(Re)Producing Identity and Creating Famine in Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You

By Mara, Miriam O’Kane


Nuala O’Faolain’s novel My Dream of You connects the Great Famine and contemporary women’s status in the Republic of Ireland. Her narrative structure juxtaposes an embedded story from the 1840s with the main story arc, set in contemporary Ireland, relating the legacy of the Great Famine both to postcolonial attitudes about food and eating and to women’s limited political roles in the Republic. The text presents mirrored female characters from the famine-era Big House and the mid-twentieth century to create a gendered association between the eras. This textual strategy of spiraling from the Famine to more recent oppression of women provides insight into Ireland’s obsessive control of female reproductive ability. O’Faolain’s text repeats images of land, fertility, food production (and consumption), women’s bodies, and reproduction, suggesting a link between the failure of the land to produce food and the need to control unruly female bodies. Women’s bodies and their fertility become ciphers for the health of Ireland, rather than spaces for individual consciousness. Finally, O’Faolain’s text questions the outcomes of such symbolism.

Keywords: Great Famine, Irish women, My Dream of You, Nuala O ‘Faolain, Republic of Ireland

So I put the two things together, home and the Famine, and I used to wonder whether something that had happened more than a hundred years ago, and that was almost forgotten, could have been so terrible that it knocked all the happiness out of people.

-Nuala O’Faolain, My Dream of You (6)

I am in agreement with him not only about historical fiction but fiction per se. Humbug is indeed the mot juste.

-Nuala O’Faolain, My Dream of You (331)

Scholars have studied the Irish Potato Famine and its literary portrayal, creating a narrative about famine. New representations of the Great Famine in Irish literature add depth to these depictions, however, building on the narrative with contemporary viewpoints and alternative opportunities for reading hunger. In her recent novel, Nuala O’Faolain provides just such an alternative reading by connecting the Famine with women and feminism in postcolonial Ireland. O’Faolain writes a column for the Irish Times and has published two memoirs, including Are You Somebody? which spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. More recently, O’Faolain gave the keynote address at the general meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame in April 2005-a demonstration of her rising status in Irish letters.1 An analysis of O’Faolain’s novel My Dream of You (2001) indicates the Great Famine still affects women by subtly justifying state control of their bodies and fertility and by sustaining a masculine nationalist discourse. O’Faolain’s text explicates how the Famine (and its repercussions) affects women differently than men. In other words, the legacy of the Famine complicates and exacerbates postcolonial Othering of women in modern Ireland. Margaret Kelleher notes in her important study The Feminization of Famine: “This association of women’s experience with a crisis in representation can have various results [. . .] it also may produce a much more constricting role, with women as ‘bearers of meaning, not makers of meaning'” (6). She connects the Famine and its representations to limited roles for women and their circumscription in the creation of Irish identity; O’Faolain creatively extends this work in her novel.

In My Dream of You, O’Faolain creates a rich story intermingling the narrative of a twentieth-century woman with the tale of a 1840s woman to investigate the famine and its effects on Ireland. Through her weaving of narratives from 1840s and the 1960-90s, O’Faolain’s novel makes manifest the interconnectedness of history and the history of the Famine with women’s experience in postcolonial Ireland. Comparing the moments in time and the lives of women from these eras, she exposes the relations between the Famine and the gender roles it reinforced and created. By showing how famine becomes feminine, she both exposes and displaces Irish nationalist discourse about identity. In juxtaposing nationalist modes of thought and speech with stories about women’s experience, past and present, O’Faolain’s text performs the effects of memories and symbolic consequences of the Great Famine, which constrain (but also support) women’s creation of Irish identity

In My Dream of You, O’Faolain’s Irish-born protagonist Kathleen de Burca has exiled herself to England to become a travel writer. As the story begins in the 1990s, she responds to the death of her best friend and colleague Jimmy by returning to Ireland to research and write a historical novel. Kathleen’s story intertwines with that of her novel’s subject, Marianne Talbot, an actual woman from the famine years who allegedly had an affair with an Irish groom in the West of Ireland.2 Kathleen visits a remote section of County Mayo planning to investigate the details of the court case in which this woman was accused of adultery, and her work composing Marianne’s story is interspersed throughout the text.

This story-within-a-story structure presents one way that O’Faolain’s text develops the theme of the Famine’s lasting influence on gender issues. The weaving of historical narrative into the contemporary story seems another example of the living effects of history in Ireland, but it also serves an important structural function. O’Faolain’s text allows the narrative of the past to change direction in retellings. As new information about Marianne’s divorce case comes to light during Kathleen’s research, she revises her developing novel. Such rewriting suggests an unreliable narrative, a shifting story without prevarication or misleading intent from its creator. In addition to highlighting history’s influence on contemporary Ireland, the text’s configuration also reverses that influence to show the present’s effects on the story of the past. O’Faolain’s entangling of past and present indicates the constructed nature of history and the importance of the present day to the representation of the past. Her protagonist’s continuous revision and reconstruction of the embedded story represents the difficulty of looking to the mid-nineteenth century for authority. In focusing on the ways that history is constructed and refashioned, the text hints at the difficulties of knowing history and of identifying authentic Irish identity. By using an actual historic event and continually retelling that event, O’Faolain indicates the importance of history to fiction, but also the importance of fiction to history. She highlights the ways history is fiction.

