Domestic Unrest and Jennifer Johnston’s Fiction of the Irish Troubles

Laila Khan


Nationalist novels often use women’s bodies to express political anxieties. Such nationalist fictions in Ireland suggest that every mother is potentially Mother Ireland (who mourns her fallen sons while celebrating their sacrifice for the nation), or every woman Erin (who acts as the sexualized nation that seduces its young men to arms). Jennifer Johnston’s politicization of the domestic space in her novels is far from unusual: Laura Lyons finds that “the home – a space traditionally gendered as female and particularly used in the Irish constitution to recontain Irish women – represents not a ‘safe haven’ or depository of family virtues but the site of both repression and politicization” (117). Johnston’s novels are not radical in their politicization of Irish home life, but they approach that politicization as a dominant, rather than compulsory form. Instead, Johnston dismantles nationalist modes of motherhood, as well as sexual and non-sexual relationships between men and women (mostly notably through the figures of Helen and Kathleen). Although the various relationships of Johnston’s novels do not always flourish or successfully dodge politicization, neither do they obfuscate the costs of violent nationalism. Johnston uses Irish domestic fictions to explore alternative approaches to friendships and family bonds that could exist when women reject nationalist narratives.


Johnston rejects a violent, blood-thirsty portrayal of Irish motherhood by reshaping the traditional intentions and consequences of the blood sacrifices of Jack and Roger in The Railway Station Man (1984) and Brendan’s disappearance at the end of Shadows on Our Skin (1977). G. F. Dalton traces the national lore that makes women tools for masculine control over the land by forcing women’s voices to act as a call for masculine blood sacrifices. Women’s bodies become – as in Yeats’ Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a name evoked by Johnston’s own Kathleen – symbolic, and their reproductive functions co-opted as sites of ideology rather than biology. In order to understand Johnston’s shifted moments of violence, we need to consider the reasons that lead up to these endings and interrogate how (if at all) they are different from the mythological sacrifice of sons.


The Railway Station Man and Shadows on Our Skin take very different approaches from each other to political involvement and the ways in which politics alters familial relationships, even though both take place during the Irish “troubles” of the 1970s. In The Railway Station Man, Mrs. Logan pushes her eldest son away from home in order to protect him from violence, whereas in Shadows on Our Skin Helen finds herself unable to connect with her son because she has so thoroughly rejected her deceased husband and the prescriptive roles of motherhood. The sanctity and stability of the home collapses under the threat of political infiltration. As a result, Johnston’s characters turn to what Judith Halberstam terms “alternative kinship,” in which the social control and normativity imposed by nuclear family units is challenged by “disavowal” and “substitutions” from outside the family unit (72, 73). The stability promised in the domestic model (inheritance passed from parents to children) is disrupted when Johnston’s female characters reject domestic normativity and explore “anti-social feminism, a form of feminism preoccupied with negativity and negation” (Halberstam 129). Johnston’s novels illustrate the tensions between anti-social feminism and interpersonal responsibilities in times of conflict, often leaving the reader with a sense of irresolution or failed endings because of the continuation of violence. Moreover, the novels explore not only the gendering of conflict, but also the ways in which conflicts and violence are passed down generationally by focusing on domestic relationships (and domestic estrangement).


Johnston’s novels tackle the tenuous relationship between the domestic and the public by, to borrow a phrase, “uncover[ing] and challeng[ing] patriarchy in the home” (Kennedy-Andrews 225).  If the domestic in these nationalist fictions is traditionally figured as a feminine sphere against the masculine public as Johnston sets up, then, as Elmer Kennedy-Andrews suggests, patriarchal presence in the home has the power to suppress women’s voices. Nationalist rhetoric often justifies the call for blood sacrifices through the voice of a mother figure – Mother Ireland in particular – revealing the domestic to be a charged and politicized space. This politicization counters what Pickering and Third note is the traditional Western imagining of the home “as a politically neutral space. That is, in Western modernity, the domestic realm has been positioned as a sanctuary from the public realm of politics” (10). Shadows on Our Skin and The Railway Station Man are similar in that both Brendan and Jack turn to Mother Ireland as a replacement for the mothers who have rejected them. Johnston’s mothers refuse to act as mouthpieces for national rhetoric in the home, choosing instead passivity or alternative kinships as what they see as the only escape.


