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  • Un/Natural Motherhood in Marina Carr’s The Mai, Portia Couglan, and By the Bog of Cats . . .
  • Karin Maresh (bio)

I don’t think the world should assume that we are all natural mothers. And it does. . . . The relationship between parent and child is so difficult and so complex. There’s every emotion there. We mostly only acknowledge the good ones. If we were allowed to talk about the other ones, maybe it would alleviate them in some way.


As Karen Bamford and Sheila Rabillard note in their introduction to this collection of essays, the mother-daughter bond that was deemed “too difficult” to stage by women playwrights at the height of second-wave feminism in the 1980s has become more common in the plays of the past quarter century.1 This is especially true of Irish drama, most notably through the work of Marina Carr. The mothers in Carr’s plays remain as depressed and tormented as their predecessors; however, they suffer for different reasons. Whereas the mothers of early-twentieth-century Irish drama suffered the deaths of their children, often to the nationalist cause, the mothers in Carr’s plays suffer because they defy the core concepts of essential motherhood that have defined motherhood in Ireland for so long. They are selfish, rather than self-less; they are often ambivalent about rather than accepting of motherhood and marriage; they are openly sexual rather than chaste; they are damaged from maternal abuse or neglect; and they harbor violent tendencies that result in abuse, suicides, and filicide. [End Page 179] In short, the women of Carr’s The Mai (1994), Portia Coughlan (1996), and By the Bog of Cats . . . (1998) are “unnatural” mothers who suffer because they are women for whom the ability to mother does not come naturally, or because they mother their children in ways that contradict the patriarchal model of essential motherhood entrenched in Irish culture.

Self-sacrificing mothers, whose needs and desires are always secondary to those of their children and any male characters, can be found in numerous Irish plays of the early twentieth century. Often these women are depicted as suffering martyrs, or “Moaning Mammies,” as defined by Áine McCarthy in her study of Irish mothers in twentieth-century Irish fiction (97).2 For example, J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904) depicts a mother of the Aran Islands who loses all six of her sons to the treacherous sea. In the end, she is left, along with her two daughters, to keen for her sons: “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.”3 In Lady Augusta Gregory’s Gaol Gate (1906) a mother mourns the death of her son wrongly accused by the state, and, calling upon nationalistic stirrings, declares her son’s baby boy lucky in being able to boast of such an honorable father who remained loyal to his countrymen even in the face of death. The suffering, self-sacrificing mother is also represented in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1924) through the characters of Juno and Mrs. Tancred. Both women lose their sons to the Irish Civil War, and the saintly Juno endures the antics of her drunkard husband and the unplanned pregnancy of her unwed daughter. The mothers in these plays are devoted to their children—especially their sons—and do not question their essential categorization as woman/mother. They are mothers first and individuals second.

In fact, mothers present in much of twentieth-century Irish drama, with only a few exceptions, are, as Diane Stubbings argues, “merely apparent” and contained within the male character(s)’ story.4 This reflection of the social positioning for women in Irish society—women who are “rendered invisible, or when visible . . . [are] seen one-dimensionally,”5 as Patricia Kennedy notes in Maternity in Ireland—continues in Irish drama through most of the century. They are characters who are the result of the idealization of motherhood by the Catholic Church in Ireland, especially during the mid-twentieth century when, according to Clare O’Hagan, the Church urged women to act “as patriarchal gatekeepers, promoting motherhood and family...


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pp. 179-196
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