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.
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.
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
Robert Frost was very much influenced by the Romantic and Victorian poets who had gone before him. As with the Romantic poets, Frost sees the natural scene, accurately observed, as the primary poetic subject. Nature is not described for its own sake but as a thought provoking stimulus for the poet, leading him to more insight or revelation.
Romantic nature poems, such as ‘Spring Pools’, were usually meditative poems. The landscape was sometimes personified or imbued with human life as it is in this beautiful lyric. The Romantics subscribed to Wordsworth’s belief that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life’ and write about them in ‘language really spoken by men’ who belong to ‘humble and rustic life’. Frost puts many of these principles to good use in this poem.
Unlike many American poets in the twentieth century, Frost upheld formal poetic values during turbulent and changing times, when formal practices were widely abandoned. He emphasised the importance of rhyme and metrical variety, observed traditional forms and developed his technical skills. He could claim without fear of contradiction that ‘I am one of the notable craftsmen of my time’. His poetry was written so that the rhyming ‘will not seem the tiniest bit strained’. He used terza rima, end-of-line rhymes, and full and half rhyme.
This short lyric poem opens as Spring begins to take hold of the landscape. The forest pools formed by the last of the melting snows and rain still mirror the cloudy sky. The poet informs us that these pools will not last long because the roots of the mighty trees in the Vermont forest will very soon greedily soak up these pools in order to encourage leaf growth. This is a rather unusual and disturbing perspective on Nature – the poet sees an ominous, dark side to Nature. The trees soak up the Spring pools and within a short period of time, they are covered in leaves that blot out the flowers on the forest floor and the pools of water which gave them sustenance. This is symbiosis in reverse and reflects Frost’s unusual perspective on Nature.
Frost demonstrates to us here that he was a keen observer of the natural world. Plants, geographical features and the seasons have their place in his poetry: the physical world of spring pools, winter snows, the sky, brooks, Vermont mountains are all part of the rich landscape he describes for us.
However, we must realise that the natural world is rarely described for its own sake or as a background against which the action of the poem takes place. Instead, nature leads the poet to an insight or revelation. Often a comparison emerges between the natural scene and the psyche, what Frost called ‘inner and outer weather’. His descriptions of nature are not sentimental. He describes a world that is bleak, empty and cold.
The imagination enables the poet to see the world in this new way. In brief, intense moments he may enter a higher, visionary state. This allows him to regenerate his imaginative and creative capability and provides him with fresh insights and new inspiration for his poetry. This state cannot be sustained for long, however, and he must return to the real world.
The poet is being very philosophical here and looks at Nature in an unusual way. Yet he is very balanced in his thinking and this balance is reflected in the structure of the poem. Stanza One describes the coming of Spring in all its glory. We see his efforts at balance in his use of repetition in the lines,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
In Stanza Two, Spring gives way to Summer and again Frost shares with us his understanding of the delicate and finely balanced relationships within nature. He writes of nature with a keen eye and respects her beauty and her peculiar ways. The poet observes that the ‘trees have it in their pent-up buds / To darken nature and be summer woods’. He goes on to personify nature adding that the trees should ‘think twice before they use their powers / to blot out and drink up and sweep away’ the spring pools. It is a very direct poem, a poem with purpose.
The main theme of this poem is mutability and the transience of time. These are important, weighty concepts in poetry in general but especially here. This poem, ‘Spring Pools’, sees time as being destructive. For him, yesterday’s flowers wither, Winter snows melt, spring pools are drained by trees, trees lose their leaves in Autumn. The unpalatable epiphany for the poet is that Time destroys beauty.
Therefore, we see the imagery in some of Frost’s poems is deceptively simple. There are images from the natural and the human worlds. Some are everyday and ordinary, some are grotesque and macabre. In this poem the imagery carries the meaning. Frost uses precise details to re-create the colour, texture and sounds of the world within the poem. This makes his poetry richly sensuous. Yet, using the same technique, he can paint a cold, bleak scene that is chillingly realistic. So, beware: simple poems can be symbolic of ideas that are more profound!
Nevertheless, in his beloved Vermont countryside, Frost himself tends to work ‘alone’, he walks alone, and plays alone, being ‘too far from town to learn baseball’. His main concern, it would appear, is not with community but with the individual identity – of pools, of fences, of apples, and of himself. Through his poems, we imagine a man who values self-sufficiency and individualism. He chooses the road ‘less travelled’. He can be seen turning, not outward towards community but inward towards his inner self in such poems as ‘After Apple-Picking’ where he reflects that ‘I am over-tired / Of the great harvest I myself desired’. His inward quest is also balanced by his outward journey towards familiar things in nature, giving his verse a reflective and meditative quality, whether he speaks of himself or of nature.
Check out my overview of Robert Frost’s poetry here
Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters. What first strikes us about the play is, perhaps, the dominance of the male characters. There are only three female characters in the play – Madge, Kate Doogan, and Lizzie Sweeney – and they take up only a small part of the plot. We could see this absence of women as an important aspect of the play – and of course, it is a failing which Friel rectified in later plays such as Dancing at Lughnasa. Here, however, it points, we could suggest, to the absence of even greater things – warmth, love, affection, tenderness, sincerity – and this is partly correct. Gar, we notice, is motherless. His only love affair has ended in failure. He looks to his father for affection only to be disappointed. Madge can only partly fulfil this need for affection which Gar so strongly expresses. Significantly one of the few uses of the word ‘love’ in the play is in a casual and incidental context, namely, in the letter Gar has written to his Aunt Lizzy accepting her invitation (p. 56). It would seem, therefore, that Friel is attempting to describe a world in which the ordinary affections that bring people closer together are absent.
So, we have established that female characters are missing from this play and so too are the human qualities they represent. But a close reading of the text reveals that women seem often to be hovering in the background. They appear as topics of conversation on more than one occasion. Some of these occasions are slight, although others are more important. At different instances in the play, Gar thinks of ‘the gorgeous American women’ he will meet in Philadelphia. In more serious moods, however, he questions Madge about his mother, and he recalls in detail his ‘love-affair’ with Katie Doogan. Each of these occasions is accompanied by a sense of loss. The Canon also – the epitome of the single male – is a totally emotionless character. When ‘the boys’ come in to visit Gar, the conversation soon turns round to women. Ned relates a story of a rather crude sexual adventure, and the boys all join in and laugh. However, Private gives the true version of Ned’s story. After that, Ned’s comments about ‘picking up a couple of women’ at the dance sound hollow and even pathetic.
