Irish women come of age and inherit the same bleak prospects as their menfolk

August 29, 1993|By Laurie Kaplan


Rosemary Mahoney

Houghton Mifflin

307 pages pages. $21.95. One summer on Martha's Vineyard, Lillian Hellman called her "the little Irish girl"; in Dillon's Pub in the town of Corofin at the edge of the Burren, the patrons referred to her as the Yank spouting Irish. When Rosemary Mahoney went to live in Ireland in 1991, she wanted to learn more about Mna Na hEirann: the Women of Ireland.

She learned that to write about Irish women she would also be writing about Irish men. In "Whoredom in Kimmage: Irish Women Coming of Age," the author uses her extraordinary stylistic gifts to describe the collective malaise born of too much talk and too much drink. Ms. Mahoney, who received her master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and now lives in Baltimore, brings her peculiar Irish/American sensibility to bear on the discrepancies she sees between the picturesque little villages and the rampant unemployment, alcoholism, "begrudgery" and sense of betrayal that infect Ireland and the Irish.

"Whoredom in Kimmage" is full of talk about people's lives. As Ms. Mahoney draws the Irish people out in conversation, she takes on some major issues at the heart of modern society: abortion, illegitimacy, urban and rural attitudes toward change, the Church, homosexuality, politics and equality in the workplace.

Through their rambling stories about the past and present, the people reveal the vitality of the language and the dead end of their lives. Few people project a future. The Irish as they are depicted here -- men and women alike -- seem to embrace unhappiness as a relief from boredom. Some of them drink as though it is a job.

In an authorial disclaimer, Ms. Mahoney reveals that she has changed names in the book to protect the privacy of individuals. Public figures are represented under their own names, but when lesbians, former nuns, disillusioned career women and young mothers talk about changing times, they are protected.

Ms. Mahoney is sensitive to the degrees of change in a land where historically women have been separate and very unequal. Today, women are taking their places in the public forum, which includes the local pub. Ireland has elected a female president, but its strict anti-abortion laws incurred international censure when a 14-year-old rape victim was denied permission to travel abroad for an abortion. Bluntly, Ms. Mahoney tells the reader: "In Ireland, the rights and potential of women are still constrained, and the men are not truly free, and that's what this book is about."

The title invokes the spirit of Kimmage, an archetypal example of the urban ghetto for the working class, dumping ground for the social problems and dysfunctional families identified by the Dublin Corporation. With its overpopulation, chronic alcoholism and abusive behavior, this circumscribed area of Dublin distills the problems that inhibit the progress of women in Ireland today.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children accuses advocates of women's rights of encouraging whoredom in Kimmage. As one pro-choice woman points out, "The fear is that if women get control of their own babies the society will break down . . ." There is no greater threat to the social structure than free choice, which leads to unloosed sexuality, which leads to God knows what.

One of the most interesting insights that Ms. Mahoney offers is the suggestion that for Irish women "marriage has been a fact of life rather than anything more important." Marriage becomes an antagonistic duel, with the community of men raging at the community of women.

In her discussions with the middle-aged women of the Irish branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and with the elderly and widowed women of the Irish Housewives Association, Ms. Mahoney is struck by the fact that the women do not mention men. The men and women here seem to inhabit separate spheres; they speak their own languages. Yet their fates are inextricably entwined.

At the heart of this book are characters coping with the horrors of family life in close quarters. There is disillusionment. There is madness. And there is anger.

Annie and Conor and Francis and the whole unforgettable clan of MacNamaras are typical of the contemporary dysfunctional family. Annie, a young married woman, is a falling-down drunkard. Francis is the archetypal Irish virgin-man. Conor, a widower, is the father of 13 children, many of them alcoholics, five of them producing "children born before marriage."

He tells an absurdly funny story about hoisting a huge granite bathtub into a castle, but his talk is always vulgar, lewd and boastful. He is Francis' brother and Annie's father and a grandfather many times over, but his behavior suggests pubescent machismo. He measures manhood in inches. No woman is safe from his innuendoes and dirty jokes.

One flaw in the book is perhaps the extravagant bleakness of Ms. Mahoney's portrait of Irish society, a portrait that many people in Ireland and the United States today would deny, coming as it does from an outsider. Some of her observations may be too obvious; one or two characterizations, especially of the omnipresent alcoholics, may be just slightly patronizing.

But Ms. Mahoney scrupulously refrains from making value judgments. The women and men she has talked with and interviewed indict their own society as they reveal their deep sense of dissatisfaction with -- not disaffection from -- Ireland. Something has simply passed the people by. It is as if Ireland itself has betrayed them all.

Dr. Kaplan is an associate professor of English at Goucher College.

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