In the historical court case from the 1840s that Kathleen has traveled to Ireland to research, the wife is accused of and later admits to adultery. Kathleen knows little else about the case, and she creates a narrative around these few facts. Her attempts to discover the truth reflect the multiple histories of the Famine, where some information survives, but filling in must be done. As Kathleen slowly builds Marianne’s story, it interrupts her own life. Additionally, the entire interpolated story becomes self- referential as the reader watches Kathleen struggle to create a historical story from fragments of documents. Despite the lack of information, Kathleen attempts to develop the identity of Marianne in an effort to unearth the real woman. Kathleen’s personal life leaks into the narrative she composes, and she tries to write into it an understanding of her new passion for Shay, a married businessman who lives in London and travels to Ireland frequently. When Kathleen includes details from her own love affair with Shay in the text she composes, the entire narrative seems naked and vulnerable. Kathleen’s attempt to fill in historical holes highlights the constructed nature of her narrative, and it resembles the attempts to reconstruct identity in Ireland years after the Famine.3 These obvious metanarrative moments allow the reader to view the discursiveness of the writing process, but also to question the narration (of famine).

For stylistic reasons, this movement back and forth between the two narratives makes a stronger text. The motion between the stories allows them to inform each other and complicate the mostly linear narrative arc. The novel grows out of the interaction between times and characters who seem completely unrelated, but become, somehow, part of each other. Of course, the movement between the two stories shows Kathleen’s identification with Marianne. The doubling, then, allows O’Faolain ultimately to tell one whole story of women’s experience by allowing the two narratives to converge.

By reacting to the Great Famine (1845-48) in particular, O’Faolain’s narrator provides another insight into why accessing the past is so difficult. The Famine represents a turning point in Irish history; it depicts the site of loss, when old ways were destroyed. In 1846, the recurring problem of potato blight (phythopthera infestans) spread through Ireland to leave potatoes rotting in the fields. As a result, Kiberd recounts, “[A]lmost a million people died from starvation and associated disease [typhoid]: and, in the same decade [ 1840s], one and a half million emigrated” (21). Ireland l\ost considerable population during the nineteenth century, and that change alone reshaped its history. The modern protagonist Kathleen de Burca speaks to the complexity of such a tragedy: “Yet the Famine and the destruction of rural Ireland had been experienced only a few generations back. There were people alive whose grandparents had lived through those years” (76). O’Faolain’s character reminds readers how the Great Famine hastened “the destruction of rural Ireland.” To her, the famine years were times when people were moved and removed from the land, and their going meant that the rural heritage was forgotten and lost. O’Faolain’s character, Kathleen, agrees with Declan Kiberd that the Great Famine ended the last vestiges of Gaelic, rural, “traditional” Irish culture. By moving people from the farmland into the cities for the workhouses, or out of Ireland entirely through emigration and death, the potato blight and resulting famine ended some of the old traditions and practices, especially the common use of the Irish language.

Yet, that ending of tradition becomes the space for trying to find it, and the Famine becomes a touchstone for an essential Irishness. By interrupting Kathleen’s search for identity with a story of starvation in the Famine era, the text presents the quest for an Irish identity leading back to the Famine. The questions that direct Kathleen to Ireland after the death of her friend revolve around love and passion, but they include Irish identity. In her explanation to herself, she claims, “And Ireland-well I certainly wasn’t going to live in Ireland. Though Ireland was on my mind in a way it never had been before” (20). Her midlife crisis guides her to the story of Marianne and, with that, to the event that changed and shaped Ireland, the potato famine. Kathleen’s quest for definition in her own life intensifies her search for information about Talbot in tandem with her need to tell a story of the Famine. The structure of interpolating past into present provides a lens through which one can read the importance of the Famine.

The Great Famine permeates the text as a source of identity in a several ways. To begin, the Famine connects to the appropriation of Irish women’s self-understanding by reproduction. Through repetition of reproduction and fertility images and stories in both narratives, the text suggests a connection between the barrenness of the potato crop during the years of blight and the rigid control of women’s bodies in the early Republic from its formation in 1922 through the 1950s. Popular imagination, poets, and nationalists construct or envision the land as a woman, “Mother Ireland;” Mireia Aragay calls it “this native tradition of allegorizing and idealizing ‘both the physical reality and the political identity of the [colonized] land as female'” (54). If this land/woman must produce food the way that women must (re)produce sons, then during the Famine that feminized land becomes an unruly female body. In “The Great Hunger” Patrick Kavanagh’s narrator devotes himself to keeping the land fertile and productive, rather than marrying a woman. Edna O’Brien, too, names the country Mother Ireland in her book of the same title. As Susan Bordo theorizes, “denial of self and the feeding of others are hopelessly enmeshed in th[e] construction of the ideal mother” (118). In Ireland, Bordo’s understanding of women’s bodies as vehicles for nourishment of others, but not themselves, recurs. The betrayal by the land through the potato blight creates the need to discipline and control the female body (the land) because the unruly land/body did not produce food for the Irish people. In the wake of these pressures, Ireland feels the need to regulate women’s bodies, especially their fecundity and reproduction.

The theme of reproduction, women, and the land appears in the final scenes, in which Kathleen’s fictional rendering of Marianne Talbot’s story ends with a turn away from Marianne herself. The historical narrative includes a scene with Marianne’s alleged lover, Mullan, who has immigrated to the United States. In it, an Irish woman, also a famine immigrant, reminds him of the effects of starvation on reproduction: “None of the women had any children for years, after, she said. The women didn’t get enough food! I was the same-my bleeding stopped for two years after the hunger” (517-18). The final pages of the novel reconnect the starvation with reproduction, but this time in the normal order. Rather than the womb causing the starvation and privation of women, the starvation of the women during the famine years creates amenorrhea, or absence of menses. The unproductive, infertile land created a situation of unproductive, infertile wombs and the lack of children, but in O’Faolain’s novel, the reader sees multidirectional circumstances. Here, the problematic system of valuing women only as mothers creates a situation of starvation for Marianne during the 1840s and for Kathleen in the twentieth century. As Kathryn Conrad points out, the Irish Constitution exchanges “mother” for “woman,” making “mothers the only women the state deems worth acknowledging” (73). It raises the question of appropriate roles for women and respect for them as whole people rather than simply for their (re)productive and nourishing (breast-feeding) abilities. O’Faolain’s story both uses and questions the metaphor of land as woman with its attendant anxiety about the fertility and (re)productive capacities of each.

