Richard Kearney, Myth and Motherland [Field Day Pamplets, No. 5] (Derry: Field Day Co. 1984), 24pp. [0 946755 06 X].

Commences with a comparison of prisoners and poets as those who go beyond the normal discourse of a society; ‘Both refute the current consciousness of reality by invoking something else which precedes or exceeds it, which remains, as it were, sub-conscious or supra-conscious./In Ireland, this “something else” often finds its habitation and its name in myth. Thus in our literature, we find a poet like Yeats repudiating the “filthy modern tide” of contemporary reality in deference to the sacred mythologies of the Celtic Twilight. Yeats hoped to provide a cultural identity transcending the colonial and sectarian divisions which so blighted out national life.’ (p.7)

Draws on the definition of myth as ‘sacred history’ in Mircea Eliade; Virgil; tradere = carry across.

The opposite of piety is secularity.

Cites Trilling’s distinction between sincerity and authenticity; Orwell’s Brotherhood as a perversion of myth, or collective enslavement to secular abstraction; Emmanuel Levinas; Rudolph Bultmann, ‘demythologisation’ of belief; Jütgen Moltmann.

The IRA’s ideology of martyrdom inverts what goes by the name of normal logic … and subscribes to a mythic logic which claims that defeat is victory, part is present […;] it is a highly structured and strategic method of combining contraries which secular reason [9] keeps rigidly apart. The IRA’s ideology is sacrificial to the degree that it invokes, explicitly or otherwise, a “sacred” tradition of death and renewal which provides justification for present acts of suffering by realigning them with recurring paradigms of the past and thus affording these acts a certain timeless and redemptive quality.’ (pp.9-10)

Cites MacSwiney; reports on exploitation of myth of sacrifice by prisoners in Long Kesh and the comforts of the Mass [11]

Distinguishes ‘a basic polarisation between the mythologising form of politics which interprets the present in terms of a unifying past (sacred tradition) and a demythologising form of politics which interprets the present in terms of a pluralising future (Secular progress).’ [13]

In our literature [there are] two opposing tendencies. One led by Yeats sponsored mythology. The other, including Beckett, Flann O’Brien, and Joyce, resolved to demythologise the pretentions of the Revival in the name of a thoroughgoing [13] modernism; it endeavoured to liberate literature from parochial preoccupations with identity into the universal concern of language as an endlessly self-creative process./Yeats offered the myth of Mother Ireland as spiritual or symbolic compensation for the colonial calamities of historical reality. The mythological Mother would restore the lost national identity by calling her sons to sacred rite of blood-sacrifice … since reality told a story of division and dispossession, Yeaets replied with answwring symbols of unity and self-possession.’ (&c; pp.13-14).

Quotes Pearse: ‘If we once admit the Irish-literature-is-English idea, then the language movement is a mistake … Against Mr. we have nothing personally … [&c.]

Account of Beckett’s repudiation of symbol and myth; account of Joyce’s partial repudiation of symbol and myth.

‘In Ulysses, Joyce uses one kind of myth to demythologise another. Molly, for example, is the antithesis to the ‘Mothers of Memory’ which Stephen identifies with the paralysing ‘nightmare of history’. Her passionate affair with Blazes Boylan contrasts with the self-sacrificing Virgin of Mother-Church; she hasn’t a word of the Mother-Tongue; and she commemorates the sensual Andalusian maidens of Gibraltar rather than the Celtic Goddesses of the Mother-Land such as Róisin or Caithlín. Yet Molly is both mother and memory - as the final soliloquy testifies. And as such she does achieve the proportions of a mythic figure whose double commitment to the particularity of everyday experience and to the universality of European mythology (she is identified with Penelope in line with the Greek myth of Ulysses) enables her to demythologise the stereotypes of our tribal myths. As Joyce explained in a letter to Valery Larbaud: “Penelope has the last word”. By playing mythic archetypes off against mythic stereotypes in this way, Joyce was suggesting that we can be liberated from our pre-established narratives of identity without capitulating to the modernist cult of solitary individualism. What Joyce found attractive about the Greek mythology of Ulysses (Bloom) / Penelope (Molly) / Telemachus (Stephen) was its foreigness - its ability to offer us alternative models of universality whose very otherness to our native models would enable us to redefine our experience in a new way, in a way untrammelled by the restrictive pieties of the motherland. Accordingly Molly is for Joyce a distinctively Irish woman precisely because she has been freed from those clichés of Irish womanhood which would have prevented her expressing herself as she really is. And yet by identifying [18] her with the open-ended mythic model of Penelope, Joyce is allowing this Irishwoman to be Everywoman. In short, Joyce seems to be saying that myth is good when it openes the familiar to the foreign and is bad when it reduces the foreign to the familiar./Of course, this in no way reflects a bias against Irish mythology per se in favour of Greek mythology. (… &c.; pp.17-18.)

