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The occlusion of Dorothy Macardle from the canon is often lamented by Irish historians and critics, yet she has enjoyed some attention in recent years.
Scholars like Gerardine Meaney and Margaret Ward have identified the cultural and historical insight that Macardle’s fiction offers, and Angela Bourke included Macardle’s story, “Roisin Dhu” in the fifth volume of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is also the subject of a 2007 biography by Nadia Smith, Dorothy Macardle: A Life.
Earlier this year, Tramp Press reissued Macardle’s classic ghost novel, The Uninvited, a well-structured piece of genre fiction with the added advantage of juicy historical, political, and contemporary theoretical relevance. The book is a quick, spooky read that lends itself easily to various feminist engagements, but in terms of prose, depth of character or insight, it leans more towards beach-bag paperback than literary gem.
Certainly Macardle is a fascinating character, and her work provides rich material for historical and cultural insight, but perhaps one reason that her early work is neglected is that, embedded as it is in a specific political agenda, its literary values have not stood the test of time. Unfortunately, analyses of her fiction are often far more engaging than the texts themselves.
Thirteen Supernatural Tales
The Swan River Press issued Earth-Bound and Other Supernatural Tales this spring. The volume combines Earth-Bound: Nine Stories of Ireland, first published in 1924, with four other tales, which have been out of print for 90 years.
Written in Kilmainham Gaol and Mountjoy Prison during the civil war, the Earth-Bound stories are all set during the war of independence. Inspired by the tales of Macardle’s fellow inmates, they are presented within the framework of storytelling amongst a group of Irish activists taking refuge in America. Each one is dedicated to friends and fellow activists.
This latest reissue of her earliest short stories provides a beautifully presented and valuable resource for anyone interested in Irish history, culture or literature. The hardback replaces earlier violence-oriented covers with Brian Gallagher’s eerie image of a disused farmhouse, beautifully rendered in scraperboard and digital colour. As always, Swan River Press’ production values are stunning.
However, the introductory admission that “it is true that the stories often do not have the polish of her later stories” is all too accurate.
Set, for the most part, in the misty landscape of a Celtic Twilight, highly symbolic, mawkish and crudely propagandist, the stories are today somewhat unpalatable and difficult to engage with. Yet it is just this roughness that makes them so interesting.
Macardle was heavily involved in both Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin. She participated in the Mountjoy hunger strikes, was the first president of the Women’s Political and Social League and a founding member of the Irish Institute for International Affairs.
During her lifetime she published widely acclaimed plays, novels, and short stories, a controversial history, The Irish Republic, and Children of Europe: A Study of the Children of Liberated Countries – a seminal text for early Holocaust studies.
Born in Dundalk to wealthy mixed-religion parents, she diverted from their beliefs by rejecting partition. She was incarcerated for her beliefs and lost her teaching post because of her activism.
A feminist in close alliance with the famously misogynist de Valera, a friend of Maude Gonne and a vociferous anti-fascist, a nationalist turned internationalist, Macardle is a fascinating example of the bamboozling complexity of history. So many of her beliefs seem to clash, and it is the sites of these collisions that make her work so rich.
Unrepentant and Unashamed
There can be no doubt that much of Macardle’s work is propaganda, a label she openly identified with.
While interned in Mountjoy, she wrote in defence of her fellow female prisoners: “We were maintaining the republican idea as writers, speakers, editors … engaged in speaking the truths which the Provisional Government desires to keep concealed.” And years later, when defending the rights of migrants, she declared herself, “a propagandist, unrepentant and unashamed”.
In these stories, her stance is just a little too extreme to be effective, the sides just too polarised. Her narrator describes the “malignant lights” of the Black and Tans, who were “cursing brutally” as they came. And one republican sees the face of the enemy, “by the light of one candle, like Satan’s, his teeth bared”.
Generally, pure propaganda is very dull, presenting a single-faceted polemic and pressing it home. The characters of Macardle’s more political stories are often cardboard, but where her work becomes fascinating is in the places where the cracks start to show between ostensibly fused ideologies.
Sanctioned by the Dead
Both nationalist and imperialist ideologies are typically inwrought with notions of spiritual sanctioning and the currency of blood sacrifice. Macardle’s poem “On Leaving Mountjoy Prison”, also published in this volume, subscribes entirely to this system “we live where those our noblest died”.
The stories in Earth-Bound are primarily about the “innumerable multitude of dead pious”. These are, for the most part, stories wherein dead republicans help living republicans. In the title story, the ghost of a murdered republican leads the rebels to safety and then diverts the enemy; in “The Brother”, the ghost of a murdered rebel protects his little brother from traitors and makes possible the prison coup that would otherwise have been scuppered.
Death and violence are proven to be utterly valuable, for, granted the special powers of the dead, a murdered nationalist can do even more for Ireland than a live one. This has the double effect of sanctioning a political cause through a claimed allegiance with the spirit world, and giving clout to blood sacrifice: “The gods are with us,” says the brother, “and all the saints.”
Like much literature of the time, Macardle’s work is charged with spiritualised political fervour that is invigorating, nauseating, and frightening, in turns.
