Maeve Brennan: a centenary more bitter than sweet
Independent Ireland’s patriarchal culture, epitomised by the 1937 Constitution, marginalised strong women like Brennan, a discrimination that continues today
Irish politics did not account for intellectual Irish women such as Maeve Brennan and so naturally she did not influence the cultural expression of Irish identity
Marking the centenary of Maeve Brennan’s birthday is unfortunately somewhat more bitter than sweet. Brennan was born into an Ireland that was experiencing rife oppression and into a family that was at the heart of the cultural and political currency of this struggle. Her childhood and later years, then, were as much informed by an inherent knowledge of the state of national affairs as they were by first-hand experience of the implications attached to them, including gendered implications. Though gendered issues manifested themselves in myriad ways during this fertile period in Irish history a prominent marker was set, regrettably late relative to the height of active war, with the 1937 Constitution.
Bunreacht na hÉireann, enacted in 1937, disregarded the progressive intellectual woman from constitutional Ireland, thus setting up cause for mourning a particular female symbolism we were not afforded. Maeve Brennan both in biographical terms and in the female representation apparent in her literary output is a shining example of this type of missed exemplary symbolism.
Article 41.2 of the 1937 Constitution says that “the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State, a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” The key word here is “obligation”. What are women obliged to do constitutionally? What is it that women ought to be, culturally?
Suddenly, following a relatively genderless acquisition of a Free State, reality changed drastically with constitutional obligations, cultural expectations and religious instructions on what a mother ought to be. Rooting from this constitutional stance on the female, a notable disparity is drawn between the Irish woman and the Irish mother and both are affected in equal terms by the reality and impact of this.
The immediate reality of daily existence for a number of well-educated and driven women changed catastrophically with Article 41.2. This means that questions weren’t answered, ideas weren’t nourished, an educated start in life was halted and an educated woman was muted, many times over. Not only was this woman’s reality so tragically oppressed, it was oppressed in the shadow of national growth and opportunity that was fundamentally patriarchal. The second element worthy of attention is the impact this had, both short- and long-term. The relatively short-term impact of this was that the progressive Irish female voice was muted just as the Irish voice as a whole was beginning to speak, and it was bellowing. The 1920s and ’30s were the most culturally influential times for Ireland. We were writing our nation into existence at this time, whilst simultaneously writing out a crucial aspect. This period saw the foundations being laid for how we identify as a culture and a nation. Literature and theatre of the time were in deep conversation with politics.
It was a politics, however, that did not account for the intellectual Irish woman and so naturally she did not impact upon the cultural expression of Irish identity, and what a sore loss that was. Slowly, we are seeing an integral part of what should have defined the Irish nation slipping out of its identity; and here is where the impact takes hold. Poets and playwrights such as WB Yeats, in writing at a time when Ireland was so culturally uninformed, had immense sway over the national mindset of a lost people simultaneously highly charged with patriotism and in search of relatable cultural expression.
This fertile moment in Irish history when the national mindset was so malleable and impressionable went only one way as women, who would have added to or countered this rigid definition that was being set for us, were silenced. The Irish literary canon was thus set in stone without any authentic representation of this Irish woman in either literary material or literary authorship, though writers such as Maeve Brennan and Dorothy Macardle, a generation above her and well acquainted with her father, are two of many examples.
The impact of this is lasting. We are not talking of an old Ireland when we discuss the rigidity of the symbolic maternal imagery we were afforded: Mother Ireland, grieving Cathleen Ní Houlihan, for it impresses upon us still. Is not the very theatre that housed and fed us Yeats’s image of Mother Ireland in his cultural reimagining of the State the same one that let down its women authors, playwrights and audiences last year, stirring the Waking the Feminists movement? Is not the very Government that constitutionally placed the woman in a domestic realm in 1937 the same that takes equal liberties with a constitutional claim over female bodily autonomy in the Eighth Amendment up until this day?
This is the bitterness of Brennan’s centenary. There is a bitter taste to intellectually provocative and educated woman, in 2016, having to stand outside the theatre that nationally informed this country highlighting a need for redress, having to call for equality in this way. They love this country too, they admire the patriotism of Yeats’s cultural expression as much as you do but their country needn’t be written on patriarchal culture – they are standing outside the theatres and they want a piece of it. They will do wonderful things. There is a bitterness to the fact that the governing systems closed the space, with Article 41.2, for strong-minded women, like Maeve Brennan, to impart some of her boundless potential to influence and that taste lingers now in the mouths of many who are nursing Ireland’s ecclesiastical hangover. It is a shame that we cannot say we are more of ourselves as we celebrate her 100 years later, though a privilege to celebrate her all the same.
Molly Hennigan wrote a dissertation on Maeve Brennan for her M Phil in Irish Writing