In the name of national Revival, Pearse sought a return to the foundational myths of our identity, to a sense of rootedness in the past which would allow us to make the break with the “alien” culture of colonial Britain which had uprooted and alienated us from our original sense of ourselves. (p.18)

Is it possible that such mythic idealisations of Irish womanhood might be somehow related to the social stereotypes of the Irish woman as pure virgin or equally pure son-obsessed mother? In the historical evolution of our religious ideology we witness a shift away from the early Irish church which was quite liberal in sexual matters and assigned an important role to woman, to a more puritanical religion which idealised woman as an other-worldly creature of sublime innocence. And it is perhaps no accident that this shift coincided in some measure with the colonisation of Ireland. The more dispossessed the people became in reality the more [20] they sought to repossess a sense of identity in the realm of ideality. Since the women of colonized Ireland had become, in James Connolly’s words, the ‘slaves of slaves’, they were, in a sociological sense at least, obvious candidates for compensatory elevation in the realm of myth and mystery? The cult of female virginity surely contributed to this sublimating process of purification. Woman became as sexually intangible as the ideal of national independence became politically intangible. Both entered the unreality of myth. They became aspirations rather than actualities. Thus it might be argued that a sociological transposition of Irish women into desexualised and quasi-divine mothers corresponds somehow to an ideological transposition of Ireland from a Fatherland (the term an t-athardha was used to denote Ireland in much bardic poetry up to the 17th century) into idioms connoting a Motherland. As psychoanalysis reminds us, the mother has always been a powerful unconscious symbol for one’s forfeited or forbidden origins.

This idealised myth of Irish womanhood was reinforced in the late nineteenth century by a certain counter-reformational leaning in Irish Catholicism towards a cult of the Virgin Mother (mariolatry) witnessed in the rise of confraternity and abstinence movements which championed the virtues of self-sacrifice anci sexual purity. Indeed it is interesting how elements in the Irish Hierarchy which offered women little or no power in ecclesiastical reality - increasingly came to identify Ireland as a virginal Motherland which could best be served by safeguarding our native purity of ‘faith and morals’ against the evil influence of alien cultures. “To betray these ideals of national purity was, as Bishop Harty of Cashel remarked early in the century, to ‘bring shame on the Motherland’. The more colonially oppressed the Irish became in historical reality the more spiritualized became the mythic ideal of the Motherland. One need only compare the redemptive Mother Eire of 1916 - the decently-clad Caitlin who preferred her sacrificial sons and lovers dead than alive - with the barebreasted carnal maiden of the French Revolution’s Republique. In short, Caitlin was less a living creature of the worldly present than a mythic memory of an other-worldly past.

But the most important overall factor in the development of our myths of motherland remains, arguably, the political colonization of Ireland. After the plantations of the 1 7th century, Ireland became more frequently identified with a vulnerable virgin ravished by the aggressive masculine invader from England: the Sasannach. In the Aisling poems of the 18th century the suppressed or ‘hidden’ Ireland was personified as a visionary daughter or spéirbhean threatened by the alien Sasannach. (Or inversely, following the same logic, as a shameless hag - meirdreach - who lifted her skirts for the invader’s pleasure). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the passive daughter seems to assume the more militant guise of a mother goddess summoning her faithful sons to rise up against the infidel invader so that through the sacrificial shedding of their blood, she might be miraculously redeemed from colonial violation and become free and pure again - that is, restored to her pristine virginity of language, land and liturgy. Is it conceivable that the evolution of our myths of nationhood narrates some sort of transition from fatherland (athardha) to daughterland (azsling) and to motherland (Caitlín na hEireann), which obliquely mirrors the history of our political unconscious? If such an hypothesis were tenable - a matter for the scholars to decide - it could suggest that the indentification of ‘colonized’ Ireland as [21] celestial daughter or mother, represents a symbolic projection of a prohibited sense of self-possession. Dispossessed of a present, might not our poets have sought their national identity in ildeaised “female” personifications of a pre-colonial past or post-colonial future? (pp.21-22.)

Insists on necessity for Imagination and reason, mythos and logos ‘Siamese twins of the mind’ [23]

It is our dujty to discriminate between the authentic and inauthentic uses to which mythos is put in our culture. For if myth is often a response to repression, it can become repressive in its own right.

What is required is a radical interrogation of those mythic sedimentations form our past and those mythic aspirations for our future which challenge our present sense of ourselves, which disclose other possibilities of being. And this interrogation ultimately rest upon the ethical necessity to distinguish between myth as an open-ended process which frees us from the strait-jacket of a fixed identity; and myth as a [23] closed product which draws a magic circle aroundthis identity excluding dialogue with all that is other than ourselves.

Without mythology, our hopes and memories are homeless; we capitulate to the mindless conformism of fact. But if reversed for its own abstract sake, if totally divorced from the challenge of reality, mythology becomes another kind of conformism, another kind of death. We must never cease to keep our mythological images in dialogue with history; because once we do we fossilise. That is why we will go on telling stories, inventing and re-inventing myths, until we have brought history home to itself. [END]

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