With these points in mind, we can now consider Gar’s character in more detail. Gar is the protagonist of the play and the entire action revolves around him. At the start, we get a sense of his enthusiasm and his youth. He looks forward to his departure with a keen sense of delight. His old life is over, and he looks on his release from his father’s shop as an escape. Typically, he thinks of America in extravagant terms: the cities, the women, the affluence, the tremendous opportunities. These are the things he wants to experience. But they are also the things he has no real affection for. When Private makes his first entrance (p. 17), little episodes from the past begin to crop up in the play, past events which begin to dim Gar’s bright future. As he thinks of his life in Ballybeg, Gar says with relief, ‘It’s all over’ (p. 17). To this Private adds, ‘And it’s all about to begin’. This simple sentence, Private’s first statement in the play, is truer than it first appears. For Gar, everything does begin again, and before the play is over he relives many important episodes in his life. From this point, the play goes on to describe his mother’s death, then the episode with Katie Doogan. Later he will remember his childish affection for his father, the day they spent in the blue boat, as well as the nights and days he spent with ‘the boys’.
As all these memories come back to Gar his enthusiasm for America begins to wane. When he feels hurt or threatened his principal defence is to pass it off with a laugh. During the tea-time episode, while he sits with his father in silence, Private moves about the stage with comments directed at S.B.: ‘O God! Priceless! Beautiful! Delightful! Isn’t he a scream!’ We see the same sort of behaviour during the game of draughts, and when ‘the boys’ come to visit. On other occasions, however, Gar’s enthusiasm deserts him. He feels humiliated, alone, threatened, unable to laugh at his situation or to deflate it with humorous comments. There are numerous instances of this in the play.
For example, towards the end of Episode Two, after the scene with Katie Doogan, Gar is feeling upset and confused. Her cosy description of family life – ‘Mammy and Daddy. They’re all at home tonight’. – is strangely disturbing to Gar who has no experience of these things. As is usual for Gar he tries to hide his feelings, to laugh and to whistle. His mind races over the day’s happenings and we get a confused speech from Private describing a mixture of past, present and future events. He tries to console Gar that his situation ‘isn’t as bad as that …. Isn’t as bad as that’. Then suddenly Gar’s mind turns back to S.B. and we get a poignant climax to the speech just before the curtain drops, ‘….say something! Say something, father!’
For the rest of the play, Gar struggles to regain his composure. In the rosary scene he diverts his attention by thinking of ‘those Yankee women’ and of girls with exotic names, ‘Karin and Tamara’ (p. 88). But memories from the past keep crowding into his mind. He remembers, ‘that wintry morning in Bailtefree and the three days in Bundoran….’ He also recalls his most precious memory, the day he spent fishing with his father on the lake, ‘and you were happy too, you began to sing….’
Music and song are important aspects of Gar’s world, indeed of the play in general. The play’s title comes from the words of a song, and music and singing are introduced on several occasions in the play. These musical interludes have several functions. In the first place, they add realism to the action and are an important bridge between the characters and the audience. Secondly, they suggest the contrast that exists within Private and Public. While Public’s affection is for Mendelssohn and for softer Irish ballads, Private prefers ceili music and coarser Irish songs. Thirdly, musical interludes serve to recall past events to Gar’s mind, events that he had hidden away in his memory but which music and song evoke again. One particular touching example of this is the evocative ballad, ‘All round my hat I’ll wear a green coloured ribbon O…’. Gar recalls this song with tremendous affection. His father sang it at the end of their fishing trip on the lake. For Gar, it symbolises the happiness of that day so long ago. At the end of the play, he shyly approaches his father about this song, feeling sure that it would rekindle his memories also. As usual, however, Gar’s efforts end in disappointment, ‘All round my hat? No, I don’t think I ever knew that one….’.
One important aspect of Gar’s personality is seen in his relationship with the other characters in the play, particularly his father. He criticises and parodies his father’s behaviour, and makes him the subject of humorous comments. But he still feels a strong bond of affection for him. It is necessary that Friel should depict Gar in this way. If Gar rejected his father outright, his friends, and his past life in Ballybeg, then much of the drama would be lost. The success of the play comes from the tension in Gar’s feelings towards his father, his friends and his past life. Thus, he can laugh at his father, make fun of him verbally, but he can never reject him. Gar calls him ‘Screwballs’, and that, if anything, is certainly a term of abuse. But he also refers to him affectionately as ‘father’ on numerous occasions in the play. All the efforts at reconciliation are made by Gar. When he is rejected, we find him using words like, ‘It doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter. Forget it’ (p105). W might reasonably expect that this rejection might lead to a complete loss of affection on Gar’s part. But in fact, it never does. Right up to the end of the play we never lose our esteem for him. Even in the last lines, we find him expressing his concern to Madge about his father’s welfare:’….you’d led me know if – if he got sick or anything?’
This very human side to Gar’s character is seen also in his relationship with other people in the play. When Master Boyle enters, for example, Gar thinks: ‘God, but he’s a sorry wreck too, arrogant and pathetic’ (p.44). In spite of this, however, he proceeds to treat Master Boyle with tremendous courtesy and respect. The Master is in trouble with the Canon, but Gar affectionately takes his side (‘Sure everyone knows the kind of the Canon, Master’ (p.44). He also accepts the present of his poems and helps him out with the loan of some money. Finally, he agrees to send the Master the names of newspapers and magazines where his poems might get published.
We get an extended look at this aspect of Gar’s character in his dealings with Madge throughout the play. We notice, for example, that he never once criticises her in any way. Neither does he treat her as a figure of fun as he does his father and Canon 0’Byrne. His behaviour towards her is always good-natured and affectionate. When she tells him the news about her niece’s new baby, Gar is delighted for her sake. In Episode One we get a long speech in which Gar’s affection for Madge is clearly expressed. Private addresses Gar with the following words: ‘And now what are you sad about? Just because she lives for those Mulhern children, and gives them whatever few half-pence she has. Madge, Madge, I think I love you more than any of them. Give me a piece of your courage, Madge’ (p.38). The final scene of Episode Three provides a touching conclusion to Gar’s affection for Madge in the play. As usual Gar’s feelings are hidden under his casual, indifferent comments, just as Madge’s true feelings are camouflaged by her gruffness. But Gar watches her attentively in a way that he will remember for the rest of his life: ‘Watch her carefully, every moment, every gesture, every little peculiarity: keep the camera whirring; for this is a film you’ll run over and over again..’(p.110).
