PRINT December 1993


“In using what I considered traditional symbols,” W. B. Yeats observed ruefully toward the end of his life, “I forgot that in Ireland they are not symbols but realities.”1 Culture in these circumstances cannot be reduced to an esthetic pursuit at one remove from reality; it is a material force in its own right, as its role in turn-of-the-century Irish nationalism attests. Indeed the later Yeats was tormented by the thought that some of his plays might have contributed to the violence of the Irish War of Independence, of 1916–22. He may have had in mind not just his incendiary Cathleen ni Houlihan, of 1902, but his less-known The King’s Threshold, staged a year later, which introduced hunger-striking into Irish politics as a form of symbolic resistance.2

Drawing on Irish legend, The King’s Threshold describes a struggle between Guaire, a seventh-century king of Connacht renowned for his generous banquets, and Seanchan, his chief bard. Guaire accuses the poet of an excess of words that is inimical to orderly statecraft, the practical obligation to attend to material needs and get things done. Seanchan responds with a hunger strike, which he sees as a way of releasing the imagination: “For when the heavy body has grown weak,/There’s nothing that can tether the wild mind.”3 In early versions of the play the king yields, but in 1922, probably as a result of the death on hunger strike of Terence McSwiney, the nationalist mayor of Cork, Yeats gave the play a new, tragic conclusion. What is interesting here is the notion of narrative as an event informed by its moment: the “original” version of 1902 was no longer possible given the events of the War of Independence. The question is not just one of revision but of a story structured by the circumstances of its telling.

James Coleman too has dealt with the Guaire legend, in guaiRE: An Allegory, 1985, a complex reenactment of the myth using video, gesture, text, and music. And though his work is usually discussed in terms of a European and American tradition of conceptual art, guaiRE reveals it as deeply informed by its Irish context and situation. The Guaire of Irish legend would not have approved of exposing the legacy of the past to the vicissitudes of narration. In popular tradition, he was fighting with Seanchan because the poet could remember only fragments of the Tain Bo Cuailgne, a key repository of Irish mythology. Guaire asked Seanchan’s son to recover the original, as if the power of the state depended on preserving the continuity between past and present. It was precisely such narratives of return that Coleman countered in guaiRE.

Narrative in this staged allegory did not just take the form of a story: it took place, the place in question being Dun Guaire Castle in County Galway, supposedly Guaire’s stronghold. The initial act of restoration that Coleman contested by working here was the Irish heritage industry’s version of history: the “authentic” banquets laid on for tourists at castles like Dun Guaire, to give the illusion of communion with the medieval past.4 Indeed, on the way into the “throne room” in which guaiRE was performed, the audience was shown the backstage of such illusions—a painter at work on the set, costumes being prepared.

From the performance’s opening words, it was clear that Coleman’s Guaire too is obsessed with continuity—with lineage and pedigree, the foundations of his legitimacy as king. A prophecy has foretold that he will be overthrown by the son of Ceallach, whom he has disposed of to assert his claim to the throne: “My will be done . . . a formula to dissect . . . thwart the course of destiny . . . the prophecy . . . Yet it can be employed to extend life . . . Nobody can rob me of my formulae . . . Buried deep inside.” “Will” here signifies not just volition but inheritance, which is in turn secured by the “formula,” an elixir of life (or death), but also the source of repetition and continuity in oral culture.5

In the legend, when Guaire has Ceallach murdered, the body is stuffed in a hollow tree.6 In Coleman’s work, however, an obstetrician rather than a coroner appears on the scene. It is as if Ceallach had been returned to the womb—as if Guaire had sought to remove his rival from affairs of state by inserting him into a maternal narrative. For Coleman, though, this insertion becomes a form of empowerment. The maternal gestures toward an alternative public sphere that jams the machinery of patrilineal power.