Motherhood presents femininity already entrenched in gendered discourse and socially sanctioned (and politicized) behaviors.  Richard Kearney argues, “the indentification (sic) of ‘colonized’ Ireland as celestial daughter or mother, represents a symbolic projection of a prohibited sense of self-possession” (17-8). Women, as the image of Ireland, must be re-possessed by the nation against the foreign invader. Irish nationalism is thus bound up with questions of recovery and reconciliation of dispossessed identities against the colonial oppressor; the Mother who offers a stabilization of identity (both masculine and national) in return for blood sacrifice is a particularly heady and enticing myth. Margaret Bruzelius disassembles the ways in which women are able to claim public voices as mothers through the specific avenue of the Mater Dolorosa, the grief-stricken and mourning Mary. Bruzelius argues, “For these women, as for too many others, mothers, all mothers, purchase speech through pain, and if they are not speaking from the authority that pain gives them, they are not really speaking” and “The difficulty of this position is its implicit assumption that pain is the only true index of maternal feeling — that only in sorrow can one speak as a mother” (228, 228-9). In the nationalist use, without the sacrifice and mourning, motherhood is meaningless.


The failed voices, failed responses, and failed attempts to stop cycles of violence in Johnston’s novels return us to the aspect of negation that underlies Halberstam’s anti-social feminism: it is a process of un-working and rejecting narrative discourses in order to find new forms of social engagement and outcomes. In order to reinscribe the mythological sacrifice of sons, Johnston must first propose alternate forms of Irish maternity (that disrupt rather than reproduce patriarchy) and kinships that reject an oppressive sense of duty.


From the start, the way in which violence in the nation has destroyed the stability of home life is obvious in the Logan family. Mrs. Logan has sent her eldest son Brendan off to England in hopes of keeping him safe. She insists she does not want her eldest son “‘coming back here. He has a good job over there. He’s out of trouble’” (12-13). Mrs. Logan attempts to protect her son by forcing him not only out of his home and away from his pro-Nationalist father, but also out of the Irish public sphere. Mrs. Logan’s moving Brendan preempts the soldiers’ raids that force occupants out of their homes in order to search for guns and “lift” young men suspected to be involved with the IRA. There is obvious irony in England being the only viable safe space to send young Irish men during this time of ‘domestic’ upheaval since Mother Ireland is the domestic identity in conflict with the foreign British oppressor. In order to achieve safety (through neutrality or non-participation), Brendan needs to be uprooted and hidden, effectively eradicating a place for him in Irish society.


Mrs. Logan’s resistance is shaped by her recognition that the home space cannot be neutral, forcing her to drive her son away. Johnston thus undermines this traditional view by demonstrating, especially through the repeated raids on homes, how the domestic space is not and cannot be divorced from the political. Furthermore, the sanctuary of the domestic space has been stripped to create a space for rebelling against the politics of the foreign Other through masculine voices – Mr. Logan’s in Shadows on Our Skin and Manus’ in The Railway Station Man. The Irish domestic space becomes a training ground for a dispossessed national army that will throw off the oppressor’s public space. The macrocosmic domestic space (the Irish homeland) attempts to reclaim possession of a dispossessed identity by co-opting women’s bodies and voices in the home as a site of reproduction for masculine nationalism.


According to critics like Nancy Scheper-Huges, when women – mothers especially – parrot nationalistic ideologies in the home, they act as megaphones that amplify the potency of those discourses. Scheper-Huges argues, “There’s a maternal ethos of ‘acceptable death’ without which political violence and wars of all kinds would not be possible” (353). The home is, in this argument, a necessary space of potentiation, without which “public” actions could not move forward. As Sharon Pickering and Amanda Third put it, “This, if you like, is the real ‘domestic’ problem; terminating the patterns of political resistance that are reproduced through Irish republican home life” (11). Thus, Mrs. Logan must fight a double battle against public voices at large and against her mostly bed-ridden husband’s voice within the home, since he is a constant presence interrupting domestic peace. Johnston’s seemingly passive female characters force consideration of “a shadow archive of resistance, one that does not speak in the language of action and momentum but instead articulates itself in terms of evacuation, refusal, passivity, unbecoming, unbeing” (Halberstam 129). Rather than accepting premises for entering social discourse, shadow feminism questions the underlying assumptions and potential outcomes put forth in these discourses. Mrs. Logan sees “evacuation” as a way to save her son from being folded into the national discourse, and can only hope that the imposed distance will stall the flow of “trouble.”


