James Joyce traces Stephen’s sexual development with great care in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As an infant Stephen is aware that his mother smells nicer than his father does. As a small schoolboy, he dreams of being kissed by her when sickness makes him long for home. As a young boy, he imagines that he will marry his playmate Eileen when they grow up. It is Eileen’s soft white hands and golden hair that first stirs his romantic boyish notions of idealised womanhood, but the way she puts her hand in his pocket and runs away is the first instance of what his relations with attractive girls are to be. He lacks the maturity to take the initiative in practice or to respond when a girl takes the initiative. Instead, he glamorises the experience in words. For Stephen this mental romanticisation of love is one thing; the experience of living girls is another thing altogether! The two experiences are never brought into harmony. Thus Stephen indulges in these romantic dreams about Dumas’ Mercedes, but it is significant that he pictures himself grandly rejecting her approaches because she had earlier slighted his love. This pose of grand, offended isolation is all too attractive to him.
The first fully recognisable sexual encounter occurs when Stephen goes to the party at Harrold’s Cross. He withdraws from the other children, relishing his isolation, while Emma glances repeatedly and invitingly in his direction. She rouses him to feverish excitement, and after the party, she goes with him to the tram-stop. They stand on the tram steps, he a step above hers, and as they talk she keeps coming up to join him on his step. He knows that she is making an offer; he also knows that the experience is like the occasion when Eileen ran laughing away from him. But for all his sense of her beauty and his knowledge that she is ready to be held and kissed, he does nothing. The failure depresses him. Then, next day, he begins to turn the whole experience – which should have had a living climax – into a literary matter. He tries to write a poem to Emma and consciously brushes the realities of the scene out of his mind. He turns the memory into an exercise in vague, conventionalised poetic verbalism. And after that, he goes and stares at himself in the mirror. His own pose as a romantic poet is more fascinating to him than the living girl who has inspired it.
Two years later, on the occasion of the school play, Stephen works himself up into an excited romantic mood in the belief that he will meet Emma after she has seen the play. Once more the devotion is an uncommunicated obsession based symbolically on a dramatic performance. After the play, in which he excels in the world of imaginary self-projection, Emma is nowhere to be found and he is plunged into despair. Stephen’s awakening sexuality, then, is blocked off from real human relationships and diverted into romantic dreams fed by his reading. The Count of Monte Cristo and Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons supply him with imaginary situations of romantic love. As a result, his suppressed physical urges produce a perverted urge to sin and to force someone else into sin. The consequence is that when he meets a prostitute in the street one night, he is readily lured to her room and as she takes the initiative and embraces him he finds not only relief from the urges of lust but a new self-assurance.
For a time sexual experience with prostitutes runs alongside his romantic adoration of the Virgin Mary until the retreat sermons convince him of his wickedness and he repents. We are not told whether, after his loss of faith, he returned to the habit of visiting prostitutes. But clearly, he fails to make a connection between the romantic sexuality in his mind, which is stirred so deeply by the sight of the wading girl, and the life of real contact with women. The wading girl becomes the ideal to move the artist to creative dedication. Real human relationship is not involved.
The fitful references to Emma in the last chapter of the book suggest a very slight interest in living beauty compared to the passionate intellectual interest in the theory of beauty. Though Stephen chooses to imagine that Emma flirts with Father Moran, the sight of her by the library door stirs the thought that she may be innocent and there is another uprush of emotion – but it all goes into dreams and words, not into real contact with her. He writes an extravagantly rhetorical poem to her and pictures himself, the priest of the imagination, listening to her confession. Stephen’s mental life and his concept of himself as the heroic lonely artist are plainly incompatible with a sympathetic understanding of others. He indulges the notion that Emma is consciously rebuffing him and that Cranly is pursuing her when she ignores him outside the library. In consequence, he mentally washes his hands of her: ‘Let her go and be damned.’ But the reader lacks evidence to know how far Stephen is deceiving himself. Indeed the last references to Emma in his diary giver the impression of a girl who is trying hard to make contact with him. She wants to know why she sees so little of him and whether he is writing poems, and his reply is a churlish rebuff calculated to embarrass her. Stephen’s final observation, ‘I liked her and it seems a new feeling to me’, is one of the most revealing sentences in the book. Stephen has expressed a liking for another human being and has conceded that the feeling is a new one to him.
Therefore, it can be said that Stephen’s relationships with girls suffer because of his egotism. He cultivates an image of himself as an isolated artist. His sexual instincts are satisfied with prostitutes. His romantic yearnings are channelled into poems and day-dreams.
Irish writers are often noted both for their irony and for their humour, and Joyce uses a great deal of comic irony in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Irony is not always comic. It is ironic when a hero kills his own son not knowing who he is, but this irony is wholly tragic. It is ironic that a Christmas party meant to be the occasion of peace and goodwill should turn into a violent family row and a virulent exchange of abuse. It is sad too, and Stephen feels its sadness, but it also has its comic side. We smile when Dante, a rather self-important person conscious of her own dignity, is turned into a screaming virago quivering with rage, and when Mr Dedalus lets off steam in comic abuse of Church dignitaries.
Humorous irony in literature often revolves around the way self-important people are brought down to earth with a bang. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen is the main concern of the author and he happens to be a rather self-important and pretentious person. Joyce often punctures his pretentiousness – not in his own eyes and not in the eyes of other characters, but in the reader’s eyes. For instance, when Stephen makes his righteous protest against being unjustly punished by Father Dolan, he pictures himself like some great public figure of history standing up against tyranny. The little boy appealing to his headmaster sees himself in this grand light and when his protest has been accepted, he resolves not to take advantage personally of his vanquished foe, and we smile at his childish self-importance.
Stephen’s romantic dreams often evoke this indulgent smile in the reader. He pictures himself, at the end of a long series of heroic adventures, proudly declining Mercede’s offer of grapes. When he helps to lead a gang of boys, he sets himself apart from the others by not adopting their symbols and uniform, because he has read that Napoleon also remained unadorned. These comic comparisons made by the little boy are rich in ironic humour.
These are of course the kind of imaginative exaggerations which are common to childhood. But they lead to less usual extravagances in the growing artist. When a boy sits down, as Stephen does, to write a poem to a girl, and begins it by imitating Lord Byron’s habit of entitling such poems, but finishes up staring at himself admiringly in the mirror, the gap between supposed intention and reality is wide. Later Stephen imagines a stage triumph before Emma’s eyes and rushes off to claim his due of feminine admiration only to finish up in a squalid corner of the city amid the smell of horse urine. These contrasts are the stuff of irony. So is the contrast between the boy’s glamorous dreams of himself as a romantic lover and the actual experience to which they lead in a city brothel.
The retreat sermons are a sustained ironic piece, and the irony this time is not primarily at the expense of the hero but of the Catholic Church and its clergy. The sermons seem to start reasonably enough but gradually become a burlesque (the Tommy Tiernan treatment!) of the kind of teaching given in retreats. That is to say, they follow the course of traditional moral exhortation but push the examples to such an extreme that the effect is laughable. A further irony is that the ingenuity with which torments are seemingly devised by God and the relish with which they are described by the priest are not congruous with notions of a loving God and a religion of love. Equally ironic is the meticulous and literal way in which Stephen tries to mortify his senses and discipline his mind. The sermons plainly have had the effect on him which the priests had hoped for. Now that Stephen is repentant we naturally warm to him in sympathy, but we still smile at the degree of vanity and self-centeredness he shows in trying to model himself anew.
In some respects, the irony at Stephen’s expense is sharpest in the last chapter of the book. For when he becomes a student his aspirations are aimed higher and higher. The contrast between these aspirations and the reality around him is often laughably sharp. At the end of Chapter 4, for instance, Stephen has enjoyed raptures expressed in language of lyrical beauty. At the beginning of Chapter 5, he is drinking watery tea and chewing crusts of fried bread at a dirty kitchen table. Joyce puts these two episodes together with comic intent. Again Stephen propounds his high doctrine of beauty to his fellow students who, for the most part, have only crude and vulgar witticisms to contribute to the conversation.
Stephen dismisses real living beauty from his mind in order to theorise about beauty with his intellect. Inspired suddenly by Emma’s beauty, he writes a poem in a language utterly removed from the idiom of living human relationships. It is poetry so precious and “high-falutin” that real feeling is left out. The irony of praising Emma so richly in secret and virtually snubbing her when she makes natural friendly approaches is both amusing and rather sad. Not for the first time, we want to shake Stephen to try to knock some sense into him; above all to make him a little more human.
Stephen chooses exile from his native land mainly because of his growing disenchantment with Irish society on many levels. Indeed, his final decision to fly the nets which are impeding his development as an artist is achieved following a series of struggles with authority from which he ultimately decides to flee. His sense of injustice is first stirred when he is a young schoolboy. When Wells asks him if he kisses his mother at bedtime, he discovers that whether he should say Yes or No he will be laughed at. Wells has already shouldered him into the ditch, and this first experience of school bullying makes him ill. Christmas at home, which is expected to be all warmth and friendship and happiness after the chilly misery at school, turns out to be a time of angry political quarrels among adults who are all supposed to be devoted to Ireland. When Stephen returns to school after suffering the misfortune of having his glasses broken he suffers the injustice of being punished for it. Priests are supposed to be good, he thinks, but they get angry and behave cruelly. To make things worse, he later discovers that his bold protest against injustice becomes a subject for laughter among those responsible for the injustice.
Stephen’s confidence in the moral authority of the powers-that-be in Clongowes is thus undermined and this is also accompanied by the undermining in his respect for his father. The visit to Cork reveals Mr Dedalus as a boastful, flattery-loving, gas-bag and feckless drunkard, drinking and boasting while all the time his financial affairs are deteriorating and the home is getting more squalid. Stephen’s boyish attempt, when he gets his prize money, to stem the tide of sordid poverty that seems to be sweeping over his family proves absurdly inadequate. His attempt, after confession, to remodel himself on the pattern of perfection taught by the church, leads to extravagant feats of self-discipline that deny his most powerful aspirations towards life and beauty. When the suggestion is made that he should consider a vocation to the priesthood, an instinctive inner conviction assures him that his future cannot be in subjection to an ordered system like that of the Church. The vision of the wading girl stirs the religious outburst, ‘Heavenly God!’ and we recognise in the way the landscape calls up in him poetic phrases that satisfy his thirst for harmony between the outer world and his inner emotional life, that he is to be a future artist and not a future priest.
It is from a sordid scene at home and past the mad cries from a nunnery that Stephen makes his symbolic progress across Dublin to the university, where study opens up a world of exciting philosophical thought. But even here there is no prospect of ultimate life-long satisfaction. He quickly comes to realise that the university teachers are also limited and unimaginative, and the students’ enthusiasm is stirred by causes with which Stephen cannot sympathise. The idealistic support for the Czar’s peace initiative strikes him as sentimental. He feels unable to commit himself to corporate demands or protests. The enthusiasm of students such as Davin for the cause of national independence, the revival of native culture, the enmity against England seems to require a commitment that mortgages life in advance of living it. Stephen senses his own Irish inheritance, not as a great blessing, but as a series of fetters imposed by history willy-nilly on his generation. Moreover, he knows from the past that Irish nationalist movements tend to lead, not to victorious achievements by the leaders, but to their betrayal and martyrdom.
Stephen himself demands of life, above all, freedom in which he can work creatively as an artist. Closely associated with the demand for freedom is his sensitive responsiveness to beauty in the spoken and written word. He has found in his home an increasing sordidness and crudity that are the antithesis of beauty. He has found in the Church a cruelty hostile to justice and freedom, for the caning with the pandybat at Clongowes is of a piece with the horrendous torments pictured in Father Arnell’s sermons as the future eternal lot of millions of fellow human beings. He has found in the political life of Ireland a collection of inherited attitudes and passions that embitter family relationships, which turn young students into obsessed fanatics, and that claim people’s thoughts and energies before they have had time to develop their own individualities.
