“Magdalene versus the Nation”: Ireland as a Space of Compulsory Motherhood in Edna O’Brien’s Down by the River

  • Sara Gerend


Early twentieth-century Irish literature repeatedly foregrounds the figure of the mother as central to the construction of the Irish nation. In the moving verses of Celtic revivalists and the patriotic poems of literary nationalists, the mother emerges as an icon equal to the future contours of Ireland. On the brink of Irish independence, William Butler Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916” urges the country to recite its heroes’ names as a mother would call to her sleeping child. Yeats writes, “That is Heaven’s part, our part / To murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child / when sleep at last has come.”2 His comparison emphasizes that Irish motherhood and Irish nationhood are inseparable entities. Both play vital roles in changing the course of the country’s history. However, the metaphor also suggests that the mother is the primary “part” that Irish women should play in the independence movement. The valorization and idealization of the female subject as a selfless protector of children prescribes motherhood as the patriotic goal for Irish women. While men may fight and be remembered as individuals in the country’s historical memory, women often function solely as unnamed maternal entities who reproduce and raise Ireland’s masculine citizens. Instead of viewing women as participants in the public realm of nation building, literary nationalists construct the ideal Irish woman as a mother confined to the domestic sphere.


Irish Woman National Space Irish Nation Crisis Pregnancy Eighth Amendment 
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© Sarah Hardy and Caroline Wiedmer 2005

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  • Sara Gerend

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