In the narratives of the past and the present, events revolve around reproductive issues. Marianne marries Richard Talbot and gives birth to a daughter, Mab, and they move to the West of Ireland in 1847 after the death of Richard’s uncle, owner of a large estate there. Although the text leaves Richard’s origins unclear, the estate may have originally belonged to another branch of the prestigious Talbot family. O’Faolain’s choice of a famous family name highlights the ways the Anglo-Irish interjected themselves into Irish life. Once O’Faolain’s Talbots arrive in Ireland, Marianne’s alleged mistreatment and starvation at the hands of her big house husband occur because she cannot give birth to a son. A record asserts that Richard must have a male heir to inherit the house and land in Ireland. This document provides some reason why he might underfeed and harass his wife: “He had to get a legitimate male heir. And the only way, at the time, that he could divorce an innocent woman was if he somehow made her admit to adultery, and then fleshed out the confession with testimony from suborned or hired servant witnesses” (O’Faolain 341). Marianne’s infertile female body represents the Irish land, which like Marianne Talbot has coupled with the English invaders and subsequently refused to bear potatoes. Of course, Richard never considers that the fertility problem may be his. He mistreats Marianne because she does not produce a son, and her situation reflects the land’s starvation and refusal to produce progeny or food.

The starvation and enslavement of these women because of their gendered function within the reproductive cycle seems to be the connecting point for the two time periods in O’Faolain’s novel. The idea that Marianne’s problematic fertility prompted abusive treatment resonates with Kathleen. She recalls an incident years ago when her own mother’s reproductive capacity allowed patriarchal power structures to hasten her death. At that time, a Catholic hospital and an overbearing husband refused to treat her mother’s uterine cancer because she was pregnant. Mrs. de Burca had delivered four children and endured several miscarriages before she developed cancer, but that productivity was not enough. In the Ireland of this text, the systems and the men around them rob women of autonomy and try to reduce them to manufacturing children.

Kathleen does not hold back in her castigation of Irish culture and women’s suffering. She explains: “[M]y father was a Catholic good ol’ boy, and he never stopped making my mother pregnant. I got out to England, I told him, when I saw that Ireland was run according to the rules of the Catholic Church and that the Catholic Church was based on pushing women around”(158). O’Faolain’s narrator states the case clearly. In a moment when the text comes close to didacticism, O’Faolain allows the bitterness of (fictional) Irish women to speak to the reader. Clearly, the reader is meant to learn from the text. The connection to the history of the Famine of the 1840s as a touch point for the disturbing control of women keeps the text from moralizing.

The clearest accusation is made against the Republic’s restrictions on birth control and abortion. Kathleen relates her mother’s agony and death as a result of those rules. She must explain the situation to her brother, who does not understand:

The hospital was Catholic. It would not do anything that might harm the baby. It would not terminate the pregnancy. It would not give radiation therapy. It would not administer morphine in a volume that might have an adverse affect on the fetus. The baby must thrive, even though the cancer [and the pain] would thrive with the baby. (490)

In Ireland, the woman’s welfare may be secondary to the baby’s. In this way, a pregnant women becomes less than a person; she loses autonomy. Kathleen lashes out at these attitudes: “[T]hem and their unborn babies! I choked. Them and their rules for the womb! I could accept that she’s dying, if she wasn’t screaming in pain” (492). Her mother’s pain and death mean nothing, if she does not fulfill her function of (re)producing children. The Irish Republic’s original constitution states that the importance of women’s roles as wives and mothers preempts any inclination to work outside the home. It states: “In particular, the State recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the commo\n good cannot by achieved” (Bunreacht na h ireann). Such rhetoric comes to life (death) in this instance of woman with duty to family and home. A woman’s duty as mother goes as far as death; she is merely a receptacle, a carrier of fetuses. Like the potentially infertile land, women’s bodies must be controlled to ensure (re)production.

O’Faolain refuses to be one-sided by recognizing the tender side of the reproductive cycle. Kathleen critiques the outcomes of the Republic’s laws about birth control and abortion, but she also sees the wonders of creating and nourishing a life with only one’s body. She wishes at times for that opportunity: “I wanted-an intense, incoherent, sexual longing surged up through my bodyto both feed, and be fed. And there was no chance” (372). Kathleen thinks about the reproductive cycle of intercourse, childbirth, and nursing as a sensual whole, providing a hopeful alternative to the limiting conception of mothers as producers and feeders with no right to demand nourishment for themselves that Bordo identifies and critiques. Although medical tests indicate that she will never conceive, Kathleen wishes in this moment to be a mother. As an infertile and unmarried woman, Kathleen may have missed the opportunity to reproduce, but she longs for that cycle of nourishment. The text returns to a lovely perception of mother as provider of nourishment through breast-feeding as the originary food and sustenance.

At the same time they seem to identify limitations and abuses, the stories of women and their personal trials with reproduction interrupt the narrative of nationalism. Whereas the masculine conceptions of the Famine connect it to nationalist ideals and the importance of an independent Ireland, the incidences of mothers, wombs, and childbirth undercut that one-sided understanding. In the final days of Kathleen’s stay in Ireland, she watches her new friend Bertie’s infant grandchild learn to walk. She rejoices at the love and simplicity of the scene: “And I felt as if I had crossed a threshold, too. To be absorbed by watching a child learn to walk! Me! To have arrived somewhere where I knew people who taught children to walk!” (404). Her newfound appreciation of children counters much of her frustration with women’s predicament. In this instance of acknowledgment, Kathleen forgets about Ireland and Irishness. She calls her surroundings “somewhere” and revels in her own humanity. The repetition of fertility and reproductive themes takes away from the totalizing plot of Ireland’s rebuilding and focuses on individual humans and their experiences. O’Faolain’s text seems to offer the life cycle and especially women’s stories of childbearing as a counterpoint to masculine identity-building through nationalism.