The upshot is that Stephen turns the rebellious slogan of Lucifer, in turning against God, ‘I will not serve’, into his own motto in rejecting the demands of home, fatherland, and Church, and dedicating himself to the task of expressing himself freely as an artist.
The decision takes shape in his mind in association with thoughts of the career of his mythical ‘ancestor, Daedalus, who found escape in flight from imprisonment in a labyrinth. Stephen has often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, whether in the confessional or the brothel. Only when he crosses the bridge to Bull Island and stares out to sea does he glimpse the vision of true fulfilment. He cannot find this fulfilment without flight. His mother prays, he says, that, ‘I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.’ So he sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ His final prayer is not directed to God but to his role model, Daedalus. He prays: ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’
In 1904 the magazine DANA made an important contribution to world literature by rejecting a short story by a then-unknown Irishman called James Joyce. Joyce sought the advice of George Russell (AE), who suggested that he should rewrite it as a novel. Joyce took his advice so seriously that he eventually produced a huge work of fiction which he titled Stephen Hero. This book was never published during his lifetime; most of it was destroyed by its dissatisfied author who decided to try again, reworking and reducing the material into five chapters. Twenty publishers rejected this new version before it finally appeared in 1916. Joyce gave his first novel the same title as that of the rejected short story: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In 1944 three years after his death, the surviving fragment of the original novel was published as Stephen Hero.
Brief Bio of James Joyce
Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is largely autobiographical, it is worth knowing something of the life and works of its author. James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of eleven children. His father, John Joyce, came from a wealthy Cork family and had inherited a small private income. He was an ardent admirer of Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom he had worked as an election agent. He was rewarded with the post of Tax Collector in Dublin, a lucrative position which allowed him and his growing family to live in considerable comfort and send his eldest son to Clongowes College. However, his fecklessness, his extravagance and his fondness for drink cost him his job and reduced his family to poverty. James was withdrawn from Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College, also run by the Jesuits. He proved a hard-working student, winning a number of scholarships, which in a manner typical of his father he squandered on expensive family outings.
From 1898 to 1902 Joyce was a student at University College Dublin, then run by the Jesuit order. When he graduated with a degree in languages he decided to continue studying as a medical student. However, unhappy at UCD, he went to Paris but returned to Ireland when he received news of his mother’s imminent death. To provide himself with a livelihood he took up a teaching post.
Then he met Nora Barnacle and his life was transformed. He persuaded her to elope with him to Trieste where he worked as a teacher of languages. There his children, Giorgio and Lucia, were born. His brother, Stanislaus, joined them in 1905, giving Joyce invaluable financial and moral support.
Joyce returned to Dublin on two occasions. On his first visit, he tried to set up the first cinema in Ireland, but the project failed. In 1914 he came home again to publish Dubliners, but once again his trip was in vain. Bitterly disappointed at his treatment, Joyce vowed never to set foot in his native land again. He was true to his word.
In 1914 Joyce took his family to Zurich, remaining there for the duration of the Great War. He then returned to Trieste but soon left for Paris, where he was to live until the Second World War forced him to move back to safety in neutral Zurich.
Meanwhile, in 1916 Dubliners was finally published, followed soon afterwards by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then on his fortieth birthday, his masterpiece, Ulysses, appeared, and almost immediately established his reputation as the foremost writer of his time.
Joyce’s great success as an author was marred by personal tragedy. His daughter Lucia’s mental health deteriorated to the point where Joyce could not care for her himself and had to have her committed to an institution. In 1931 his father died. All this time his eyesight was weakening, and though he underwent many painful operations, his sight continued to fail until he was almost blind. Having returned to Zurich on the outbreak of the Second World War he continued to write, working on his great experimental novel Finnegan’s Wake. His health continued to decline and he eventually died on 13th January 1941 of a perforated ulcer.
A Note on the Structure of the Novel
The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a carefully constructed novel divided into five chapters or episodes. Each of these sections deals with an important stage in the development of the hero, Stephen Dedalus, from early childhood to adulthood.
In Chapter One we meet Stephen as a baby-talking infant. We learn of his first years in Clongowes College, where he is unjustly caned by Father Dolan. An important event is the Christmas dinner, during which a bitter argument between Dante and Mr Casey reflects the troubled state of Ireland after the Parnell Split.
In Chapter Two, Stephen’s family suffers a decline in living standards due to Mr Dedalus’ feckless ways and is forced to move from Bray to Blackrock. Young Stephen is taken out of Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College. Important incidents are the encounter with Emma Cleary, the school play, and Stephen’s visit to Cork with his father, Simon. This chapter ends with Stephen’s sexual awakening as seen in the episode with the prostitute.
Chapter Three is largely concerned with religion. Filled with sexual guilt, Stephen listens to the famous sermon on Hell. He resolves to end his sinful life and seeks grace through confession and self-mortification. As a result, he achieves peace of mind and inner calm.
Chapter Four sees Stephen invited to become a Jesuit when his piety is noticed by his teachers. He rejects the call, opting instead for Art. This turning away from religion and back to the world is symbolised by the girl on the beach at the end of this section.
In Chapter Five, Stephen is now a student at University College Dublin. Through his discussions with fellow students, we discover his rejection of nationalism and the nationalistic art that was then in vogue. He expounds for us his theory of aesthetics. The novel ends with his defiant refusal to serve God or country. Instead, he will seek through exile to find the freedom he needs to create his own art.
Major Themes in the Novel
Joyce’s first novel is concerned to show the stages in the development of the artist. We are presented with the hero Stephen Dedalus first as a child, then as a schoolboy, later as a devout Catholic, and finally as a university student. Family, teachers, sex, religion, and country, forge fetters for the would-be artist; to create he must break free and become his own person. This he achieves in the end with his famous declaration: “Non serviam” (I shall not serve), thereby turning his back on his family, his country, and his religion to devote himself totally to his new religion of Art.
Style and Technique in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a naturalistic novel narrated by an invisible author who remains aloof and apparently removed from his tale. However, the viewpoint through which we see things is clearly Stephen’s. This not only makes him the focus of our attention but it also invites us to sympathise with him throughout. The language is also used to reflect Stephen’s central role and importance. Thus in the opening chapter, we read the prattle of childhood as the infant Stephen tries to come to terms with his surroundings. Later the schoolboy slang reveals his perceptions of life in a boarding school. At all times the language is suited to whatever stage Stephen is then at.
Religious symbols and liturgical terms abound in Chapter Three. They also help in the final chapter to elevate the tone and solemnise the young artist’s preoccupation with aesthetics at that stage. Even though Joyce is at great pains to reject his Catholic faith he displays here a deep appreciation of Catholic rituals. His friend Cranley points out this apparent inconsistency:
It is a curious thing, do you know, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.
This accusation, which could also be levelled at many other Irish novelists, is very relevant. They, including James Joyce, seem determined to reject Catholicism because it seems at variance with their artistic imagination. Yet, as Eamon Maher states ‘they cannot avoid being ‘supersaturated’ with its vestiges’.
Symbols, including religious ones, are important to Joyce as a method of heightening his themes and maintaining links throughout the narrative. For example, Stephen’s name reminds us of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the significance of this is seen in the young man’s willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of his art. His surname, Dedalus, evokes the labyrinth-maker, the inventor, the flier who dared to aspire too high. Other symbols used by Joyce in this novel are water, representing death, cleansing and renewal; the Church as mother; Ireland as the ‘sow that eats her farrow’.
To create a real and convincing background for Stephen, there is a painstaking attention to detail. Names of actual places are numerous in the text, e.g. Clongowes, Belvedere, Lower Mount Street. Real people are also introduced, such as Parnell, and Michael Davitt, W.S. Gilbert. The squalor of Stephen’s home life is vividly captured in Joyce’s description of the meal table. He is not content just to appeal to our sense of sight. We hear the sound of cricket balls hitting bats in Clongowes; we smell horse’s urine, and while we listen to the sermon on Hell in Chapter Three we feel the horrific torments of the Damned.
Walter Pater, the author of Renaissance, who had such an enormous influence on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement, also affected Joyce in his attitude to Art. Pater and the followers of the Aesthetic Movement believed that art should be of paramount importance. That Joyce was especially sympathetic to this view is most apparent in the final section of the novel. Another writer much admired by Joyce was Cardinal Newman, the founder of University College Dublin whose style he sought to emulate.
A Detailed Analysis of a Sample Passage from the Novel
“He looked northward to Howth. The sea had fallen below the line of seawrack on the shallow side of the breakwater and already the tide was running out fast along the foreshore. Already one long oval bank of sand lay warm and dry amid the wavelets. Here and there warm isles of sand gleamed above the shallow tides and about the isles and around the long bank and amid the shallow currents of the bridge were lightclad figures, waving and delving.
In a few moments he was barefoot, his stockings folded in his pockets, and his canvas shoes dangling by their knotted laces over his shoulders and picking a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks, he clambered down the slope of the breakwater.
There was a long rivulet in the strand and as he waded slowly up its course, he wondered at the endless drift of seaweed. Emerald and black and russet and olive, it moved beneath the current, swaying and turning. The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the highdrifting clouds.
The clouds were drifting above him silently and silently the seatangle was drifting below him; and the grey warm air was still: and a new wild life was singing in his veins.”
This fine piece of writing, which occurs at a crucial point towards the end of Chapter Four, illustrates many of the features of Joyce’s writing style.
Firstly, we notice his attention to detail; e.g.: ‘the pointed salteaten stick’. The word ‘salteaten’, like ‘jetsam’, ‘lightclad’, ‘seatangle’ shows the author’s fondness for coining new words.
Secondly, we view the scene through Stephen’s eyes, and so his feelings as he observes the seascape are subtly revealed, while the narrator himself remains invisible and aloof.
Repetition is another device to concentrate our minds and create connections in the writing. Notice how often we meet the words ‘warm’, ‘silently’, ‘clouds’ and ‘drifting’.
Symbolism is everywhere. The clouds are the difficulties of the past, now seen drifting away; the rivulet is a new life beginning; the sky is the greatness the young artist seeks and aspires to, as well as being associated in our minds with Dedalus.
There is also a sense throughout the piece that we are building towards a climax. The feelings of Stephen are conveyed by words like ‘warm and dry’, ‘new wild life’ and ‘singing’. The final mood is one of joyous freedom.
Sound is also important, as we would quickly realise were we to read the passage aloud. Its lyricism is enhanced by alliteration (‘salteaten stick’) and assonance (‘wild life’). Stephen has arrived at a crucial moment in his life. His decision not to become a Jesuit has just been made, and now he sees his future as an artist calling him like a vocation. It is the turning of the tide for him. He is exhilarated by the prospects ahead: he has now freed himself from the restraints of family, country, and religion. That is why he feels ‘a new wild life was singing in his veins’.
Having completed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce too had arrived at a new stage in his development. He was now forever finished with conventional fiction. Already his mind was preoccupied with the book that was to become his great masterpiece. Ulysses was about to be born, and with its birth, the young exile from Dublin would be hailed as the greatest novelist of the century and one of the greatest innovators of all time.
However, Stephen Dedalus had survived and it is the same Stephen we meet on the first page of Ulysses. However, he is not the hero this time; that role is reserved for Leopold Bloom, but Stephen is second only in importance to him. Thus Joyce links together two of the finest works of fiction ever written. The hero of the rejected short story lived on in the imagination of his creator for more than twenty years to become one of the best known and most written about characters of all time.
