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"Never Tear the Linnet from the Leaf": The Feminist Intertextuality of Edna O'Brien's Down by the River
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"Never Tear the Linnet from the Leaf"
The Feminist Intertextuality of Edna O'Brien's Down by the River

In 1983 an amendment was added to the Irish Constitution proclaiming that "the State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." In 1992 a fourteen-year-old Irish girl who had traveled with her family to England to obtain an abortion was forced to return to the Republic of Ireland without having completed the procedure. The girl, who had been raped by an adult friend of her family, was determined to be suicidal, and it was this determination that allowed the Irish Supreme Court to lift the injunction against her leaving the country while upholding the 1983 constitutional amendment. The case of a suicidal pregnant girl—whose despondency threatened equally her own life and that of her fetus—continues to provide an anomalous legal rationale for abortion in the Republic of Ireland, a state in which abortion is otherwise banned. This remains so despite the best efforts of the Irish government, in a number of referenda, to close this loophole. The legal consequences of the 1992 X case continue to determine the parameters of Irish law—and of Irish women's sexuality, reproductive rights, and citizenship.1

Because the adjudication of the X case continues to affect Irish law, the case continued to be debated in the Irish media long after its resolution. For example, in 2000 a former Irish High Court justice, Roderick J. O'Hanlon, wrote a letter to the Irish Times arguing that in fact Miss X had not been suicidal, that her suicidality had been concocted as a legal strategy to circumvent the 1983 amendment. O'Hanlon begins his letter by writing, "The 'X' case will not go away. In the words of Shakespeare, it 'will rise, though all the world o'erwhelm it, to men's eyes.'"2 O'Hanlon uses—and misquotes—Shakespeare's words in order to introduce his argument about the spuriousness of the legal strategy employed by the advocates of Miss X. In so doing, he tells a story of the X case that reflects the plot of Hamlet: a story of intimate political usurpation, [End Page 77] of female sexual misbehavior, and of adolescent male revenge on behalf of an absent father. In O'Hanlon's retelling of the X case, Miss X becomes not a terrified raped girl, but a woman who, like Hamlet's mother, is a possible accomplice to the overthrowing of proper governmental authority through her unchaste behavior, while the influential and elderly O'Hanlon transforms himself into Hamlet, vowing to restore order on behalf of this overthrown authority.3 His quote suggests a common trope of the Irish anti-abortion movement, that the Republic of Ireland remains the last tiny bastion of traditional morality, "though all the world o'erwhelm it"; it suggests as well that "men's eyes" might yet read Miss X's intentions, intentions that unintentionally changed the course of Irish history.

Edna O'Brien's 1996 novel Down by the River is based on the events of the X case, and it is both explicitly and implicitly intertextual. This intertextuality would seem to be a strange choice for a novel based on real-life events, but this aesthetic decision by O'Brien calls attention to the intertextuality of the real-life events on which her novel is based, as O'Hanlon's letter exemplifies. Particular stories govern Irish society, just as they do every society; the words circulating in a culture are overdetermined, laden with both ancient and recent histories and meanings. O'Brien's strategy in her novel is to make this overdetermination visible, to show how the stories that have been inherited and the words that continually circulate create the collective ways of knowing the X case and Miss X herself. In her novel O'Brien shows that these collective ways of knowing, agreed upon in the patriarchal Irish courts and Irish...