Historical Context

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The Troubles
During the twentieth century, there have been two periods of unrest in Ireland, which have become known as the Troubles. The first was the Irish War of Independence, a guerrilla campaign conducted by the Irish Republican Army (often called the Old IRA to distinguish it from the later IRA) against the British government in Ireland from 1919 until the truce in 1921. The peace talks led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921), which allowed the mostly Protestant Northern Ireland to opt out of the mostly Catholic Irish Free State. Northern Ireland did so and became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Irish Free State, that part of Ireland that declared itself independent from Britain, was named the Republic of Ireland, or simply Ireland.

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The second period of Troubles centered on the violence involving paramilitary organizations such as the IRA, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, the Northern Irish police), the British Army, and other groups in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until the 1998 peace settlement known as the Good Friday Agreement. The conflict began when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), formed in 1967, campaigned for civil rights for Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority. NICRA drew its inspiration from the civil rights movement in the United States. NICRA’s demands included an end to the manipulation of voting regions, which gave unionists control over local government even in towns with nationalist majorities; an end to discrimination against Catholics in government employment and local authority housing; disbandment of the B Specials section of the RUC, which was viewed by many Catholics as a Protestant vigilante force; and repeal of the Special Powers Acts of 1922, 1933, and 1943. The Special Powers Acts allowed arrest without charge or warrant, internment without trial, flogging or execution of suspects, use of witness testimony as evidence without requiring the witnesses to be present for cross-examination or rebuttal, destruction of buildings, requisition of land or property, and banning of any organization, meeting, or publication. These measures were seen as being aimed against the nationalists.

In practice, the power to intern without trial under the Acts of 1922, 1933, and 1943 was only used immediately after the partition of Ireland (1921) and during World War II (1939–1945). The 1971 law reactivating internment without trial, passed in Northern Ireland, was a different matter. Though the British government claimed that the law was for the purpose of fighting terrorism from either side, Irish Catholics saw it in practice as another tool to repress them. Between 1971 and 1975, of 1,981 people who were detained, 1,874 were Catholic/nationalist, and only 107 were Protestant/unionist. The NICRA took up the issue in their campaigns. At a NICRA anti-internment march in the Northern Irish city of Derry on January 30, 1972, twenty-six unarmed demonstrators were shot by the British Army, of whom thirteen died immediately and a fourteenth died a few months later as a result of his injuries. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday. Following this, the NICRA lost support as many nationalists lost faith in peaceful protest and turned to the Provisional IRA. The backlash against internment led to the 1972 decision of the British government under Prime Minister Edward Heath to suspend the Northern Ireland government and replace it with direct rule from London.

Potato Famine
Another historical event that may be reflected in the play in the sad tale of Wilson, the Weatherby and Fitch employee who becomes emaciated and worn out in Mrs. Rogers’s service, is the Irish potato famine (1845–1850). The famine was caused by a blight that destroyed the potato crop, the staple food of Irish rural people. British policy in Ireland is widely considered to have been partly responsible for the devastation caused by the famine. First, British penal laws dating from the late 1500s meant that Catholics could face confiscation of their property. As a result, by the time of the potato famine, most Catholics held small amounts of land. Second, British penal laws forbade Irish Catholics to pass on family land to a single son. This prohibition led to subdivision of plots with every generation, meaning that by the time of the famine, most family plots were extremely small. Potatoes were the only crop that could be grown in sufficient quantity to feed a family on such plots, leading to a dangerous dependence on a single crop. Third, much of the best land was packaged into large estates owned by absentee British landlords, who, even while the famine was in progress, continued to use it to grow cash crops for export. This arrangement meant that Irish Catholics could not be self-sufficient in food, except for the potato crops grown on small plots of poor soil.