 Eamon Maher writing in The Ticket in The Irish Times, ‘The half-life and death of the Irish Catholic novel’, Saturday, December 23rd, 2017.
You might also like to read a more detailed character sketch of Stephenhere
In one of her many interviews after the publication of ‘Foster’ in 2010, Claire Keegan challenged her would-be readers:
“It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.”
More than likely you will be studying this text as part of your Comparative Studies module for Leaving Cert English Higher Level. Your first task is to read the short story/novella (all 88 pages!) and begin to form your own opinion as to what is happening in the story. Trust your own judgement and use or discard the following notes as you judge them to be useful (or not) to you in your comparing and contrasting this text with at least two others from the suggested list given to you by your teacher.
All page references are from the beautifully produced Faber and Faber paperback edition
About Claire Keegan
Born in County Wicklow in 1968, she is the youngest of a large family. Keegan travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana when she was seventeen and studied English and Political Science at Loyola University. She returned to Ireland in 1992 and later lived for a year in Cardiff, Wales, where she undertook an MA in creative writing and taught undergraduates at the University of Wales.
Keegan’s first collection of short stories was Antarctica (1999). Her second collection of stories, Walk the Blue Fields, was published in 2007. September 2010 brought the publication of the ‘long, short story’ Foster. American writer Richard Ford, who selected Foster as winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009, wrote in the winning citation of Keegan’s ‘thrilling’ instinct for the right words and her ‘patient attention to life’s vast consequence and finality’.
Keegan has won the inaugural William Trevor Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Olive Cook Award and the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Other awards include The Hugh Leonard Bursary, The Macaulay Fellowship, The Martin Healy Prize, The Kilkenny Prize and The Tom Gallon Award. Keegan has twice been the recipient of the Francis MacManus Award. She was also a Wingate Scholar. She was a visiting professor at Villanova University in 2008. Keegan was the Ireland Fund Artist-in-Residence in the Celtic Studies Department of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in March 2009.
The story is set in rural Wexford and is a perfect example of a Bildungsroman novel. Foster is narrated by a young girl who is fostered out to another family, the Kinsellas, ‘her mother’s people’, for the summer months. There is constant juxtaposition between her own family and her new foster family. Her expectations are influenced by what has already occurred in her own family. The Kinsellas are kind and caring, the epitome of all that is good in foster parents, giving the girl the space to develop and feel valued. It is a coming-of-age story and one that illuminates the contrasting lives of the families, one struggling and overcrowded, the other contented but childless, the rural community that they live in and, by extension, Ireland itself.
Blessedly, Keegan’s Ireland is not the familiar land of misery, abuse and constant drizzle, but a place of community, common decency and, most surprising of all, sunshine – we are treated to an idyllic summer in the Sunny South East. The narrator leaves her homeplace after Sunday Mass in Clonegal and is driven by her father towards the coast somewhere between Gorey and Courtown. Claire Keegan explains:
“For me, the fact that the story unfolds in summer was primarily a practical matter. For her to go away, it would have to be a summer. I made it hot because, given that it is so long since we’ve had [a hot summer] it was pleasurable to write about, but because it also deepened the happiness of the summer.”
Though it seems, in its depiction of the slow rhythms of rural life, to take place in a much older Ireland, Foster is set in 1981. The reader only finds this out when Kinsella tells his wife, in passing, of a news report about the death of an IRA hunger striker. It is an arresting moment, one that makes the story seem suddenly both more contemporary and more ominous.
“It’s an examination of home and an examination of neglect. I don’t trust that home is necessarily where one finds one’s happiness. Families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving. Also, I’m very interested in what we can do without, what we can go without. To a child, for instance, the difference between being able to be well-fed when you are growing, and not, is enormous.”
The little girl, no more than seven or eight arrives at the Kinsellas farm and discovers that for once she is the centre of attention because the couple are childless. Also in sharp contrast to her own home in Clonegal here, ‘there is plenty of food and money to spare’. The girl is uneasy at first but soon grows to feel comfortable in a household where she finds love and affection, something she’s never encountered before.
The reason she is being temporarily fostered is that her mother is near the delivery of another in a long line of children. She is not told how long she will stay here. Over the course of what, in effect, was her summer holidays from school, this charming, precocious, needy child is exposed to a life far different from what she has had at home. Brilliantly, though, Keegan does not always clearly tell what is different; her subtle suggestions are, perhaps, even more potent. The Kinsella home is supposed to be one where “Petal” is assured that there are no secrets, but she does, in a most realistic manner, eventually learn that there is one. This secret is revealed by a neighbourhood gossip and it threatens to destroy her childhood idyll. By summer’s end, her mother’s letter arrives, and she is driven home.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism. It also explores the age-old dilemma of what constitutes a secret and what should be told and what should remain forever untold.
THEMES AND ISSUES
There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel and these can be compared and contrasted with the other texts on your Comparative Course. The main themes dealt with here are:
The Theme of Family
The Theme of Growing up/Childhood
This short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel. In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so. It is a coming of age novel where the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.
It is a fast-moving cinematic type story and is narrated by a young seven or eight-year-old girl (her actual age is never mentioned). When we meet her first she is nameless, one of many children in her family. She is referred to at different stages throughout the novella as ‘Child’, ‘a Leanbh’, ‘Girleen’, ‘Long Legs’ and finally John Kinsella calls her ‘Petal’ three times towards the end of the story. We are not told whether this is her real name or his own pet name for her. Nobody else refers to her by the name Petal except John Kinsella. We are never given her family surname during the course of the story.
The novella is a journey of discovery for the girl who appears to the reader as very observant, charming, precocious, and needy. As she journeys from her parents’ home and comes to be comfortable in her temporary foster home she is exposed to a life far different from what she has been accustomed to.
As she journeys towards her new foster home for the summer she imagines opposing and contrasting scenarios in her head:
The man will be her size. He will take me to town in the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields (P. 4).
She is keenly observant and when she arrives at her new home she notices the way her Da, Dan, and John Kinsella interact. They indulge in a classic Irish form of verbal non-communication, talking about the weather and ‘the price of cattle, the EEC, (and) butter mountains’. She notes that ‘it is something I am used to, this way men have of not talking’ (p.6). She also notices early on that here in her new temporary home ‘there is no sign, anywhere, of a child’ (p.8).
She is also very aware of the lies her Da tells Aunt Edna about the hay saving. She tells us that ‘he is given to lying about things that would be nice if they were true’ (p.10). She notices the difference between her father and John Kinsella who helps his wife to lay the table in preparation for lunch. She tells us that her mother is always busy:
With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm (p.13).
She quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house. Here there is room and time to think and grow. There may even be money to spare’ (p.13). All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home. For example, she is glad to notice that John Kinsella and Aunt Edna ‘sleep together’ (p.17). Declan Kiberd comments on this keen vigilance of the child and says, ‘it suggests something not quite right, a fear that past traumas may be repeated in the present with the Kinsellas … the feeling of past and possible hurt hangs in the air’. This vigilance in her new home also suggests to us a child forever on guard.
One of the central themes and motifs running through the story is that of family secrets; what needs to be told and what should be left unsaid. Aunt Edna tells her that ‘there are no secrets in this house’ because ‘where’s there’s a secret … there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without’ (p.21). The young girl finds herself wishing ‘that this place without shame or secrets could be my home’ (p.24).
She wakes on her first morning ‘in this new place to the old feeling of being hot and cold, all at once’ (p.28). It turns out she has, not for the first time, wet her bed during the night and this introduces the notion of a troubled child. This is one of the strong, undeveloped undercurrents in the story. Aunt Edna notices straight away and handles the situation with admirable tact. Indeed these new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear. They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella. The narrator realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).
Aunt Edna cleverly devises a scheme to cure the bed wetting. She tells the young girl that she has a secret recipe to help improve her complexion. The secret remedy consists of eating Weetabix which the young girl says ‘tastes a bit like the dry bark of a tree’. She eats five while watching the Nine O’Clock News on RTE. She wakes the following morning and ‘the old feeling is not there’ anymore. Aunt Edna tells her that her ‘complexion is better already’ and ‘all you need is minding’ (p.36).
The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:
She showed me the big, white machine that plugs in, a freezer where what she calls ‘perishables’ can be stored for months without rotting. We make ice cubes, go over every inch of the floors with a hovering machine, dig new potatoes, make coleslaw and two loaves, and then she takes the clothes in off the line while they are still damp and sets up a board and starts ironing … (p.32).
It is obvious to us that her own home has few of these modern labour saving devices and she notices how both John Kinsella and his wife work hard all day as a united team. Her view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’. He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).
The young girl settles into a routine at her new home and sunny day follows sunny day. She visits Gorey where she ‘is togged out’ in new clothes and she is given some pocket money for the first time ever. One evening she is taken to Michael Redmond’s wake in the local area and she observes the local customs, the close community and the support for the family by their near neighbours. She experiences many epiphany moments throughout the novella – it’s as if she has an expectation that she will soon awake from a dream or that these good times can’t continue. As she walks to the wake with John and Edna she has a premonition that there is, ‘something darker in the air, of something that might come and fall and change things’ (p.49).
Later, one of the neighbours, Mildred, volunteers to look after the young girl and take her to play with her children rather than having her stay on at the wake. She senses straight away that Mildred is ‘eaten alive with curiosity’ and has to suffer a barrage of questions about the Kinsellas. It is only then that she discovers the big unspoken secret at the heart of the story: the Kinsellas had a young son who drowned tragically in the slurry pit and she has been wearing his clothes since she arrived at their house. Mildred adds a melodramatic flourish to the end of her story: their hair turned white overnight which is a Gothic touch worthy of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’! The narrator is left aghast:
I wonder at the clothes and how I’d worn them and the boy in the wallpaper and how I never put it all together (p.57).
When the Kinsellas come to collect her they soon realise that she has discovered their secret. Innocently she informs them what Mildred has revealed to her:
‘She told me you had a little boy who followed the dog into the slurry tank and died, and that I wore his clothes to Mass last Sunday’ (p.60)
Eventually, the summer draws to an end and the shops begin to display Back to School items. The weather turns and the letter arrives from her mother to say that there has been a new arrival at home and that she is to return home to prepare for school. She makes a final trip to the well down the fields and as she bends down to fill her bucket, in another Gothic moment, ‘another hand just like mine seems to come out of the water and pull me in’ (p.76). Luckily, she makes her way back to the farmhouse but develops a chill after her near-disastrous escapade. Her return home is postponed for a day or two while she recovers:
I doze and have strange dreams: of the lost heifer panicking on the night strand, of bony, brown cows having no milk in their teats, of my mother climbing up and getting stuck in an apple tree. Then I wake and take the broth and whatever else I’m given (p.78).
She arrived at the Kinsellas on a Sunday and fittingly she returns home on a Sunday also. They retrace their journey from the coast to Gorey, through Carnew and Shillelagh to home. Immediately she notices the differences: she has grown, matured and changed – as in nature anything which has been neglected thrives with attention and loving care. Again we notice the sharp contrasts: the house ‘feels damp and cold’, her mother notices that she speaks differently. Her sisters look at her ‘as though I’m an English cousin’ while she notices that they ‘seem different, thinner and have nothing to say’ (p.81).
She sneezes then and her mother realises she has a cold. She has decided that she will not recount her misadventure at the well, that her parents don’t need to know, and she tells her mother ‘Nothing happened’ – she didn’t catch a cold. She knows, however, that her mother will not be satisfied with this explanation and as a mark of how much she has matured and grown she tells us:
This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learnt enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention (p.86).
Then, echoing the earlier conversation with John Kinsella on the beach she tells us:
It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing (p.86).