With Mr. Logan left mostly bedridden from injuries sustained fighting in the Irish Civil War, the feminine space of the home is constantly bombarded with his politicized male voice. Ironically, though Mr. Logan speaks loudly and passionately, he is unable himself to act on his words. Instead we hear how “He cried out about injustice and freedom and castigated himself for being the possessor of a body too weak to be able to strike the blows that had to be struck. He cried” (60). Rather than a rousing speech calling the able-bodied to arms, we are presented with the drunken ranting of a man unable to act out what he views to be his masculine duty. It is because of his father’s dispossession from “the Movement” that Brendan must take up the torch – to carry on where his father has failed. Brendan is, for all intents and purposes, “born into the ‘troubles,’ and thus inherit[s] the struggle” (Pickering 10). The home is no longer the realm of feminine reproduction, but rather a place for the father to reproduce his political ideology. Counter to the “unbecoming, unbeing” of this form of feminism stands the traditional male lineage of passing ideologies from father to son. Erich Fromm writes, “we find an objective conflict between the son’s happiness and his usefulness; but this conflict is usually not consciously noticed by the father, since the ideology of this society leads him to see both goals as identical” and “he expects his son not only to be socially useful, but also to fulfill his own unsatisfied wishes and fantasies” (39). Mr. Logan wants to be a “hero” again but can only do so by co-opting his son’s future.


Mrs. Logan’s antagonism thus has a particular target in the father, and their bickering deconstructs the image of home-as-haven. Mr. Logan complains to his sons, “Your mother has me destroyed with her tongue. She’s a bitter woman” (21). Mrs. Logan’s objections are reduced to “bitter” feelings since Mr. Logan, in his own words, “‘was, after all, for a short moment of [his] life, a hero’” (21). Mr. Logan implies that Mrs. Logan’s bitterness stems from her not having been afforded the same opportunity at heroics for the nation. Her husband reduces her to a woman whose only power is to have “destroyed [him] with her tongue.” For young Joe, his parents’ “quarreling” produces nothing but destroys everything: “The impotent unhappy sound of it stripped him of his warmth. It was inescapable, the sound of it, like the stinging smell of smoke that lay night and day around the city” (25). The powerful resonance of conflict in the domestic space is as destructive as the war raging outside. The domestic space becomes sterile and “impotent,” closing off any access to sexual reproduction or familial feelings. When Brendan, having returned to Ireland and joined the Provos, argues with his mother’s non-involvement, Mr. Logan seizes his opportunity to heighten the divide between mother and son by insisting, “I’m with you, son. I’m with you,” as if the mother is the enemy now (66). The father reaps his son’s regeneration of the public discourse within the home, and the mother must return to “bitter” wishes that he “drown in [his] words” (66).


Joe conflates his mother’s silence with a lack of interest, unable to read any other meaning into her passivity.  He sums up the two major hurdles he faces when dealing with his mother as: “Silence. Indifference” (38). In this context, Joe’s interest in schoolteacher Kathleen is obvious since she gives him the attention he does not feel he gets at home, just as Jack similarly turns to Manus when he finds his home life wanting. Joe notes that Kathleen, “bent slightly toward him so that she could catch every word he spoke, as if it were important. He liked that. She had a good listening face” (85). Kathleen is antithetical to his mother in her attentiveness, and she even offers a sense of comfort so lacking in his own home. When she saw men running outside of her home, “she pulled the curtains tight together. Keeping safety in” (52). Whether or not she really could keep her home safe and whether or not it was even safe to begin with are not important to Joe. Rather, the image of her closing the curtains imprints itself in his mind as a comforting gesture, so unlike his mother’s personal war with his father that upsets any pretense of stability. Before Joe finds out about Kathleen’s English fiancé and relationship with his brother Brendan, he is able to project his isolation onto her, thinking of her as “one of those solitary people like himself” (122).


The relationships that Kathleen has with Brendan and her British fiancé mark her body as a sexualized site of political conflict and colonization, much like her namesake. Kathleen recognizes that Brendan is “in a state of great confusion,” and finds this unstable state “always appeals” to her, perhaps because of her own indecisiveness as exemplified in her poorly-chosen pairing of suitors (182). Although the traditional Cathleen figure usually acts as the provocation for taking up arms, Johnston’s Kathleen nearly becomes the motivation for leaving conflict behind as Brendan considers leaving the Provos to be with her. Brendan tells Joe, “when they gave me a gun…I wasn’t the right person any more,” as if this newfound relationship with Kathleen has cleared his vision and allowed him to see himself as negatively altered by violent nationalism (187). But when Joe, in a fit of jealousy, reveals her fiancé’s existence, he leaves Brendan to be swept up by the Provos once more. Kathleen’s potential sexual power and sway morphs into a betrayal of trust, putting Brendan in danger from both sides (he could be “lifted” by British soldiers or mistakenly assumed an informant by the Provos).


