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MATERNAL-FEMININE & MYTH



When Ireland won still under a spell
and every sheep had two heads forsooth
and before the Inexhaustible Cow had been milked into the sieve
and oak-trees grew in the Big Bog
where the Fianna went in chase of the deer

Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, The Astrakhan Cloak
trans. Paul Muldoon, Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1992, p 65

There is a long problematic of the idealisation of Irish mothers being an embodiment of Ireland itself. The ‘Irish mother’ has been created from a complex collusion of British colonisation, the British Border, Irish and Northern Irish politics, Irish folklore and of course, the wider issues of ‘the maternal’ within patriarchy and phallogocentricism. The mythical ideal of ‘Irish mother’ has stubbornly persisted, serving both the Church and the State, with the categories of being woman and being a mother conflated. This has historical roots. Post-partition, the move towards nationalism was also a move towards conservatism, as part of this the family, and the ‘mother’ became used as a symbol of Ireland, of nationalism. Being a woman/mother in Ireland can be dangerous. The Magdalena Laundries, the abuse of girls and women by their trusted priests, and the horrific obstetric practice up until the 1980s of ‘unhinging’ women’s pelvis’ in birth. The Irish state and the church and the treatment of girls and women’s bodies have had an enduring impact on the everyday lives of Irish women from both sides of the Border:

…foundations of Irish culture – state control of women’s reproduction, and the nationalist and religious mythologies, Virgin Mary and Mother Ireland – that have framed and, therefore, limited Irish women.
(Moloney 2003: 198)

Meany suggests that the conflation of the Virgin Mary, the Irish State, and women and mothers has meant that women/mothers are not subjects, but have become symbols for Irish nationalism (1991). Scarlata writes of how, in post-partition Northern Ireland, Irish/Catholic women have had their experiences (how they are treated in the real world) and their subjectivity (how they perceive themselves) shaped by their position as a double ‘Other’:

Their right and desire to contest these discriminatory positions draws together nationalist notions of feminist identity politics into what is undoubtedly a difficult and often antagonistic relationship. This is because feminist politics are always in danger of being subsumed into an imagined community of ‘Irishness’ which (currently) tries to ignore difference between ‘Irish’ peoples.
(Scarlata, p 216)

Philip Marcus writes how the Irish cultural revival of the late 1880's had a part to play in the problematic romanticising of Ireland in artistic representations, and in particular there was a tendency to portray Irish women as stereotypically ‘delicate, fainting heroes of the nineteenth century novels’ (Marcus, 293). Kristen Liesch writes of the impact of colonization on contemporary images of women in Ireland:

….Ireland’s contemporary images of woman are products of colonization. When a nation is conquered and colonized, it is represented by its conquerors as female. Hence Ireland’s aliases ‘Mother Ireland or Erin’ which, combined with Ireland’s religious identity, are also tied to ‘the Mother of God … [and] Mother Church’ (Steel, 106). Irish women are thus linked to the nation and its identity through their common gender, and this connection is reinforced in the nation’s literature and through its religious iconography…Christianity and colonization, have deprived the Irishwoman of any empowering foremother figures. (p55)
(Liesch, K. Mother Stories: The Woman Myth in By the Bog of Catsand Tea in a China Cup, Storytelling: Critical and Creative Approaches pp 55-65)

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's work challenges the colonization of Ireland and the subsequent emergence of patriarchal Irish myths. She does this by writing in Gaelic (a language she calls ‘Hag energy’ which is the language of the mothers) conjuring of other-worlds before the time of colonization where ‘magical transformation would have still been deemed as possible’ (p 59 Donna. L. Potts). Ní Dhomhnaill achieves this by entangled tales of ‘real’ and the mythical animals, humans and non-human, with shape-shifters, banshees, fairies, mermaids:

Sometimes when the mermaid’s daughter
is in the bathroom
cleaning her teeth with a thick brush
and baking soda
she has the sense the room is filling
with water.

It starts at her feet and ankles
and slides further and further up
over her thighs and hips and waist.
In no time
it’s up to her oxters.
She bends down into it to pick up
handtowels and washcloths and all such things
as are sodden with it.
They all look like seaweed—
like those long strands of kelp that used to be called
‘mermaid-hair’ or ‘foxtail.’
Just as suddenly the water recedes
and in no time
the room’s completely dry again.

A terrible sense of stress
is part and parcel of these emotions.
At the end of the day she has nothing else
to compare it to.
She doesn’t have the vocabulary for any of it.
At her weekly therapy session
she has more than enough to be going on with
just to describe this strange phenomenon
and to express it properly
to the psychiatrist.

She doesn’t have the terminology
or any of the points of reference
or any word at all that would give the slightest suggestion
as to what water might be.
‘A transparent liquid,’ she says, doing as best she can.
‘Right,’ says the therapist, ‘keep going.’
He coaxes and cajoles her towards word-making.
She has another run at it.
‘A thin flow,’ she calls it,
casting about gingerly in the midst of the words.
‘A shiny film. Dripping stuff. Something wet.’

A Recovered Memory of Water - Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
(trans. by Paul Muldoon, in The Fifty Minute Mermaid by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Gallery Press)



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