Interestingly, an older woman, Nan Leech, who never married or bore children, but instead became a librarian, becomes Kathleen’s mentor. She appears out of place in a text where women seem supposedly doomed, because she built a career and a life outside the home, alone. Yet she provides a fascinating foil for Kathleen’s mother, and the other women in the text who have been ruined by marriage and/or motherhood and starvation. As her name suggests, Nan brings new blood to Kathleen’s emotional wounds, allowing her to heal.4 Both Kathleen and Leech represent career women whose lives are uninterrupted by the duties of motherhood or marriage. Their stories, too, stories of women who do not procreate, become important testimonies to other options for women and provide hope for the roles of women in Ireland. By suggesting the power of women as readers and writers, the text again destabilizes what seems to be the essentializing of women as mothers, providing another disruption to nationalist discourse and reproductive imagery. Instead of (re)production as the only model for women within or outside a nationalist dialogue, O’Faolain’s text proposes another creative, rather than procreative, space for women. Yet the text includes no characters who combine the roles of successful career with motherhood in a meaningful way.

Despite the importance of mothers and the imagery of Mother Ireland, the actual power in the narrative accrues to men behaving with blatant paternalism. The fathers’ needs and wants supercede any opinions (or even pain) of women. Kathleen remembers how her father asserts his authority over his wife’s body, when Mrs. de Burca is dying in hospital. Mr. de Burca shouts at Kathleen: “I’ll say it just once. That’s my child, the same as you are. That child has as many rights as you have. Your mother is my wife. Your mother and I were married in a Catholic church and please God we’ll be buried in a Catholic graveyard” (495). The crazed man’s impassioned speech neglects any mention of the mother’s rights. It appears that Kathleen’s mother has none or deserves none; the system does not grant her control over her own medical care. Mr. de Burca seems to regard her as his property, which he may move about as he wills, preferably into a Catholic graveyard. In fact, both Kathleen’s mother and her potential sibling die. Mr. de Burca’s will over the woman he calls “my wife” and the rules of Church and country for his wife (her first name is never mentioned in the novel) prevail. In fact, the patriarch ignores her screams of pain, the only communication or speech she has left. The system he upholds limits women’s speech to physical acts of breeding and carrying children into the world.

In addition to controlling the female body, the father’s word disciplines the mother’s relationship to her children. Mrs. de Burca cannot control who visits her as her death approaches. Instead, her husband bars Kathleen, her college-age daughter, from seeing her critically ill mother: “Then he nodded to the security guard they’d put outside the door of Mammy’s room. That’s her, he said, pointing to me. She’s not to be let in anytime” (495). Mr. de Burca requests a guard to keep Kathleen away from her own mother, and the word of the father is law. In an interesting parallel, Mrs. de Burca’s final days mirror those of Marianne, whose husband takes her young daughter away, and dispatches Marianne to England, driving her insane. The rule of the English landlord Richard Talbot is replaced with the rule of the father, in this case Mr. de Burca, but the outcome is the same. In the text’s duplication of stories, the theme of the patriarchy’s cruel control recurs.

Although the legacy of the potato blight seems linked to control of women’s bodies, I also want to extend this analysis to connect the Famine-as a particular moment within the colonization of Ireland- to the problem of nationalist rhetoric in the Republic. The text suggests that the legacy of starvation influenced the creation and construction of the Republic. The Famine becomes one space in the history of colonial abuse in Ireland that distills nationalist discourse. Through their neglect, the landlords and capitalists from England let potato blight become a desperate crisis. They removed remaining foodstuffs and used the famine to gain control of more land so the Irish can heighten their accusations of the British as oppressors. As William Rogers affirms: “While the potato crop was failing, the country was still exporting a great deal of food to its neighbors” (244).5 The Famine constantly reminds Irish people of the starvation and travail of those years and of the inappropriate action or nonaction of the British government during the potato blight.6 Declan Kiberd notes: “pervading all was a sense that this [Famine] was the final betrayal by England” (21). Other writers such as Elizabeth Cullingford have made the connections clear between the political life and the construction of identity, especially during the Irish Renaissance ( 1 ). Republicans and nationalists formed their vision of Ireland partly in response to both British behavior during the Famine and to the helplessness created by the potato blight, sickness, and death during the 1840s. Their conservative conception of the new Republic limits and constrains the autonomy of women.The Famine reinforces the habit of thinking about Ireland and its history only in terms of nationalism and masculine narratives: stories of (male) resistance to British rule and later (male) creation and protection of the Republic.

Additionally, starvation makes people physically weak and desperate, a “womanish” fate. Postcolonial psychologist Ashis Nandy claims that the colonial narrative about colonized people includes representing them as feminine, childlike, and in need of the directing and controlling hand of the masculine colonists: “Colonialism, too, was congruent with the existing Western sexual stereotypes and the philosophy of life which they represented. It produced a cultural consensus in which political and socio-economic dominance symbolized the dominance of men and masculinity over women and femininity” (4). By equating weakness and femininity with the indigenous, the colonizers naturalized their rule. During the famine years, the Irish become even more “feminized” by their conditions of starvation and the resultant physical weakness. As once strong people are reduced to begging, any chance for autonomy seems erased. After the Great Famine, the Irish people must counter another aspect of the colonial narrative about them, that starvation makes them unworthy of self-rule. Opposing this accusation included a turn to masculine discourse, privileging male stories and attitudes, countering colonial sexism with their own masculinist tradition, and using what Partha Chatterjee names “derivative” language. The Famine represents the period in which the Irish become preoccupied with both starving and control over their fate. The discourse of nationalism in Ireland stems, in part, from the loss of that control during the Famine.