Kathleen desires to “know nothing” so that she will not “mak[e] idiotic moral judgments,” and yet she does just that when she ignores the danger of entering into an affair with Brendan when her connections could label them both as traitors or informants (183).  Although Kathleen’s secret could not be hidden forever, that it is Joe’s petty cruelty that reveals it is particularly poignant. Johnston makes clear that Joe’s unthinking and reactive words are as dangerous as silence. Joe is not trying to effect change, but rather speaks without thought to consequences and with a feeling of imperviousness that is soon shattered (not unlike Kathleen’s own disregard for potential consequences). As a result, the Provos cruelly humiliate and assault Kathleen by marking (and marring) her body by shaving her head and bruising her face.  Kathleen’s attempt to control her own body and sexuality fail because they are non-normative in terms of nationalist discourse (she is no Cathleen) and fidelity. Kathleen’s omission of the truth and feelings of betrayal left in her wake destroy the potential power of her sexuality to disrupt rather than to confirm the violent narrative and influence of nationalism on Brendan.


Although Brendan “got in trouble with the boys, and he’s gone,” it is likely that he is the one who has given Kathleen up, perhaps as an attempt to lessen suspicion on himself (194). Regardless, Brendan must now disappear, just as Kathleen can no longer remain since the safety of her home has been violated. If Brendan has or will be punished for his relationship with Kathleen remains unknown since any potential for his own narrative has been effectively silenced. He is absorbed into the national voice and made invisible. Unlike his older brother, it seems clear that Joe was never going to make the same decision because of his mother’s determination that he should be non-participatory. In fact, Joe will return to his normal routine, even after Kathleen and Brendan leave, but now with Kathleen’s gift of a book of verse with her own little poem scrawled in it. Joe can develop his own sense of identity not merely by inheriting ideologies from his parents, but by his own experiences and the messages he tries to create through his poetry. Kathleen’s gift is a measure of forgiveness, but also an encouragement to Joe’s own voice by giving him, as a budding poet, a new kind of genealogy through art.


Like Kathleen, Helen Cuffe attempts isolation and detachment as a barrier to political involvement. Though the family in The Railway Station Man might be smaller, mother Helen and son Jack only, the domestic strife is just as potent. The Railway Station Man is Helen Cuffe’s memoir, which allows her to organize meaning retrospectively. Helen seeks to understand her relationship with her son, and wonders that “if he had been allowed to live [they] might have grown into some kind of understanding, a closeness” so missing from their relationship until his death (11). Much of the progress of their relationship is directed by her relationship to her husband and her handling of his death. Helen must come to terms with her honest feelings toward her husband, and she struggles to disentangle that relationship from the one she would like to have with her son. Helen is more like Joe than Mrs. Logan, as she develops new relationships outside of her family that allow her to reconsider her own sense of identity and her connection to the world.


Helen is less interested in protesting political involvement than she is in escaping it entirely; the war is something distant and of no concern to her. She describes the disconnection between the violence around her and her own life saying, “My life was filled with safety. We heard about the war on the wireless [.…] Just words” (4). It is not until a stray bullet kills her husband that the impact of the violence is brought home. Even then, however, her reaction to the news of her husband’s death is laughter, which would seem inappropriate and macabre to anyone listening. She views her husband’s death as the opportunity for her own freedom through isolation. If Dan had been the bond keeping her tied to the home of her marriage, then his death allowed her to leave all of that behind since her son Jack was away at school, “never really moved in here” and “preferred to take on the role of visitor” (11). While she did not hate her husband, she clearly did not love him either. Dan’s death is her opportunity not to be cared for as if she were still a child, as if she were one of his students. Helen sells the contents of her old home in Derry and isolates herself in Donegal where she has only herself to rely on.