Though the voices of guaiRE’s “characters” are mainly male, they are articulated through a masked female actress (Olwen Fouere), the only onstage presence. At one point in the text her body is explicitly linked to Ceallach’s tree. Is the female body merely a hollow vehicle for a male line of transmission? Is it devoid of its own narratives? Marina Warner points out that the allegorical use of the female form to embody abstract ideas such as “Justice” and “Liberty” does not mean that these virtues are actually extended to women. Indeed, it implies the opposite: the materiality of women’s bodies is emptied out to carry what are essentially masculine ideas. Hence the reduction of woman’s body to a shell in icons such as the Statue of Liberty: “The statue’s hollowness, which we occupy literally when we make the ascent to Liberty’s empty head, is a prerequisite of symbols with infinite powers of endurance and adaptability. She is given meaning by us, and it can change, according to what we see or want.”7

Yet an allegory that insists on the corporeality of the sign would seem to obstruct such uses of the female form. In guaiRE, the maternal body is such a figure. As the performance opens, the actress’ body comes alive, tentatively discovering itself from the inside. Her left leg twitches, but she grabs her right leg by mistake. She pinches her nipple and is startled by the pain. Her throne is a plaster head, on which is projected a face; it is as if she were giving birth. It may be, of course, that the mother remains a “relay” or extension of patriarchy, on the assumption that behind every maternal body lies a great man. This is no doubt as the king would like it to be. But guaiRE throws such notions into question; it is less allegory than a reflexive commentary on allegory’s workings.

For Freud, every family romance contains the underlying anxiety that whereas “paternity is always uncertain, maternity is most certain.”8 James Joyce, writing within the colonial frame of turn-of-the-century Ireland, spells out the political implications of this when he has Stephen Dedalus exclaim in Ulysses that “paternity may be a legal fiction,” and is only as secure as the power of state and law to back it up.9 (Hence Guaire’s “my will be done.”) The anomaly colonial Ireland posed to an equation of nation and fatherland was that Irish men lacked the control of the public sphere that paternal authority required. As Elizabeth Butler-Cullingford writes of the representation of Ireland in 18th-century “aisling” poetry, a genre in which the male poet would personify Ireland as a woman, “She is still a sexual object, for the poet lovingly describes her physical charms, and occasionally she is shown as ravished by the invader. Colonization, however, has destroyed native masculinity along with political independence, and no true Irishman remains to mate with her.”10

Hence the colonial construction of the Irish body politic as female, with its corollary that without “manly” British rule, government was impossible in Ireland. (In 1898, Sir George Baden Powell contrasted the patriarchal benefits of Ireland’s union with Britain to the “emasculated” self-government that would result from Home Rule, the latter resembling the dependency of a “southern senora on her father confessor.”11) It may be, then, that these female personifications of the nation in some sense do mask patriarchal power on the part of the colonial administration, but it is not at all clear that this extends to the colonized culture itself. As Anne Owens Weekes writes, Gaelic Ireland’s distance from power meant that the entire population, both male and female, shared the condition of women in the metropolitan center: “Colonization, then, makes female both country and people. . . . ‘Excluded from landed wealth, from political life, from the ”official“ church . . . the Irish erected a counter-culture, not so much rebellious as evasive,’ also a strategy, like women’s, decreed by their similar repression, and one whose end was survival.”12 In these circumstances, the recourse to female imagery in poetry and popular protest turns the colonial stereotype against itself, positing an alternative “feminized” public sphere (imagined as the nation) against the official patriarchal order of the state.

In guaiRE, this refiguration of female allegory finds expression through location, the ruined Dunguaire Castle. (For Walter Benjamin, the ruin is the most evocative allegorical emblem, its fragments testifying to an unrestorable origin.) At one point the king’s anxiety requires that he “sponges his perspiration,” an action accompanied by the line “Sponging over a will.” The reference is to Lady Christabel Russell, who lived in Dun Guaire in the ’20s. Becoming pregnant soon after her marriage, Russell was sued for divorce by her husband on the grounds that since their marriage was unconsummated, she must have committed adultery. Yet examination by two gynecologists showed that she was a virgin. It followed that her son was the rightful heir, even if paternity could not be established. (Coleman’s sponge remark—a sponge was found in Russell’s bathroom—adverts to one explanation of how she became pregnant.13) It was as though the maternal body had ceased to be a vehicle for the male line—as though the female had usurped the “meaning” it was patriarchally intended to carry.

