In her essay “Stifled Back Answers,” Margot Norris cites from “The Dead” to mark the role of women in Dubliners, whether courting or married. Her examples include “…the men that is now is all palaver and what they can get out of you”; and “That’s a nice husband for you, Mrs. Malins.”) (480). The status of a Dublin deb is not lofty. Many critics accept “The Dead” to be a capstone of the collection, reprising themes from the preceding stories. The treatment of Dublin’s women by the patriarchy in “The Dead” resurrects the theme from “A Mother.” Mary Reynolds finds Dublin society to be a construct like Dante’s Inferno, a “venal ruling establishment” insisting on conformity. She accuses Mrs. Kearney of the great sin of “fomenting discord” (Miller 350).
Charity in Dublin is a delicate business, particularly for women. A socialite may approach ineffectual Holohan with a decanter and a silver biscuit barrel, but afterward, that socialite needs to adhere to a complexity of unwritten rules. Dictating rules is the province of men like Holohan. His name rises from the Irish ûallach, meaning scattered but also proud (Jackson and McGinley 132), a combination difficult to navigate. Fitzpatrick, Secretary of the Society, equals Holohan as a clown and organizational vagrant. He is absent in the face of work but magically appears when conditions suit him. Mr. Fitzpatrick offers “a white vacant face” (Joyce 235) that belies his duplicity. As a Committee gentleman, he makes necessary decisions. The Committee decides to schedule too many performances for the talent available. It decides to boost attendance with free tickets (Joyce 239) and to break the contracts with powerless artists. Then it resumes invisibility assigning earnest, enthusiastic-faced Miss Beirne to handle objections from the abused artists. Her little “screwed” mouth turned vicious when faced with objections. Beirne enforces the delicate rules for women– do detailed work, follow orders without question, and never discuss financial matters. Mrs. Kearney recognizes it would be imprudent to demand the identity of the full “Cometty,” secret as the Illuminati. Like Lily in “The Dead,” Mrs. Kearney “stifled her ‘back answers'” (Norris 480).
Many years after their nuptials, Mrs. Kearney and Greta Conroy have assumed comfortable married lives. Their husbands are as formidable as the institutions of colonialized Dublin. One husband mirrors the General Post Office; the other, after taking his education at the Royal University, now teaches and writes for the institutions of occupied Dublin. Mrs. Conroy married above her station, although the Conroys resisted the match; Her counterpart had accepted a disappointing suitor “out of spite” (Joyce 231). Miss Devlin’s suitors were so unsatisfactory to her that she “console(d) her romantic desires by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret” (Joyce 232). As a Galway convent girl, Greta found her life’s love in Michael Furey, losing him to tuberculosis. Despite disappointments in love, both wives settle into marriages. Without a name or an identity of her own, Mrs. Kearney always transforms into an institution: She mirrors the Catholic Church: “she offers wine and biscuits,” “slips doubtful items between the old favorites,” insists on payments, and excommunicates rule-breakers (Tindall 37). But for all their disappointments, the wives are faithful partners to their husbands, like Mrs. Kearney’s namesake, Annie Devlin, who suffered torture rather than betray Robert Emmet (Torciana 198).
Disappointed brides accept compromise grooms, respectable and prosperous providers. This was Edwardian Dublin’s way. Perhaps the appeal of these particular suitors was that they are somewhat timid in the face of female opposition. Mr. Kearney is likely to be cowed by his wife’s instructions. Although Gabriel callously marks his aunts as “two ignorant old women” (Norris 492), he buckles under confrontation from Miss Ivors and Polly’s bitterness over sexual manipulation (Miller 355). Irish bachelors customarily delayed marriage until they are financially secure. Kearney has made his fortune dedicating himself to making boots. Torciana likens him to the solitary cluricaun, the “withered” one-shoe-at-a-time cobbling (and thus old-fashioned) leprechaun (Torciana 197). Conroy is himself overly concerned with footwear in his obsession with continental galoshes. His caution compares poorly with Greta’s first lover, who died after serenading her in the rain (Norris 491).
Merely satisfactory and less than satisfactory substitutions shape these two stories, with “A Mother” emerging from Joyce’s experience at the Antient Concert Performance on August 27, 1904. Ellmann might have done more to clear the mist that surrounds the characters and actual Dubliners who inspired them (151-152). He tells us Joyce practiced for his performance at the home of Eileen Reidy, but on the night of the performance, Reidy left the stage after the first performer and did not return. Ellmann later interviewed Reidy but fails to report why she deserted (Miller 368). Ellmann adopted Holloway’s account of the concert and identified Olive Kennedy as the Dubliner who presented as Kathleen Kearney (Torciana 188). Joyce intended to sing “The Croppy Boy,” but the replacement accompanist could not play the tune after several attempts. He improvised and accompanying himself, changing songs to meet his instrumental repertoire (Ellmann 168).