In the scene with ‘the boys’ Gar’s polite, submissive character is again shown quite clearly. At the beginning of this scene, Gar is flattered that ‘the boys’ have come to see him: ‘They were on their way when I ran into them’ (p.69), he says, happily. Soon Ned, the loudest and most boorish member of the group, dominates the conversation. He belches, slaps his knees, talks in a loud aggressive manner. His behaviour to Gar is somewhat uncivil, and at one point he turns on him gruffly: ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ (p.70.). Yet Gar tries to raise our esteem for his friends by saying: ‘The boys….They weren’t always like this, were they? There was a hell of a lot of laughing, wasn’t there?’ (p.71). In particular, Gar is polite and civil in his comments on Ned. When Private tells the true version of Ned’s story (p. 73), he does so without verbal censure or abuse. Indeed whatever element of criticism there is in this speech, it is directed at Gar himself as well as at ‘the boys’. In the end, he accepts and is impressed with Ned’s present (‘the broad leather belt with the huge brass buckle’). In the speech that concludes this scene, Gar thinks of his friend in amiable terms (‘Joe and Tom and big, thick, generous Ned..’). His memory of them is ‘distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious, gold..’ (p.79).
There are two scenes in the play, which describe Gar’s relationship with Katie Doogan. Each of these scenes is completely different to the other. In the first (pp. 27-32), Gar thinks of Katie with tenderness and blames himself for the failure of their relationship. As he looks at her picture, all the details of their courtship come back to his memory. Some of the few manifest displays of affection in the play are shown in this scene. Gar thinks of Katie as ‘gentle and frail and silly’. Here they make plans for their future, the money they will have to live on, the number of children they will have. There is a lot of tender kissing and cuddling as they discuss and exchange ideas. But the scene suddenly changes its tone when Gar goes to visit Katie’s father. This is apparently Gar’s first experience of upper-class society and he feels self-conscious and ill-at-ease. Surveying the affluence of Katie’s house, Gar’s plans for her future suddenly seem pathetic. Even before he hears about Francis King, the rich medical student, Gar’s confidence is deflated and he is suddenly stuck for words. Friel is obviously making an important social comment at this point. Senator Doogan welcomes Gar quite courteously, but he doesn’t want Gar to marry Katie. Though Gar and Katie have tremendous affection for one another, a strong class barrier separates them. It is the prerogative of the rich to manipulate their sons’ and daughters’ lives, and that is what happens here. Marriages are arranged with a view to money and status; emotional issues are irrelevant. In such circumstances, Gar’s relationship with Katie was a failure from the beginning.
Katie’s second entrance in the play in Episode Two and here Gar’s behaviour is in complete contrast to their first appearance together. Kate has since married Francis King, ‘the king of the fairies’, just as her father had planned. Gar’s conversation at this point revolves around references to money. He tells Katie how he hopes to study medicine, to make a lot of money, to come home when he has made his first million. All of this is a cover-up, a pretence, as the comments of Private make clear. Gar suddenly gets loud and aggressive. His words and his behaviour are in complete contrast to his tender exchanges with Katie in Episode One. The division between them is now complete. Yet the tragedy of the situation is that he still has some feelings for her, despite his outward behaviour. When he leaves, he is in a state of confusion. He repeats her name and thinks about what might have been (‘seven boys and seven girls – and our daughters will be all gentle and frail and silly like you…Kate… Sweet Katie Doogan…my darling Kathy Doogan’) (p. 82).
Throughout the play, Gar’s feelings are a mixture of jubilation and misery. By subjecting him to these conflicting emotions, Friel ensures that Gar retains the audience’s attention and sympathy. In the play, Gar’s character is drawn in a very human and believable manner. He is a typical, exuberant youth, prepared to take risks, unwilling to let life’s opportunities pass him by. But there is also a deeply emotional side to his character. He feels the need for affection, recognition and sympathy. His character is far from perfect, as his aggressive treatment of Katie makes clear, but his relationship with others is always courteous and affable. Katie reminds him of his past, of what might have been, and he is bitter for this reason. She is also wealthy and established in life, while he is forced by circumstances to emigrate.
The emigration theme was a popular one in Irish literature before Friel returned to it again in Philadelphia, Here I Come! He gives this theme tremendous emotional interest. Gar’s reasons for emigrating have only partly to do with financial matters. When he speaks of money or affluence his words are hollow. So too are his numerous references to ‘the American women’. Somehow, the image of Gar as a wealthy paramour – ‘as American as the Americans themselves’ – does not seem to fit his character as it is presented to us in the play. His outward statements and behaviour are often belied by his inward feelings. In his aggressive conversation with Katie, for example, he utters the following words: ‘All this bloody yap about father and son and all this sentimental rubbish about “homeland” and “birthplace” – yap! Bloody yap! Impermanence – anonymity – that’s what I’m looking for; a vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past’ (p. 81).
Gar’s words here are in complete contrast to his own personal outlook in the play. On this statement, he is actually describing the things he cares about most, while apparently rejecting them. If we look at individual items in Gar’s statement we see how this is true. This ‘bloody yap about father and son’: yet he spends the greater part of the play trying to communicate with S.B., and his childhood memories of his father are all precious ones. Gar says he wants a place ‘that doesn’t give a damn about the past’: yet in the play, we see that the past is still very much alive for him and he carefully reconsiders it at different moments. He rejects ‘homeland’ and ‘birthplace’ as meaningless sentimental words: yet he listens attentively to Madge’s account of his own birth, and on one occasion he gives a poignant description of Ballybeg, ‘watching the lights go out over the village…’ (p. 78). Similarly, Gar’s quest for ‘impermanence’ and ‘anonymity’ (Master Boyle’s words) is totally belied by his character in the play. What he wants, in fact, is the exact opposite to these words: a permanent home, an individual identity, to be wanted and cared for. In particular, he needs to feel that he is his father’s son.
