Bruce Stewart, ‘At the Heart of Irish Atavism: “A Fatal Excess”’, in IASIL Newsletter Vol. 5, No. 1 (April 1999)

[Note: The article was published in print-form to all members and also launched on Internet in the first electronic edition of the Newsletter.]

No work of literary art since Seamus Heaney’s “Bog Poems” more insistently stresses the character of Irish culture as the outcome of atavistic feelings than Marina Carr’s latest play By the Bog of Cats(Abbey, October 1998). Besides the galvanic performance that it elicited from Olwen Fouère - repeated to hardly less effect on radio - its huge success at the Abbey box-office was due in part to the finely-judged amalgam of realism and expressionism supplied by Patrick Mason, whose direction of Frank McGuinness’s Carthagians (1988) it recalled at several points. A different kind of similitude might be sought in Eugene McCabe’s novella Death and Nightingales (1992), set at the time of the Invincibles and the most likely source for a melodramatic killing perpetrated in a boat; yet most of all - and in a degree that hints at profound exchanges between the playwrights - Carr’s theme resembles McGuinness’s and it is no coincidence that Carthage Kilbride, the central male character, is so-named.

The Abbey Programme Note was written by McGuinness, who has been attending to Carr’s work for some time. On a previous occasion he called her ’a writer haunted by memories she could not possibly possess, but that seem determined to possess her’, going on to remark that ’her characters die from a fatal excess of self-knowledge’ (The Dazzling Dark: New Irish Plays, 1996). This is not literary criticism in the ordinary sense so much as a missive from the imaginative chamber where By the Bog of Cats has been conceived. Even more revealingly, his programme note now speaks of it as ’a play whose philosophy is that Carthage must be destroyed, but what happens to the destroyers?’ Surely this laden and unwieldy sentence conveys a definite conception of the Irish import of the classical tag that Plutarch attributed to Cato - delenda est Carthago.

In spite of his name, however, it is not Carthage Kilbride whose nemesis prowls the Bog of Cats but Hester Swane’s, the ’tinker’ who is the mother of his child. When she declares ’vicious war’ on him it becomes clear that she herself is the thing requiring to be destroyed. Hester acknowledges as much in one those flights of purposeful malapropism that recur so often in contemporary Irish drama: ’They’re trying to eradicate me’, she cries. Here is the language of ethnic cleansing rather than individual tragedy and, accordingly, almost everything in the play can be read by the same allegorical lights. Hester Swane (swanswain - perhaps even swine, as in Gaderine) embodies the autochtonous principle of Irishness-mythic, marginalised, and explosive - that fuelled the literary revival and the independence movement. Having scarified the Roman in us that stands for civic order - as Elizabeth Cullingford has shown in relation to McGuinness and Friel (PMLA, March 1996) - it must be eliminated from the political process. Yet so intimate is the Irish state in its origins with the anti-civic principle that to extirpate it is to kill one’s other half: hence Carthage Kilbride’s appalling surname as it strikes the anglophonic ear. As to why he bears a first name more appropriate to Hester (or why she is bears the name of Swift’s women and Hawthorne’s heroine), Wilde put it best of all: ’each man kills the thing he loves’ - indeed, that which destroys is often the same as that which is destroyed.

Viewed in this light, Hester is a proxy for the political violence upon which the Irish state was founded and which is now in process of being jettisoned as we move from rurally-based Catholic-nationalism towards civic ways of feeling more appropriate to the cosmopolitan attainments of the Celtic Tiger. Carthage Kilbride himself is caught at the very moment - perhaps the ’postcolonial moment’ - of exchanging the frieze-coat of the rebel for the ’mohair’ jacket of the entrepreneur. It is the Ghost Fancier and harbinger of death, played by Pat Kinevane who sports Victorian clothing - to all appearances the self-same rig he wore in the recent revival of Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn. Yet Carthage’s success is based on the tutelage he received from Hester while still her lover: it was she who made him a free man rather than a wage slave. Now he is about to marry a strong-farmer’s daughter while Hester is to be driven off her farm into a house in town, like a traveller forced to settle down.

How remote from her real nature is the new life proposed for her can be seen at beginning of the play when she sets about burying the sodden body of a black swan that she has dragged on stage. Soon the ’cat-woman’ - a zoophagous Kathleen ní Houlihan played by Joan O’Hara - informs Hester that the swan and she are two creatures whose lives have been set to the same tragic clock, having lain together in a swan’s nest for reasons that no realist interpretation of the narrative remotely compasses. At the conclusion - which McGuinness rightly characterises as Greek in tragic feeling - forces within Hester (which she hails as ’more than blood’), drive her to kill her daughter Josie and herself, though not before she has burned a herd of cattle in their byre in the spirit of a frenzied Land-leaguer. ’Would someone not save me from myself before I do worser?’ is her chilling plea. By the time the play opened in the Abbey in October, worser had taken place in Omagh.

Hugh Carr, the playwright’s father and keen amateur dramatist, worked for many years as a clerk at the Court House in Dundalk. In that same building Paddy Devann was sentenced to hang for leading the Ribbonmen in an attack that resulted in the burning to death of a family barricaded within their house in October, 1816 - an unspeakable act memorialised by William Carleton in “Wildgoose Lodge”. By the Bog of Cats speaks out of the heartlands of an Ireland haunted by Irish atavism but speaks to the heart of the new Ireland also, and it is this anomaly that give point to Frank McGuinness’s question. Do those who seek to eliminate the strain of identitarian passion of Irish political life become heartless citizens of an anodyne modern state? Is such a passion indispensable to the Irish literary imagination? Is Irish romanticism fatally entwined with political melodrama? Or vice-versa?

 

 A radio production of By the Bog of Cats was broadcast with the original cast on Easter Sunday 1999 (RTE/FM2). “Dealing with the Dead”, a lecture given by Marina Carr at the Peacock Theatre in July 1997, appeared in the Irish University Review, Spring/Summer 1998, pp.190-97pp.

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