Macardle was a close friend of Gonne and a student of the occult. She may well have believed quite literally in the claims of the dead and a spirit of Ireland.
Told in a Celtic Twilight, these “tales of Ireland” are full of kindly racism and contrived mythology. The Irish, explains one narrator, “are a people who know how to love and to speak out of the heart as well as out of the mind”.
An additional story, not in the original Earth-Bound collection, tells of a boy in the hands of an evil stepmother, who, through the stories of Ireland left him by his real parents, passes into the spirit world to dwell in the spiritual Ireland that is his birthright.
I have never quite understood how Yeats’ work manages to be entirely embroiled in the above notions and yet remain utterly moving. The years have been less kind to Macardle’s stories – the style and content is decidedly out of fashion and there is no poetic genius to save it.
While she deals, albeit slightly more sanely, in some of the same mad notions as Yeats – the contrived mysticism of Irish identity; spirits and ghosts as arbiters of truth – Macardle does not have Yeats’ poetic power, and her characters are so staunchly symbolic, the descriptions so very clichéd and the agenda so naked, that the stories are more cringe-making than moving.
And Yet …
While these “stories of Ireland” are brim-full of sentimentality and spiritually sanctioned violence, they simultaneously demonstrate, through stories like “Roisin Dhu” and “The Return of Niav”, what Gerardine Meaney calls “an acute awareness of the dangers of women’s symbolic function in nationalist ideology”.
With these stories, Macardle has been widely identified as creating a women’s “supplemental history of nationalism”, for many are the stories of wives, sisters and mothers and what they have sacrificed.
The idea of mothers proudly feeding their sons into the cause is typical of the sacrificial currency. Stories like “The Prisoner” are clearly aligned with the likes of Pearse, for whom violence is a question of maternal pride (“You’ll die and leave her her pride in you.”)
And yet, on closer inspection, these stories reveal, like none of her later work, the painful discord between Irish nationalist ideology and female agency. While Macardle reinstates these notions, she also names them.
When the mother in “By God’s Mercy”, lost her son “for Ireland”, she “didn’t fret too much … She would keep on saying, ‘He did his work well, by God’s mercy; he did his work well.’” But this instigation is immediately undercut by the information that, “she died … before the year was out”, leaving her surviving child, a girl, to fend for herself.
“Story Without End”, is another where the “immortal dream” of the “wild sweet holiness for which men die” is gently called into question.
Nesta, wife of a rebel, waits in the house. She has a prophetic dream where her husband is destroyed by green-clad men and she cannot explain her hatred for the wounded leader who she harbours – but this is as far as these stories go to overtly criticise a currency with which Macardle was, at that time, very much engaged.
Macardle does not disentangle these notions in any coherent way. Rather, the collection is a dispatch from that time; a testament to the conflicting ideological standpoint of the feminist nationalist.
Before the Heartbreak?
Macardle wrote to Maeve Brennan in 1937, “I hope you won’t encounter heartbreak and frustration when you come back here. The country is going through a phase when scarcely any body is interested in anything but money and factories.”
Here is another disappointed account of the “greasy till” reality that follows fervent romanticism. Macardle was also bitterly and vociferously disappointed at the denigration of women in the constitution of the new state.
Considering this, there is something moving in passages from this collection. In “The Return of Niav”, a dangerously dedicated, extremely beautiful and very charming cultural revivalist, Maeve, paints a dreamy future for her listeners:
“The evenings she spent with us were wonderful, all the world’s wars forgotten in the talk we had always loved – talk of the enchanted waters and hills of Ireland, of ruins and symbols and rituals and of the music that would come out of Ireland when we were free.”
Sons and Daughters
“The Return of Niav” is a strange story, dedicated to Maude Gonne’s daughter, Iseult, about a mother who tries to make her daughter purely Irish (she did not like her to hear English at all). She nearly loses her to the spirit world by prioritising the cause over the child.
“Roisin Dhu” is also narrated by Maeve, whereas all the other narrators are only given one story. Both are stories about female solidarity and both interrupt, but do not dismantle, the ideologies at play throughout.
In both stories, Maeve fails her sex. She almost loses her daughter to ideology, and conducts pagan fertility rights to get her back, and yet it is ultimately through Pearse’s notion that “life springs from death”, that her daughter is returned.
The maternal appetite for self-sacrifice is perverted here, into the sacrifice of children for the cause of Ireland. Maeve is the maternal figure whose sacrifice of young women for Ireland is uglier than the boy-on-boy action of the other stories.
I wonder if this work is covertly misandrous, for while female suffering is revealed here in the form of grief and general disenfranchisement, the sacrifice of boys rests pretty much vindicated, except in so far as it might disenfranchise women.
After all, the very premise of most of these stories is that the currency of blood sacrifice is transmuted into literal terms. Fortified by the rightness of their cause, at one with the spirit of “Ireland”, dead men use their special sacrificial powers to save the living and promote a free Ireland.
Earth-Bound and Other Supernatural Tales by Dorothy Macardle (Dublin: Swan River Press, 2016)