Helen cuts herself off from the world by using the moments of destruction around her to liberate herself. While she does not immediately recognize what feelings her husband’s death bring about, when she returns to her former home she begins to make sense of it: “I knew at that moment that what I had been hiding for the last few weeks from myself as well as the people around me was an amazing feeling of relief, liberation. As I cleared out the fireplace I wondered about guilt and decided against it, where was the point or the time for guilt” (11; emphasis added). The lack of guilt here, how she is “startled by [her] own happiness,” seems to predicate itself upon a lack of interpersonal responsibilities (11). Helen’s denial of guilt – deciding against it, in particular – suggests that she now has a choice outside of the patriarchy represented by her husband. Her husband’s death becomes her opportunity to relocate herself and cut off all ties to her previous life. Christine St. Peter points out, “Women who would be in any way autonomous must therefore escape from cohabitation. In none of Johnston’s novels does she imagine the alternative of real community or even friendship with other women” (123). Because Johnston never presents a female community in these novels, we cannot know if a united female community could create a strong enough oppositional voice from the margins. But lack of “cohabitation” in the domestic space does not preclude a “real community;” instead, it encourages Helen to look outside of the home for friendships (namely in Roger and Damien).


Helen cannot provide the (approved) voice of motherhood and wisdom for her son because of her relationship with her husband. While alive, Dan acted as a restraining influence, feeling that “she needed protecting from some destructive demon that he could see inside her” (13). With his father’s view of his mother in mind, Jack rejects his mother’s lack of structure and desires more concrete connections than she can offer. Unable to take her seriously as a figure of authority, Jack cannot help but want to distance himself from his mother and her new home, especially feeling “that doing odd jobs around the place committed him to the house in a way that he didn’t wish to be committed” (13). Jack thus also turns to the short time he had with his father as a kind of guide to his own life. Rather than forging bonds in the home with the mother that pushes him away, Jack idealizes his deceased father who stands for everything his mother is not. Similarly, Brendan chooses his decaying father-figure, who still wields the rhetoric of the nation, over his distanced mother.


Even an absent male voice has more of a resounding power in the home than the present female voice that will not conform to expectations. As a result, Jack “thought he too would like to die at twenty-nine, prodigiously full of living” like the male “heroes” and activists that are legendary to him (15). Jack transforms his desire for a masculine inheritance into a political ideology that promises commemoration and community. To Jack, “None of them shut their eyes to keep out reality,” and that is the prerequisite to their heroism (15). His mother’s complete distance from “reality” and her inaction for any political cause is antithetical to the heroic facing of reality that Jack so admires and wishes to replicate. Jack’s involvement in the public sphere reflects his desire to find meaning and connectedness after the death of his father:

“I don’t pretend to understand.”

“Everyone should try. It’s a duty to try.”

She shook her head.

“I feel no sense of duty.”

He wondered what she did feel, but of course he didn’t ask her. There had always been some barrier between them that inhibited that sort of question. (32)

Jack uses politics as a space for self-discovery: by having a “sense of duty,” Jack thinks he will find fulfilling relationships denied to him by a collapsed home. Helen and Jack stand on opposite ends of the spectrum between an anti-social rejection of political discourse and the desire for continuity and a sense belonging.


Furthermore, Helen’s lack of duty is here connected the question of feeling. Helen has “never allowed herself to be shaken radically in any way by emotion,” and has never expressed herself to her son so that there is never any “comfort between [them]” (79, 19). Although Helen wishes there were some sort of comfort between them, both she and Jack are unable to separate their differing expectations of each other. The outside demands on their behavior affect the ways they are able to understand and to relate to one another. Helen, for example, “always had the idea that a good mother’s function was to feed her young” (31). This particular feeling of being a mother is dictated by social constructs, but is also an internal expression of her care. Unfortunately it comes across as a merely perfunctory act of motherhood because there is no sense of Jack’s preferences or desires taken into account.


In their dealings with one another, Helen and Jack have created a web of duties that are interrelated and inextricable. Jack feels her inability to connect on a public level reflects her inability to connect in the home. Helen’s desire to escape public life causes her to cut ties with her family. Helen’s negative view of duty seems to be connected to a desire for safety, as she tells Jack: “Don’t carry messages. Don’t you remember the tragedies […] it was always the messengers had their eyes gouged, their tongues cut out” (34). Helen collapses “messages” and “messengers” into a single entity since acknowledgement of the message is the same as having one’s body violently marked; to “carry messages” is then to carry it on and in one’s body. Helen is particularly resentful of such marking: “Listen, Jack […] I was a dutiful wife, a dutiful daughter in law […] that’s over now. […] I don’t want to be sucked back into anything again. I don’t want to be mauled about” (34). In a sense, Helen’s language suggests that she has paid her debt to duty and thus earned her freedom and her right to control her body against being “mauled about.” Relationships based on duty, in this line of thought, are temporary and impermanent – once roles are fulfilled, one can be released from any bonds that had existed and recover one’s autonomy.


