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

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