Tenor Joyce’s performance at the Antient Concert Rooms put him in the company of John McCormack and J.C. Doyle. McCormack had not yet achieved great fame, but the caliber of performers during the 1904 concert was more consistent than the Eire Abu Society’s fictional event. In “A Mother,” high-quality performances intersperse with amateurish ones, a strategy intended to prevent early exits. According to caustic Kathleen Kearney, one sub-standard performer dug up for the occasion was faded, meager Miss Glynn (Joyce 244). In “The Dead,” Aunt Julia reprises the performer Hayman called an “apparition” ((123). Best days past, the elder Morkan is befuddled and as spectral as her counterpart. Hovering near the old women are the images of moribundity, Hoppy Holohan in “A Mother” and Browne in “The Dead.” Loud talking advocates of “the decanter and the silver biscuit-barrel,” the Angels of Death are ineffectual, unable to staff a concert or even hail a cab.
Betrayal is a common thread woven through Dubliners. Julia Morkan’s banishment from the choir loft by the Pope echoes the betrayals of “An Encounter,” “Counterparts,” “A Painful Case,” “After the Race,” “The Boarding House,” and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” In “Two Gallants,” Lenehan walks a trail past a score of local monuments to national and personal treachery. Meanwhile, he waits for another betrayal of the slavey by Lord Corley. In “A Mother,” a gender-entitled dismissal of Mrs. Kearney is executed by grandiloquent O’Madden-Burke. He gratuitously turns on Mrs. Kearney to repay the Committee for his welcome to the room where the manly porter and stouts hide. But the freelancing writer’s condemnation of the Kearneys is not gender-conspicuous. He hides behind the skirt of a female member of the Eire Abu (“I agree with Miss Beirne,” said Mr. O’Madden Burke. “Pay her nothing.”) (Joyce 252). Miller says, “Speaking of payments breaks social codes of silence” like speaking ill of the Pope’s decisions” (357), and misdirection hides his sexual snub. For his gender, he is unreproachable, but Jackson and McGinley call O’Madden Burke another like Lenehan- a “sponge and idler”(Jackson and Mc Ginley 129). Torciana calls him a “talented failure” (196).
The O’Madden-Burkes have a history of betrayal. The clans betrayed each other and other relationships that could turn for profit or political advantage. More surprising is a betrayal by Kathleen’s friend and nationalist partisan companion, Miss Healy. The leverage relied on by Mrs. Kearney dissipated when Healy “kindly consented” to replace Kathleen at the keyboard. As a replacement accompanist, she endorsed a woman’s role as discardable and replaceable. Miss Healy has flirted with betrayal since the company assembled at the concert hall. Her flirtation with Hendrick is literal, hoping to improve her career prospects. He enjoys her attention without disclosing that he would not be writing any coverage of the program. Her next collaboration in the man’s game is her wish to abandon her friend Kathleen for the group that gossips against her. If the O’Madden-Burke family names predict betrayal, so does the name Healy. It was Tim Healy’s defection that struck the fatal blow to Parnell. In “The Dead,” it is Father Healy who dismisses Julia from the choir.
Stanislaus Joyce tells us that only two stories in the collection rely on events of his brother’s life (62). Joyce also engaged in a brief flirtation with Irish language studies. This became a secondary backdrop to “A Mother.” William York Tindall thought that pan-European Joyce thought the Irish language movement provincial (37), but Norris pits the author more broadly against Dublin’s patriarchy and provincialism.
Joyce’s text, as art, reproduces the social ideology that devalues female talent and depreciates female art. But Joyce inscribes into the oppressive discourse of his narration a “back answer” that will be stifled, to be sure, but that at least manages to write in the clearest, most factual, historical terms the formal institutionalization of the abolition of female art. (Norris 498)
Kathleen’s sole defender among the performers seems to be timid, slight Mr. Bell, who, like Joyce, won the Bronze Medal at the Feis Ceoil nationalist music competition (Ellmann 151-152). This may have been done merely to draw attention to Joyce’s performance. It’s also possible that Joyce’s role in the story reinforces his low regard for the lazy machinations of the Dublin old boys’ regime.
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce, Oxford University Press, New York. 1983, pp. 151-152, 168.
Hayman, David. “A Mother,” James Joyce’s Dubliners: Critical Essays, edited by Clive Hart, Viking Press, 1969, pp. 122-133.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Enhanced Media, 2016, Retrieved July 23- July 25. 2021.
Joyce, James. “A Mother,” James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Illustrated Edition with Annotations, edited by John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley, St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 122-134.
Joyce, Stanislaus. My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years, edited by Richard Ellmann, Da Capo Press, 1958, pp. 61-62.
Miller, Jane E.” ‘O, She’s a Nice Lady!’: A Rereading of ‘A Mother’,” Scholes, Robert and A. Walton Litz, editors. James Joyce’s Dubliners: Text and Criticism. Penguin Books, 1996, pp. 348–372.
Norris, Margot. “Stifled Back Answers: The Gender Politics of Art in Joyce’s ‘The Dead.'” JSTOR, Modern Fiction Studies, 1989, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26282998.
Tindall, William York. “Dubliners.” A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959, pp. 36-38.
Torchiana, Donald T.” ‘A Mother’: A Ourselves Alone,” Backgrounds for Joyce’s Dubliners, Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 188-204.