Remembering Mother Ireland: Themes of Sexual and Cultural Identity in the Works of Female Contemporary Irish Artists since 1980.
By Ciara Rodgers, April 2016
This paper will examine female visual artists’ interpretations of gender, identity and culture in my home country, Ireland. I hope to gain some insight into what it means to be Irish and why women have struggled through the years to gain control of their own autonomy. Looking at Catholic Oppression and the female art movement of the mid 1980’s to present, I feel that the cultural and political aspects of feminism are inseparable, particularly in Ireland where there is a strong union of church and state. Taking a brief look at the historical treatment of women will create the platform for my chosen artists to build upon in their work.
During most of the 20th century, after becoming a free state the Catholic Church in Ireland preached the importance of marriage and the family, sexual activity not aimed at procreation was seen as evil and the Virgin Mary was held as the ideal model for all women to aspire. Sex became something that men sought and women feared. Until the mid to late 1990s, Ireland had the reputation of being the most sexually repressed country in Europe, where women were second class citizens and the Catholic Church ruled unchallenged. Women artists in Ireland such as Kathy Prendergast, Rita Duffy and Alice Maher have helped to re-imagine the female body and “Mother Ireland” as a concept. These artists have tackled abortion, domestication and the political subordination of women in their respective works.
From Magdalen Asylums to clerical child abuse, symphysiotomy and abortion laws, recent years have seen the UN repeatedly criticise Ireland’s human rights record on a range of fronts. It seems religious dogma trumps women and children’s best interests time and again. ‘Abortion laws in Ireland results in a systemic denial of the human rights of girls and women. By not providing access to abortion services and information, the country still fails to meet its human rights obligations set forth under international law.’ ‘It is possible to recognise the “foundations of Irish culture – state control of women’s reproduction, and the nationalist and religious mythologies, Virgin Mary and Mother Ireland that have framed and, therefore, limited Irish women”. This emphasis on both the Virgin Mary and Mother Ireland has resulted in women occupying a unique position in Irish society; women have been recognised, not as subjects with their own identity, but have instead ‘been reduced to symbols of the nation’. 
A History of Woman’s Bodily Integrity since the Beginning of the Irish Free State
The Catholic and Protestant Magdalen Asylums were first opened in the mid-nineteenth Century for the detention of prostitutes undergoing reform in Victorian Ireland and England. Named after Mary Magdalene who was said to have been a reformed prostitute, these rescue houses underwent a change in Ireland by the late nineteenth century as short-term refuges became long-term Magdalen Institutions, many of whose inmates were sometimes detained for life. ‘Labouring in the laundries the unpaid workers were subjected to penance, harsh discipline, silence and prayer.’ As prostitution numbers declined other undesirable women were targeted including unmarried mothers and abused girls, many were incarcerated by their families or priests. ‘Far from being a threat to society most were its victims, their removal affecting no one but themselves.’ These institutes survived into the late 20th century, the last one closing in 1996, marking the end of a dark episode in Irish women’s history. The religious institutes that ran the Irish asylums have not as yet contributed to compensate the survivors of abuse, despite demands from the Irish government and the UN Committee against Torture.
In 1937 the new constitution gave a special place to the church and also to women. Mary Ryan describes this phenomenon:
‘The special place for the church was at the head of Irish society. The special place for women was in the home. This meant that women were expected to have a life outside the home only while waiting to get married, both Church and state have “maintained that women should hold a certain morality, particularly relating to areas of sexuality and reproduction”.
As the Family Planning Bill was debated in the early 1980s, the Catholic Church hindered the passing of a rational law on contraceptives. In 1971, after a group of feminists, including eventual Irish President Mary Robinson, travelled by train from Belfast to Dublin laden with contraceptive devices, the ‘Bishop of Clonfert equated their action to an onslaught on the Catholic heritage of Ireland.’ However, in 1979, the Supreme Court eventually legalised contraception but it was not until 1985 that the sale of condoms without prescription to over 18 year olds was legalised and even then they were to be sold only through pharmacies.
Abortion has been a criminal offence in Ireland since 1861, back-street abortions were numerous in the past and many young women have travelled to England to terminate their unwanted pregnancies. ‘In 1979, while in Limerick, Pope John Paul II said: “May Ireland never weaken in her witness, before Europe and the whole world, to the dignity and sacredness of all human life, from conception until death.” This had been the attitude of conservative, Catholic Ireland for the preceding fifty years. Shortly after this visit, as some of the Catholic right-wing intended to make Ireland an ‘example of pro-life values, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign was launched and abortion became the issue around which the maximum support for traditional values could be generated.’ The Eighth Amendment of 1983 introduced a constitutional ban on abortion, where Ireland became unique among Western countries, making abortion a criminal offence.
