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The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.1 (2002) 185-210

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Virgins and Mothers:
Sinéad O'Connor, Neil Jordan, and The Butcher Boy

Elizabeth Butler Cullingford


Discussions of politics and culture in Ireland often turn on the contested relation between tradition and modernity. In the 1990s, the booming Irish economy and the accompanying explosion of cultural self-confidence, the retreat of institutionalized religion, and the apparent solidification of the precarious peace in the North, combined to suggest that Ireland's historical belatedness was itself a thing of the past. According to President Mary MacAleese, speaking at a conference at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Ireland in the year 2000 was a modern, almost secular state that visibly demonstrated the benefits of EU membership and global capitalism. It is too soon to estimate the collateral damage caused by the events of September 11th, 2001, but the retreat of the high-tech industries that fuelled Ireland's growing economy during the nineteen-nineties have already begun to take some of the fur off that tedious cliché the Celtic Tiger. In any case, President MacAleese's uncritical enthusiasm for economic expansion and globalization dismays postcolonial scholars like David Lloyd and Kevin Whelan, who argue that we need to undo the hierarchical binaries that automatically place modernity above tradition, and to be suspicious of any narrative of progress that represents history as an overcoming or discarding of the past. 1 According to Lloyd, this modernizing narrative camouflages England's responsibility for Ireland's painful history, and casts the struggle in the North as an atavistic feud between rival Irish tribes rather than an anti-imperialist war of liberation. In Ireland After History Lloyd claims that the rejection of tradition, or what he prefers to call "the alternative spaces of the non-modern," amounts to complicity with the forces of neo-colonialism. 2 The agenda of "progress," he suggests, involves "the displacement of indigenous forms of religion, labor, patriarchy and rule by those of colonial modernity." 3

The displacement, or at least the modification, of indigenous forms of religion and patriarchy is nevertheless the project of many Irish feminists and gay activists, who are perhaps unaware that in their fight for sexual and reproductive freedom they have become what Lloyd somewhat dismissively calls "the agents" of colonial modernity. 4 Since [End Page 185] Arthur Griffith declared that John Synge had traduced the chastity of Irish womanhood by allowing the heroine of The Shadow of the Glen to abandon her loveless marriage in the company of a tramp, and Eamon de Valera declined to let the women of Cumann na mBan fight alongside him in Boland's Mills, questions of gender and sexual orientation have often (though not inevitably) troubled the discourse of nationalism. Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement have established themselves in both the gay and the nationalist canons, but to argue that in his poem "Little Lad of the Tricks" Padraig Pearse produced a touchingly naïve representation of the plight of the closeted schoolmaster, or to debate the question of Michael Collins's bisexuality, still raises the national eyebrow. Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, and Hannah Sheehy Skeffington combined their Irish nationalism with varying degrees of commitment to feminism, and Bernadette McAliskey thinks that the best feminists in Ireland today are products of the Republican Movement. 5 Yet radical women sometimes find themselves out of alignment with nationalists because their commitment to a modern version of gender equality involves a rejection not only of the cultural dominance of individual Irish men, but of "indigenous forms of Irish patriarchy" as they have been institutionalized in the church, the pub, and the home.

In attempting to map an honest and politically responsible course through the minefield that is contemporary Irish studies, I am often reminded of the moment when a male Irish academic characterized me as a British imperialist bitch. "British" I could not disown, and "bitch" is purely a matter of opinion, but "imperialist" caught me off guard. The problem was that in a 1991 article on Yeats, Pearse...


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