O’Faolain’s Kathleen finds modern responses in Ireland tothe Famine include this intense anger at the colonizers for allowing them to starve. Irish people often focus on the ways the English profited from the famine. Even Kathleen notes: “The landlords and their agents had taken the opportunity the Famine gave them to clear the land of people-hunting them out as they fell into hopeless arrears with the rent” (O’Faolain 74). The speaker feels the traditional anger toward the interlopers; research by Laxton and others recounts that the landlords paid for passage to Canada or the United States rather than resorting to more expensive remedies that might keep Irish people on the land, supporting Kathleen’s emotional response. The potato famine becomes a symbol for the fact of colonization. Physical starvation, then, serves as metaphor for the Irish being starved of land ownership and autonomy, and their starvation in terms of autonomy helps create the dialogue of nationalism.

As Kathleen describes her father’s reactions to the Famine remembered from her childhood, we see the hypermasculine attitude prevalent in nationalist discourse: “The only feeling he showed about the Famine was rage against England. There was no pity in him. He didn’t imagine to himself the people who stumbled out of this watery, secretive landscape” (75). Kathleen recognizes her father’s rationalization to hate the English, but she indicts his refusal to really help the community or feel pity for them in their poverty. In this tradition, the famine represents not just a grievous historical event but also a poignant example of England’s colonization of Ireland and its ill treatment of the indigenous people. Kiberd quotes an old peasant adage: “God sent the potato-blight, but the English caused the Famine” (21). The totality of invasion, annexation, oppression, reduction, and limitation as well as the refusal to admit responsibility, the exportation of foods, and the additional theft of land during the blight crystallizes colonial experience within “The Great Hunger.” The novel highlights limited understanding of the Famine by critiquing such attention only to the evil usurpers who hastened death and emigration, but never thinking about the individuals and communities who died or left.

The Great Famine shapes reactionary attitudes, and control of the land receives primary attention in its wake. Building and sustaining the new Republic, gaining mastery over Ireland, becomes the focus in this nationalist mind-set, and O’Faolain’s text bears out that focus. In the novel, Mr. de Burca relishes his role in the Irish civil service and underscores the responsibilities of his civil service job and his life away from the home and family. Clearly this important capacity overshadows any work that might be done in the home, as the elder de Burca claims: “I am a member of the civil service of the Republic of Ireland-a servant, you might say, enrolled in the defense of the state on the civil side, just as an army man is on the military side” (O’Faolain 129). The protagonist’s father continues to view his life and his role through protection of the country, not his family or his local community. He wishes to defend Ireland rather than deal with the everyday realities of life. This obsession with creating and defending the nation seems a response not just to postcoloniality but also to the special circumstances of the Famine. The stated defense of the nation as identity belies the other roles that are available to men just as mother undercuts other roles for women.

Nationalist discourse in Ireland includes an insistence on reinstating the Irish language. By law, it became a required course in schools, and Gaelic place names now appear on road signs in the Republic. O’Faolain’s nationalist character, too, evinces this tenacity on Irish language usage. Kathleen describes her father’s insistence on using the Irish language when possible: “This was one of the most boring things about him I thought, not for the first time. If the name of any place gets mentioned he puts it back from English into Irish, and then starts telling all and sundry what the Irish words mean” (208). Her father’s insistence on the understanding of old names and meanings seems a nuisance to her young mind. Echoing sentiments of Brian Friel’s play Translations, Mr. de Burca focuses the loss of culture into the almost complete eradication of the Irish language. Yet even this focus on recovering the Irish language relates directly to the famine. As Declan Kiberd notes, Ireland changed markedly after the famine, with the language dying with starvation when it would not die from the laws (180). The emphasis Kathleen’s father places on language and the importance of Irish is another attempt to right the wrongs of not just British occupation but also of the Famine itself. The Famine reifies the occupation and gives it a moment with which to attach. It becomes a symbol for the ways that, over centuries, England starved the Irish of their land, their dignity, their freedom, their language, and finally their identity. The Irish Renaissance in the early twentieth century and the Eamon de Valer era celebration of a Catholic peasant Ireland, long after it was gone, were attempts to construct or possibly re-create an Irish identity felt to be lost during the years of occupation, but especially during the Famine.

O’Faolain’s portrayal of Kathleen’s father becomes a caricature of the men of this time. His speech is peppered with Republican propaganda: “Daddy started on a monologue about the native culture that was lost with the defeat of the chieftains at Kinsale and how new forces were massing against Ireland to destroy it” (128). With the nationalist mentality, Kathleen’s father focuses on the continuing threat to Irish culture, a culture he (but not the text) seems not to understand has been constructed. The energy goes to nation-building and nation-sustaining even when that energy might be better spent in other ways. Indeed, there is no admission that the Republic is perfectly safe, that England had no interest in an attempt to retake it. One wonders if he means modernity or urbanism (realities both welcomed and denied in Ireland) in his threat of “new forces.”

Kathleen, too, turns to this important event to try and capture identity, but her response is less overtly nationalist. Indeed, the Famine permeates her thoughts about Irishness: “I cannot forget it, I thought, yet I have no memory of it. It is not mine; but who else can own it?” (76). For Kathleen, the Famine represents a touchstone, a way of being Irish, of connecting with a place and a people who do not otherwise seem hers. Although she clearly does not understand what happened, Kathleen focuses on her access to that particular part of Irish history. Through the dehumanizing events of those years, she can get past her anger at the ultraconservative, hypermasculine government of Ireland in her childhood and teens, to the people and the lives underneath. It becomes an identity builder for her, too, but not an idealized, constructed identity. During her research, she visits the old workhouse:

I left the car and walked up the lane to the high wall that had once been a wall of the workhouse. When the lane was empty for a moment of its usual queue of cars, I pressed my hands until they hurt against the flinty stones. God knows there were tragedies bigger than I could even grasp. Huge, collective griefs, as well as millions and millions of personal ones. (430)

Her manner of performing Irishness mourns the actual people, the individuals who were starved, rather than simply mourn the culture or sovereignty that was lost in the process. For Kathleen, identity involves connections with real people and communities or their memories rather than a loyalty to a nation.

