Academic journal article MELUS

Birth and Death: Female Tradition and the Narrative Voice in Mary Doyle Curran's 'The Parish and the Hill.' (Irish-American Literature)

Academic journal article MELUS

Birth and Death: Female Tradition and the Narrative Voice in Mary Doyle Curran's 'The Parish and the Hill.' (Irish-American Literature)

Article excerpt

The myth of social mobility which fueled the immigration of Irish people to America throughout the nineteenth century proved to be ill-founded, for most Irish immigrants discovered that "being Irish and Catholic was also incompatible with becoming American or respectable" (Miller 399). And, as Kerby Miller persuasively argues, the institutions which the Irish associated themselves with in the United States provided conflicting messages about social position - the Democratic party endorsing the active pursuit of individual political rights and the Catholic church inviting passive acceptance of a plan that God had not yet revealed to his people. Thus, generations of Irish men passed on to their sons both a belief in their imminent social mobility and a fatalism about their social and religious persecution.

But if young Irish men saw little historical evidence of empowerment for immigrants, young Irish women saw even less. Until well into the twentieth century, many Irish-American women discovered in their matrilineage a legacy of powerlessness. Hasia Diner explains, for example, why Irish immigrant women so often resisted the possibility of reform offered by the women's suffrage movement in the late nineteenth century: "The feminists dreamed of a world where gender differences would blur to a minimum. The Irish fiercely believed in a world where gender differences gave order, balance, and rationality to human relations" (149). Indeed, as Diner contends in Erin's Daughters in America, Irish women remained skeptical about organized women's groups in part because they had always understood themselves to control both the emotional and the economic frontiers of their homes.

Emphasizing this tension concerning gender roles, Mary Doyle Curran's The Parish and the Hill, first published in 1948 and re-issued in 1986 by the Feminist Press, presents a fictionalized account of Irish immigrant life in Ward Four of Holyoke, Massachusetts, a world Curran knew well from her own youth. While recognizing the general frustration of the immigrants who "soon found that they had exchanged the English landlord for the Yankee mill owner" (2), Curran focuses her novel most specifically on women's experiences, refracting men's actions through the selective lens of the young female narrator, Mary O'Connor. Yet, in The Parish and the Hill, the politically powerless place of women is countered by the distinctive power of the narrative voice. Mary O'Connor's narrative is one of memory and commemoration: beginning each chapter with "I remember," she echoes her mother's rhythmic recounting of "birth and death, death and birth" from the local newspaper, creating her own account of literal and figurative birth and death in three generations of her extended family.

Indeed, Mary O'Connor's personal strength and her narrative voice reflect the honesty of a cooperative matrilineal heritage, a legacy which is continually contrasted to the competitive patrimony of hypocrisy and affectation divided among the male members of her family. When her mother is finally defeated - even silenced - by the end of the novel, Mary O'Connor takes up the subject of birth and death, transforming her mother's oral tradition into, simultaneously, a "warm, rich remembering" (69) and a lament for a dying Irish culture. Suggesting that female traditions give birth to the narrator's sense of identity, The Parish and the Hill affirms women's communities, celebrates the bond between mother and daughter, and demonstrates that the narrator's power emerges from the "mother tongue" of keening, from the elemental wail "Olagon!" - that "cry of the living clutching, clasping at the departing spirit of the dead" (70).

Reflecting accurately the realities of turn-of-the century immigrant life, female community in The Parish and the Hill is marginal, but it attains its energy from the narrator's choice to emphasize not woman's historical space of disempowerment, but rather woman's mythical place of power. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.