Motherhood throws a wrench into Helen’s theory of temporary relationships and forces a reconsideration of narrow definitions of domestic space as not just physically bound (as with Dan), but also emotionally bound. Helen finds that “the disease of parenthood was terminal. No way out round it, no hope of re-assessment” (45). When Jack tells her to “Stop being motherly, for God’s sake,” she responds, “That’s what I am [.…] That’s how I know I exist. I’m a mother” (56; emphasis added). Even though there is no shared domestic space between Helen and Jack, having never really lived together after he was away at school, the sense of domesticity persists in the very nature of their relationship. The role of mother should be a permanent and lasting one, elevating it to a state of being, a way for Helen to affirm her own existence. If the danger of separating oneself from society is in losing touch with other people who can confirm and affirm one’s existence, then motherhood can preserve Helen’s identity (and her ability to recognize her own identity). Jack, however, perceives her as “motherly,” as if she is temporarily enacting a role that is not rightfully hers. Her motherliness is at odds with her desire to escape binding relationships, causing her to direct her care into what Jack understands to be meaningless gestures (insisting on feeding Jack, for example).


Although she recognizes the indestructible label of motherhood, bestowed in her mind at the moment of labor, Helen does not want to force her son to owe her anything: “He doesn’t have to be involved. I would hate dutiful respect from him. I think I’ve probably hurt him quite a lot. He never wanted to come here. I think he felt quite orphaned as he was growing up” (80). Notably, she does not wish to turn him aside because she fears a relationship with him, but rather because she fears resentment for being unable to perform her role as expected. Her distance metaphorically “orphaned” Jack, so that any debt he would have owed his mother are null and void. The pain she caused him in her own self discovery replaced the pain she would have expressed on his behalf as mourning mother. Jack too is aware of this internal bartering, and as he reflects on his reasons for following a man like Manus, muses: “My mother sat alone all those evenings. She never held my hand” (180). With no hand to hold, Jack turns outwards to look for purpose and meaning, finding those things in what he sees as a call to duty for his country. For Jack, duty is not a negative obligation, but rather a simple necessity of life. He scolds Helen: “One day, mother, your ivory tower will fall down. Then where will you be? Then you’ll have to ask questions […] answer questions […] draw conclusions” (135).


Johnston largely limits Helen’s interactions to other men – namely to the British veteran, Roger Hawthorne, and Damian, a young man her son’s age, both of whom offer insight into her son’s desire to serve, as well as his struggle to find a voice and masculine identity. Damian mediates between Helen and Jack by recognizing both of them not only better than they can recognize each other, but also better than they can recognize themselves, making him perhaps the most understated character in The Railway Station Man. With startling insight, he dissects the way in which men like Manus are able to prey on men like Jack’s vulnerability. Manus’s power, Damian says, is to make you “feel alive, relevant. Manus knows that” (146). Whereas Jack feels left adrift in the relationship with his mother, Manus can provide Jack the “binding commitment” Jack feels it is “dangerous” to be without (48). However, Helen does not learn from what Damian has said, and cannot register her son’s vulnerable position. She tells Jack, “Oh no. I didn’t begin to understand [Dan] until after his death. I certainly never recognized his fear” (56). Because she is unable to empathize, Helen will not understand Jack until much later, just as she could not understand her husband until after his death.


Roger also understands the call young men feel to serve their countries. He says to Jack, “my education, that is, my formal education ended somewhat abruptly at the age of eighteen. I was misguidedly led to believe that my country needed me” (28). Roger had craved direction in the crucial years between his life as a schoolboy, which lead to his future as a young man of the nation. He feels betrayed because his sacrifice did not procure a permanent place for him. Roger says, “They sew you together, mind as well as body and try to make you acceptable to society. Be thoughtful of the feelings of others. Don’t show people your scars. Be a good brave boy” (29). He feels as though he must be made “acceptable” to society, rather than having society be shaped by his involvement. In other words, even after he fulfills what he thinks is his masculine duty, he still must change for society, instead of having any effect on it. Jack cannot hear this lesson, but must unfortunately discover it for himself when he decides to save Roger, thereby placing personal relationships over ideals.


