Mahoney's Ireland, with love

September 08, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Rosemary Mahoney knew a lot about Ireland and the Irish. She's from a Boston Irish-American family, and when she was 17 she lived in the country for a year and learned to speak Gaelic.

But when she went back to Ireland in 1991 to live there for another year and write a book, Ms. Mahoney found out how much she had to learn. She wasn't quite prepared for the complexities of the Irish people, and the relationships between men and women often seemed unfathomable.

"I think the men are very afraid of women in Ireland, and women have a lot of power in the home," says Ms. Mahoney, a Roland Park resident whose book "Whoredom in Kimmage: Irish Women Coming of Age" has just been published by Houghton Mifflin.

"They can bully the men into doing things, and it's effective, but it's not the kind of power that's really desired. It's very sidelong, manipulative, and not healthy at all. Women are hated and feared in Ireland, and because they're feared, they're respected."

Rosemary Mahoney had confronted culture shock before. After spending time as a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars in the mid-1980s, she went to the People's Republic of China in 1986-'87 to teach at Hangzhou University. Out of that experience she wrote her first book, "The Early Arrival of Dreams," which received fine reviews when it was published in 1990.

Then she spent a year in Ireland to research what became "Whoredom in Kimmage" (the title refers to a disparaging remark made by an anti-abortion worker who said birth-control advocates would "encourage whoredom in Kimmage," a working-class Dublin neighborhood). Ms. Mahoney talked to ,X former nuns, lesbians, birth-control workers, the president of Ireland and dozens of other women in order "to learn more about the women and to write about them."

This book, too, has been receiving superb notices. "She has an acute eye for effective detail, from the gold of a cloud to the fray of a shirt cuff, and a sharp ear for the turns of Irish speech," noted Phoebe-Lou Adams in a review of "Whoredom in Kimmage" for the Atlantic.

The strong reviews don't surprise those who knew this slender, brown-haired woman at Hopkins, where she was a graduate student in 1984-'85 and a teaching assistant the following year.

"Rosemary is spirited, talented, very smart and savvy -- about the savviest teaching assistant we ever had," says Stephen Dixon, a professor of fiction in the Writing Seminars. "She figured out how to do things better than anybody we've ever had. And she's funny, too."

"Well, I do like to ask questions," Ms. Mahoney says with a grin, over lunch at a downtown restaurant.

And she does: Her eyes focus right in on the other party when she talks, and the questions come one after another, even when she's the one being interviewed. Her inquisitiveness, along with an unassuming self-confidence, helps explain how she could walk into the small Irish village of Corofin and sit down at Dillon's Pub, where women never, ever entered.

Yet behind all the questions is an agile mind and facile pen. Here's her description of the regular Saturday-night dance that nearly all Corofin villagers attended -- primarily because there was nothing else to do:

Everyone held a glistening pint of beer or stout, and there was a feeling each time a glass was emptied that something important had been accomplished. The young women were shy, wore a lot of heavy makeup, and looked pale and unhealthy. The same old unlikely band performed in a corner of the pub: a fat accordionist in a white blouse and gray skirt, a teenage drummer, and a toothless guitarist with a handlebar moustache. They played

waltzes and a faster version of the traditional Irish air. The old men danced together, and the young women danced together, and Mike Menahan danced crazily with himself in a flailing, stomping fashion.

"I'm interested in all kinds of people -- even those who most people would find boring," Ms. Mahoney says when asked about that passage. "It's interesting to find why they are boring."

She peers at her interviewer. "Don't you think?" she prods in a manner that's not so much challenging as intended to bring out a point. "There's always something else underneath -- there's always a reason. I think boring people are boring because of an emotional basis. They're boring because they can't or won't talk about things that are important, so they talk about nothing."

That was often the case at Dillon's Pub, a de facto men's club filled with farmers and workingmen and aging bachelors who just didn't like sharing their thoughts, time or anything else with a woman. The taciturn patrons didn't exactly deconstruct James Joyce for Ms. Mahoney, but they did open up enough for her to produce several vivid portraits.

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