It should be noted that many landlords of large estates did try to help their starving tenant farmers. They organized soup kitchens and relief works such as building (mostly superfluous) roads and walls, for which they paid the farmers. Some estates bankrupted themselves in the process. As a result of the potato famine, around two million Irish people emigrated to Britain, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Speech Characteristics as a Sign of Class
Mrs. Rogers’s constant attempts to correct Eugene’s Irish pronunciation and dialect to a more English style may refer to the historical suppression of the Irish language by the British. The language has traditionally been viewed as a tool of Irish nationalists, and in the twentieth century, it was perceived as indicating links to the IRA. Before 1871, the Irish language was banned in Ireland’s primary schools, and only English was taught, by order of the British government. Not all suppression of the Irish language came from Britain, however. Many Irish-speaking parents discouraged their children from speaking Irish, as a strong stigma attached to the language. The Irish Catholic Church also discouraged the use of Irish in its schools until 1890, as economic opportunities were seen as being within English-speaking countries.

Literary Style

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Allegory of Character, Action, and Setting
Political allegory in The Au Pair Man extends beyond the two main characters to a character that does not physically appear. This is Wilson, Eugene’s predecessor as Mrs. Rogers’s au pair man. When Wilson emerges from his time with Mrs. Rogers, he is emaciated and worn out. On the literal level, this is a comic comment on Mrs. Rogers’s sexual appetite. On the level of political satire, this probably refers to the Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1850. Britain is widely considered to have been partly responsible for the famine, because of British-imposed land ownership laws and changes in the rural economy brought in by British and Anglo-Irish landlords.

The play’s setting also carries a great deal of allegorical significance. Mrs. Rogers’s dilapidated house stands for the declining British Empire. The fact that Mrs. Rogers believes she owns it and later finds out that the land on which it is built belongs to someone else refers to the conviction of the British-occupying government that it has a right to be in Ireland. Eugene’s attempt to evict her from the house symbolizes Irish resistance to British occupation; the fact that he is unsuccessful implies that Leonard does not believe that Ireland will achieve independence from Britain.

The allegory is carried into the internal layout of the house. The wall unit, which Mrs. Rogers uses as a partition and to brace the walls and ceiling, represents the partition of Ireland into the British-owned Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland. Mrs. Rogers sleeps on one side of the partition, and Eugene on the other. The atrocious state of the house behind the wall unit refers to the economic deprivation of the mainly Catholic Republic of Ireland at the time of writing. The collapse of the wall unit over time refers to the vulnerability and instability of the British system of partition.

Throughout the play, the fountain pen is a comic phallic symbol. Mrs. Rogers repeatedly borrows Eugene’s fountain pen and becomes angry when he withholds it. She is delighted with its quality, though she is contemptuous of the fountain pen of his predecessor Wilson, which, in line with his lethargic and lazy character, always proved defective. Act 1 ends with the desperate Mrs. Rogers stealing Eugene’s pen and locking it in her box. When he forces the box open, many fountain pens fall out. Eugene gives her a significant look, as he knows what this means: he is one in a long line of au pair men whose pens she has stolen.

The pen may also have a secondary symbolic meaning. Ireland has produced a disproportionately large number of great writers, who are revered in Britain. Mrs. Rogers’s obsessive desire for Eugene’s fountain pen may comment on the gap between British attitudes toward Irish literature and toward the nation of Ireland as a whole. In addition, British policies in Ireland and a stigma attached to the Irish language have suppressed its use, meaning that most Irish writers before the 1990s wrote in English. In a sense, then, the Irish lost their writers to the British, just as the series of au pair men lose their pens to Mrs. Rogers.

Mrs. Rogers’s taunting of Eugene as “Stripey” is an insult that works on the literal and symbolic levels. On the literal level, it mocks the poverty of Eugene’s family, as the term refers to the striped material used by his family to lengthen an ancient shirt that he had long since out grown. In Ireland, striped wool or cotton calico fabric was commonly used for shirts by poorer rural people. On the symbolic level, “Stripey” is a reference to the tricolor, the triple-striped flag of the Irish Republic and the nationalists.

