Exploring the Voices of Wives, Mothers, and Revolutionaries in Ireland: A Collection of Poetry

The performance pieces I will be looking at for my final project are Dancing at Lughnasa, a play written by Brian Friel, and Eclipsed, a play written by Patricia Burke Brogan. Dancing at Lughnasa is set in 1936 and follows the Mundy family, including the sisters Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Christina. However, for my project, I would like to focus mainly on Kate, who stood out to me the most in this play. She is forty years old, devoutly religious and proper, and works as a national schoolteacher. As the mother figure of the group, she can sometimes come across as rather harsh and inflexible, but she lets go a little bit by the end of the movie. From Kate, we can learn a lot about Irish women as mother figures, even if she doesn’t actually have any children, as well as Irish women’s relationship with religion, mainly Catholicism.
Eclipsed is set in a Magdalene Laundry during 1963, where pregnant and unwed Irish mothers were sent to work, essentially, as slaves, in the church-run establishments. Their children were put up for adoption without the mother’s consent and the women were kept there against their will, because, as Mother Victoria repeatedly states throughout the play, “no one else wants them.” Although the laundries were notorious for being places of abuse, the Catholic Church refuses to this day to admit to any wrongdoings on its part and the last laundry wasn’t closed until 1996. Because these establishments were an important and disturbing aspect of Irish culture, we can learn a lot from this play about women as mothers, as slaves, and as religious figures.
I would also like to focus a little bit on the real-life character, Maud Gonne, and Irish revolutionary and suffragette who worked to free political prisoners from Irish prisons and formed the Irish League, an organization aligned with Irish nationalism. She also worked with the Irish White Cross and the Women’s Peace Committee. Gonne gives an interesting female perspective on Irish nationalism, because not only was she so involved in the politics of her country, but she also repeatedly turned down the poet William Butler Yeats’s proposals for marriage, a fact that demonstrates her rejection of traditional values to become a more active player in Irish independence.
Reading about the perspectives of these three women made me wonder: what can we learn about the roles women played in Irish culture from these characters? Specifically, what does it mean to be a mother or a wife in Ireland, and must that be separate from being a female revolutionary?
The genre that I would like to use to answer this question is poetry. I’d like to write a series of ekphrastic poems built around the narratives of these women and what they might say about themselves and their country if they were given the chance to express themselves freely and without consequence. I plan to pull the main themes and attitudes that these women portray and try to explore their experiences through poetry. By looking closely at the characterization, dialogue, symbols, and experiences of the characters themselves, I will analyze what they represent about the culture of Ireland and write a poem emulating their voices and perspectives.
The unique perspectives and personal experiences of these women are extremely important because in Ireland and in the rest of the world, women’s voices have generally been ignored or erased from the history books, even though their ideas and experiences are just as valid, relevant, and impactful as men’s. I believe that we as a society should make the effort to dig up and spread awareness of women’s voices from history, because we may uncover aspects of history that we’ve never encountered before.
To prepare for this project, I have read the play Eclipsed by Patricia Burke Brogan and seen the movie Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by Brian Friel, already, which I will be using as case studies to explore Irish culture from a woman’s perspective. I am also planning on reading The Autobiography of Maud Gonne: A Servant of the Queen to learn more about Gonne’s life and her contributions to Ireland. I’m also going to take a look at the article, “Women in the Irish Free State” to learn more about Irish women in politics and the workplace, as well as “Women Surviving: Studies in Irish Women’s History in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.”

2 thoughts on “Exploring the Voices of Wives, Mothers, and Revolutionaries in Ireland: A Collection of Poetry

  1. Marlena Hanne

    I know what you mean when you say that women’s voices have generally been ignored or erased from the history book. My own common assignment looked at a short story called “The Gallows”, and perhaps one of the most significant parts of that narrative is the fact that the author, Suhayr al-Tall, was convicted of “offending public sensibilities” for including mention of a phallus in her writing, and was eventually sent to jail for it.

    I think it is particularly important to dig up women’s writing in cultures where women are systemically oppressed by a patriarchy, because that really highlights the difference between them being “women” according to the values of their culture, and them being revolutionaries. After all, women in a traditionally Arabic culture are generally expected to remain out of the public light, but that’s impossible if they want to become a revolutionary.

    In fact, the theme of women needing to disassociate from their femininity to take on a more culturally significant role seems to be a common theme across almost all cultures. In Chinese Daoist religion, men who ascend to godhood are allowed to retain their flaws. Women, on the other hand, cannot retain any flaws to become a goddess. This means they must detach from their sexuality, and become the perfect “mother figure”. I can’t help but find this similar to the Irish women in your examples, who end up needing to disassociate from being mothers and wives in order to become revolutionaries. I wonder how likely it is that women in Ireland who become revolutionaries need to give up their physical motherhood in order to become “spiritual” mothers to the people they are fighting for, and champion their cause as a mother might do for her child.

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  2. Alexander Kosik

    The dramas mentioned prior do an excellent job at laying the framework for what would be the possibilities for women in Ireland. It seems if there wasn’t a family to act as a backbone for, the options were generally slim to none. Furthermore, it would appear that the women mentioned in the dramas above almost distance themselves from their traditional femininity as they’re seemingly very strong willed individuals despite their disposition as Irish women. These women share resemblance to an additional woman in Irish drama, Cathleen ni Houlihan. Houlihan resembles Ireland as she persuades men to fight for her, explaining the men that fight will forever be remembered. What makes this particularly noteworthy is Houlihan’s ability as a leader. She is not passively begging men to fight for her honor but to lay their lives down for a cause. This figure was so empowering it would be seen as legend used for morale by the uprisings of Easter Rising and the Irish Republican Army. Both of which have had strong representations of women.

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