- "In My Mind I Build a House":The Quest for Family in the Children's Fiction of Patricia Lynch
A study of an individual Irish life can illuminate social, economic, political, and cultural patterns of change within society. Recent biographies of key figures in republican and nationalist histories have adopted this metonymic approach.1 The subject of this paper, Patricia Lynch, wrote fiction for children that heavily reflected the ideologies of the Free State, both in its portrayal of an image of a predominantly rural and antimaterialist Irish life and in its overarching emphasis on family.2 This essay argues that Lynch's childhood experience of abandonment and alienation is crucial in understanding how she came to write the kind of fiction she did. Lynch's construction of Irish identity was prescriptive and, indeed, static over nearly four decades of literary output. Lacking a home and a traditional family environment as a child, Lynch sought repeatedly to recreate them in her fiction. Her psychological needs made her uniquely suitable to the expression of the imperatives of the cultural and social conservatism of the newly independent Irish state. The resonance in Lynch's fiction of the commanding values of the Free State explains her popularity. Her novels reflected the dominant discourse on motherhood and domesticity of the period and in that way established for the author the values and stability of [End Page 169] family she did not have but craved as a child. Luke Gibbons argues that the postcard images of John Hinde, many depicting a rural idyllic image of Ireland, must be considered as manifestations of a "new nostalgia," characterized by a "particular view of social change which embalms rather than actively renegotiates the past." His analysis of these nostalgic images provides a useful paradigm for reading Lynch's fiction:
This is not simply an evocation of an idealized past, but a very distinctive form of longing: nostos, to return home, algos, a painful condition—the painful desire to restore the sense of belonging that is associated with childhood, and the emotional resonance of the materrnal.3
Lynch's fiction offers the historian a key to understanding the cultural preoccupations and prescriptions of the new state as well as the image it presented abroad. In this way, there is a confluence between Lynch's motivation for writing and the reception of her work in the period.
Patricia Lynch was one of the most popular children's writers of the new independent state, publishing more than fifty books for children and in the process garnering a number of prestigious literary prizes.4 A contemporary of writers such as Rosamond Jacob, Dorothy Macardle, and Maura Laverty, Lynch was a prominent member of the Irish Women Writers' Club, founded in 1933.5 Unlike the above-mentioned women, however, Lynch has failed to attract critical attention.6 Yet Lynch's popularity saw her, in her day, [End Page 170] compared to those within the predominantly male Irish literary canon. In 1954, the Irish Profile declared:
Sean O'Casey, Sean O'Faolain, Yeats, Synge and the rest don't matter; for their sales are topped and over-topped by a little Dublin sub-urban housewife of middle age who writes—fairy tales!7
These "fairy tales," however, were firmly rooted in the constructed values of the new state. The stability of the new Catholic state was predicated on women within the home and sexuality confined within the bounds of marriage.8 The 1937 Constitution identified women as homemakers, while legislation enacted from 1922 increasingly defined the public sphere as male.9 In the 1920s and 1930s, political and social concern was expressed about the rising number of unmarried mothers, the relaxation of sexual morals, and the sexual abuse of young children.10 The nation state responded to anxieties about moral decline by imagining an alternative, authentic Ireland, one conceived as a "realm of purity."11 In Banal Nationalism, Michael Billig discusses the concept of "invented permanencies": "Notions, which seem to us so solidly banal turn out to be ideological constructions of nationalism . . . created historically in the age of modernity, but which feel as if they have always [End Page 171...