Irish nationals

Irish nationalism is all too often seen as the battle ground of men, occupying city post offices and exchanging furious rhetoric, a generalisation that sees women marginalised. In actuality, women were linked to the very core of nationalism not only, as critcs like Eagles note, because of their involvement in radicalism but because the very avatar of the country that was being fought over was female. In her book, Woman and Nation , C.L. Innes asserts that “throughout the history of its colonialisation, Ireland has been represented by […] Irish nationalists and artists as female”  When Innes says “Ireland”, she means both the land itself and its people but this essay will focus on the people by examining the lead female characters in Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger and J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World as embodiments of national identity.

Although one female figure immediately springs to mind when one thinks of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger, there are arguably too women that are central to Patrick “” ‘s life his mother and his potential lover, who is represented by fleeting mentions of unfettered younger girls enjoying freedom and sexualisation. These twin female figures have a well established tradition as representations of the nation in Irish literature: Innes notes that “in general, Irish portrayals of their country fall into two categories: those that depict Ireland as maiden and those that depict her as mother.”  Kavanagh arguably uses both and it is from the contrast between them that his portrayal of Ireland is formed, a portrayal does not fit neatly with the connotations of either archetypical women.

Patrick’s mother represents the idea of Ireland as a mother, both in spiritual and cultural terms as ‘Mother Ireland’ and ‘Mother Church’.  As Mother Ireland, her principle purpose is to act as a symbol of the old order of traditional Ireland. Like her, old Ireland was seen to be highly dependant on another, in this case England rather than a son. Even amongst many Irishman at the turn of the twentieth century, there was an argument for the devolution of power rather than total independance for Ireland because they believed that the country was incapable of governing itself. Despite her obvious dominance over her son, Patrick’s mother is largely dependant on him to bring in income, to tend the land and to perform menial manual tasks like letting out the chickens. This reading cannot be seen to especially watertight on its own, mainly due to discrepencies with the power structure between the dependant and the dependee.

The core symbolism of Patrick’s mother however lies in ‘Mother Church’ and in the stranglehold religion, particularly Catholicism, held over Ireland.  Innes notes the link between the figure of the mother and the Catholic church in “” and its this idea of a controlling maternal figure that dominates The Great Hunger. As Patrick comes to realise in his later years, he is just part of a greater pattern of oppression, that  every “peasant in his little acres is tied/To a mother’s womb by the wind-toughened navel-cord” and his own misery is part of something larger, a subtle indication that this poem has implications far beyong the pitiful man it represents. The use of the naval cord as a noose that binds the man against his will from birth is one that Kavanagh echoes later in the lines “That this twisted skein/Was the necessary pain/And not the rope that was strangling true love.In both examples, it is the connection with the mother that stifles and restrict’s Patrick and the latter line suggests- as much of the poem does- that it is his ties to her that choke true love and remove any form of agency from him.


It is through this relationship as Patrick’s primary oppressor that his mother is more firmly linked to the church, who is responsibile for his greatest constraint: the lack of female companionship. Initially, he is cowed by the ideology of religion to such an extent that he surpresses his sexual and emotional desires and “pretended to his soul/That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April” Although the religious aspects of this reasoning are not immediately apparent, it must be noted that his logic is underpinned by the notion that his unyielding duty is to till the field and thus serve his mother, who acts as the church in proxy. More explicit than that is his reaction to finding himself attracted to a girl: he is too “earnest” in his approval of her- an adjective that in this context refers to his own internal feelings rather than to being too forthright in speaking with her. In other words his folly is derived not from a breaking of a social convention but of a religious one: is therefore too eager in his desire for this young woman and therefore commits the “sin” of lust After that “he rushed beyond the thing/ To the unreal” which surely refers to him going past the actual events and assigning them a symbolic significence. The significance he attributes is that of “sin”, and in this we have one of poem’s most direct indictments of religion being responsible for Patrick’s lonliness and despondency.  The other lies in the lines “Religion, the fields and the fear of the Lord/And Ignorance giving him the coward’s blow,/He dared not rise to pluck the fantasies/From the fruited Tree of Life.” Here it is clear that Religion, and the shame that it creates, is what stops him from reaching out and taking his salvation. He cannot escape the from life of cold, clinging clay because ignorace bred by religion and the convention of Irish inferiority has rendered him too afraid to change, much like it has done to the people of the nation on a grander scale.

In contrast to this restrictive force, Kannavagh creates a fleeting reel of feminine impressions: a stream of girls that represent everything that Patrick longs for. The first mention of them is also one of the most striking “When girls laughed; when they screamed he knew that meant/The cry of fillies in season.” From their very introduction these young women are sexualised and sensualised, and their open innocent sexuality will form a bold contrast to the horrific feminity inherent in the image of  mothers’ rope like naval cords strangling the lust out of their children. These young women represent the hope for Ireland, the young confident maiden who rembodies change. They are the nation as it could be if it free from the fetters of religion and its own sense of inferiority and shame. It is not an Ireland that controls her sons with a snarl but an Ireland that lives beside them in youthful passion and provides everpresent companionship when they grow older. It is an Ireland that, unlike the dour and crone like figure of the mother, is “wild” and full of hope. Kavanagh seemlessly juxtaposes it with the twin evils of Patrick’s life- the shame and oppression inflicted upon him by religion and his nation’s own sense of inferiority- by portraying it as unihibited and confident, at ease in the world and free to “sit by lanes or SOMETHING” enjoying the tranquility of nature rather than labouring in its dismal clay. The way they are presented, in passing moments, creates a sense of excitement and urgency so different to Patrick’s world. The female figure is always described as either young or at least attractive, which places them in contrast again with the old mother but there is more to it than that: with the death of the mother and the flow of younger women, the poem creates a connotation of rebirth and rejuvenation within the girls.

Again, Kavannagh has inverted the stereotype, this time to take the maiden from a virginal, helpess, rather piteous thing, to a being of excitement and freedom. In themselves, these inversions rail against the tradition and arbitariness expressed by old Ireland and the mother and instead support the new life of the girl.

After the strikingly vicious attack of The Great Hunger, Synge’s representation of nationalism through the medium of women may seem a little less evocative. It’s certainly less visible and ththe message we can take from the Playboy of The Western World isn’t nearly as clear cut. The two primary women in the play are Pegeen and the Widow Quinn. In a 19SOMETHING review of the play Henry Walbrook summed up general opinion by stating the play was marred by the “cowardice of the men and the coarseness of the women.” In his eyes, and in the eyes of many other outraged Irishmen, the book was to be taken rather literally and the female character’s “coarseness” was a slight to Irish women. This essay proposes that there is an alternative view, that the rather unconventional portrayals are instead created because Synge is using the women as representations of something larger.

May 4, 2018


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