Helen resists his marriage proposal for fear of losing her sense of self, as she did during her cohabitation with her husband. Helen discovers, however, that autonomy and love are not mutually exclusive when she confronts her feelings for Roger. When Jack catches Helen and Roger after their love-making, he is at first horrified and resents the couple for sharing a love that Helen could not share with his father. Although Jack may not yet have adjusted to his mother’s feelings for Roger, he wishes him no harm. Aware of Manus’ plans for a bombing, Jack attempts to stop Roger leaving the house in order to keep him out of harm’s way. In the process, however, both Roger and Jack are killed in the explosion. The explosion shakes the house, so that this act of violence collapses the public and the domestic space. The blood sacrifice here is not a sacrifice for the nation, but rather one for family and for friendship, since Jack risks and loses his life to try and stop a needless death. Jack, however unwittingly, reshapes the meaning of his participation by privileging private relationships over his sense of public duty.


Though she first resisted his demand for engagement, Helen realizes after Jack’s death that she “[has] to have exposure not to become some sort of a mad woman locked into an ivory tower, pointlessly punishing [her]self for so many years of sloth. [She] must see them [the paintings] now in the hands of other people, see their eyes consider, explore, reject. Note the interest or indifference. Is it possible that for a moment they will recognise [her] existence” (52). Now that she no longer has Jack to validate her existence via motherhood, she needs to find another way to link herself to the world. For Helen, this connection comes in the form of her art. Damian’s perception, extending to Helen, allows him to recognize that in Helen’s art, “‘It looks like [she is] trying to teach [her]self something. It’s like a school book’” (106). He foresees the way Helen’s art, as intellectual exercise, will become a lesson in communication and meaning – Helen’s engagement as well as resistance. Here, Johnston rejects a totalized anti-social approach, instead redirecting self-identity into communities not defined by nationalist discourse.


Whereas in life events seem meaningless or needless – as in the needless deaths throughout the novel, in art Helen is able to “expose some truth” (136). The reflective nature of painting – both in the way it mirrors life and the way in which it allows her to self-reflect – allows the canvas to act as “a magnet drawing out of her head an implacable coherence that she had never felt before. Each stroke had its purpose, its truth” (109). By “drawing out of her head” her feelings and thoughts, the canvas thus also allows Helen to “belong to the world” and to “record for those who wish to look, the pain and joy and loneliness and fear that [she sees] with [her] inward and outward eye” (186). Just as with Joe’s blossoming poetry, those expressions she could not render visible beforehand, that she could not share with her son through direct communication, become available through the medium of Helen’s paintings.


Underwriting the focus on family and blood kinships in nationalist, patriarchal ideology is the notion that “normative conceptions of time and relation give permanent (even if estranged) connections precedence over random (even if intense) associations,” emphasize blood relationships over all others (Halberstam 72). Johnston’s fictions reject domestic stability and the narratives it would proscribe by allowing alternate kinships to have as much influence over individuals as blood relationships. Jack’s death does not lose its power because of Helen’s relationship with Roger but is given new meaning in light of it. Helen’s lesson is not to make Kathleen’s mistake of knowing nothing to resist making decisions, but rather to transform her process of negation into an opportunity for self-reflection as well as exploring and exploding the system underlying relationships and responsibilities. As Toni O’Brien Johnston and David Cairns argue, “suffocating conventions must be disregarded for the sake of producing new insights” (2). Rejecting an isolationist perspective, Johnston uses the ruptures caused by anti-social feminism to open a space for new relationships to flourish and to redefine conventional relationships.


Works Cited


Bruzelius, Margaret. “Mother’s Pain, Mother’s Voice.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Lit 18.2 (1999): 215-233.

Dalton, G.F. “The Tradition of Blood Sacrifice to the Goddess Eire.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review (1974): 343-354.

Fromm, Erich. Love, Sexuality, and Matriarchy: About Gender. New York: Fromm International, 1997. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Johnson, Toni O’Brien, and David Cairns, eds. Gender in Irish Writing. Philadelphia: Open UP, 1991. Print.

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Laila Khan is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Her interests are war and trauma studies, particularly in the long nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Currently, she is working on the literary impact of the French Revolution on British Romanticism.



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