 1993): 317-325. Offers a psychological rationale for O’Brien’s choices: “Sometimes the unattainability of love in childhood causes a person to seek . . . the same kind of unattainability in later life. . . . ‘The notion of love’ fits this pattern as clearly as does a substance addiction.” Mother Ireland is well suited for this kind of reading, as indeed it is for an introduction to O’Brien’s work as a whole.

Woodward, Richard B. “Reveling in Heartbreak.” The New York Times Magazine, March 12, 1989, 42, 50, 51. Focuses on the opposition, revealed in interviews as well as in O’Brien’s fiction, of “the helpless female with the tough-minded writer, the woman-about-town with the farm girl riddled by religious guilt.”

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