In one of Coleman’s recent works, Charon, 1989, a series of 14 photographic vignettes, a baby gazes intently at the camera, and hence, as Lynne Cooke suggests, at “the photographer who seems to be both father of the child and allegorical father of the image.”14 In guaiRE, allegory’s temporal lapse in the image, the delay between the sign and what it signifies, displaces the sovereignty of the eye. In Dan Graham’s set, a curved two-way mirror acts as a video screen behind the “throne,” providing the audience with a panning shot of the room from the point of view of the king. (For Michel Foucault, analyzing the birth of “classical representation” in Velazquez’s Las Meninas, the individual subject/spectator is constituted by an identification with the king.15) At the end of the performance, this pan dissolves into an image of the throne/head on which the performer sits, with its lifelike face. The masked performer turns her back on the audience, and reveals her face—which turns out to be the face projected on the plaster head—but her reflection in the real time of the mirror is mediated by a time-delay video, which superimposes on the mirror/screen a flashback of her removing the mask. It is as if the mirror possessed memory. “The mirror stage” on which the performance literally takes place is not a medium of representation so much as a pretext for the uncanny, a reminder, in the phrase Jo Anna Isaak adapts from Joyce, of "the ineluctable temporality of the visible.16

It is a conventional critique of allegorical idealizations of the female that they privilege the relation of the image to other images rather than to women in the real world. This spiriting away of the physical body is addressed in Paul Muldoon’s “Aisling,” a parody of the 18th-century Irish visionary poems: “Was she Aurora, or the goddess Flora,/Artimedora, or Venus bright,/or Anorexia, who left/a lemon stain on my flannel sheet?/. . . . In Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital/a kidney machine/supports the latest hunger-striker/to have called off his fast, a saline/drip into his bag of brine.”17 Here the aisling figure is linked to the harlot (“the lemon stain”) and the hunger-striker, the anorexic bodies of all three sharing the rarefaction of the flesh.

This image of decomposition assumes a different valency, however, if we recall Benjamin’s retrieval of the prostitute’s sensuality through the image of the ruin.18 The fragmentation of the ruin is an allegory of desire as well as of death, its incompletion finding expression in a ceaseless quest that marks rather than reverses the passage of time. In guaiRE’s enigmatic maternal narratives, the denial of the body that is implicit in virginity is recuperated through the desire of the harlot. So, in the Russell case, the absence of an identifiable father was read as evidence not of parthenogenesis but of the likelihood of many fathers in her mansion. Outside the family structure, the maternal becomes a figure of erotic abandon.

During the preparation of guaiRE, such anxieties returned to haunt the Irish state in the forms of a divisive abortion referendum, in 1983, and of the Kerry Babies controversy shortly after. Two babies were found dead in County Kerry, at locations fifty miles apart. A young woman, Joanne Hayes, confessed under police questioning to the killing of the first baby, then withdrew her confession, admitting to the killing only of her own, different child. The state insisted that she had carried, and killed, both babies—an implausible charge, for it was shown that the blood group of her own baby’s father was incompatible with that of the other infant. The prosecution then suggested that she had carried babies by two fathers at the same time—a legal fiction that even the power of the state could not uphold, even against a vulnerable single mother. Paternity had to be established at all costs, as if the inability to name the father called the legitimacy of the state itself into question.19

Clearly, allegory in guaiRE derives its impact not from a suppression of the real but from an anchorage in events, in narratives of time and place. Its engagement with questions of narrative, representation, and sexuality paradoxically depends on the contingency that set in another time and place, it would be a different story. Erich Auerbach has noted the links between allegory and prophecy in scripture, both looking through signs for other meanings; for Auerbach, though, prophecy differed from allegory in its insistence on grounding its interpretations in “literal truth” (for the early Church Fathers “refused to consider the Old Testament as mere allegory,” insisting that “it had real, literal meaning throughout”20). Coleman’s guaiRE also retrieves allegory for history, except, unlike prophecy, it denies that the real is the sole preserve of the literal. It opens rather than closes narratives, establishing a gap between the present and a past that awaits completion.

