Suffering Madonna of Ireland: Women, sentimentality, and mother Ireland
Sean O'Casey's play "Juno and the Paycock" portrays an Ireland where good women and particularly good mothers are the soul and heart of the Irish land, and Irish men are shiftless, murdering, or bad. Army men and unionizing men and worst of all, lawyers, threaten the dignity and the soul of the Boyle family, but only with the integrity of Mrs. Boyle does anything good survive out of the tragedies that ensue over the course of the play.
This deflationary view of men can be seen even if one parses the title of O'Casey's play. The" Juno" of the title is a nickname for the matriarch of the clan, given by her husband to his wife. In contrast, the epithet "paycock" is a dialect rendition of Mrs. Boyle's husband's name, a man who is known as strutting peacock, particularly when he thinks he is going to 'come into money,' as he is falsely assured by his daughter's suitor Charles. But although Mr. Boyle is often called a peacock by many of the play's characters, Mrs. Boyle is usually addressed respectfully, except by her husband. Mrs. Boyle is, like the real Roman Juno, a true queen of an Irish heaven, betrayed by the evils and inaction of men around her, while her husband is an ineffectual male, like the bird he is named after, strutting in his beautiful moleskin trousers, but to little effect. So called "Captain" Boyle neither provides financially for his family at the play's termination, nor protects them, like a man should, from harm.
Unlike the women, the men of O'Casey's play thus exist as animals or epithets, not even meriting a name because they are so uninvolved in his children's affairs and tragedies, tragedies of politics that results in his son's untimely death, and tragedies of fallen sexuality, such as the Boyle daughter Mary's pregnancy. But even Mary's pregnancy, begotten of an out of wedlock alliance, is turned into a positive because of female associations. At the end of the play it becomes clear that Irish women will raise Mary's subsequent progeny. Thus, men will have influence and corrupt the tiny babe's sense of morality. When Mary is told by her brother, "It's a wonder you're not ashamed to show your face here, after what has happened," the audience is encouraged by the setting to see the intolerant, militant radical as narrow minded to his own sister, rather than sympathetic.
In contrast, Mrs. Boyle accepts her daughter once again, despite the girl's moral folly to give her innocence to an evil lawyer.
Interestingly enough, O'Casey's sentimentalized view of femininity is not particular to the realities of Irish history. Women did not always have a saintly impact in the lived realities of Irish revolutionary history of the setting of the play, during the Irish Civil Wars of 1916. For instance, "at the height of his power," the great Irish revolutionary leader Charles Stewart Parnell "was destroyed by being named in the divorce case of his lover of ten years, Kitty O'Shea."
Then, "in 1890 he lost the party leadership and died within a year of resisting the disgrace."
Also, some of the most strikingly militant groups were entirely composed of women, such as the Irish Women's Franchise League (1908), the thriving Irish Women Workers' Union (1912) and the Republican Cumann na mBan who were active in the Easter Rising. Despite the portrayal of O'Casey of women as morally rather than politically strong, "Irish women were to gain universal suffrage in 1922, six years before English women."
This radicalism of Kitty O'Shea and the Irish Women Workers Union is hardly evident in Mrs. Boyle's final monologue, which portrays the mother's apolitically expressed, religion suffering as she holds her dying boy in her arms. Mrs. Boyle says, "I forgot, Mary, I forgot; your poor oul' selfish mother was only thinkin' of herself." (Of course, no woman should think of herself, this quote implies, even during a time of distress.) "No, no, you mustn't come -- it wouldn't be good for you," and is implying that Mary might disastrously lose her baby and Mary's own chance to be a mother. "You go on to me sisther's an' I'll face th' ordeal meself. Maybe I didn't feel sorry enough for Mrs. Tancred when her poor son was found as Johnny's been found now -- because he was a Diehard! Ah, why didn't I remember that then he wasn't a Diehard or a Stater, but only a poor dead son! It's well I remember all that she said -- an' it's my turn to say it now: What was the pain I suffered, Johnny, bringin' you into the world to carry you to your cradle, to the pains I'll suffer carryin' you out o' the world to bring you to your grave! Mother o' God, Mother o' God, have pity on us all! Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets, when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!"
Lest this sentiment that motherhood and love, as opposed to politics and masculinity are the highest virtues, be seen solely as Mrs. Boyle's point-of-view, as she notes herself, her words are a direct echo of Mrs. Tancred, who, though she stands politically opposed to Boyle, mourns, "O Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets, when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets! -- Sacred Heart of the Crucified Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone -- an' give us hearts o' flesh! -- Take away this murdherin' hate -- an' give us Thine own eternal love!"
Women mourn, and thus express pacifisms and goodness, as opposed to the more shallow male morals of money, militancy, and the law.
Of course, Mary shows occasional bursts of revolutionary spirit that are commensurate with Irish history, such as in her sexual freedom, and her exclamation, "The hour is past now when we'll ask the employers' permission to wear what we like."
But this spirit is eventually undercut by Mary's own sexual martyrdom, as she becomes the final image of a once-sinning Madonna. Mary's redemption comes when she becomes pregnant with the next member more hopeful generation, as the current generation dies in the form of her brother.
Some of Mary's actions, one might note, could be said to reveal her to be her father's daughter. Not only has Mary a taste for the better, material things of life at the play's beginning, but she also expresses her defiance of her employer by wearing silk stockings. She demonstrates for a girl's dismissal that she did not like, more out of a desire for belonging to a union than in real, genuinely compassionate anger. O'Casey seems to make a particular point of her hypocrisy, so Mary's book-reading and demonstrations in the public sphere, as opposed to the maternal and domestic sphere of her mother, seem more shallow than radical. Later, Mary discards her trades-union organizer, her first suitor, Jerry Devine, for Charles Bentham, a schoolteacher and law student. This, she feels, may be a step toward realizing her ambitions. But she unwittingly plays a role in her family's financial demise as Charles Bentham tells Mr. Boyle he stands to inherit money, causing the Captain to spend the family into financial ruin. Bentham is as bad a lawyer as he is a morally corrupt individual, in the way that he treats Boyle's daughter.
Male fatherly protection, male monetary protection, and male military might are all misguided in the new, worse state of Irish affairs, suggests O'Casey in his play. It is interesting that Casey, a Protestant,
seems to embrace the Catholic ideal of the saintly, suffering Madonna and female martyr in both the image of Mrs. Boyle, holding her dying son and suffering for her shiftless husband's financial sins, and in the image of Mary, a sinning girl who is impregnated and repentant. The stage directions for the first physical image the audience sees is of Catholicism, "Between the window and the dresser is a picture of the Virgin; below the picture, on a bracket, is a crimson bowl in which a floating votive light is burning."
But this is a feminine and domestic vision of goodness, private and domestic, rather than public, masculine, and Christ-focused.
Sean O'Casey was said to particularly dislike the fierce, female image of Irish nationalism, "Cathleen ni Houlihan" He is wrote of himself in the third person, reflecting upon Catherine, "he saw now that the one who had the walk of a queen could be a bitch at times. She galled the hearts of her children who dared to be above the ordinary, and she often slew the best ones. She had hounded Parnell to death, she had yelled and torn at Yeats, at Synge,…