Speech Styles
The Au Pair Man’s debt to Irish author George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion has often been noted. In Shaw’s play, a large part of the professor’s success in passing the London flower girl off as a lady springs from the changes he teaches her to make in her speech. Shaw knew that in the England of his time, perhaps more than any other place in the world, accent and speech patterns defined class. He commented in the preface to Pygmalion (cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations), “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman despise him.” This point is illustrated in The Au Pair Man, as Mrs. Rogers constantly sneers at Eugene’s Irish accent and dialect and tries to teach him to speak like an upper-class Englishman. When Eugene rebels against Mrs. Rogers’s authority, he provokes her by returning to his Irish vernacular, such as saying “voilence” instead of “violence.” The historical British suppression of the Irish language (though suppression also came from Irish sources) is reflected in Mrs. Rogers’s arrogant statement, “Your mind was a blank page and I wrote my name on it.” To Mrs. Rogers, the Irish language is merely a blank.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364

Billington, Michael, “Satire with Little Bite,” in Times (London), April 24, 1969, p. 15.

“Fiendishly Clever Frolic,” in Time, January 7, 1974, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,910978,00.html (accessed September 20, 2006).

Gallagher, S. F., “Introduction,” in Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, Colin Smythe, 1992, p. 7.

Glover, William, “Leonard Offering in Irish Tradition,” in Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1973, p. B11.

Leonard, Hugh, The Au Pair Man, in Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, chosen and with an introduction by S. F. Gallagher, Colin Smythe, 1992, pp. 13–86.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1954, p. 490.

Richards, David, Review of The Au Pair Man, in New York Times, February 16, 1994, (accessed September 20, 2006).

Further Reading

Delaney, Frank, Ireland, Avon, 2006. This novel is a fictionalized history of Ireland, told in a series of tales of kings, warriors, and supernatural beings by a wandering storyteller to a young boy. When the boy’s mother banishes the storyteller for blasphemy, the boy sets off in a quest to find him.

Glassie, Henry, The Stars of Ballymenone, Indiana University Press, 2006. In 1972, during the height of the Troubles, Henry Glassie traveled to the farming village of Ballymenone in Northern Ireland. He listened to people talk and collected the stories and songs that make up an oral history of the region from the sixth century to the 1970s. This book provides a unique record of a vanished world and comes with a CD, so that the people’s voices can once again be heard.

Leonard, Hugh, Home before Night, Andre Deutsch, 1979. This book is the first part of Leonard’s autobiography, giving his vivid, moving, and often funny recollections of growing up in Dalkey, Dublin, in the 1930s and 1940s. It was reprinted, along with the second part, Out after Dark, by Methuen in 2002.

———, Out after Dark, Andre Deutsch, 1989. This book forms the second part of Leonard’s autobiography, covering his later years, living in Dalkey, Dublin. It was reprinted, along with the first part, Home before Night, by Methuen in 2002.

McKittrick, David, and David McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland, Penguin, 2001. This book provides a clear, balanced, and accessible overview of the Troubles during the twentieth century.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1960s: The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) is formed in 1967 to campaign for civil rights for Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority. NICRA activities culminate in an anti-internment march in 1972, which ends with the British Army’s shooting of unarmed demonstrators, an event which comes to be known as Bloody Sunday.

    Today: The Northern Ireland Assembly, a home rule legislature established in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, is under suspension as of 2002. The assembly is designed to ensure that both unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland participate in governing the region. The suspension occurs because of unionist impatience at perceived remaining links between nationalist party Sinn Féin and the IRA. The Police Service of Northern Ireland, successor to the RUC, alleges that Sinn Féin employed spies at the assembly.

  • 1960s: The Republic of Ireland is predominantly an agricultural economy and continues to struggle with poverty, high unemployment, and emigration. The situation is exacerbated by the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

    Today: Economic growth in the Republic of Ireland averages an exceptional 10 percent from 1995–2000, and 7 percent from 2001–2004. The phenomenon leads to the country being called the Celtic Tiger. Industry replaces agriculture as the country’s leading sector, and Ireland is a leading exporter of computer hardware, software, and pharmaceuticals. One of the factors cited in the Republic of Ireland’s success is the peace process in Northern Ireland.

  • 1960s: The geographical, political, and economic isolation of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland make them largely dependent on past and present British policies in Ireland.

    Today: After Britain (including Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland join the European Union in 1973, the political and economic center of power increasingly shifts from London towards the wider trading bloc. Both Irish economies improve thereafter.

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