Symphysiotomy is a childbirth operation that effectively unhinges the pelvis. Ireland was the only country in the world to practice these childbirth operations in preference to Caesarean section. ‘The procedure involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint (or in extreme cases, called pubiotomy, sawing through the bone of the pelvis itself) to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered unobstructed.’ Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found these operations were ‘torturous, cruel, inhumane and degrading. Patient consent was never sought: women were operated upon wide awake and often screaming: those who resisted were physically restrained.’ Due to a Catholic aversion to caesarean sections and an institutional disregard for women’s autonomy, this practice has left hundreds of surviving women with life-long pain, disability and emotional trauma.
Re-imagining and Re-imaging Mother Ireland in Contemporary Art
In the late ’80s and ’90s, female artists of Ireland moved into the forefront as society’s interest increased in issues that primarily affected women’s lives, such as the Abortion and Divorce Referendums. In Sea Bed (fig.1), Kathy Prendergast (b. 1958) draws the woman’s body as a map with the intimacy and knowledge of the owner, personalising the landscape. In an interview for The Irish Arts Review, Prendergast says of Seabed:
‘All the roads in Seabed were written on. So it’s a jumble of loads of lines of other people’s poems. I thought it was almost like a diary of a person. That’s what a map almost is. It’s almost like a documenting or a diary of the land but when you look at a map it doesn’t really explain to you what the land is like. It doesn’t have that same feeling. It’s not like looking at a film of the land.’
This idea of mapping the surface was continued by Prendergast in a series of drawings, paintings and sculpture. This body of work in the 1980s was concerned with issues around territory, using mapping as a metaphor for control. In the Body Map series she painted cross sections of the female body as if it were terrain to be tamed. ‘Although maps are giving you all the information Kathy Prendergast’s Body Map Series makes explicit this fusion in the symbol of Mother Ireland.’ In Enclosed Worlds in Open Spaces (fig.2.), ‘Prendergast adopts the role of cartographer in order to depict a truncated, and consequently faceless and voiceless, woman’s body as a map of a political territory.’ Just as land can symbolize fertility or nationalistic pride, it can also symbolise a resource to be tapped, cultivated, or even exhausted and it seems she is comparing this to the fact that it is a woman’s body that is being explored, altered, exploited and controlled. ‘The territory is partly surrounded by a sea complete with compass points and ships, mapped onto a grid of longitudinal and latitudinal lines. The areas and features of the body make up the terrain: breasts are labelled as volcanic mountains, the abdomen as desert, the navel as crater, and the vulva as harbour.’ As a result, the artist’s depiction of the woman’s body as a mapped political space highlights the symbolism of Mother Ireland which equates political control of the nation with political and religious control of the woman’s body. Claude Cernuschi points out that:
‘The work of the artist self-consciously subverts and re-inscribes the traditional gendering of Irish nationalism in feminine terms, and, in particular, the image of Mother Ireland as nurturer. Moreover, the works make evident the legislative infrastructure fundamental to this gendering of Irish nationalism, and thereby render visible the nation’s architecture of containment as it responds to and neutralizes threatened ruptures to the national iconography.’
In the fairy-tale, Rapunzel lets down her hair on request; the hair of the penitent Magdalene grew miraculously to cover her nakedness and Melisande’s hair just wouldn’t stop growing until it covered the whole country. What all of these stories have in common is they represent hair as the downfall of the female, while on the other hand, figuring it as essential to her attractiveness. Alice Maher’s (b. 1956) depiction of hair in work such as Ombre (1997) is intended to illustrate the identities, values and choices that girls and women adopt in order to operate within their world. ‘Human hair is a recurring motif in Maher’s work, it is perhaps the material she is most associated with. Virtually every female figure portrayed in her sketchbooks has exceptionally long hair.’ Maher tells The Irish Times, “Hair is a really interesting material. Its history is interesting; it’s relation to the female is interesting, it has multiple doors into itself as a material.”  Another example, Thorn House (fig.3) looks at the rose as a traditional symbol of Ireland and also evokes the conservative iconography of the rural cottage in the west, long a staple of tourist board marketing campaigns. Thorn House ‘picks up on Maher’s home territory, and allies the Catholic iconography of suffering and crucifixion to the domestic sphere in which earlier generations of women were confined as a matter of course.’ The cottage is seen ‘as surrogate for the depiction of the rural Irish woman and the values of motherhood, tradition and stability.’