The uneasy moment passes and the Kinsellas prepare to leave for home. She races after them, thoughts flooding through her mind and she lists the things that will remain locked within her forever:
Several thoughts flash through my mind: the boy in the wallpaper, the gooseberries, that moment when the bucket pulled me under, the lost heifer, the mattress weeping, the third light…. (p.86).
The ending is dramatic, cinematic, and climactic. She races into Kinsellas embrace and feelings of sadness, of loss, of gratitude flood over her. She sees her father, Da, walking down the lane towards them and yet she holds on to Kinsella ‘as though I’ll drown if I let go’. She looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’. Looking over Kinsella’s shoulder she calls out to her father, calling him by his new name:
‘Daddy,’ I keep calling him, keep warning him. ‘Daddy’ (p.88).
This is, in effect, the climax of the story. Our young narrator has benefitted from her experiences over the summer and she has been given the space to blossom – hence her name, Petal. However, she now finds herself in a dilemma: she would love to have Kinsella as her father because she knows her own father doesn’t really care for her or his family. She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife. So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment. She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it. She has never before called her father ‘Daddy’ during the course of the novella, so this is also putting him on alert that all is now changed, changed utterly. She has now experienced what it feels like to be truly valued and there can be no going back to the way things were before.
The Theme of Family
Foster introduces us to two very contrasting families. The young narrator of the story has been raised in a poor, rural family. She has numerous brothers and sisters and is effectively anonymous, without a name, when we first meet her. The reason she is being fostered is that her mother is expecting again and she will be looked after by her Aunt Edna and her husband John Kinsella until the new baby arrives.
The young girl’s father is a feckless alcoholic. He is shady, lazy and rude. Declan Kiberd in reviewing the novel describes him as ‘poor, improvident, coarse to the point of being abusive’. He is untrustworthy and he regularly lies as the story unfolds. We learn that his name is Dan but like his daughter, we never learn the family surname. We presume that his wife Mary is Aunt Edna’s sister. Early on we learn that he is a gambler and that he ‘lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five’ (p.3). He also appears to be very sexist and old-fashioned as he waits for Aunt Edna to pick up the stalks of rhubarb he has let fall from his arms as he prepares to drive home after delivering his daughter to the Kinsellas for the summer months (p.14). The child continually refers to him as Da until the very final moments when she calls him Daddy.
Her mother, Mary, is harried and at her wits end. Her husband, Dan, is no help and she has to find money to pay people to plough the land and mow the hay and do the other jobs that her husband should be doing. The young narrator’s view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’. He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).
In sharp juxtaposition, the Kinsella household is completely different. The young girl quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house. Here there is room and time to think and grow. There may even be money to spare’ (p.13). All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home. The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:
We pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spider webs, and put all the clean clothes back in again, make scones, polish the furniture, boil onions for onion sauce and put in containers in the freezer, pull the weeds out of the flower beds and then, when the sun goes down, water things (p.37-38).
Her new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear. They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella. She notices that he and his wife, Edna, work hard all day as a united team and she realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).
At first Aunt Edna doesn’t give the child a name. We sense that she doesn’t want to become too attached to the new arrival. After all, she has suffered a great, tragic loss with the drowning of her young son. She is also keenly aware that this is a very temporary arrangement and that she will have to return this young girl to her parents at summer’s end. It is clear that both Kinsellas have dealt with the loss of their son and have coped with the loss in their own separate ways. She sets out to teach the young girl as much as she can about running a home and introduces her to a range of chores. She also eventually buys the young girl new clothes rather than have her wear her dead son’s clothes which haven’t been touched since his tragic death. Mrs Kinsella is quite realistic about the girl: she knew that she would go back to her family at summer’s end and this explains why Mrs Kinsella didn’t let herself get as fond of this child as her husband did.
John Kinsella emerges as the unsung hero of this novella – he is according to Declan Kiberd, ‘the sort of loving father the girl never had’. He grows in stature as the story develops. Despite the awful tragedy which has befallen the household both himself and his wife are coping as well as can be expected. There is a sharp juxtaposition between John Kinsella and Dan, the young girl’s father. He is hard working and his fields are well laid out. We can see again the young girl comparing her home place to this new well run farm:
Kinsella’s fields are broad and level, divided in strips with electric fences she says I must not touch unless I want a shock. When the winds blows, sections of the longer grass bend over turning silver. On one strip of land, tall Friesian cows stand all around us, grazing…. (p.21).
He is a good neighbour and people come for his help to dig a grave for a neighbour or help if a cow is having difficulty calving. He, in turn, is protected by the neighbours and they are sensitive to the couple’s loss of their only son and they admire their stoicism in dealing with their terrible tragedy.
He treats the young girl as if she was his own daughter and on a visit to Gorey he buys her books and then later helps her with her reading. When he delivers Petal back home he tells her he wants to see gold stars in her copybooks when he next comes to visit. During their night walk on the strand he gives her valuable fatherly advice:
‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing’ (p.64).
This is probably the most important sentence in the whole novel. Declan Kiberd says ‘it reverberates, forwards and backwards, through the tale’. It contradicts his wife’s earlier assertion that there can be no room for secrets since secrets imply shame. The events of the novel help us to realise the distinction: a secret is something one hides while the unspoken is something that doesn’t need to be told.
Another emotional moment for me was a scene at the beach where the girl was taken by her foster father. On the way back he is trying to retrace his steps but he can’t find his own footprints, only the girl’s. It is obvious that he finds support in the young girl’s company so he says:
“You must have carried me there” (p.66).
As the story develops we become more and more aware of John Kinsella’s good qualities: he is caring, loving, generous, affectionate and kind. He is, in effect, the epitome of what it means to foster a young damaged and neglected young girl.
The final emotional scene between Kinsella and the young girl is a very powerful and dramatic finale to the novel. She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife. So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment. She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.
Meanwhile, Aunt Edna is sobbing uncontrollably in the car. The young girl looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’. Aunt Edna is crying with sadness and with relief. After all, this young girl nearly drowned at the well and it is only now after she has left the young girl back with her parents that she fully realises the near tragedy that could have occurred. We often cry out of relief. For me, that is what she was suffering from or experiencing at that moment. Remember, she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that their daughter had drowned. I think that she was living with that and also, of course, the incident had brought back the loss of her only son to drowning also.
The young narrator, Petal, has blossomed over the summer months with her temporary family, the Kinsellas. She actually came of age while under their care because she was minded. Nothing flourishes so much as that which is neglected, and is then minded. The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home with no child.
It is a fitting ending to the novel and hopefully the beginning of a relationship which will develop in the coming years. She has learnt much in the Kinsellas home, including the gift of reading:
It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy (p.74).
We hope she’ll find her way back to the Kinsellas again for many more idyllic sunny summers in the sunny South East!
The story is based on events which take place in Ireland during the Summer of 1981. The setting is rural County Wexford. There are very few cultural markers provided in the short novella and one could be excused for thinking that the events took place at an earlier time. The slow rhythms of life are based on rural and agricultural activity of what seems an earlier generation. The young girl, the narrator of the story, is fostered out to a home which has a freezer, ‘a hovering machine’, and other mod cons yet, incongruously, they have to go to the well down the fields to fetch water for the tea. There are also shopping visits to the local town and the child is taken to a local wake during the course of the novel.
The notion of fostering has a long history in Ireland. The old Gaelic chiefs used fostering to create alliances and maintain peace accords with local rival chieftains – they were less likely to attack a neighbouring chieftain if they realised that their young son or daughter was being raised there. In essence, the child was seen as a kind of hostage but as Declan Kiberd points out in his book After Ireland, ‘the more positive motive was the hope that the second family might educate the child more fully than might the first, in the ways of the world’. In more recent times parents of large families often fostered one or more of their children to relatives or grandparents to help rear them. Michael Hartnett, the poet, tells the story that he was fostered out to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in the mid nineteen forties because ‘times were hard in Lower Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West and food and sustenance were more plentiful in nearby rural Camas.
The story is set in the Summer of 1981, the summer when week after week the news broke of yet another death from hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. In all, ten IRA hunger strikers including Bobby Sands lost their lives during those turbulent times.
The novel was published in 2010 shortly after the publication of The Murphy Report and the Ryan Report. The Murphy Report was the brief name of the report of a Commission of investigation conducted by the Irish Government into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The Report was released in 2009 by Judge Yvonne Murphy, only a few months after the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) chaired by Seán Ryan, a similar inquiry which dealt with abuses in industrial schools controlled by Roman Catholic religious institutes.
Ironically, one of the earliest reports into clerical sex abuse claims was one conducted in the Diocese of Ferns which includes most of County Wexford. The Ferns Report was presented to the Irish government on 25 October 2005 and released the following day. It identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against twenty-one priests operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns.
The novel was published in 2010 and by that time also Ireland was experiencing one of the biggest recessions in modern times brought about by the collapse of its banking system after a decade of affluence and Celtic Tiger excess. The novel Foster tells the story of a character’s brief sojourn in a wealthy household and that character’s predicted return (wiser and more mature) to a more austere life. Maybe, as Declan Kiberd states, ‘Claire Keegan (in Foster) was writing the secret history of her country’.
Be that as it may, these historical incidents are barely mentioned in the novella. We are introduced to a quiet, secluded part of County Wexford during the summer of 1981. We witness the daily lives and dramas of an ordinary farming community as they go about their seasonal occupations. It is a rural backwater, a favourite setting for novelists, it is 1981 but it could be any year. The major changes affecting the outside world are barely noticed here in this idyllic setting.
This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the continuous present tense by a first-person omniscient narrative voice. It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the turbulent period of the Northern Ireland troubles. These troubles even visited rural County Wexford on the 13th October 1980 when Garda Seamus Quaid (a native of Feoghanagh, County Limerick) was killed in the line of duty by the IRA.
It has also been described as a ‘long short story’ and Claire Keegan is one of the great modern writers who use the short story to great effect. She is very much influenced by the writing of Frank O’Connor. In effect, this is a short story with chapters added. The fast-moving story leads to a dramatic climax at the very end.
As well as Frank O’Connor she is also influenced greatly by another O’Connor, Mary Flannery O’Connor whose gothic short stories were read by her during her stay in New Orleans and her studies at Loyola University. During the course of the novel the young narrator is taught by Kinsella to read books: Heidi, What Katy did Next, The Snow Queen. She tells us that reading is like riding a bike; it allows her to go to new places and to make up endings different from those in the books. This notion is also very similar to Seamus Deane’s young narrator in Reading in the Dark. She also makes the analogy that learning to read is like learning to read her new family.
All past events are narrated by the girl in a continuous present tense. This suggests that whatever unrevealed trauma was experienced in the past is still being dealt with in the present. Early on in the novel, we are aware that the young narrator feels ‘caught’ between two different families. She wants her father to leave because ‘this is a new place and new words are needed’ (p.18).
The short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel. This genre of novel is best described as a novel of maturation. In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so. Here the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.
The title of the novella, Foster, causes some problems for me. Normally the title may give some clue as to the content, what the potential reader can expect to find, but not here. For me, the title and the photograph used on the front jacket bore little relation to what had been revealed inside. Fostered or The Fostered Girl or Foster Child might have been better options – to me, Foster suggests a person’s name and the title is, therefore, somewhat misleading.
The story contains many gothic elements and there is also an ominous undercurrent created because of what is unsaid and also because of what is not fully understood by the child narrator. This is akin to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. We are left with the feeling that there may be other secrets that the young girl has decided not to reveal along with the incident at the well.
GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT
This is a realistic novel, which explores the dynamics of two Irish rural families over the course of the school summer holidays in 1981. The narrator is a young girl and we are privy to her observations and account of her childhood – or two months from that eventful childhood. Like Heaney in his poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, we are often left ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ i.e. often what’s unsaid is as important as the spoken word.
