The histories that inform ‘the Troubles’ just will not go away. Instead they linger at the periphery of memory, numinous resonances consistently irrupting upon the material world. The predominantly young female characters in Maria C. McCarthy’s latest collection of short stories, As Long as it Takes, second-generation Irish exiles burdened with shame and guilt, live in the umbra of such histories, bound umbilically to their mothers, yet distanced inexorably from their Motherland. The unresolvable conflicts that lie between Ireland and England, and within the Irish diaspora of the mid-Twentieth century, are what McCarthy’s deceptively slight and delicately intertwined myths articulate.
McCarthy maps the trajectory of a generation of Irish immigrants across the undulating topography of the Flaherty family, distilling along the way the experiences of a ‘lost generation’ of Irish women. The reverberations that follow Maura Flaherty across the Irish Sea, like the echo of distant song, question the powerful hierarchies that McCarthy implicitly charges with responsibility for the abject lives these women lead. Yet, paradoxically, the enforcers of these hierarchies are the women themselves.
Mavis Gallant, the celebrated Canadian short story writer, spoke of her father as ‘the great empty chair’, an absence that, in its immensity, was actually omnipresent throughout her life and writing. Fathers, sons, priests and lost loves are similarly absent in McCarthy’s fiction, yet still, somehow, firmly in control. These men may be feckless wasters, naïve chancers governed by ‘the drink’ and gambling, but it is they, as heads and elders of communities, families and the Church, who fuel and drive the Irish patriarchal model, and it is Irish women like Maura who reinforce that hegemony, adopting and validating its moral and value systems through a pathological fear of sexuality and its consequences. McCarthy writes sensitively and perceptively of the interior lives of these women, charting their problems relating to men and their place in a society in which they are subjugated. Her austere style evokes the spirit of Edna O’Brien whilst never possessing the power to shock carried within The Country Girls, nor sharing O’Brien’s lyricism or fervidity.
Two stories at the heart of the collection feel pivotal. In ‘Cold Salt Water’ Maura’s son, Kieran, returns home from a night out clubbing, his shirt spattered with his own blood, his body bruised and battered. Maura tends to the boy, cleansing his broken body, as the two circle around the unspoken truth lying at the heart of the attack - an act of retribution against the boy’s Irish heritage in the wake of the Guildford Pub bombing. Aroused by the tensions existing between mother and son the ‘Troubles’ resurface. Maura fears the ‘hard stares’ in the greengrocers, yet Kieran’s response is antithetical;
‘Its nothing to do with me, what the Irish get up to […] I ain’t Irish.’ This tension is reconfigured through Maura’s confused feelings towards Kieran’s rejection of his Irish heritage (‘Part of me wants to slap him and the rest of me wants to cradle him’). These tensions construct a liminal space of displaced identity which many of McCarthy’s characters inhabit. Caught between the past and the present, between Catholic and Protestant sensibilities, McCarthy’s characters know what they are not, but not what they are.
McCarthy’s representation of Kieran’s shirt as ‘one of his good ones, a Ben Sherman’, highlights a persistent narrative strategy in this volume; a preoccupation with commodification. Set in a time prefiguring the 80s obsession with designer labels these stories are saturated with references to cultural artefacts and brands of the 70s. This is a world of ‘Juicy Fruit’, ‘Birds Eye Cod in Batter’, ‘C&A’, ‘Mother’s Pride’, Jackie, ‘Matchmakers’ and Charlie, where Crossroads and World in Action (a programme that repeatedly documented the myths and legends of the IRA during ‘the Troubles’) play on TV. When ‘Original Sin’ surfaces from within this palette of cultural signifiers one wonders whether this is a particularly decadent brand of perfume. As a strategy what does this framework of commodification seek to achieve? Not, I think, a device to engender nostalgia and sentimentality; these brands, synonymous with corporate dominance, act as symbols of Ireland’s objectification at the hands of English colonial rule, objects to be retreated from in an instinctive recoil against what they represent. The final image of the story, the tainted shirt submerged beneath salty water, blood slowly seeping from its threads, symbolises the dilution of identity and speaks to both the attempt to dissolve memories of the past and the impossibility of such an act.
A tale of family and broken relationships, ‘Gillian’s Dolls’ is similarly saturated with references to cultural products of the 1970s. But the image of Gillian’s mother ‘crying, rocking backwards and forwards’ leads us into a darker world of domestic abuse where the spectre of depression hovers above women always at the end of their tethers, required to be mothers to both children and husbands. Domestic abuse, more taboo than abortion or original sin, emerges as a major paradigm through which women’s experiences of the 1970s are rendered, perhaps as a result of the introduction of the 1976 Domestic Violence Act. As Sharon eavesdrops upon an argument between Gillian’s mother and father, culminating in ‘a smack, then a whimper’, Gillian’s father’s thinly veiled coercions to Sharon - ‘there’s no need to talk about what’s happened here. No need at all. Do you understand?’ - are loaded with menace. These malevolent utterances expose the culture of secrets and lies residing at the core of the Irish diaspora.
The key to this story lies in the imagery of the Matryoshka dolls, nesting within one another, that Sharon secretly covets. Mirroring the structure and framework of the collection of tales (each composed of elements taken or absorbed from the other stories within which each is, in turn, re-embedded) the matryoshka principle acts as a signifier of the act of mise en abîme. In it’s modern theoretical definition, proposed by André Gide, the term describes the visual effect of standing between two mirrors (England and Ireland?), the act of which initiates an infinite reproduction of one’s image, ultimately blurring that image at the extremes, until meaning (identity) becomes unstable. The literal French translation, ‘placed into the abyss’, is where we may argue Maura’s family find themselves in exile, struggling to maintain a cultural identity amidst a profoundly historical landscape shaped by the seismic events that time has buried though never completely effaced.
Do these stories hold any hope for redemption? In ‘Saturday Girl’, nocturnal visions of a dead friend seem to tentatively offer something like consolation at least:
She’d had dreams, at first, of worms and bones, even though there was nothing left of Lou but ashes. Then the dreams changed to Lou rising like an angel in a white robe with shining skin and brilliant teeth, slivers of gold light radiating from her fingers.
However, McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow. Unlike Mavis Gallant’s characters, who extol the virtue of wit in despair, McCarthy’s young protagonists, caught between cultural extremes, seem to be, as Roger Waters suggests in that archetypal 1970s artefact The Dark Side of the Moon, ‘hanging on in quiet desperation’, a state he asserts is ‘the English way’. Yet these tales of identities and cultures gently eroding in the memory and across time, labyrinthine in their interplay and connected by umbilical threads, offer no possibility of escape from the minotaur that is Ireland.