In addition to tension between community and larger political contexts, the text highlights Irish attempts to read the land itself for identity, similar to Americans turning to the Western “wilderness” as a space for understanding the American psyche. Kathleen learns that the Famine is not always the empty place in the cultural memory. The text provides spaces where contemporary places reflect the damage of the Great Famine. She describes those places: “I saw what he was pointing at. There were wide deep ridges, all across the field, under the topcoat of grass. Undulations. Lazy beds, he [the local guide] said. For growing potatoes. Famine ridges is what they’re called” (134). The physical markers of the Famine and the starvation, like marks on the human body, remain. The ridges show places on the side of the road where people had attempted to grow food, when they had been evicted and had nowhere else to farm. Like the small holes or caves in the cliffs where the starving people had lived, the ridges are tangible reminders of those years.

They mirror the famine road in Connacht, which Eavan Boland describes in “That the Science of Cartography Is Limited.” Boland writes of the physical markers: “I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass / rough-cast stone had / disappeared into” (7). Those stones, too, remind the speaker of the years of loss. Kathleen’s discovery of the ridges calls attention to the land’s inability to produce enough food, showing the marks of fecundity and its lack. Part of the novel’s design seems to be an acceptance and admission about the Famine from Irish people. Although the text acknowledges blind spots in the way some people avoid talking about the Famine, many characters in the novel speak openly of it and here recognize the scars on the landscape that act as reminders.

In these admissions about the Great Famine, O’Faolain’s text responds to the conflict between idealized Irish identity and the needs of real Irish women in her creation of two unlikely symbols for Ireland, Kathleen and Marianne. Indeed, Kathleen’s willingness to indulge her appetites, both sexual and gustatory, and he\r postmodern late-twentieth-century approach separate her from the image of idealized Irish femininity and motherhood. Part of that estrangement from Ireland includes the inability to maintain a romantic relationship or to reproduce, but at the same time, Kathleen assumes the mythic overtones of her name. Her lover calls attention to its legendary heritage: “You look like a Kathleen, he said. You have curly hair. Do I look like a hungry Kathleen? I said” (O’Faolain 144). O’Faolain’s choice of “Kathleen” links her main character to Mother Ireland itself, partly because it refers to W. B. Yeats’s play Cathleen Ni Houlihan.1 The play includes a character named Cathleen who shifts from an old woman to a young girl with “the walk of a queen” (9). The woman claims, “Some call me the Poor Old Woman, and there are some that call me Cathleen” (9). In another Yeats play, The Countess Cathleen, the eponymous character sells her soul to the devil during the Famine, so the starving peasants will be fed and live. With mythical predecessors like these connecting her to Ireland and the Famine, Kathleen carries symbolic importance. Kathleen’s real human appetites prevent her from completely becoming a symbol, but through her name she represents Ireland.

The focus on creation, construction, and destruction of Irish identity in the novel shifts, when Marianne’s story represents famine quite nontraditionally. Marianne, in turn, becomes Kathleen’s complement, succumbing to both passion and starvation as Kathleen has never done. In a fascinating move, O’Faolain’s text implicates the English landlord in starving his own wife. Kathleen’s research results in discovery of another historic document suggesting that Richard seriously underfeeds his wife. Kathleen reads the testimony of Marianne’s maid, who claims: “she has complained to me of the want of proper nourishment” (O’Faolain 339). With this new information, O’Faolain’s doubled narrative complicates the trope of the starving Irish woman. Margaret Kelleher shows that the images used to represent the Famine are women: “the dry-breasted mother unable to feed her child, of a woman unable to bury her child, of a mother torn between the competing claims of her children, or of a child suckling the breast of its dead mother” (2). Here the traditional representation of a starving Irish peasant woman who cannot nurse her child becomes the proper English woman in the big house.

Marianne’s abuse and undernourishment represent not just the lack of autonomy in women of contemporary Ireland, but through the doubling with her potential biographer Kathleen, she paradoxically also represents Ireland itself. Artists and writers often represent Ireland as a woman controlled and ravished by the male invader or as the poor old woman/young temptress from Yeats’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan, sometimes called Mother Ireland. In O’Faolain’s text, the starved and abused wife of a big-house landlord illustrates the absurdity of the tired tropes. Her complex story refuses her simple categorization as Mother Ireland, the feminized and ravished colony; Dark Rosaleen; or the Scan Van Vocht. Instead, the depiction of an enslaved or mistreated English woman in Ireland reinvigorates and reifies the trope of Ireland as woman, making it even more problematic.

Usually the propagandists of nationalism use the Countess Cathleen, or old woman Ireland trope as a call to patriotism. Yet in this text, Richard destroys Marianne, accusing her of adultery, taking away her child, and hastening her descent into insanity. The text purposefully conflates the young temptress and old woman Ireland with the mad woman in the attic. No young men could be persuaded to follow such a confused symbol to their death (as Cathleen Ni Houlihan in Yeats’s play calls Michael away from his wedding, presumably to fight and die for Ireland). Instead, Marianne represents a somewhat sad and ridiculous figure of confused national identity, casting doubt on the Irishness of Ireland.