Luke Gibbons lectures on film and cultural studies at the School of Communications at Dublin City University. He is working on a book on the aesthetics of Irish romanticism.


1. W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies, London: Macmillan, 1955, p. 416.

2. See Yeats, Plays in Prose and Verse, London: Macmillan, 1931, p. 423.

3. Ibid., p. 72.

4. “At Dunguaire Castle, the past is relived again and again . . . when guests from all over the world assemble at the nightly banquets set out by the Shannon Free Airport Development Company whose property the castle now is.” James Patrick Hynes, White-Shrouded Fort: A History of Guaire, the Hospitable, King of Connaught, and his Descendents, Mold: Studio 365, 1980, p. 61.

5. See B. A. Stolz and R. S. Shannon, eds., Oral Literature and the Formula, Ann Arbor: Center for the Coordination of Ancient and Modern Studies, 1976.

6. See Lady Ferguson, The Story of the Irish before the Conquest, second edition, Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1889, p. 15.

7. Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, London: Picador, 1987, p. 11.

8. Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality, Harmondsworth: Pelican Freud Library, 1977, 7:223. Freud is quoting an old legal tag, in Latin: “Pater semper incertus est,” while the mother is “certissima.”

9. James Joyce, Ulysses, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992, p. 266. See also Karen Lawrence, “Paternity, the Legal Fiction,” in Robert D. Newman and Weldon Thornton, eds., Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987, pp. 89–97.

10. Elizabeth Butler-Cullingford, “‘Thinking of Her . . . as . . . Ireland’: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney,” Textual Practice 4 no. 1, 1990, p. 6. Cullingford observes that such personifications may project “male anxieties . . . of the need to control and subordinate the female sex,” anxieties introducing a fault line in the native patriarchal order—the weakness induced by colonization.

11. Sir George Baden-Powell, The Saving of Ireland: Industrial, Financial, Political, Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1898, p. 291. See also David Cairns and Shaun Richards, Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture, Manchester: at the University Press, 1988, chapter 3.

12. Anne Owens Weekes, Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 15–16.

13. See Eileen Hunter, Christabel: The Russell Case and After, London: Andre Deutsch, 1973. The controversy was reactivated after Russell’s death, in 1976, with litigation between her son and her husband’s.

14. Lynne Cooke, “A Tempered Agnosia,” James Coleman, exhibition catalogue, Lyons: Musée d’art Contemporain, 1990.

15. See Michael Newman, “Allegories of the Subject: The Theme of Identity in the Work of James Coleman,” in James Coleman: Selected Works, exhibition catalogue, Chicago: The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 1985, p. 44. Foucault’s argument recalls F. W. Maitland’s famous dictum, “For the first time, the Absolute State faced the Absolute Individual,” quoted in Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970, p. 63.

16. Jo Anna Isaak, The Ruin of Representation in Modernist Art and Texts, Ann Arbor: U.M.I. Research Press, 1986, p. 23.

17. Paul Muldoon, Quoof, London: Faber and Faber, 1983, p. 39. See also Clair Wills, “The Lie of the Land: Language, Imperialism and Trade in Paul Muldoon’s Meeting the British,” in Neil Corcoran, ed., The Chosen Ground: Essays on Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1992, pp. 136-49.

18. See Christine Buci-Glucksmann, “Catastrophic Utopia: The Feminine as Allegory in the Modern,” in Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laquer, eds., The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, pp. 220–29.

19. See Nell McCafferty, A Woman to Blame: The Kerry Babies Case, Dublin: Attic Press, 1985. Joanne Hayes’ own book, My Story, Dingle: Brandon Books, 1985, was withdrawn from circulation due to a legal action following the state Tribunal into her case.

20. Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” Scenes From the Drama of European Literature, Manchester: at the University Press, 1984, p. 30.