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Irishness and Exile in Edna O'Brien's Wild Decembers and In the Forest

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 1, Earrach/Spring 2013
pp. 115-131 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0003

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The increased number of persons moving in and out of Irish spaces complicates the definition of "home" and what it means to be "Irish," a complication brought to the fore by the passage of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act of 2004. The referendum met with much controversy because it restricted the rights of children born in Ireland to foreign parents and was "employed in such a way as to fix and essentialise Irishness, thus highlighting the threatening other, and to construct immigrants as suspect, untrustworthy, and deserving of Ireland's hospitality only in limited, prescribed ways or not at all." Not surprisingly, interrogating definitions of home and Irishness have been appearing more often in contemporary Irish literature, even before 2004. Edna O'Brien's later novels reflect this tension, and reveal how problematic the "return" is for those who have lived away from Ireland.

Whereas most of O'Brien's early fiction exposes controversial issues of the private sphere, such as imprisonment and abuse, her works from the mid-1990s onward deal with those issues directly in relation to conceptions of the nation, or what O'Brien herself describes as a "trilogy of three themes important to Ireland and to me: politics, sex, and land." The first two novels of O'Brien's later trilogy, House of Splendid Isolation (1994) and Down by the River (1996), challenge images of the nation through an overt criticism of national politics and its reliance on constrictive gender ideologies. But her subsequent novels, Wild Decembers (1999) and In the Forest (2002), focus on the local Irish community in order to examine what it means to be "Irish." However, all four novels are set in rural, western Ireland—O'Brien's birthplace—and undermine the persistent image of the romantic "peasant" West as the original site of Irish cultural authenticity that authors of the Celtic Revival touted in the early twentieth century, and which the current tourism industry to some extent still espouses today. In a 2003 interview, O'Brien claimed that, "In very isolated country parts, very backward parts, like where I'm from, there is still a very strong sense of guilt, shame, and sin. Between country and cities there is a vast divide."

Catherine Nash describes how the Irish cottage carried "the cultural weight of the idealization of traditional rural family life and its fixed morality and gender roles." These pastoral portrayals "became a surrogate for the depiction of the Irish rural woman and the values of motherhood, tradition, and stability. The cottage as 'cradle of the race' evoked the idea of women as preservers of the race, active only as nurturers and reproducers of the masculine Gael." O'Brien subverts this pastoral imagery and the attendant gender ideology through her portrayal of Breege Brennan in Wild Decembers and Eily Ryan in In the Forest. The local, rural community ostracizes these Irish women. They do not fit the ideal image of Irish motherhood; both women are single mothers who "adulterate" the national blood by having children with non-Irish men instead of reproducing the "masculine Gael." In fact, it is the hypermasculine Gael—Joseph Brennan and Michen O'Kane, respectively—who, jealous over his exclusion from the mother-child dyad, literally kills possible opportunities for new social relations promised by hybridization. Both novels feature hybridization and adulteration as motifs that not only redefine Irishness to include hybrid identities, but also question the original foundations of Irishness through adulteration by weakening the native citizen's presumed identity with the recalcitrant presence of the exile.

O'Brien unsettles conceptions of Irishness with the presence of both literal and figurative foreigners or exiles who are white Europeans by descent and who also speak English. In a way, this overt lack of difference between the exile and the native points more readily to the Other within, and also to the inherent adulteration embedded within Irishness. In Wild Decembers, Mick Bugler is an actual foreigner who travels from Australia to Ireland in order to lay claim to his family's land. Forest's Michen O'Kane is a mentally unstable criminal who returns home to Ireland after institutionalization in England. Despite these differences, both characters are...

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