Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

What's in a Name? Reading the Character of Mary/Moira in Jane Urquhart's Away

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

What's in a Name? Reading the Character of Mary/Moira in Jane Urquhart's Away

Article excerpt

Introduction

Jane Urquhart's Away (1993) is centred on the character of Mary, who is thought to be "away with the fairies", in a context of Famine and emigration. The novel, starting on Rathlin Island in the north of Ireland, ends in Ontario, and thus highlights the double meaning of its title. As a young woman on the island, Mary finds a dying sailor washed ashore after a shipwreck. Believing that he comes from another world, she falls in love with him and decides that her name has changed: "she recognized, immediately, that he came from an other world island, assumed that he had emerged from the water to look for her, and knew that her name had changed, in an instant, from Mary to Moira" (Urquhart 2002: 8). From then on, she is considered "away" by the rest of the community, that is, "away with the fairies", gone to the Otherworld. In the islanders' minds, the being who wanders on the shore and speaks to no one but the sea is not Mary but a changeling, a substitute for the stolen woman. She later marries a schoolteacher, Brian O'Malley, to whom she bears a child, Liam. During the Great Famine, the family is forced to emigrate to Canada, where a daughter, Eileen, is born. The narration focuses alternatively on Mary, Eileen and the latter's granddaughter, Esther, spanning four generations of women who have, one way or another, been "away". The Canadian writer plays on the meanings of the word itself to raise issues of belonging and identity in her fourth book.

The very fact that the protagonist of the novel changes her name at the start of the narrative prompts the reader to wonder what the significance of this name is. In the same fashion that Urquhart plays on the various meanings of the term "away" for the title of her novel, it seems that the numerous connotations of the name Mary/Moira are used by the author to develop a postcolonialist stance.

Postcolonialism is a political, social and cultural movement which aspires to look back on the colonial years with a new focus, not on the coloniser and dominant power any more, but on the oppressed and repressed peoples and cultures. Postcolonialism has thus seen a renewed interest in local cultures, languages, folklore, etc., which is also a feature of nationalist movements. The postcolonial current is characterised by a focus on the disempowered minorities, and on the effects of colonialism. Urquhart wrote Away from a perspective which criticises the colonial takeovers of Canada and Ireland (Sugars 2003: 5), though admittedly rather problematically (Goldman 2010: 133), while looking for a way of reconciling the various heritages brought together by colonisation. According to Libby Birch, "Urquhart draws on themes of muted cultures who can know a rebirth and thus emulates Lady Gregory and Yeats who play a vital role in effecting the Celtic revival in Ireland" (Birch 1997: 118). The novel indeed focuses on the Irish immigrants to Canada and their interaction with indigenous peoples, rather than with the dominant powers in place in the Dominion at the time. Urquhart diverges from the canonical models and shifts the focus to the unspoken stories of colonialism, of which Mary's and her Native friend Exodus's are thought of as archetypes. As an emigrant forced out of her country by colonialism and as a woman, Mary doubly personifies such a figure. The fact that she subverts the codes of traditional writing by being an unconventional mother partakes of postcolonialism as well (Loomba 2010: 215-6). As has been noted previously, "while Away deconstructs the imperial representations of the colonised and the coloniser, the individual is rendered visible" (Branach-Kallas 2003: 140).

Mary is the model of the postcolonial character in the narrative and this is expressed through the very choice of her double name of Mary/Moira in the novel. This article will first study the classical influence of the name before looking at the geographical elements. It will then focus on the ship imagery, to finish with the linguistic and religious connotations of Mary/Moira, in order to analyse how Urquhart uses the name of her character to convey a sense of postcolonialism throughout the book. …

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