‘Rita Duffy’s (b. 1959) paintings, Mother Ireland (1989) and Mother Ulster (1989) offer wicked allegories of women’s place in the authoritarian schemes of Gael and Loyalist poles. Duffy’s women are excluded from the public sphere, and visibly colonized by external forces.’ Mother Ireland (fig.4.) strains under the weight of holding four babies with an umbilical cord stretching from her brain to what looks like a Gothic cathedral. ‘Dressed in sombre black with a hint of clerical robes, her eyes raised to heaven, clutches four struggling young toddlers, each presumably representing a province of Ireland. In the background the spired church and mitred bishop emphasise Duffy’s recurrent criticism of the Catholic Church and its control of family life.
In Becoming (fig.5), Duffy chooses to focus on a single figure: a woman engaging in the frightening act of straining a human foetus. The painting is presumably metaphorical, but, because of its ambiguity, the piece may be construed in a potentially more disturbing way. Feminists have long associated the rearing of children and the domestic activity of preparing food with the marginalisation of women in patriarchal cultures. But both activities, although both connected with domestic activity, become disturbing when combined and the use of the strainer to cradle a baby is a juxtaposition of its usual function as a cooking utensil. The unnatural redness of the baby is the brightest part of the painting. It may suggest a new-born – the beginning of life or, conversely, the absence of life- being prepared for consumption, born prematurely or aborted. ‘In view of Duffy’s bent towards the metaphorical, Becoming could be interpreted in terms of the politics of abortion, an issue in which the artist herself acknowledges great interest, and whose ramifications are inflammatory enough to polarize a culture to a fever pitch.’ Another disturbing detail of the painting is the woman’s facial expression, exhausted and oppressed looking but at the same time seemingly unperturbed by the act which is occurring. It is as if Duffy wants to suggest that the woman’s plight has been so wearing as to desensitise her to the scene before her. According to Cernuschi, ‘Duffy herself expressed sympathy for the difficulty of her mother’s domestic situation in a recent interview, as well as her cognizance of alarming instances of child abuse in Ireland, two concerns that, in a variety of ways, inform her general body of work.’ This painting seems to discuss domestic oppression, the reproductive rights of the woman and the right of the baby to life. Becoming juxtaposes mixed signals: life and death, sympathy for the woman as well as sympathy for the child.
The fusion of Irish nationalism and the feminine can be understood as a product of post-independent Ireland’s need to re-invent itself, and to assume the traditionally male role of political power which had been long denied under British Rule. As a result, Irish women were re-positioned to signify men’s authority, simplified as passive projections of a national ideal, reducing women to their reproductive function as mothers. This national ideal was enforced by the 1937 Constitution, which redefined women as mothers and insisted on the support given to the state by their duties in the home. This ideal was further underpinned by discriminatory legislation addressing divorce, contraception and abortion. In Ireland, sexual identity and national identity are mutually dependent. Geraldine Meaney discusses this in great detail in Sex and Nation: Women in Irish Culture and Politics(1991):
‘The images of suffering Mother Ireland and the self-sacrificing Irish mother are difficult to separate. Both serve to obliterate the reality of women’s lives. Both seek to perpetuate an image of Woman far from the experience, expectations and ideals of contemporary women. The extent to which women only exist as a function of their maternity in the dominant ideology of southern Ireland became apparent during the national referendum on the eighth amendment to the constitution.’
Rita Duffy’s politically driven paintings are concerned with issues of childhood, Catholicism and identity, challenging dogma in all its various disguises. By making women’s bodies the cultural site in question, Kathy Prendergast links gender with territory in an autonomous manner which had for years been a nationalist strategy, such as the ideal of Mother Ireland. Identity connects the examinations that explore myth and folklore and the body and the land in the works that I have discussed by Alice Maher, Kathy Prendergast and Rita Duffy.
And so, in Ireland, where the influence of the clergy upon gender politics has been substantial, it is no surprise that the Catholic church is highly criticised in women’s art on account of its political role in the debates over abortion, contraception or divorce. Underlying and connecting these diverse works that I have discussed is the issue of identity. ‘The constant personification and imaging of Ireland as “Mother Ireland” has made identity a particularly rich subject for Irish women artists.’
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