We are introduced to a world where people are trying their best to cope with the difficulties that life has thrown at them. One family is trying to cope with poverty and neglect, largely as a result of a feckless, alcoholic father while the other family is trying to come to terms with the loss of their only son to drowning in a tragic farm accident. This is filtered to us through the lens of a very young, neglected girl who tries to make sense of it all. Despite this bleak subject matter the backdrop to the story is rural County Wexford which, unusually for Ireland, is bathed in continuous summer sunshine.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism. The locals have noticed the way the Kinsellas have dealt with their family tragedy and admire the way they have accepted disaster and tried their best to cope with it. The night of the card playing when two men came selling lines the proceeds of which, they said, would go towards putting a new roof on the school is a good example of the neighbours being sensitive. However, Kinsella will have none of it:
‘Of course,’ Kinsella said.
‘We didn’t really think – ‘
‘Come on in,’ Kinsella said. ‘Just ‘cos I’ve none of my own doesn’t mean I’d see the rain falling in on anyone else’s’ (p.39).
The ending is dramatic and allows for many interpretations as to what happens next. It is not the traditional happy ending – this ending is neither happy nor sad. Overall, the novel provokes a myriad of mixed emotions and truly upsetting feelings in the reader. There is sympathy felt throughout for the young narrator. As readers, we are not satisfied with how the novel ends but perhaps this realistic ending was the author’s way of showing us that life does not always have a happy ending. However, we also sense that something has happened in those final dramatic moments. There is slight hope that things will change for the young girl. This is dependent, of course, on others changing also, especially her father’s behaviour.
The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return to her own home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home empty-handed. Declan Kiberd sums it up succinctly when he says:
.. the tale is told about people who are shy of exposing themselves to the passing moment and shyer still to narrate themselves. Their stories are mysterious enough to resist a further telling or an absolute silence.
Keegan, Claire. Foster. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.
Kiberd, Declan. Chapter 27 Claire Keegan: Foster in After Ireland: Writing the nation from Beckett to the present. London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017.
(For those of you who would like to revisit the novel in your own time all page references are from the Faber and Faber paperback edition.)
That They May Face the Rising Sun was published in 2001 (published in the United States as By the Lake) and is a portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community. It mirrors McGahern’s own return to his rural roots and is his paean to place. I recently tucked this gem away in the hand luggage to reacquaint myself with the master’s work. Don, my son, mentioned when he saw me reading it again that he would challenge me to date it – in other words, when exactly is it set?
The structure of the novel is unique and yet deceptive. There are no Chapters or other recognised breaks in the novel – the story slowly evolves and is told in a circular, repetitive manner, a kind of stream of consciousness novel, beautifully crafted and told by a master storyteller. McGahern throws some light on this layering and repetition in an interview given to James Whyte, ‘I see the whole function of writing as circling on the image […] To try to pick the image that’s sharp, that can dramatise or bring to light what is happening, be it a wedding ring, a Coca-cola bottle, or someone rolling an orange across the floor.’ 
The setting is one McGahern knows completely. It’s his own place, a remote and sparsely populated corner of Fenagh, County Leitrim, between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border near Enniskillen. There are a few houses by a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard called Shruhaun. This setting is described meticulously and repeatedly, just as it appears in stories like ‘High Ground’ or ‘The Country Funeral’. The novel is dedicated to Madeline Green, his wife and support in those final productive years by the lake.
In response to Don’s challenge, the novel is hard to tie down time-wise – there are hints dropped here and there and we get outside references to ‘Fords of Dagenham’, ‘the death of de Valera’ (1975), ‘the escape from Long Kesh’ (1975), ‘the hunger strikes’ (1980’s), ‘the ring road round Roscommon’ (1980’s), ‘Blind Date’ and All Ireland Finals on the television and ‘the massacre at Enniskillen’ (1987), etc. However, McGahern is continually moving from the present to the past and much of the farming practices described are throw-backs to the Seventies, and Eighties – haymaking, single bar mowers, square bales, and the use of the buck rake are all redolent of this era. However, they are characteristic of ‘small’ farming practices on small holdings in poorer regions to this day. This muddies the waters when trying to accurately date the text. As a fictional work accounting for the final years of the author’s life and his return to his native place, my guess is that it took a number of years to write. Therefore, my best guess is that it was written over time but no later than 1990.
However, it is not of vital importance that we accurately pinpoint the time of writing – it is a beautifully layered piece – it is akin to O’Faolain’s ‘A Nest of Gentle Folk’ – describing the locals, their relationships, their hardships, their foibles and peculiarities. The lake itself is even reminiscent of Chekov’s ‘magic lake’ in The Seagull. This is mixed in with often poetic seasonal observations from the surrounding nature – the hills, the fields, the swans, the herons, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cattle of the small townland – and of course the lake which takes on the mantle of an ever-present vital character in the novel:
‘The banks were in the full glory of the summer, covered with foxgloves and small wild strawberries and green vetches. The air was scented with wild woodbine’ (p.15).
‘Around him was the sharp scent of the burnished mint. Close by, two swans fished in the shallows, three dark cygnets by their side. Further out, a whole stretch of water was alive and rippling with a moving shoal of perch. Elsewhere, except where it was ruffled by sudden summer gusts, the water was like glass’ (p.15).
In this place all news is local. The daily visits to each other’s houses bring the usual banter:
‘Have you any news?’
‘No news. Came looking for news.’
‘You came to the wrong place. We are waiting for news’ (p. 126-127).
The outside world does not intrude to any great extent – McGahern is reinforcing the notion that all politics is local, that community is everything. He is painting a picture of a disappearing world, of a close-knit rural community, cut off from the great earth-shattering events we see described on Sky and CNN – here all that matters is news of John Quinn’s latest conquest or other trivial local happenings which have been reported in the local Observer. The one significant ‘international’ story is the continuing ‘Troubles’ North of the border. What, I wonder, would the locals in this small backwater Border area make of Brexit when it comes to the shores of the lake?
A year’s cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. We move at one level from Bill Evans’ daily visits to the Ruttledges and his trips to town on Thursdays to the Shah’s arrival round the lake on Sunday’s. We then move to celebrations of Christmas, Monaghan Day in February, Easter and the arrival of Johnny Murphy on his annual visit home from England. Food, drink, seasons, weather, the grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter (or a poet) were returning over and over to the same scene:
The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish. There were many swans on the lake. A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore. A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog. A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand. The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky. Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young (p.44).
As we read, we encounter the ones who stayed, the ones who left and return once a year and the blow-ins who come to live in this magical backwater of a place. The story is told in cycles of time, the seasons melding into each other, Christmas and Easter given their rightful place. Even the title echoes the Resurrection at Easter-time and helps explain why every Christian graveyard faces the rising sun! The novel may not have Chapters in the accepted sense but as we read we are lulled by the benign, repetitive rhythms and cadences of rural life: On Sundays the Shah’s black Mercedes rolls round the lake, on Thursdays Billy Evans goes to the local town in the yellow minibus, each summer Johnny comes from London on his holidays and each evening the heron rises out of the reeds and flaps ahead leading Jamesie round the shore.
Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate ‘came from London in the spring’ having abandoned the mayhem of London’s high life and glamour and purchased a small cottage by the lake. The auctioneer, Jimmy Joe McKiernan is brutally honest about their prospective purchase telling them that it is little more than a site, ‘a site above a lake, on twenty acres’:
The small fields around the house were enclosed with thick whitethorn hedges, with ash and rowan and green oak and sycamore, the fields overgrown with rushes. Then the screens of whitethorn suddenly gave way and they stood high over another lake. The wooded island where the herons bred was far out, and on the other shore, the pale sedge and stunted birch trees of Gloria Bog ran towards the shrouded mountains….. Swans and dark clusters of wildfowl were fishing calmly in the shelter (p.19).
They learn quickly the native ways and discover a place where they belong – all temptations to return to the centre are gently refused. Through them, we are introduced to the motley crew of neighbours, the mad, the bad and the sad. Their foibles, their character and flaws are keenly observed – mainly through Joe’s eyes. Their neighbour, Patrick Ryan remarks:
‘Strange to think of all the people that went out to England and America and the ends of the earth from this place and yon pair coming back against the tide’ (p.80)
They are blessed with their neighbours – particularly Mary and Jamesie Murphy. From the very beginning, Jamesie and Mary befriend the new arrivals, Joe and Kate, and made them welcome. Mary is a very deep reflective character, the real strength in the Murphy household. She had grown up at the edge of the lake and when she married Jamesie she left her father and brother and moved to her new home at the far side of the lake. Her home place is described as being idyllic:
Cherry and apple and pear trees grew wild about the house, and here and there the fresh green of the gooseberry shone out of a wilderness of crawling blackthorn. Hundreds of daffodils and white narcissi still greeted each spring by the lake with beauty, though there was no one near at hand to notice’ (p.92).
When she marries she is torn between her new home and having to leave her father and brother to fend for themselves. She begins to understand that ‘to be without anxiety was to be without love’ (p.94). Kate Ruttledge recognizes her worth as a friend and compliments her by saying that the spirit of her old home came with her across the lake. Mary and Jamesie live out their life by the lake: her father passes away, her brother emigrates to Boston, she becomes pregnant and Jim is born. He does well in school, winning a scholarship to continue schooling in the local town. He marries and has children of his own. He visits infrequently and holidays in Italy. Mary’s silent reaction is characteristic of her deep and reflective nature:
Completely alone though a part of the crowd, Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own. Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change. But how can time be gathered in and kissed? There is only flesh (p.131-132).
Thinking of her brother-in-law, Johnny, who has returned to his bedsit in London she falls into reverie and shares a philosophy which is probably also shared by McGahern himself:
‘People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead,’ Mary said with a darkness that was as much a part of her as the sweet inward-looking smile, ‘We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake’ (p. 121).
Jamesie, an inveterate gossip is, however, a great neighbour and, especially in those early days, the difference between Joe and Kate surviving in their new location. Early on he tells Joe, ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world’. As the novel ends, a very emotional Joe acknowledges the debt he owes to Jamesie when he says:
‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said. ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’ (p. 312).
However, Jamesie and Mary, and Joe and Kate are the exceptions in this novel as the novel is peopled mainly by single men, men who see being single as a state to be coveted and prized: The Shah, Johnny Murphy, Patrick Ryan, Bill Evans, are all single. The only exception to this general rule is John Quinn whose biblical mantra is ‘that it is not good that man should be alone’. Quinn’s numerous efforts at fulfilling this ‘commandment’ are described, sometimes with humour, but his abuse of women is seen as abhorrent and crude. The others are perfectly happy in their bachelorhood and this is one of the social ills that McGahern holds up to inspection in the novel. Joe wonders why Patrick Ryan had never considered marriage:
This good-looking, vigorous man had lived all his life around the lake where nothing could be concealed, and he had never shown any sexual interest in another. ‘I don’t have to even countenance that job,’ he joked once to Ruttledge. ‘John Quinn has agreed to do my share’ (p. 213).
Father Conroy, the Catholic Parish priest is their role model – he lives a comfortable bachelor life, is respected and is seen as a pillar of the community but his power and influence, and the influence of the Church he represents is waning. He is depicted as a peripheral, marginalized figure. No-one has a bad word to say about him. In his defence, he does use his influence in getting Bill Evans reinstated on the Thursday bus to town and he eventually finds a place for Bill in the new independent living accommodation in town – called ironically, Tráthnóna. However, the locals have made their assessment of priests in general and what they represent:
‘Anyhow all the priests in England are sociable. They are not directly connected to God like the crowd here.’