We get an interesting glimpse of Gar’s need for affection in the ‘returned emigrants’ scene in Episode Two. Outwardly Gar rejects these people. They are wealthy, vulgar and loud. But what he responds to is their offer of affection, in particular, Lizzie’s gushing exuberant words: ‘My son, Gar, Gar, Gar….’ (p. 64). Private points to this occasion as the real beginning of Gar’s wish to emigrate: ‘and this was your mother’s sister, remember. And that’s how you were got!’ But we also feel that Lizzie Sweeney will be a poor substitute for the affection that Gar needs. While S.B. shows too little emotion, Lizzie shows too much, and both are disconcerting to Gar. He is put off by her mawkish kisses and her constant groping and touching. Her physical appearance is also slightly repulsive to him. She is small, overweight, and heavily made-up. She is also slightly tipsy and incoherent. Yet her display of affection for Gar is better than no affection at all and he accepts (though with certain reservations) her invitation to go to America.
His decision, however, is not irreversible. One feels that if S.B. responded to Gar’s tentative efforts at communicating, the latter would reverse his decision, and the play would end differently. As it is, however, the play avoids this happy resolution. There is no easy reconciliation between father and son. Gar, the play’s hero and victim, remains in a state of confusion to the end. Public, Private and S.B. take up the greatest part of the play. All the important focus is centred on them, and other characters, by contrast, are less significant. Madge occupies a position between the major characters on the one hand (Public, Private, S.B.) and the minor ones on the other hand (Canon, Master, ‘the boys’). In Madge, Friel presents a portrait of a typical good-natured housekeeper. She is hard-working, sometimes surly and often taken for granted. She is also given her own distinctive voice. Her characteristic manner of expression is through short, curt, orders. We notice this on her first entrance in the play (‘Gar! Your tea!…..Ah! will you leave me alone….Let me get on with my work!’). She is constantly organising the male characters, fussing over them, yet often reprimanding them with sharp remarks. Canon O’Byrne is obviously impressed with Madge’s witty comments (‘She’s a sharp one, Madge’). Her function in the play is to be much more than a simple housekeeper, preparing meals, and the like. She is also an independent voice; she stands back and assesses the principal statements and actions. Often when the male characters are getting carried away in their conversations (as, for example, the rather loud conversation between Gar and ‘the boys’), Madge’s presence serves to dampen their enthusiasm slightly with her short, sarcastic interjections. On other occasions, her statements point to even larger issues in the play. In Episode One, for example, as Gar and his father sit together in total silence, Madge enters and says with cutting irony: ‘A body wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with you two’.
Madge is gruff and somewhat domineering but there is also a delicately human side to her. She has an obvious affection for Gar, while he, is kind and gentle with her. He confides in her, asks her questions about the past, particularly about his mother. She is obviously saddened by Gar’s decision to leave for Philadelphia, but she puts a brave face on it and keeps her feelings hidden. Close attention to the play shows how Friel balances Madge’s roughness with her more gentle characteristics. Apart from her conversations with Gar, there are two other occasions in the play where we get a glimpse of the human side of Madge. In Episode Two, after the second entrance of S.B. in the play, Madge watches his predictable movements with indifference. Then suddenly, ‘on the point of tears’, she accuses him: ‘You sit there night after night, year after year reading that oul paper and not a tooth in your head! If you had any decency in you at all you would keep them plates in while there’s a lady in your presence’ (p. 67). This outburst comes as a surprise to S.B. and to the audience also. S.B. looks on Madge in simple, functional terms. She is his housekeeper and nothing more. But Madge articulates the need for recognition and human contact, which the play presents so forcefully, here. Even she has a human side to her that needs to be recognised.
The second occasion in the play when we see Madge in a similar light is in Episode One when she announces to Gar ‘with shy delight’ that her niece Nelly ‘had a baby this morning…and they’re going to call this one Madge’ (p. 37). She is obviously elated at this simple gesture of recognition. But later in the play, her happiness turns to disappointment. In Episode Three she returns from her visit to Nelly’s. She is very weary and upset. Even S.B., who is generally not sensitive to other people’s feelings, senses that something is the matter. ‘There’s nothing wrong is there?’ he asks. Hesitantly Madge tells him, ‘They’re going to call it Brigid’. There are many occasions in the play where Friel is a master of understatement, and this is certainly one of them. He does not exaggerate Madge’s disappointment here. But by giving it a quick fleeting mention he nevertheless draws attention to it in quite an important way. Even gruff ageing housekeepers like Madge, he suggests, are subject to human emotions also.
Postscript: Reflecting on my first sentence in this essay a thought struck me. The sentence reads, ‘Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters’, Brian Friel is very innovative in his presentation of Gar’s story and he uses the Public and Private voices of the central character in much the same way as Shakespeare used the soliloquy in his great plays. So, the audience is given the added advantage of being able to hear the inner voice of Gar – his alter ego – giving us an added insight into this repressed individual. However, the thought that struck me was: what if SB was given the same facility?
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!‘here
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come! here
Joe Dowling, who directed productions of ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ at the Abbey and Gaeity Theatres has said that the play deals primarily, ‘with the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level. It also makes us examine the nature of Irish society dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster’. Gar is being forced to leave Ballybeg because Ballybeg (and Ireland) has failed him and his generation. However, Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.
One of Brian Friel’s most important and most visited themes is that of communication. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘non-verbal communication’ and whether we are watching the referee demonstrate that he wants the TMO to view an incident at a rugby match or whether we empathise with Patrick Kavanagh as he visualises the ‘wink and elbow language of delight’ in Billy Brennan’s Barn, we can see its value. Friel, however, introduces us to a wholly different type of communication in his plays, and especially here in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’. This type of communication, almost exclusively Irish in origin, is what I would call ‘verbal non-communication’!
There are many striking examples of this throughout the play, probably best encapsulated by S.B. in such phrases as ‘Sure, you know I never take a second cup’ during his unchanging evening routine and also ‘Did you set the rat traps?’ or ‘How many coils of barbed-wire came in on the mail-van this evening?’. There are also many examples, as Gar Private reaches sensory overload, when he regresses and recites a rather quaint and obscure mantra which he obviously learnt in school during English class!: “It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles”. This oft-repeated phrase has no context or meaning within the play as a whole and its only function is as a perfect example of verbal non-communication!
The principal theme in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ is, therefore, the breakdown of communication between Gar and his father, S.B.O’Donnell. This theme is the centre around which the entire play revolves. At times it is presented very directly and forcefully. On other occasions, it is hinted at indirectly and very subtly. In all cases, however, it is the principal focus of attention in the play.
The communication theme is presented very dramatically in the description of Gar’s relationship with his father. In Episode One, we saw the following exchange of dialogue between Gar and Madge:
MADGE: He said nothing since I suppose?
PUBLIC: Not a word.
PRIVATE: The bugger.
MADGE: But he hasn’t paid you your week’s wages?