If the Sean Van Vocht is, in this case, British, her use as a symbol undercuts the language of nationalism. Marianne does not die with a baby at her dry breast; instead, she returns against her will to England. O’Faolain’s text explodes the constructed nature of using female symbols for traditional Ireland by inventing whole, complex women who do not easily fit as simplistic emblems. Marianne, in particular, proves difficult to categorize, because the information concerning her life, marriage, and alleged adultery remains uneven, and the reader never learns whether she did have an affair with Mullan, the Irish groom. The instability of symbols indicates that perhaps patriotism, republicanism, and the image of Ireland on which de Valer insisted do not serve the purposes of contemporary Ireland. Perhaps the “derivative discourse” of the new Republic creates a situation that is poisonous for the Irish, especially the women (Chatterjee). Of the major women characters in the novel, Irish and English, many of the ones who marry (Mrs. de Burca, Kathleen’s friend Caroline, and Marianne) lose themselves either physically or mentally in the confines of marriage. Marianne loses touch with reality, indicating that the weight of representation, the role of “bearer of meaning” (Boland, qtd. in Kelleher 6) becomes confining. These women do not fit perfectly as flat symbols or personifications of Ireland; they need independent roles to sustain them.

Yet, Marianne seems partially an analogue for both the political body of Ireland and for the body of land. Kathleen questions hunger and its effects on Marianne’s psyche. She imagines the starvation:

Since I came back to Ireland I’ve thought about the condition of hunger over and over again-about whether it goes on hurting, or whether, after a phase of desperately eating roots and berries and rotten potatoes, you lie down, and indifference comes. Never, never did I think of a lady in a Big House being systematically underfed! (O’Faolain 339)

Here the commentary on starvation and subjection comes full circle. Because she is a woman, Marianne remains as much a slave to her husband the landowner, as the Irish tenants who live on his land. Richard may behave to his wife exactly how he pleases, including restricting her access to food, but she is expected to love him as well as obey him. She cannot easily leave or take her daughter, Mab, with her, because the child belongs to him legally. She has no power in her situation, just as the Irish people have no power in theirs. Marianne becomes the symbol of the body of Ireland starved by English unconcern, but she also embodies Irish femininity, in her efforts to eke out a life under the yoke of patriarchal structures. Mirroring his treatment of the local Irish peasants, the English landlord reduces her options to her role of wife and mother, reviled for her supposedly disobedient female body.

Marianne inhabits the space of the Big House, but she does not own it. Like the Irish people who inhabit Ireland but no longer own the land, her husband constricts her autonomy. Her presence there is the result of her marriage (an Act of Union) to Richard, who brought her to Ireland, when he inherited the property. Kathleen makes another comparison between Mrs. Talbot and the starving peasants: “That half-expiring, barefoot, ragged beggar could have had in common with her a gnawing in the stomach under her fine clothes” (339). Both of them suffer hunger, but the text hints at the other similarities. Marianne and the beggar are both at the mercy of the English landlords, the only people with any available money or food. In her musing, Kathleen asks herself how it could possibly feel the same to be hungry, if an individual have the benefits of living in large estates and wearing nice clothes. Marianne’s hunger may mean the same thing as the rest of the Irish people starving, or it may mean something new, a new symbology. Comparing her to them creates new questions about identity and power.

O’Faolain’s complex mimicry turns the starvation onto the oppressor, too. Her text turns Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of colonial mimicry on its head; in this novel, the colonizer, in the form of Marianne, mimics the colonized through starvation (rather than the other way around), when gender enters the dichotomy. Not only does Marianne serve as a metaphor for Ireland starved by the oppressor, but she also represents England starving itself. Marianne comes to Ireland from England, and there her own husband becomes her enemy, starving her. Later, he takes away her identity as wife and mistress of the big house by divorcing her and sending her away. In this way, the text implicates the English in starving themselves by overextending the British Empire in the colonies. The fascinating figure of the lady of the house, who is treated like a menial or an indigenous creature, creates the pivot on which both stories, the past and Kathleen’s present, revolve. She is the space where mimicry become menace as Marianne becomes like the Irish, because she allegedly takes up with a colonized Irishman and her English master starves her, and yet she is unlike them, because she is English. Although her name and background mark her as British, her gender disrupts the difference between colonizer and indigenes, further extending the possibilities of mimicry.

In the matrix of shifting identities in this text, Marianne’s daughter takes up a hybrid space. In part of Kathleen’s created story about the Richard and Marianne, she gives young Mab the ability to speak Irish, a skill she learns from the servants. Mab’s hybrid nature, born of English parents and raised in Ireland, becomes artistically even more composite with her bilingual ability. Importantly, this Famine-born hybrid remains in Ireland when her mother is sent away. If Marianne subtly represents Ireland, Mab can be read as the Irish people after the Famine, offsp\ring of the Famine itself. The text embraces the possibilities of this hybrid population by remaining silent about the character’s future. In the same way, Ireland’s hybrid future appears limitless.

In her mixed identity, growing up in Ireland, but coming from English parents, Mab’s name resonates with the legends of Queen Mab, also known as Maeve and Warrior Queen Medb of Connacht in the Ulster Cycles. In the Cuchulain saga, the Tin B Cuailgne, Queen Maeve is the “masterful, boasting, wilful” warrior woman, who ruled Connaught; she also demanded equality with her husband (Reynolds 13). In the supernatural version, Queen Maeve diminishes to Mab, the deliverer of sleep to mortals, whom she runs over with her carriage (Colum 42). In O’Faolain’s novel, we do not hear the rest of little Mab’s story, but her name’s connection with Queen Maeve/Medb may suggest a better model for women to come. In her mixed nature, Mab provides a space both for those who emigrate and the ones who stay.