‘Father Conroy isn’t like that,’ Ruttledge intervened.
‘Father Conroy is plain. The priests had this country abulling with religion once. It’s a good job it’s easing off,’ Patrick Ryan said (p.86).
Joe Ruttledge sees Father Conroy as a decent man who tries his best not to offend and to blend in as best he can. Joe realizes that the priest is fighting a losing battle with diminishing levels of religious practice in the community. That They May Face the Rising Sun is one of the last great expositions of a Catholic community moving on into a ‘Post-Catholic’ world and is another non-bitter example of Ireland’s troubled and complex relationship with the Catholic religion.
The novel is suffused with words of easy wisdom – distilled, incisive one-liners that come from a life keenly observed in the solitude and mindfulness of rural existence (and often delivered as banter):
‘He that is down can fear no fall’ (p. 2)
‘The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different’ (p.3)
‘Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise’ (p.3)
‘You nearly have to be born into a place to know what’s going on and what to do’ (p.3)
‘Those that care least will win’ (p.6)
Jamesie’s wisdom: ‘Enter lightly … and leave on tiptoe. Put the hand across but never press. Ask why not but never why. Always lie so that you speak the truth and God save all poor sinners’ (p.8)
‘They say we think the birds are singing when they are only crying this is mine out of their separate territories’ (p.21)
‘The borrowed horse has hard hooves’ (p.26)
‘Let nobody try to best the guards or the doctors or teachers. They have their own ways of getting back at you. (p.34)
‘There’s too much fucken drink passed around in this country’ (p.46)
‘There’s nothing right or wrong in this world. Only what happens’ (p.58)
‘There are times when the truth is the wrong thing’ (p.98)
‘Lies can walk while the truth stays grounded’ (p.98)
‘There’s a big difference between visiting and belonging’ (p.99)
‘There’s nothing worse than widows. Even priests will tell you that’ (p.105)
‘With people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or in the graveyard’ (p.155)
‘The greatest country in Ireland was always the world to come’ (p.210)
Finally, my favourite! It is Christmas Day and Joe Ruttledge is visiting his neighbour Patrick Ryan. Patrick has a few cattle but they are not well taken care of. He passes a very pessimistic comment to Joe that ‘I suppose no more than ourselves, lad, it doesn’t make all that much differ whether they live or die’. Joe disagrees but doesn’t express his thoughts out loud – we, the readers, are the lucky ones with this beautiful, unspoken Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care? Ruttledge thought in opposition but did not speak’ (p.216).
One of the major episodes in the novel is the annual summer ritual of haymaking. This was often a very hectic, stressful and frenetic time for farmers who, in Ireland at any rate, are open to the vagaries of the Irish weather. This is beautifully rendered by McGahern in the novel and the various mundane tasks of saving the hay crop are punctuated with many poetic descriptions of high summer by the lake:
Then the settled weather came, the morning breeze from the lake lifting and tossing the curtains on the open windows to scatter early light around the bedroom walls (p.108).
Outside there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The ripe heavy grass in the meadow was stirring like water beneath the light breeze (p.110).
The morning wind from the lake that lifted the curtains had died. The water was like glass, reflecting the clear sky on either side of a sparkling river of light from a climbing sun. Not a breath of wind moved on the meadows. The only movement was the tossing of the butterflies above the restful grass (p.110).
When all the meadows were cut they looked wonderfully empty and clean, the big oak and ash trees in the hedges towering over the rows of cut grass, with the crows and the gulls descending in a shrieking rabble to hunt frogs and snails and worms. In the corners of the meadows, pairs of plump pigeons were pecking busily at grass seed’ (p.111).
Along the shore a boy was fishing out on the stones, casting a glittering spoon out over the water and then reeling it slowly in. The heron rose out of the reeds and flapped ahead before swinging away towards the farther shore. A glaring red sun was sinking below the rim of the sky (p.117).
The next morning a white mist obscured even the big trees along the shore. Gossamer hung over the pear and plum and apple trees in the orchard and a pale spiderwebbing lay across the grass in the field (p.117).
The very quiet and coolness of the morning was delicious with every hour promising later heat. When the sun had burned away the mist and dried the dew on the swards, the tedding began (p.118).
As the stacks (of hay) disappeared from the meadows and the shed filled, the sun coming and going behind the dark, racing clouds, they were able to stack the last loads at their ease, chatting and idling. The birds had gone quiet. The hum of the insects was still. Swallows were sweeping low above the empty meadows. The wind beats of swans crossing between the lakes came on the still air and they counted seven in formation before they disappeared below the screen of trees (p. 134-135).
Weather by the lake is also described in detail and is used as a device to show the passage of time. Without exception, these link passages are again powerfully poetic and show McGahern’s exceptional powers of observation:
Autumn: ‘There were many days of wind and rain. Uneasy gusts ruffled the surface of the lake, sending it running this way and that. Occasionally, a rainbow arched all the way across the lake. More often the rainbows were as broken as the weather, appearing here and there in streaks or brilliant patches of colour in the unsettled sky. When rain wasn’t dripping from leaves or eaves, the air was so heavy it was like breathing rain. The hives were quiet. Only the midges swarmed’ (p. 154).
‘The lake was an enormous mirror turned to the depth of the sky, holding its lights and its colours. Close to the reeds there were many flies, and small shoals of perch were rippling the surface with hints of the teeming energy and life of the depths. The reeds had lost their bright greenness and were leaning towards the water. Everything that had flowered had now come to fruit’ (p. 186).
‘The little vetch pods on the banks turned black. Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes. The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed. Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot. Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar. For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean’ (p.191).
Winter: ‘The leaves started to fall heavily in frosts, in ghostly whispering streams that never paused though the trees were still. They formed into drifts along the shore….. Traceries of branches stripped of their leaves stood out against the water like veins. Under each delicate rowan tree lay the pale rowan stones, like droppings. In the cold dry weather the hedges were thinned for firewood, the evenings rent with the whining rise and fall of other chainsaws similarly working. In this new weather, sounds travelled with a new cold sharpness’ (p. 192).
‘A river of beaten copper ran sparkling from shore to shore in the centre of the lake. On either side of this bright river peppered with pale stars the dark water seethed. Far away the light of the town glowed in the sky’ (p. 201).
Spring: ‘The fields long sodden with rain hardened in the drying winds. Small flowers started to appear on banks and ditches and in the shelter of the hedges….. Birds bearing twigs in their beaks looped through the air. The brooding swan resumed her seat on the high throne in the middle of the reeds. The otter paths between the lakes grew more beaten. In shallows along the shore the water rippled with the life of spawning pike and bream: in the turmoil their dark fins showed above the water and the white of their bellies flashed when they rolled. The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves, sometimes leapfrogging one another’ (p.250).
‘There were primroses and violets on the banks of the lane and the dark leaf of the wild strawberry, dandelion in flower and little vetches. It was too early to scent the wild mint but they could see its rough leaves crawling along the edges of the gravel’ (p. 258).
Summer: ‘The plum trees blossomed, then the apple came and the white brilliance of the pear tree. May came in wet and windy. The rich green of the grass in the shelter of the hedges travelled out over the whole fields. Weeds had to be pulled from the ridges, the vegetable garden turned and weeded. Foxgloves appeared on the banks of the lane and the scent of the wild mint was stronger along the shore’ (p. 263).
‘The water was silent, except for the chattering of the wildfowl, the night air sweet with the scents of the ripening meadows, thyme and clover and meadowsweet, wild woodbine high in the whitethorns mixed with the scent of the wild mint crawling along the gravel on the edge of the water’ (p. 312-313).
As the novel moves to its climax McGahern revisits the annual commemoration of the massacre at Glasdrum. This is embedded in the local folk memory and commemorates an ambush carried out by the Black and Tans during the turbulent War of Independence. The local volunteers had no chance and were mown down in the ambush and their bodies are buried in the graveyard in Shruhaun. Following the massacre, the locals carried out a reprisal killing and the local Protestant, Sinclair, is taken away from his family and shot. Each year the deaths of the IRA volunteers are commemorated by a march and speeches are made at their gravesides. This is orchestrated by the Jimmy Joe McKiernan and is used as a reminder of the brutality and oppression suffered in the past.
The whole area on either side of the Border again suffered greatly during the ‘Troubles’ which divided the people in Northern Ireland during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Communities on both sides of the Border were convulsed with acts of brutality and violence. This conflict is close and ever-present; it colours the whole history of the region. Jimmy Joe McKiernan who is also the local auctioneer, publican and undertaker has his finger in many pies.
In the middle of the crowd, Jimmy Joe McKiernan walked quietly, the head of the Provisionals, North and South, with power over all who marched (p.258).
McKiernan’s every move is monitored by a very Irish form of surveillance: two ‘undercover’ detectives sit in their ‘unmarked’ police car in a laneway across from his bar in the village and record his every move. McGahern’s cipher and benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against the violence towards the end of the book – ‘They honoured themselves at Enniskillen. How many people did they kill and maim?’ (p.238). We are left in no doubt where the author stands on this important issue – an issue that is raised on the opening page when Joe Ruttledge tells us:
‘We never speak badly about people. It’s too dangerous. It can get you into trouble’ (p. 1).
Throughout the novel, in endless, repetitive descriptions of people and places, McGahern is reminding us all of how people lived in the past and how we should live our lives today before it is too late. There is an old Irish sean fhocail or proverb which states ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – we rely on our neighbours for our survival. The pastoral and Edenlike world created by McGahern here in this, his swansong novel, gives us a notion of how this can be achieved; neighbourliness, hospitality, ritual, friendly banter. In capturing this passing way of life he celebrates its rites and rituals with such dignity that the novel has many of the hallmarks of religious worship. But more important than the living world he celebrates is the natural world which surrounds it – the sun, the sky and the lake – which provides order and an everlasting backdrop to the lives of its inhabitants. The time frame of the novel may be blurred and timeless but the constantly evolving and changing descriptions of the lake are a constant reminder of our strictly human scope within the wider canvas of the natural world. As Mary Murphy reminds us we are merely passing through – “We’re but a puff of wind on the lake.” Joe Ruttledge puts it beautifully in his already mentioned Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care?’
 Interview, quoted in James Whyte, History, Myth and Ritual in the Fiction of John McGahern, NY: Edwin Mellon Press 2002, p.229.
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole. This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August. When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties. The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!
In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole. It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days. Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory. It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens. The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection. Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.
The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest. Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer. We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,
‘Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.
Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.
The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring. He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks.
The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’. We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.
Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!
Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn. Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:
You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.
The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs! As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!
Kavanagh is very comfortable and skilled in his use of the sonnet in his poetry. He manages to express an authentic and simple vision of life and communicate it successfully using the sonnet form. Indeed, this simple vision has often led to Kavanagh being underestimated and undervalued among his peers. He never aspired to the greatness of Yeats and neither has he the subtlety of Kinsella. But within the poetic limits, he set for himself Kavanagh presents a new, inimitable, and sometimes disturbing way of viewing life. His sonnets are informed by a unique personal vision.
A criticism often levelled at Kavanagh is that often his statements fall into predictable patterns. His sonnets, for example, do not develop – what we get from him is a series of sincere repetitions of a few basic perceptions. In the last of his Dublin sonnets, he is saying, in more or less the same way, what he was saying in the first, and his greatness is that he moves us by repetition. It is this sincerity that prevents his repetition from becoming commonplace. However, this integrity does not hide the fact that there is little or no growth in his poetic ability. There is, instead, a kind of lyrical repetition that constantly commands attention. Kavanagh is stuck in a personal rut of poetic honesty. He seems almost to be writing the same poem always!
