PRINT May 1993

Private Voices, Public Spheres

IN SEPTEMBER 1978, Conor Cruise O’Brien, then the editor of the London Observer, registered his strong objections to an article written for his newspaper on the conflict in Northern Ireland. The article, by Mary Holland, discussed the case of Mary Nelis, a working-class woman from a nationalist community in Derry. In Cruise O’Brien’s eyes, Holland’s account was too sympathetic, for, as the mother of three sons serving time for political offenses, Nelis could hardly be seen as an innocent bystander: “Since Irish Republicanism—especially the killing strain in it—has a very high propensity to run in families, and since the mother is most often the carrier, I incline to the view that a mother whose sons behave in this way has had something to do with what they believe and how they behave.”

Motherhood in contemporary Ireland is not a private matter, nor does it simply provide, as so often in the past, a unifying metaphor for the nation. The maternal body has become the physical embodiment of a history scarred with violence and conflict. For all the resonances that the pieta has in Catholic Ireland, the image of the mother is no longer a consoling one, and her territory, the domestic realty, offers no refuge from the one-way streets of a divided society. In Rita Duffy’s painting Siege I, 1989, depicting the Caligari-esque cityscapes of Northern Ireland, it is mothers laden with children who occupy center stage, while the men of both the Protestant and the Catholic communities rage and bellow in the background. Instead of acting as a focus to reconcile the warring factions, the triptych’s dark center panel, with its crown of barbed wire, keeps them apart. Partition even enters the pictorial frame, governing visual form. There is nothing in between, no vanishing point in sight for the ending of the conflict.

In Alanna O’Kelly’s installation “The Country Blooms a Garden and a Grave”, 1992, the inscription of the maternal body on public space is set in the traumatized landscapes of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–48. The installation, opens with a startling video sequence of a woman’s breast expressing milk underwater; it is as if the maternal were the life principle, the source of originary plenitude. But this breast also resembles a smoldering volcano, the milk resembling smoke in the water, an ominous image underscored by the recital of a litany of the dead on the soundtrack, and by the wailing sounds of traditional Irish keening, or caoineadh, in which women give public voice to the pain of mourning. In a large accompanying photograph, what might be construed as a field plowed into ridges for the potato planting turns out to be a woman’s clay-caked fingers. In another image, the hands are upturned, and we realize they are empty, supplicating the viewer for food. The contours of the maternal breast undergo a related transformation by being mapped onto the mound of a famine graveyard in County Mayo, charged with collective memories. The child mortality rate in the famine may have transformed birth into a loss, but in Irish popular memory it is certainly not a forgetting.

Kathy Prendergast also maps the landscape as a means of exploring the female body, but is interested less in the surface than in what is underneath—the cultural anatomy of women’s lives. In its dense physicality, Stack, 1989, resembles a cutaway segment of the Irish earth, but there are disparate histories threaded through these strata of “soil,” which, made of layered cloth, paint, and twine, belong decidedly to women’s time and the repetitions of domestic labor. It is as if the bog-land celebrated in the poetry of Seamus Heaney as a repository of Irish history had been reclaimed from mythic images of Mother Earth by a radical self-fashioning of female identity. In Cecily Brennan’s work from 1991, based on Icelandic landscapes, a wild countryside’s turbulent energy, of a sort traditionally reserved for the male category of the sublime, is renegotiated in terms of a woman’s experience of gestation and childbirth. In these vast yet intimate paintings, the lesions and plasmalike movements of volcanic soil afford a way of coming to terms with the inner earthquake that convulses the maternal body. The “heroic” sublime is translated into an everyday frontier of domestic life, without any lesser sense of achievement.

Brennan’s swirling landscapes strikingly lack the kind of compositional techniques that distance the viewer from scenes of pain and suffering. Aileen MacKeogh’s exhibition “House,” 1991, a meditation on the death of her nine-month-old child, likewise materialized pain in a tangible form. The public space of the gallery was recreated in the image of a private house, with groups of drawings and houselike sculptures arranged as part of the decor. These enigmatic Chinese-box-like shapes charted the disintegration of the boundary between inner and outer worlds, some of them incarcerating space while others seemed open, and vulnerable to the void. No longer a haven from the world, home was itself under threat. Moreover, the danger often lay within.

The critical responses to MacKeogh’s show raised such questions as whether the stylized forms of art are an appropriate vehicle for anguish, and whether intimate pain should be made public at all. In fact, as the centuries-old practices of keening indicate, Irish women’s grief has always found highly wrought, public expression. MacKeogh locates herself in this tradition of defying death, lifting the shadow from the menacing boxes on the floor.

The problems of sexual politics in Ireland are not those entailed in women’s move from a well-defined private to a public sphere, as in other Western countries. In a country emerging from an agrarian past, dominated by colonialism and Catholicism, the personal is already mapped onto public space. According to the received version of “modernization” in Ireland, the solution is to “catch up” with liberal democratic politics, and to establish, however belatedly, a realm of private morality, while confining the authority of the public sphere to affairs of state and the workplace. The question then becomes one of access, not one of definition. But some of the most innovative art by contemporary Irish women suggests that the categories of private and public themselves need reappraisal. It is not just a question of access, or of redrafting boundaries, but of mapping the social landscape in a way that takes soundings from what lies underneath.

Luke Gibbons