Kathleen’s process of building/constructing an Irish identity for herself comes from writing about an English family in Ireland during the famine. Although she travels back to Ireland from her life in England, ostensibly to study the historical circumstances of the Talbot affair, she live in a series of private homes, reestablishes contact with her family, replays the early years of her life, takes an Irish lover, and explores her Irishness in many ways. In the same way that Irish identity and nationalism inappropriately respond to the former colonizer, her narrative of the Famine centers on an English woman. Yet her attempts to create a story about Marianne and Richard end abruptly. She cannot find enough reliable information to make a cohesive report about Marianne Talbot and her life. She leaves Marianne in England; despite new information that creates additional questions about Marianne’s affair, Kathleen does not try to answer them. Instead, she leaves the work of finishing the story to the reader, leaving space for new understandings about the Famine. In this way O’Faolain’s text allows the Great Famine to remain a space of endless production for identity instead of continuing only as a marker for limiting that identity. Kathleen returns to England rather than continue to try and make sense of Ireland, the Famine, and the circumstances of Marianne’s starvation. She stops attempting to find her self-definition through stories of the past.

Kathleen, like her subject Marianne, returns to England to pursue other avenues with her remaining friends and her career. Rather than staying in Ireland as a mistress to an already married man, waiting for him and always being a supplement to his life, Kathleen moves on with her own life, alone. She cannot or will not reproduce and that fact does not seem to limit or define her. Instead, the reader views Kathleen as a full person with the ability to create and perhaps to have healthy relationships with people. Although she stops writing Marianne’s story that she traveled to Ireland to write, her intentions include writing again. Her failure to produce a novel from the fragments of history reflects the difficulty of assigning meaning to the time in which Marianne lived. That failure also highlights the irony that My Dream of You is itself a novel built from those fragments. Kathleen’s willingness to return to England seems to indicate that finding Irish identity may not be the most important task she has in this life.

In the end, Kathleen’s reaction to learning about the Great Famine moves beyond the traditional embarrassment about and avoidance of the subject, beyond anger toward England, or construction of an ideal Irish past. Instead, she connects the privation of the Famine years with odier peoples and places that experience hunger or famine. She instructs herself: “Take this with you, I thought to myself. This happens now. It happens anywhere people are demeaned by hunger” (O’Faolain 511). Unlike many Irish people who see the Famine as a singular event created by crop failure/disease and made worse by British imperialism, Kathleen recognizes that starving happens in other parts of the world and in other circumstances. Many of the places that face famine and deforestation and encroaching desertification8 were also former colonies, but for this realization, the hunger and the misery become more important than the policies of colonial powers that exacerbate them. O’Faolain suggests, as James Joyce does with Stephen Dedalus and even Bloom, that one become a citizen of the world rather than just Ireland. She perhaps proposes an expanding Irish identity that looks outside of the Irish/English (and female/male, colonized/ colonizer) dichotomies to something larger.

In My Dream of You, the structure and subject of the text suggest that any reference to starvation and control of food is political, gendered, and overdetermined; writing about the Famine is also a political choice, a way to question assumptions about the direct wounding of Ireland. O’Faolain’s choice to link her famine story to the fate of three women highlights the links between food, control, and postcoloniality as a burden on women. During the Great Famine we see the moment at which the land, described as undisciplined, nonproducing feminized body, and the cruelty of the colonizers come together to destroy the Irish social body, Irish identity, and millions of Irish people. It becomes a touchstone, not just for Irish identity but also for the challenges for women in modern Ireland. Yet, the text moves beyond linking the Famine to all women’s issues. If the discourse of nationalism provides Irish women with a limited means of power by producing children, this text provides an alternative, which is an international imaginative production, not inherently physical or essential. Including alternate voices of professional women in a text bemoaning women’s traditional roles, O’Faolain gives women in Ireland another option. The novel rejects paternal influences such as England and the Catholic Church, giving Irish women a chance to speak for themselves.




1. I would like to thank O’Faolain for her positive feedback on the draft of my manuscript during that conference.

2. The court case she investigates is historical. O’Faolain points out that her citations are “verbatim quotations from original source material relating to the Talbot divorce case, which is an actual event.” The novel is hybrid-both factual and fictional.

3. Critics of the Irish Renaissance including Elizabeth Cullingford and Declan Kiberd comment on the construction of a Celtic style and imagery by writers such as W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. As Kiberd points out “The Irish self, by contrast, was a project and its characteristic text was a process, unfinished, fragmenting” (120). Kiberd notes the purposeful nature of the Nationalist project, calling Yeats a “professional Celt” (128).

4. Leeches, in truth, depend on their hosts for sustenance, literally sucking their blood. Yet as medical practitioners have long known, they keep a wound from receiving new blood, not allowing it to coagulate. They can restore circulation to areas that need that healing nourishment.

5. Rogers goes on to document exports using other studies that attest to the amounts and types of food removed from the island during the Famine, including corn, “other grains,” and “various types of livestock” (244). see Rogers (235-45). see also Kinealy, 96- 116.

6. Whether the British landlords acted inappropriately or merely within the bounds of market expectations is a question still to be answered. Yet, the 1997 apology by British Prime Minister Tony Blair about England’s failure to send aid gives a clear indictment of colonial policies during the Great Famine. He stated, ‘Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event” (qtd. in Watt).

7. In Yeats’s play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the title character complains of strangers in her house and of having her land, “her four green fields,” stolen away (7). The four fields are usually glossed as representing the four ancient provinces of Ireland: Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht.

8. In northern and central Africa, the desert dryness and sand encroaches on once fertile land, making it desert because of water misuse and years of drought.


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Miriam O’Kane Mara teaches Irish and British literature at North Dakota State University. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Irish literature, postcolonial and globalization theory, women’s studies, and world literatures. Recent publication venues include Dickens Studies Annual and a collection of essays titled The Current Debate about the Irish Literary Canon.

Copyright Heldref Publications Winter 2007

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