On reading his sonnets one notices how, for him, perception has become an obsession, and how he clings to the importance of delineating visual scenes:
A swan goes by head low with many apologies
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
Visual perception has assumed an almost religious fascination which will not permit him to remain at rest with one statement of it. He must tell it to the world all the time and invite others to share in his views:
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.
Within these limits, however, Kavanagh maintains a moving, coherent and intimate vision of life. Indeed, the success of his method is particularly noticeable when he tries to break away from it. As a poet without learning, Kavanagh sometimes tries to overcome or transcend his limitations by placing learned words, ideas or references in his poems. The intended effect is either to heighten the tone and increase the sense of personal tension, or else to bring a visual image more vividly to mind. Sometimes he only partly achieves the desired effect; more often he fails completely. A good example of this occurs in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ where two exaggerated comparisons mar an otherwise perfect poem. The word Niagariously in line 5 is meant to convey an audible image of sound as water rushes through the locks, and is in contrast to the ‘tremendous silence’ of the next line. The image of the Niagara Falls is, however, surely too exaggerated a comparison to make with the quiet splash of water over a lock on the Grand Canal. On a technical level, the word is almost impossible to pronounce and it destroys the gentle rhythm of the opening lines. Similarly, the allusion to ‘these Parnassian islands’ is inserted too boldly into a poem which depends on simplicity for its effect, rather than on weighty, learned references. In each case, there is a certain lack of integration of the image. By way of contrast, however, the reference to Alexander Selkirk in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ is seamlessly integrated with the overall theme of the poem. It expresses an idea repeated by Kavanagh in many of his poems: namely, his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
Kavanagh’s poetic preferences are stated clearly in his prose works. In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, he defines the limits of his themes and subject matter. He states, ‘The things that really matter, are casual insignificant little things.’ Co-existing with this sense of the importance of insignificance is the contrasting idea of the world’s grandeur. Kavanagh is indeed a nature poet, but not in the manner in which we usually apply the term. There are no sweeping descriptions of majestic landscapes; only the unseen beauty encountered on an evening’s stroll. ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the best presentation of his method. The still, canal waters ‘pour redemption’ on him. He thinks of its beauty in terms of religious images. He feels ‘redeemed’, born again, after his long life of hardship in Monaghan. God ordained that men should work and suffer. But even in his inaction, Kavanagh feels that he can clarify the beauty of the ordinary world (‘the habitual’) and that this, too, is the ‘will of God.’ His duty as a poet is seen by himself as a religious vocation. This spiritual frame of reference continues into line 4 when he says that he will now:
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
He then lists a group of visual images which stress, again, the beauty of unimportant objects. Indeed, the central portion of this sonnet is characterized by its visionary impact. Its simplicity stems from a totally coherent and lucid vision:
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest…..
God and the idea of God dominate this sonnet. In his essay entitled Pietism and Poetry Kavanagh says ‘the odd thing about the best modern poets is their utter simplicity.’ Of Kavanagh himself, it may be said that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem. He recognized that, in many cases, obscurity is merely a failure of the poet’s imagination and of his ability to communicate. Kavanagh saw his simplicity as a gift from God. He obviously thought a great deal about the nature of simplicity. In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he asks for a poetic style that is passive, reposed and serene:
…………………………, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech.
He also asks for a consuming intimacy with the natural world – a twentieth-century version of Wordsworth’s Pantheism:
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.
For Kavanagh, in this sonnet, the rewards of liberty are twofold. First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it becomes more assured. The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of poetic faith that is inextricably linked with this deepened sense of wonder. This sense of well-being is described in religious terms and phrases – Kavanagh, after all, is a deeply religious poet: ‘redemption’, ‘God’, ‘the Word’, ‘pray’, ‘soul’. This poem is deceptively simple. Its simplicity is achieved with consummate art, through the poet’s personal involvement in the scene. It is not so much that he observes real things as that he feels the physical presence of these things with a total and alert consciousness:
O unworn world enrapture me….
He does not simply describe the scene, he recreates it, and it is unforgettable. This is very similar to Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this exploitation of the power of suggestion in ordinary subjects is the most striking of Kavanagh’s special gifts.
Kavanagh’s poems fall naturally into three divisions: those about the countryside (the Monaghan poems); those about the city (the Dublin poems); and those which, broadly speaking, attempt to express a kind of personal philosophy, or which try to define the nature of personal vision (the sonnets). There have been many previous attempts to define poetry and I suppose each of us must really define it for ourselves. Kavanagh found it impossible to define but fascinating to describe. In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he sees it basically as a celebration of human inadequacy and failure. All poets are at times taken up, directly or indirectly, with being different from the rest of society, and Irish poets are especially preoccupied with this problem. A poet is, almost by definition, an individualist: he stands for the private, as distinct from the public values, and for the protection of private feeling ‘against the tyranny of society’. ‘Inniskeen Road’ could be seen as Kavanagh’s defense of poetry, as a compressed statement of poetic belief. The octave stresses public concerns, the second line imitates the plain language of village people and is in some sense satiric. But Kavanagh is never completely at home in satire and in the sestet the tone changes. The mood becomes meditative with the poet’s feeling of regret and detachment. What is stressed here is his separateness, his isolation. The paradox is of course that only by thus withdrawing can he discover himself and his mission as a poet. He has withdrawn from the world in order to be able to understand it and value it truly. His observation, therefore, becomes acute, and his power of selecting significant details remarkable. Though feeling, at first, the weight of his loneliness, the mood changes again in the last line as he suddenly understands himself, and his situation:
……….. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
The sonnet entitled ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ is basically different from the other two. It has neither the sense of frustration communicated by ‘Inniskeen Road’ nor the delicate imagery of ‘Canal Bank Walk’. It is a public sonnet, a direct address from the poet to the reader and as such its tone is serious. Its style is very elegant but really more closely akin to prose rather than poetry:
O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably….
In ‘Inniskeen Road’ Kavanagh tries to define his own relationship with Irish society. In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he has rejected society for the intimacies of private experience. Now, in this last sonnet, there is a new sense of communication: there is a wish to renew his links with others and to share with them his experience and this is why he addresses his listener/reader using terms of affection:
Commemorate me thus beautifully…
As usual with Kavanagh, the sonnet creates a visual scene. He has not time to entice his listener with lengthy descriptions but he provokes his interest through simple images; a swan, the light under bridges, a barge. Compared to ‘Canal Bank Walk’ we notice the economy and compression gained from the absence of adjectives. Also, this sonnet shows less dependence on imagery and relies more on factual statements.
Indeed, the formal demands of sonnet writing brought out the best of Kavanagh’s poetic ability and many of his poems are superb personal statements. His imagery often seems plain and unremarkable when compared to that of Yeats or Kinsella, but the images are sharp, descriptive, and precisely used. In the best of his sonnets, he speaks of a certain time and place; he expresses experiences in the context of his own world. It is unlikely that he will ever be the source of the industry that has grown up around Yeats: there is so little to unravel, his greatness seems not in himself but in the world he expresses. And yet it is true to say that, though Yeats is a more universal poet, Kavanagh is, at times, much more Irish, in that he expresses a theme that is less remote from ordinary people’s experience. It is this simple immediacy of Kavanagh’s poetry that is part of his special appeal.
This essay is an edited version of one written by Joseph Ducke for the Inscapes Series (Inscape17: Poetry 2) entitled Patrick Kavanagh, (p.73) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.
Patrick Kavanagh, like Yeats, is constantly ‘stitching and unstitching’ old themes in his poems. These themes can be listed as follows, without giving them any particular order or ranking:
Loneliness and isolation;
Regret at the thought of lost innocence since the passing of childhood;
Meditations on the vocation of the poet and how this vocation has been frustrated;
The relationship between the poet and nature;
Meditations on the poet’s poor, deprived background, and on the impoverishment of the spirit induced by the life of the Irish countryside of his youth.
It helps if we distinguish between two distinct phases of Kavanagh’s poetic career. Put simply his career can be divided between what we will call ‘the Monaghan poems’ and ‘the Dublin poems’. The poems dealing with life in the grim, forbidding farmlands of Monaghan (‘Stony Grey Soil’ and ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’) are remarkable for their attitude of disillusionment and discontent. Life in the Irish countryside and its effects on sensitive souls are portrayed with savage realism:
You sang on steaming dunghills
A song of coward’s brood
You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch
You fed me on swinish food.
The tone of this poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’, is predominantly one of disgust and rebellion. The poet’s mind has been embittered and stunted by the drudgery of life on a small farm. His high ambitions and ideals have been frustrated. He might have pictured himself as a graceful young man, talented and destined to succeed, but the reality has been much different:
You clogged the feet of my boyhood
And I believed that my stumble
Had the poise and stride of Apollo
And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.
There is a kind of savage comedy in the self-mocking contrast between Apollo, the god of light, beauty, poetry and music, and the rustic, awkward, ugly and ill-spoken young poet scraping a miserable living from a poor farm. It is, however, important to notice that this poem is not uniformly disillusioned in tone. Life may have been poor, nasty and brutish, but it has to be remembered that in those dark fields of Monaghan, Kavanagh had his first poetic inspiration:
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.
Another poem which deals with the less attractive aspects of the poet’s early life is ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’. Again we have the theme of the lonely, suffering, misunderstood poet living in a place where the inhabitants cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with him. He is an isolated figure on the Inniskeen road as the carefree groups of young people pass him on their way to a dance. They share the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’, and the ‘wind and elbow language of delight’. He is pointedly excluded. He must pay this price for being a poet; he must be prepared to be an outcast from the company of those who cannot share his interests and who are overawed by the power of the poet in their midst. This poem features one of Kavanagh’s characteristic mannerisms: his tendency to use literary allusion (Selkirk on his island the ‘monarch of all I survey’) to illustrate a point. The pun on ‘blooming’ in the line ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’ is in doubtful taste: Kavanagh is (too) often liable to lapses of this kind.
There is a world of difference between the two poems just discussed and two later poems dealing with the Grand Canal and its surroundings. Kavanagh’s attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer. He said: ‘As a poet, I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’. The Canal Bank poems show us that he has left behind him the inhibitions and restrictions featured in the earlier poems, and achieved a new freedom of imagination and a new, more positive outlook on life and nature. The rural nature of Monaghan reminded him of his loneliness; the urban nature of the canal bank offers redemption and hope. He sits on the canal bank enjoying the sunshine ‘pouring redemption’ for him. There is a powerful sense of enjoyment, of gratitude and of wonder at the new beauty he is able to feel all around him. Remember, he has only recently been discharged from hospital after successful treatment for lung cancer. He now feels as if he has been reborn. He is almost delirious with joy at the sight of the simple, yet beautiful, natural objects which pass before his eyes. Even the most commonplace things take on a new meaning for him; he is now content to ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’. Nature is now capable of healing his wounds, of giving him the kind of happiness he has always longed for:
O unworn world enrapture me, enrapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech
This poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is full of a deeply religious awareness of nature, associated with ‘the will of God’, ‘redemption’, ‘eternal voices’, ‘the Word’.
The same joyful mood is present in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’. Here again, the tone is optimistic. Nature and its sights and sounds fill the poet with the deep contentment he finds in ‘the tremendous silence of mid-July’. It is this close communion with nature that leads him to ask for commemoration near water. Whereas in his Monaghan poems, the ordinary things of nature, the fields, the soil, the ditches, the hedges, the hills, tended to provoke unpleasant reactions, in his later work he finds novelty, excitement and new inspiration in the most ordinary and banal sights and sounds: the noise of the canal lock gate, the greenness of the trees, the barge, the swan. This child-like wonder at the sight of common objects is a distinctive feature of his later work. The discontent, the disillusionment, the loneliness, of his early poems have given way to a new poetry of acceptance, of happy enjoyment of life and nature.