PUBLIC: £3.15S – that’ll carry me far.
MADGE: He’ll have something to say then, you’ll see and maybe he’ll slip you a couple of extra pounds.
PUBLIC: Whether he says goodbye to me or not, or whether he slips me a few miserable quid or not, it’s a matter of total indifference to me, Madge.
In this short dialogue, certain essential items of information are communicated to the audience. S.B. has not yet appeared in the play, so it is necessary that we get some preliminary description of his character. The picture that emerges here is of a person that is cold, uncommunicative, and slightly (!) miserly. Also, we get the first indication of the conflict between Gar’s outward behaviour and inward thoughts. While outwardly Gar pretends that his father’s lack of communication is a ‘matter of total indifference’ to him, his inward comments express anger and bitterness. Madge arouses Gar’s expectations, and those of the audience as well, when she says, ‘He’ll have something to say….you’ll see’. This is precisely the climax to which the whole play is directed. The audience’s attention is engaged from the outset.
This theme becomes more obvious as the play progresses. Its first emphatic expression is during the tea-time routine – a perfect example of what we have referred to earlier as verbal non-communication. S.B. enters from the shop and goes through his nightly routine. He hangs up the shop keys, he looks at his pocket watch and checks its time with the clock on the wall, he takes off his apron, folds it carefully and leaves it on the back of his chair. Then he sits down to eat. During all these ponderous jobs Private keeps up an endless chatter. As the meal commences Private says, ‘ Now for a little free conversation’ (p 39.). The tone of this is ironic, but with a touch of bitterness and sarcasm. What we get is not, ‘a little free conversation’ at all, but precisely the opposite. S.B. converses sporadically on boring impersonal topics. He directs no personal remarks at Gar, nothing whatever that is even slightly intimate – this on the night before he leaves for Philadelphia, possibly forever. As the scene continues all trace of humour fades from Private’s voice, and he makes a direct plea for communication (‘So tonight d’you know what I want you to do? I want you to make one unpredictable remark…Go on Say it! Say it! Say it!). This scene gives the first prolonged description of Gar and S.B. together. What should be an occasion for communication and contact becomes, in fact, a series of embarrassing moments. In this scene and elsewhere in the play Friel uses stage silence very skilfully. This use of silence, of intermittent conversation only, is somewhat missed in reading the play, but it would be an important ingredient in the play’s performance. During a performance, we would notice how the tea-time scene is punctuated by long silences – silences that are filled by Private’s comments or by the tick of the clock in the background. This would serve to underscore the communication theme in a dramatic way by drawing attention to the large gaps in the tea-time conversation. It also explains Madge’s ironic comments to S.B. and Gar, ‘The chatting in this place would deafen a body. Won’t the house be quiet soon enough – long enough?’ (P. 41).
The first of Gar’s attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his father is made in this scene, though in a slight and hesitant way. It also meets with the usual rejection from S.B. After a slight contention about money Gar tries to extend a hand of friendship to his father by offering him more tea. This meets with the following, predictable, remark: ‘Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p. 41). Gar accepts this rejection and thinks, ‘You can’t teach new tricks to an old dog’. Following this, Private launches into a long speech that is full of obvious humour, but which has an important serious core: ’Let me communicate with someone… communicate.. pour out your pent-up feelings into a sympathetic ear. So all I ask for the moment is that you listen – just listen to me…’ (p. 43). By means of such comments as these, Friel keeps the theme of communication to the forefront of our attention.
We next see S.B. and Gar together at the start of Episode Three, during the rosary sequence, and the game of draughts that follow it. There is an interesting juxtaposition of past and future events in this scene. As the rosary is being said Gar’s mind wanders. He thinks of the future in America, and characteristically, his ideas are all exaggerated and somewhat unreal: ‘Swaggering down 56th Street… with this big blonde nuzzling up to you. You’d need to be careful out there boy; some of those Yankee women are dynamite…’ (p.87-8). The reverie continues with statements comparable to this. Things of this sort are, however, remote from Gar’s experience and for this reason they fail to engage his feelings. The real interest of Private’s speech here, is his surmising on a life in America without intimacy or friendship: ‘But you’ll never marry; never; bachelor’s written all over you. Fated to be alone, a man without intimates; something of an enigma’ (p.88).
From here, Gar’s mind wanders back to previous incidents in the past, and his feelings are engaged more fully. In this part of the speech, Gar’s boyhood affection for this father is the centre of interest: ‘Do you ever dream of the past, Screwballs, of that wintry morning in Bailtefree, and the three days in Bundoran? ‘ (p. 89). Gar goes on to give the first of many descriptions in the play of the fishing trip with S.B. He doesn’t, he admits, remembers every detail, ‘but some things are as vivid as can be’. This occasion recalls to Gar’s mind the former sympathy between himself and his father, which is described in highly emotive terms: ‘between us at that moment there was this great happiness, this great joy – you must have felt it too – it was so much richer than a content – it was a great, great happiness, and active, bubbling joy…’ (p. 80-90).
Following this magnificent speech, one of the most poetic in the play, Gar decides to force the issued by asking S.B. if he remembers this fishing trip also. He adopts his usual nonchalant tone as if the matter was one of indifference to him, when in fact, it’s his most precious memory: ‘‘Whatever happened to that aul boat on Lough na Cloc Cor… an old blue thing – do you remember it? (p.9). This hesitant attempt at communication is interrupted by the Canon’s entrance. During the draughts game, Gar slips into the background. Only one passing comment is directed at him (‘It’s getting near your time, Gareth’). Here again, Friel makes use of silence to underline the communication theme. Apart from the chatter of Private, the Canon and S.B. sit in almost total silence making only sporadic, predictable remarks about insignificant topics. Private, meanwhile, hovers in the background commenting on the scene from his usual witty perspective. But always in his speeches, there is an explicit earnestness that points to wider issues: ‘there’s an affinity between me and Screwballs that no one, literally, no one could understand…….’ (p.96). As the Canon and S.B. sit motionless and in silence, oblivious to Gar’s presence, Private relates again the story of the fishing trip. As often in the play, music excites Gar’s memory, reminding him of previous occasions, so also in the touching speech that ends this scene: ‘Listen! Listen! Listen! D’you hear it? D’you know what the music says? It says that once upon a time, a boy and his father sat in a blue boat on a lake on an afternoon in May, and on that afternoon a great beauty happened, a beauty that has haunted the boy ever since..’ (p.98). For Gar, time is slowly running out. He has patiently, waited for S.B. to make some sort of gesture towards him, some small demonstration of affection. But as the play moves into its final scenes, the lack of communication is still firmly established.
In the last episode of the play Gar makes one final effort to reach out to his father. Throughout the play, their spoken comments to each other have been impersonal and superficial. Now, in ‘the small hours of the morning’, Gar takes up the issue of the fishing trip in a final attempt to provoke a reaction. Gar and S.B. are surprised and slightly embarrassed to be in each other’s company. At the start, their conversation falls back onto the usual impersonal topics. They talk about fencing posts, plug tobacco, tinker’s cans, ‘cookers and ranges and things’. All personal issues are carefully avoided. Also, we notice the same irritable behaviour on S.B.’s part. When Gar asked him will he have more tea, S.B. gives his typical response: ’Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p.101). Yet there is some slight hint of affection in S.B. at this point. Here, as so often in the play, Friel is a master of understatement, and in this scene, his description of S.B. is delicately and skilfully drawn. S.B. is unable to sleep, and though we are never told why, the implication is that he is disturbed by Gar’s departure. He awkwardly tells Gar the day’s weather forecast and he has at least enough interest in his welfare to advise him to ‘sit at the back’ of the plane, in case there was ‘an accident or anything’. Gar notices the slight affection suggested by these remarks and he tries once again to introduce the subject of the fishing trip and the blue boat. For a short space, their conversation takes on a new dimension. Gar describes his memories with growing enthusiasm and S.B. listens attentively. Then comes the final important question, and the inevitable let-down: ‘D’you remember?… No.. No.., then, I don’t.. ‘(p.105). Here Friel raises our hopes slightly so that he can demolish them again. This is the final appearance together of Gar and his father in the play. The same communication problems, the same misunderstandings are apparent up to the end.
Throughout the play, S.B. is depicted as a cold, uncommunicative character. This is the picture that emerges from his initial entrance, and this picture of him lasts throughout the play. Lizzy Sweeney’s comments in Episode Two contain brief but appropriate reference to S.B.: ‘That was the kind of us Gallagher girls wasn’t it…either laughing or crying….you know, sorta silly and impetuous, shooting our big mouths off, talking too much, not like the O’Donnell’s – you know – kinda cold…’ (p. 64). But before the end of the play, Friel gives one last look at S.B. which shows him up in a different perspective, and which arouses the audience’s sympathy for him in a way that was not done in the rest of the play. Indeed, S.B.’s comments in his conversation with Madge are all the more pathetic because they are unexpected.
In this final scene (pp. 106 – 108) S.B. is shown to be very human. Because of Gar’s departure, he will have a lot more work to do himself, but he insists that he’ll ‘manage rightly’. Suddenly we see the extra chores which Gar had to do (p. 16) in a different perspective. In Gar’s absence, a lot more responsibility falls on S.B.’s shoulders, but he still doesn’t go against Gar’s wishes by asking him to stay. There is also a slight hint that S.B.’s business is going into decline, ‘It’s not like in the old days when the whole countryside did with me; I needed the help then, but it’s different now…’ (p. 107). In this matter also S.B. looks to Madge for reassurance, ‘I’ll manage by myself now. Eh? I’ll manage fine, eh?’
The most striking reversal of sympathy for S.B. comes about through the description he gives of Gar’s first day at school. S.B.’s memories of this event are as sharp in focus as Gar’s remembrance of the fishing –trip. S.B. describes how he and Gar went ‘hand in hand’ to school, ‘as happy as larks, and him dancing and chatting beside me…’ (p. 107). Their easy spontaneous communication in this scene from the past is in sharp contrast to their predicament in the play as a whole: ‘You wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with all the chatting he used to go through…’. S.B. is aware of the sad decline in their relationship, but he places all the blame on his own side: ’Maybe, Madge, maybe it’s because I could have been his grandfather, eh?….I was too old….’. S.B.’s last words in the play again refer to Gar, in another image of happier days: ‘In the wee sailor suit – all the chatting he used to go through…’ Both Gar and S.B., so unlike in many ways, have one common characteristic: they both hold memories of the past and of each other, but unfortunately they are different ones. The contrast in the play is not between depth of feeling on the one hand and absence of feeling on the other. Communication is the real problem in this play, namely the channels through which personal feelings are expressed. Gar wrongly assumes that S.B.’s failure to remember the fishing trip suggests a lack of feeling or affection. In fact, S.B. has his own private memories that Gar knows nothing of. The tragedy of the play is that they are unable to communicate these memories to one another.
The communication theme of the play is principally expressed through the relationship of Gar and his father. But it is also seen in the presentation of other episodes and characters. A close look at the language of the play reveals an interesting feature of Friel’s use of dialogue. Conversation is difficult for the play’s characters. Communication of personal feelings is almost totally impossible. The most prolonged dialogue in the play is that between Gar and his private self. Dialogue with other people is much more difficult to achieve. In fact, what Friel presents us with in the play is not really dialogue at all, but a series of monologues. Characters who start talking to each other usually end up talking to, or about, themselves, and what they say is usually untrue. We can see examples of this interesting technique on two important occasions in the play.
The first of these is in the scene with Master Boyle. Ostensibly, the Master has called to pay his farewell to Gar. But after a brief mention of Gar’s departure, ‘Tomorrow morning, isn’t it?’ (p. 44), Boyle’s conversation is completely given over to matters concerning himself. He talks about his controversy with the Canon, about his poems and his own possible emigration to America. He is also slightly formal and ill-at-ease, though we detect that unspoken feelings lurk just below the surface. The problem of self-expression, so dominant throughout the play, is evident here also. After a very awkward handshake and quick embrace, Boyle makes a hasty exit from the stage.
We notice a comparable use of dialogue and self-expression in ‘The Boys’ scene. Here again what we get is not so much a dialogue but a series of short monologues punctuated by silence. Gar’s friends speak loudly and enthusiastically about insignificant matters. They relate stories and episodes (mostly untrue) in which the principal characters are themselves. When they are not engaged in these personal monologues, embarrassing silences develop, which they desperately try to fill by even louder and more exaggerated accounts of their adventures. These silences occur ‘like regular cadences’, and to defeat them, someone always introduces a fresh theme. However, when the time comes to say good-bye to Gar, they are all pathetically stuck for words. Tom leaves without any word of good-bye at all, whereas Ned’s farewell is embarrassed and awkward. He stands casually at the door and says, ‘So long, Gar’ (p. 75). He then throws his parting gift – the belt with the big brass buckle – across the room to Gar. Despite all the loud talk about his exploits, Ned is incompetent when it comes to real displays of affection. Here again, the problem is not that he feels no affection for Gar, but that he is unable to communicate it properly. Joe, the youngest member of the group, makes the only sort of proper farewell to Gar. When the others have left, Joe stays behind as a gesture of his friendship. But even his final words to Gar are casual and superficial: ‘Send us a card, Gar, Sometime, Eh?…..Lucky bloody man….so long….’ (pp. 77-78).
The communication theme can also be seen in the episode describing Gar’s visit to Senator Doogan. Here the theme is placed in a slightly wider context. The scene in Doogan’s house describes not only the breakdown in communication between individuals but also between different social classes. (Is this similar to Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘thick-tongued mumble’ in his poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’?). The conversation with Senator Doogan is presented as a monologue. Doogan wanders on about his personal successes and his important family connections. He also wants the same successes and connections for Katie. Consequently, Gar is excluded from this upper-class world.
The most extended ‘monologue’ in the play, however, is Lizzy Sweeney’s prolonged description of the events that brought about Gar’s decision to emigrate. Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation. She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought. She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance. While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly. Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence.
What makes Gar O’Donnell’s situation so tragic then is not so much that he is so publicly inarticulate towards his father but that he fails to allow for a similar complexity in his father! All the lines uttered by Private on Gar’s behalf might just as easily have been said on behalf of his father. As Declan Kiberd has said, ‘Language is what comes between Gar and his freedom of expression – his education has left him fluent but not articulate and so his skill with words is greatly in excess of his emotional development’.
Friel’s concern with communication is, therefore, central to this play. Gar has this crazy notion that language and talking and dreaming about something is the equivalent to living life. On the one hand, Friel presents us with characters who speak too much, and on the other hand with those who speak too little. Gar’s mistake is that he foolishly equates emotion with its expression: if a feeling isn’t stated by his father, he won’t believe it’s there at all. This has impeded their relationship and so genuine communication is virtually impossible and the end result is tragic. The final words of both Gar and S. B. – “I don’t know” – captures their shared bewilderment and the sad fact that it is precisely this bewilderment that both connects and separates them.
You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!'”here
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!‘here
One of the most frequently recurring themes in Anglo-Irish literature is the flight or escape from a harsh environment. The linked themes of escape, exile and emigration are frequently found in drama, prose and poetry. One of its well-known representations is Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who chooses exile from his native land because he cannot come to terms with the authorities that hold its people in their grip. So, Stephen 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.’ In Philadelphia Here I Come!,Friel also explores the nature of Irish society fifty years after Joyce’s novel was written. This society is still governed by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster. The society that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation. The question is will things be any better for Gar when he moves to Philadelphia?
Similarly, in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s local poet Michael Hartnett turns his hand to social commentary when he stated that Newcastle West in County Limerick,
‘is an Irish town that is not dying. It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings. It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.
In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel gives another particular instance of the ‘flight from the land’ theme in the story of Gar O’Donnell’s proposed emigration to America. Here, Friel shows his awareness of an older, oral tradition. Emigration is the subject of a vast number of Irish songs and ballads. It is particularly close to the Irish spirit, having been forced on us by the circumstances of our history. In this oral tradition, emigration is always viewed ambiguously. On the one hand, it offers escape from a hopeless environment, promising new opportunities that were unavailable at home. But on the other hand, it is also viewed with nostalgia and sadness, as the emigrant says his last farewell to his home, his family and his friends. It is this double aspect that makes emigration a suitable subject for drama and which Friel exploits with such effect in Philadelphia Here I Come!
However, Friel is also making a political point here. Many see the play as a covert criticism of De Valera’s vision of a self-sufficient Ireland of cosy homesteads and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. S.B and Máire marry on New Year’s Day 1937, the very day that De Valera’s new Irish Constitution comes into effect. Twenty-five years or so later and the product of that marriage, Gar O’Donnell, is packing his suitcase to head for Philadelphia in the morning.
The escape theme is emphatically present in the play right from the start. The first Episode begins in an optimistic mood as Gar considers his departure on the next morning. Life in Ballybeg is monotonous and offers little scope for his ambitions. America is considered to be the land of opportunity, where ambitions are fulfilled and fortunes are made. The thrust of this opening Episode is entirely towards release, freedom, escape: ‘Think ….up in that big bugger of a jet, with its snout belching smoke over Ireland…’ (p. 17). S. B. makes a brief entrance at this point in the play, and through him Friel expresses the type of life Gar wishes to escape from. S. B. is elderly and somewhat out of place in the modern world. So too is the business he owns. Gar emphatically rejects S.B.’s old-fashioned world. He speaks on numerous occasions of the weariness and boredom of weighing up sacks of flour and sugar, cleaning and salting fish, unloading barbed wire and sacks of spuds. To all of these unpleasant chores, he contrasts the broader horizons offered by American life. Initially, at least, he is in no doubt about the wisdom of his decision to emigrate.
Other events in the play serve to strengthen this decision even further. The characters of the play are seen by Gar as a somewhat pathetic group. As he sees it, they are all the victims of the restrictions imposed on them by their lives in Ballybeg. Gar wishes to escape to America before he too becomes like them. This emerges quite clearly in his conversation with Katie Doogan in Episode Two. Indeed in this conversation, the escape theme is most pronounced. Earlier in the play, Gar rejects Ireland in his reference to it as, ‘the land of the curlews and the snipe, the Aran sweater and the Irish Sweepstakes’ (p. 18-19). In his conversation with Katie his rejection is more emphatic, ‘I hate the place, and every stone, and every rock, and every piece of heather around it…’ (p. 81). (This is reminiscent of Kavanagh’s outburst in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’). On this occasion, it is principally the people of Ballybeg who lead him to this outburst. For example, Gar is impressed with Master Boyle’s visit; he is also impressed by the visit of ‘the boys’ later in the play. But on both these occasions, there is a common element to Gar’s reaction. He is not blinded to the failings of ‘the boys’ or of Master Boyle. The latter in particular has sacrificed his ideals for a life of quiet boredom in Ballybeg. Like Gar, he once had the opportunity to emigrate, but unlike Gar, he was unwilling to take it. There is a marked feeling of regret in Boyle’s conversation with Gar, a sense of having let life’s possibilities slip by. Boyle’s character is pathetically drawn. He is an isolated figure, unhappy with his situation, a lonesome bachelor, and a secret drinker. He is determined to escape from the environment that produces such characters as Master Boyle.
Indeed, it must be said that the escape theme is inextricably linked to the theme of escapist fantasy used by Friel in this and other plays in his oeuvre. At the root of this escapist fantasy lies a deep-seated dissatisfaction within every character with themselves and their environment. Gar has not attained a sufficient identity for himself in Ballybeg. Pulled towards the future and yet drawn backwards towards a sentimental vision of the past, he seeks to escape by running away to Philadelphia, which represents the solution to all his problems.
Ironically, as the play unfolds and we begin to glean insights into his character, we realise that escape will only intensify rather than solve any of his problems. He condemns Ballybeg for the very things which will solve his problems, love, affection, identity and warmth. Gar is no better at the conclusion of the play. Escape to Philadelphia, as Madge tells us, will solve nothing.
Master Boyle also compensates for his failure as a schoolteacher by dreaming up challenging professional situations in Boston. He tells Gar he has been offered a ‘big post’ in a ‘reputable university’ in Boston. Unable to face the reality of his own alcoholism he hides behind imaginative dreams of another world and unrealistic achievements.
The boys also indulge in this escapist fantasy. They come to say farewell to Gar on the night before he departs yet they spend their time indulging in monologues about themselves and their imagined exploits. Life in Ballybeg is more bearable when it is relieved by fantasy and escapism. Rather than admit their own inadequacies they hide behind bravado and loud talk. The visit of ‘the boys’ also confirms Gar in his decision to escape from Ballybeg. Superficially at least, ‘the boys’ and Master Boyle have little in common. They make a noisy entrance, speak loudly and with arrogance, whereas Master Boyle is quiet and soft-spoken. But Gar is aware of the characteristics shared by each of them. They are all ‘lost souls’. The future, which faces ‘the boys’, is as dim as that which has faced Master Boyle. They speak enthusiastically about themselves and their situation, but to Gar these words sound hollow. In the end he is forced to admit that they are ‘ignorant bloody louts’ who cover the meaninglessness of their situation with pretence and lies. Significantly, in his speech with Katie, Gar groups ‘the boys’ with Master Boyle, S.B., and Canon O’Byrne: they are all pathetic figures. They all confirm his decision to emigrate.
The escape theme in PhiladelphiaHere I Come! is not a simple one, however. To create a sense of drama Friel explores the theme from a contrary point of view. Friel uses the same technique as Kavanagh in ‘Stony Grey Soil’, a poem in which the escape theme is also evident. Kavanagh enumerates the aspects of his life in Monaghan, which led to his decision to leave. But he also provides a contrary statement at the end of the poem. In spite of all the hardships, which have been inflicted on him, he still feels some affection for Monaghan. The same feeling of affection is evident in Philadelphia Here I Come!, in spite even of Gar’s emphatic statements of rejection. As the play opens Gar is confirmed in his decision. But as the action progresses he is subjected to numerous situations, which remind him of the more pleasant aspects of Ballybeg and its people. As these situations continue to arise in the play, the desire to escape is made more complicated, and even meaningless. In the play, a definite bond of affection unites the characters, which is all the more touching because it is left unspoken. Gar’s relationship with Master Boyle, ‘the boys’, and S.B. is characterised by rejection. They have all, in part, contributed to his desire to escape. But his relationship with them also contains traces of affection. He is moved by the visits of Master Boyle and ‘the boys’ and is in a distressed state when they leave. His affection for S.B. is secretly expressed by Private throughout the play and is openly articulated to Madge at the end (p. 109). But in particular, his relationship with Katie Doogan represents a part of his life he is sorry to leave behind. As is usual with Gar, he speaks casually and with forced nonchalance. But his decision to emigrate, to become ‘100 per cent American’ (p. 82), is complicated by the affection he still feels for the ordinary mundane life of Ballybeg. In this way the escape theme is fully dramatised by Friel. Gar’s need to escape, coupled with the affection he feels for the people he is leaving, constitutes one of the effective conflicts of the play. Indeed, the ending is very inconclusive and we are left to wonder as we leave the theatre: well, did he ever leave or did he continue to live a life of futility fuelled by fantasy?
Private: God, Boy, why do you have to leave? Why? Why?
Public: I don’t know. I – I – I don’t know.
There is also a double-dimension to all Friel’s work. He tends to illustrate the same theme from different points of view – Gar leaving for Philadelphia and Lizzie who has come home. Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation. She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought. She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance. While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly. Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence giving us a perfect cameo of the reality behind many a ‘returned Yank’. and a rather stark reality check for Gar as he prepares to leave. Friel returned to this theme later in The Loves of Cass McGuire whichexplores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile. Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home. We can all easily empathise with Cass’s dilemma. She has returned to a world she cannot recognise and the play explores the difficulties she has in coming to terms with a life not as she imagined and the exclusions society now imposes upon her. Whereas, Philadelphia Here I Come! dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, The Loves of Cass McGuire deals with the psychology of returning and this marks it out as a very relevant work – indeed, it can be said of Cass, like many a returning exile, she comes back to a home that does not exist except in her fantasy.
So, we can see that the linked themes of escape, exile and emigration (and eventual return) are as relevant today as ever. Friel’s plays are at times caustic commentary on successive governments for their failures to provide for the people in their care. As Michael Hartnett also suggested in the 70’s we have been able to maintain our economic stability at a terrible price: ‘the constant exportation of human beings’.
Philadelphia Here I Come!, therefore, contains considerable political and psychological insights. Gar is a kind of ‘split-personality’ and we sense that he will have great difficulty coping with this schizophrenia wherever he ends up. He can escape from Ballybeg, from the small-town people who annoy him, but he can never be free from his own inner voice, constantly exploring, questioning, and rebuking.
Author’s Note: My favourite production of this play was by the Ardagh Drama Group in County Limerick, which was staged some time in the 1990’s. It featured a superb tour de force of a performance by Jim Liston as Gar Private. He was ably supported by sterling performances from Garry McMahon as SB, Margaret Enright as Madge, Senator Doogan was played by Sonny Crowley (RIP), Rory O’Donnell (RIP) was Lizzie’s browbeaten husband, Master Boyle was played by Tom Madigan and ‘the boys’ were superbly marshalled by Mike O’Flynn.
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!’ here
You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!” here