‘Advent’ is a good example of Kavanagh’s treatment of a religious theme. It is obvious that the poet is very much influenced by traditional Catholic teaching and practice and this may pose problems for some modern readers who may be unfamiliar with these beliefs. It is really a sequence of two sonnets, which do not, however, follow the usual rules observed by writers of sonnets. (It is interesting to note that the poem has twenty-eight lines and that there are twenty-eight days in Advent). This poem, in fact, has much in common with the Grand Canal poems. Here Kavanagh longs to return to the wonder of childhood, to be able to experience again ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children’. In those far off days of infancy, he could experience wonder at the sight of a hill, a bog-hole or a cart-track. However, as he has aged and matured, this childhood sense of wonder has been eroded and destroyed. The poet, like other adults, has allowed contact with the world and with the pleasure of the senses (‘We tested and tasted too much, lover’) to dissipate what he calls ‘the luxury of a child’s soul’. The problem posed in the poem is how can he recapture this childhood happiness again. There is, I sense, another more selfish reason for this quest during Advent: this new-found wonder will also help him as a poet. Now, everything he sees will be suitable subject matter for his poems. Kavanagh finds the answer in penance, for which Advent (and Lent) were traditional seasons. ‘The dry black bread and the sugarless tea’ of penance will help to charm back the childhood attitudes to experience. Now, he will find happiness in looking at the simple, even banal, things of life. By undergoing penance during the Advent season, the poet sees himself returning sin where it came from and now he will no longer need to go searching ‘for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’. He will now see everything in a new light, even the talking of an old fool, previously tedious, will now seem delightful. The sight of men barrowing dung in gardens will be a joyful sign of God’s plenty. Advent penance and the renewal of religious feeling and fervour will lead to a new found peace of mind. Metaphorically he is born again! Now, he will no longer seek reasons or explanations for mysteries, or for griefs experienced. He will not try to over-analyse the reasons for his new mood now that he has cast off sin.
This newly-acquired delight and celebration of simple, banal things are what connects ‘Advent’ with the Canal Bank poems.
This essay is an edited version of one written by Patrick Murray for the Inscapes Series (Inscape16: Poetry 1) entitled ‘Patrick Kavanagh Some Themes’, (p.78) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.
Recently I was browsing through my precious, dog-eared and scribbled-on copy of Soundings and came across the three Austin Clarke poems featured in that anthology. ‘The Lost Heifer’, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’, and ‘The Planter’s Daughter’ brought back fond memories of English classes long ago! The Clarke poems selected in Augustine Martin’s infamous Interim (!) Anthology don’t give a comprehensive view of his range as a poet but they do display his enthusiasm for Gaelic poetry. The three poems selected by Martin are, however, good examples of the way many Irish poets transposed some of the stylistic devices associated with this type of poetry into English verse. It is also interesting to note that ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ has as its main theme the conflict between pagan and Christian values, here represented by an imagined conversation between St. Patrick and the ‘pagan’ blackbird. This theme occupied Clarke for much of his poetic career.
‘The Lost Heifer’
In my experience as a frazzled English teacher ‘The Lost Heifer’ always provoked puzzled reactions from my students. The title of the poem, taken in conjunction with Clarke’s well-known fondness for Gaelic poetry, gives a clue as to what it may be about. The cow or heifer in Gaelic poetry, especially in the Jacobite era, was often used as a secret code name for Ireland, as, for example, in such poems as ‘An Droimeann Donn Dílis’. However, even when we are aware of this background knowledge, useful as it is, it does not get us very far into the heart of the poem. Clarke himself has told us that the poem had its origins in the Irish Civil War of the 1920’s. It was written at a time when, as Clarke saw it, the noble ideals and aspirations of the patriots of the War of Independence were lost or obscured in the intense bitterness and disillusionment of the war of brothers. The heifer of the poem stood for a vision of Ireland, obscured for the moment by mist and rain, which stood for those grim forces already referred to: forces which made it difficult for those who shared the patriotic vision to find it in those grim times.
In defence of my often bemused Leaving Cert students in the 80’s and 90’s, it would be very difficult to arrive at this interpretation without the help of the poet himself! There are certainly no obvious clues, however cryptic or obscure, to anything like a civil war background, or, indeed, to any other political backdrop whatever. Without the poet’s explanation no student of mine, lacking the information given above, could conceivably sub-title the poem, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.
Part of the reason the poem defies logical explanation is that it is a symbolic representation and therefore impossible to render in logical terms. Most attempts to convey the ‘meaning’ of such a poem are doomed to failure. Indeed, no prose analysis could do justice to the impressionistic landscape evoked by Clarke in the poem, or to his tremendous rhythms or delicately suggested sound effects. The notion that the heifer stands for some obscured ideal of Ireland is certainly borne out in the imagery through which the heifer is suggested, rather than presented or realised. There is no direct glimpse of the heifer. He builds up a picture using colour, light and shade and this contributes to the mood. She is brought to mind; she evokes an image of loss and beauty; her presence is inferred by her tracks in the dark grasses, and by her soft voice coming across the meadow. These delightfully delicate symbolic evocations of Ireland and of misty Irish landscapes certainly owe something to the poetry of Yeats:
I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head
And cut and pulled a hazel wand…
It had become a glimmering girl
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air….
As in all symbolist or quasi-symbolist poems, the imagery is mysteriously echoic, capable of more than one interpretation. A good example of this is, the implied metaphor in lines 5 and 6, ‘I thought of the last honey by the water / That no hive can find’. At the symbolic level, one assumes that here we have an image of the heifer (and thus the idealised Ireland) as something remote and inaccessible. But what is the precise meaning of the words? The last honey by the water may be wild honey near a stream or river that will never be found by man, or it may be nectar that no hive of bees can reach.
The poem is a fine illustration of Clarke’s ability to manipulate vowels and consonants to provide wholly pleasing sound-effects. Here he is indebted to features of the Gaelic poetic tradition. He strives here to copy the Gaelic poets’ use of internal rhyme, consonance and assonance with great dexterity:
When the black herds of the rain were grazing….
And the watery hazes of the hazel….
That no hive can find…..
Brightness was drenching through the branches….
Indeed, the poem has a very elaborate and ingenious sound pattern. The poet uses rhyme, line-length and sound correspondence in the shaping of this lyric. (You can explore this further by following the ‘ay’ sound through the poem). And by comparing the first and last lines of the poem I feel that there is a progression, a sense of completeness, and a sense of hope for the future, as the ‘black herds’ in line one, lost and obscured by the mountain mist, become clearer as the mist becomes rain.
‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’
‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ is somewhat easier to comprehend than ‘The Lost Heifer’. Clarke based this poem on another famous poem in the Irish language called ‘Lonn Doire an Chairn’, a standard anthology piece taken from the Irish in a sequence known as the ‘Colloquy of the Old Men’. Anyone familiar with Clarke’s source will realize that his poem is not a direct translation, but a very free adaptation. In the Irish poem, Oisin is the speaker, and his main theme is the joyful, carefree life of the Fianna, symbolised by the glorious singing of the blackbird, this life being contrasted with the devout austerities of St. Patrick, who is encouraged to forgo his asceticism for the beauties of the natural life. Clarke’s poem sets the Christian and pagan ways of life in sharp contrast. His speaker is the blackbird, who tries to persuade Patrick to abandon the rigours of his religious practice and participate in the joys of nature. The argument or dialogue, however, is very one-sided and Patrick’s values are given short shrift. Religion is represented by ‘God’s shadow in the cup’, the ‘mournful matins’, and the handbell ‘without a glad sound’. Against this, we have the lively evocation of happy nature: the bright sun, the singing of the birds, Fionn’s keen response to the sights and sounds of the natural world.
The most interesting thing about the poem is the twist Clarke provides us with at the end which is not in the original. The Irish source has no hint of the blackbird’s threat to Patrick and all he represents. The ‘knowledge’ that is found among the branches is presumably, the kind available to those who give themselves up to the spontaneous enjoyment of, and involvement in, nature. At the end, the blackbird is suggesting that this knowledge will ultimately overcome the Christianity which now threatens to overthrow it, and will send Christians and their faith packing for good. The line ‘will thong the leather of your satchels’ seems to mean ‘will cause you to pack your bags and go’.
Here in this poem Clarke again makes use of the main stylistic devices of Gaelic poetry: alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance and consonance: note for instance in the opening stanza the poet uses,
(a) cross-rhyme – ‘bough-top’ / ‘cup now’;
(b) assonance – ‘brighter’ / ‘nightfall’, and the more unexpected internal echoes like, ‘whistling’ / ‘listen’;
(c) alliteration – ‘Mournful matins’ and so on.
You have my permission to explore the other stanzas yourself!
The last two stanzas juxtapose the free and easy life of Fionn and the Fianna and the restrictive and unattractive austerity of the Christian monks in their prayer cells. The final two lines see a return to the beginning. The blackbird has the last word and this suggests that the blackbird’s view holds sway and very soon the monks and their asceticism and prayers will be sent packing. In the light of recent returns from our Central Statistics Office maybe we can say that the poet is being prophetic here!
‘The Planter’s Daughter’
The most interesting feature of ‘The Planter’s Daughter’, a very slight poem, is the indirectness of Clarke’s method of presentation of his subject. She is not named and her family is referred to in a somewhat derogatory manner – they are Planters. The planter’s daughter, like the lost heifer, is suggested rather than described. Again, Clarke shows his command of delicate sound effects, particularly internal rhyme and half-rhyme:
They say that her beauty
Was music in mouth
And few in the candlelight
Thought her too proud….
It is a simple lyric and her beauty is registered indirectly, culminating in the three powerful metaphors in the final lines:
As a bell that is rung
Or a wonder told shyly
And O she was the Sunday
In every week,
The society depicted in the poem is one reminiscent of images of Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Big House belongs to the planter, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on the good land which had already been confiscated. We have all read in our history books about these Plantations – the most famous or infamous being the Plantation of Ulster. The planter has so much land he can afford to plant trees around his house for decoration, unlike the peasants who farm the barren hillsides. Clarke himself commented: ‘In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of planter stock’.
The planter’s daughter evokes differing responses in those who see her passing on her horse on in her carriage. The men admire her elegance and her beauty and the women are jealous and gossip among themselves. This clever, subtle juxtaposition is very well observed by the poet: the men ‘drank deep and were silent’, suggesting a toxic mix of resentment, envy and awe, while ‘The women were speaking / Wherever she went’.
His indirect treatment of the planter’s daughter creates a mystique around her. The locals don’t really know her so they fantasise and use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of her life. She is placed on a pedestal by them and they admire and envy her in equal proportions. The poet manages to balance this admiration for the planter’s daughter with a sense of a latent resentment among the local population.
So, rummage around in the old familiar places, your bookshelves or even the attic for your own copy of Soundings and take a trip down memory lane…….
About the Poet….
Austin Clarke (1896 – 1974)
Austin Clarke was born in 1896 in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and University College Dublin. He succeeded Thomas McDonagh, who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, as a lecturer in the English Department there in 1917 and continued to work in this position until 1921. He spent the next 12 years in England working as a critic and book reviewer, until his final return to Ireland in the nineteen thirties. Clarke was one of the leading Irish poets of the generation after W. B. Yeats. he also wrote novels, plays and memoirs. His main contribution to Irish poetry was the rigour with which he used technical means borrowed from classical Irish language poetry when writing in English.
Effectively, this meant writing English verse based not so much on metre as on complex patterns of assonance, consonance, and half rhyme. Describing his technique to Robert Frost, Clarke said: “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free.” His later verse is inclined to be increasingly satirical. He is regarded by many as one of Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats.