- 1 This short story was also published in 2012 in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s recent collection The Shelter of (...)
1Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (born in 1954) is a contemporary Irish short story writer and novelist whose work, in spite of its often ironical portrayal of modern life, shows a desire to reconcile tradition and modernity. Some of her short stories alternate narratives situated in the present with tales taken from the oral tradition, as is the case with “The Moon Shines Clear, the Horseman’s Here,” published in 2003.1 The story portrays a woman, Polly, on her journey back to Ireland after a thirty-year period of exile; Polly had left the country after her mother turned her out of the house on discovering that she was pregnant by a young fisherman who drowned in tragic circumstances. Polly now lives in Denmark where she works as a script writer for Danish television, and she hopes that this journey back home will give her the opportunity to renew the dialogue with her mother and to become “whole again” by telling her the story of her life. But the dialogue between mother and daughter turns out to be very frustrating, as the former is engrossed in her TV programme and has obviously become deaf. However, she unwittingly gives some sign of recognition to Polly by reciting an old tale that finds its way back into her memory and whose end she pretends to have forgotten. It is obvious, as is indicated by the choice of the title, that this story bears many common points with Polly’s own tragedy. It is indeed after the latter manages to find the rest of the tale in a book that she is able to tell her own tale, not to her mother, but to the mother of her former lover, thus achieving what Paul Ricœur defines as “narrative configuration.” What this short story brilliantly shows is how Éilís Ní Dhuibhne performs a reconciliation of orality and literacy, while emphasizing the central role played by language, memory and a painterly aesthetics in a process of re-creation essential to Polly’s quest for identity.
2The opening page of the story underlines how important it is for Polly to tell her story to her mother, as she badly needs to recover a sense of identity that has been shattered by the latter’s rejection:
She has read somewhere that in everyone’s life are seven devils, and only when you meet them and overcome your fear of them can you find your guardian angel. […] Her mother. That is one of her devils, the one she is going to meet and talk to, regale with the story of her life, Polly’s version. Until Polly tells this story to her mother she will be unfree, ununited, unwhole. (140)
3It is not only with her mother that she has a score to settle, but also with the whole community of the valley from which she has been severed for thirty years: “There is unfinished business between herself and her mother, between herself and this valley, and time is running out” (140). So she expects the confrontation with her mother and her native country to restore both a sense of parental and social recognition, a sense of belonging to herself and to a whole social network, as her impression of being “unfree, ununited, unwhole” is also the consequence of her exile from Ireland.
- 2 In the version of the story published in The Shelter of Neighbours, the description of the fish is (...)
4However, Polly’s quest proves very disappointing as far as her desire of recognition by her mother is concerned: on entering her house and seeing the latter engrossed in her TV programme, Polly realizes her attempts to capture her attention are vain, because her mother has become completely deaf: “She is deaf. Suddenly Polly realizes this. She is deaf and apparently her sight is poor also: thick glasses occlude her eyes” (150-151). Mother and daughter even fail to establish satisfactory physical contact since, instead of giving Polly a warm embrace, her mother merely shakes hands with her. The mother’s bad eyesight, which prevents her from even lip-reading, indicates how fruitless Polly’s efforts will be. Even when the mother does understand what Polly says, her answers are irrelevant: when Polly describes her life in Copenhagen and how she likes to buy flatfish from the fishermen on the quay at Dragor, her mother interrupts her, saying: “They don’t have the Euro in Denmark […] They have more sense I suppose” (159).2 This inept remark is perhaps an attempt on the mother’s part to avoid a tricky subject, as Polly’s former boyfriend, Paddy, was himself a fisherman. But when later on Polly broaches the subject of her child, who is now grown-up, the mother’s reply is even more irrelevant as she concentrates on food concerns:
- 3 The two last sentences (“I still have apples in the garden. It’s the only apple tree in this parish (...)
“I have a child,” [Polly] says. Her mother cocks her head and smiles uncomprehendingly. Her ability to lip-read is most erratic. “He’s Paddy’s child,” Polly continues. “Paddy Mullins, the boy who drowned. Do you remember?”
“Would you like a cup of tea?” asks her mother. It is the first time she has offered Polly any refreshment. She gets up and walks across the kitchen to the electric fire.
“I was in love with Paddy Mullins,” Polly says. Her mother smiles and says, “I was thinking of baking an apple tart. I still have apples in the garden. It’s the only apple tree in this parish.” (162)3
5The reader is left to wonder whether the unexpected allusion to the apple tart contains a deliberate disparaging message, as the word “tart” could be a way for the mother to qualify Polly’s behaviour. The implicit biblical connotation present with the reference to the apple tree may in this respect account for the mother’s rigid behaviour and her incapacity to hear Polly’s speech.
6However, the mother gives Polly an important clue that may indicate that she has a guilty conscience for not having shown more sympathy to Polly when the latter discovered her pregnancy. The clue consists in a tale that Polly catches her mother reciting on her second visit. The narrative involves two lovers tragically separated by the girl’s parents who object to her marrying a young man from a lower social class than her, a situation that clearly echoes Polly’s story. The girl’s parents manage to draw their daughter away and the young man dies of grief. One night, the young woman, who hasn’t been told about this death, hears someone knocking at the door. It is William, on a horse, who takes her away on a blissful ride: “It was a bright night, the moon was shining, and she was as happy as could be” (156). The tale, which is transcribed in italics in the short story, is interrupted at this point when the mother realizes Polly’s presence behind her. Although Polly wants to know more about it, she claims to have forgotten how the story ends, saying that these stories are just “buried in [her] head somewhere and when [she] told one the others came back, one after the other” (157). Yet the fact that her subconscious should have chosen this story among others and that she should stop it when the girl experiences a moment of bliss before learning about her lover’s tragic fate, indicate that she must feel remorseful and guilty, even if she would never admit it. Telling this story, even if unwittingly, is thus a form of implicit recognition of her daughter’s grief.
7Polly is slightly luckier concerning her desire of recognition by the community, as she will eventually manage to tell her story to Paddy’s mother, Muriel. The latter appears as a substitute figure not only for Polly’s mother but also for the whole community. She is the necessary audience whose presence helps to shape and validate Polly’s story at last, the one who enables Polly to assume the status of storyteller: “So now [Muriel] listens intently, her whole body still, […] and the story is shaped by her listening as much as by Polly’s telling” (166).
- 4 Her son Paddy explains to Polly that he was frequently disapproved of on account of his mother. But (...)
8Even if Muriel used to be considered as an outsider on her arrival in the village, as she couldn’t speak Irish and came from a working-class Dublin suburb (155),4 she can now be said to be a true member of the community since she masters the Irish language: “Of course I speak Irish. […] I’ve been here for fifty years. I’d have been out of the loop altogether if I hadn’t learnt it, wouldn’t I?” (165). The other reason why Muriel has now become a rightful representative of the community is that she’s an accomplished storyteller herself. When she tells Polly her version of Paddy’s death and explains that he’s likely to have been pushed overboard after a quarrel with the son of the boat’s owner, her tale is polished by years of retelling:
She tells the story calmly, pausing occasionally for dramatic effect or to let a shocking point sink in. It is a story she has told before, many times, in spite of her protestations that it is confidential, a secret. […] The story is polished. […] Paddy has been transmogrified into a hero: a brave, strongly-drawn character in a story that she has half-remembered, half-invented. (165-166)
- 5 The reason why the other fishermen kept silent about the true cause of Paddy’s death is that “the f (...)
9Even if her version of the story contradicts the official version that circulates among the village people—and which she describes as “a sham” or “fiction” (165)5—it doesn’t mean that her narrative endangers her status within the community or endows her with an antagonistic dimension. On the contrary, her story fulfils one of the traditional functions of tales that consists in renegotiating the values of the community, as Angela Bourke underlines: “Every oral performance represents an interplay between communal, or received, values and the will of the individual, so that ‘communal’ values are constantly being renegotiated” (1195).
10By the same token, Polly’s version represents no threat to the community; her story will also operate a renegotiation of values and contribute to changing and enriching the community’s perspective of the past. The village people are in this respect by no means opposed to her presence in the valley after thirty years of exile. They don’t see her as a stranger: the ones she meets in the shops nod to her and chat “to her about old times.” Although no mention is made of Paddy, nobody seems surprised to learn that Polly has a grown-up son now (162). This reluctance to name Paddy and acknowledge him as the father of the child —which may be put down to the embarrassment surrounding the circumstances of his death or to a lingering taboo attached to single mothers—is rather to be considered as a sign of the inhabitants’ tactfulness and desire to preserve Polly’s intimacy. They had already manifested a similar reserve when Polly and Paddy were two teenagers in love. At that time, in reaction to Polly’s mother’s snobbish attitude to them, they had protected the two lovers by not telling Polly’s parents what was going on, as if all the village members had been conniving silent agents defending Polly’s cause: “All normal adults would protect Polly and Paddy, and leave her parents, who were not popular, in the dark” (148).
11That she should now be able to involve them as actors in her own story and make herself heard by them indirectly through Muriel, marks a definite step in her quest for identity. Now at last can she feel “whole” again since, by choosing and selecting which elements she wants to keep or exclude in her own version, she accomplishes an act of self-assertion:
So Polly tells her story of Paddy, and for her it is a fresh story […]. Polly has to decide […] where to start. The bus, the pier, the park? School? […] She decides, or memory decides, or Muriel, or the pressures of the moment, […] the pressure to create, what to leave in, what to exclude. (166)
12As the last sentence suggests, memory and creativity play a key role in that process of self-assertion. As such, the passage illustrates exactly Paul Ricœur’s definition of the narrative configuration in La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli where he argues that the narrative act is inseparable from the constitution of identity because it necessarily contains an ideologization of memory:
- 6 “Au plan le plus profond, […] c’est à travers la fonction narrative que la mémoire est incorporée à (...)
On a deepest level, […] it is through the narrative function that memory is integrated into the constitution of identity. The ideologisation of memory is made possible thanks to the resources of variation offered by the process of narrative configuration. […] More precisely, it is the selective function of the narrative that fosters manipulations by offering them the opportunity and the means of a shrewd strategy that partakes at once as much of a forgetting strategy as of a recollection strategy. (103)6
- 7 “[…] les ‘postes’ narratifs (destinateur, destinataire, héros) sont ainsi distribués que le droit d (...)
- 8 “savoir-dire, savoir-entendre, savoir-faire, où se jouent les rapports de la communauté avec elle-m (...)
13Polly’s oral performance can be said to mark her legitimate reintegration into an Irish community where storytelling is considered as an essential social skill. What legitimizes her status as a storyteller in the scene with Muriel is the fact that after having listened to the latter’s story, where she is both a heroine and a narratee, she is now entitled to become a narrator: in this way she occupies the three “narrative positions” distinguished by François Lyotard in La Condition postmoderne where he argues that the right to occupy the position of narrator in traditional societies is founded on the fact of having occupied the first two positions of narratee and hero in previous performances of the tale (40).7 Polly is thus able to show the three necessary skills that rule the relationships between the individuals of a community: the capacity to listen, to tell, and to act—which François Lyotard calls “a triple competence.”8
14Even if Polly’s tale is not so polished as Muriel’s (166), her legitimate right to hold the position of storyteller and to find a place within an oral tradition is also legitimized by the embedding inherent to the short story: by inserting extracts from the German legend and giving its title to the story, the author implicitly establishes a link between the two narratives. This parallel contributes to intensifying Polly’s tragedy while endowing it with an ancestral dimension. The link thus established between past and present also serves to conjure up an implicit audience and human network that goes beyond the mere dyad composed of Polly and Muriel. As Jacqueline Fulmer remarks: “Morrison and Ní Dhuibhne, however, by reinstating the person-to-person folkloric basis for legitimacy in the rhetoric of their fiction, re-establish human continuity among the past, present, and future” (173). The reverberation created between the two narratives is a way to assert this legitimacy and so to validate Polly’s position as a storyteller; it also reinforces the impact of her tale by putting it on the same level as the German legend.
15As such, the embedding endows Polly’s story with the magical dimension common to oral tales: when Polly conjures up Paddy’s character, she does it with such forcefulness that for a moment Paddy seems to be alive again (166), just as the girl in the German legend had managed, during her blissful ride under the moonlight, to give her dead lover a handkerchief that is later found in Williams’s grave when it is reopened. Polly shows that she too can transgress the borderline between life and death. She too can make the two worlds overlap, just as, on a metatextual level, the oral and written versions of the tale are made to overlap and complete each other.
16Another interesting strategy used by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne in order to reassert the power of the spoken word in this story is to emphasize the importance of language. The author underlines its fundamental ambivalent nature, since speech—as well as its counterpart: silence—and the tongue chosen, can be either precious tools of communication or dangerous weapons of exclusion. Polly’s mother’s language partakes of this ambivalence, as it can be either mesmerising or abusive. It is mesmerising like the flow of a river when she’s heard telling the German legend: “Polly stands just inside the door and listens. It takes her a while to get accustomed to the flow of words, which seem to pour out of her mother’s voice in a stream, not monotonous but unbroken, fluent as a river” (156, my emphasis).
17But it is also horribly aggressive when Polly’s mother discovers that the latter is pregnant and resorts to a mixture of English and Irish, “a macaronic stream of abusive language,” in order to pour out her fury (160). No wonder Polly, when she was younger, used words as a shield to protect herself from her mother, and considered silence as the utmost form of communication between herself and Paddy:
[…] the nature of her relationship with Paddy had become, literally, unspeakable. Polly could not describe it in any words she knew, in any language, and her connection with her mother was, it seemed to her, only by means of words, the formulae Polly selected from her rich store of clichés to dish out, sparingly, to keep her mother at bay. (152-153)
18Silence, which is synonymous with complicity in her relationship with Paddy, is also marked by ambivalence, since when Polly meets her mother again after thirty years, the silence that settles during their fruitless dialogue symbolizes the gap that separates mother and daughter.
- 9 Her mother’s family had played an active part in the Irish language movement (136).
19What is true of language and silence is also true of tongues. Indeed the short story underlines how English and Irish are constantly pitted against each other, and can be used either as tools of integration or of exclusion. This is why, when Polly was younger, she was torn by a sort of double bind or double allegiance: on the one hand being faithful to her mother’s exclusive passion for the Irish language9 and, on the other hand, being accepted by her schoolmates for whom English was “trendy, the language of pop singers and films, the universal language of teenagers” (142). Persisting with Irish condemned young people to be part of the “most prim or (…) the most excluded” and to be called an “Ireeshian” by the pupils who despised swots, a category in which Polly herself was put because of her good school results and her mother’s snobbishness. Irish, the mother tongue, is thus both a tool of integration (as is shown with Muriel’s example) and a tool of exclusion for the younger generation since Polly is rejected by her schoolmates on account of her proficiency in Irish, even if she is careful to speak English on the bus with them.
20However, the two languages are no longer set apart when Polly’s mother discovers that the latter is pregnant: her fury is so intense on that occasion that she resorts to both English and Irish, thus performing a kind of double betrayal: a psychological one that consists in letting her daughter down, and a linguistic one as she no longer confides in the Irish language alone to express her anger:
Home, adoption, hiding, were words which occurred, in a medley of Irish and English, a macaronic stream of abusive language which had never emanated from Polly’s mother before. It seemed that one language did not contain enough invective to express the full depth and range of her anger. (160)
- 10 When Polly told her mother about Paddy’s death, she merely turned back to her embroidery, ignoring (...)
21It sounds as if Polly’s mother is no longer able to master the languages she uses but is suddenly overtaken and controlled by them, as if those tongues had an autonomous existence and meant to punish her for her ruthlessness and her narrow-mindedness. She who uses oral language so badly, either by keeping silent when she should have spoken,10 or by resorting to verbal abuse, finds herself years later condemned to deafness and reduced to deciphering subtitles on the TV screen, thus becoming ironically dependent on the written word. What is more, as if to compensate for her betrayal of orality, oral tales seem to have also colonized her brain against her will: when Polly catches her reciting William’s story, her mother explains:
“I used to hear those old things when I was a child and I thought I’d forgotten them […] They were buried in my head somewhere and when I told one the others came back, one after the other. Funny, isn’t it? […] Usually I just watch the television. Most things are subtitled.” (157)
22Thus, both the written word (with these subtitles) and the oral word (with these tales that invade her brain) seem to be performing a form of retribution in order to avenge Polly’s ill-treatment, as if they had an existence of their own and chose to take possession of human minds whenever they please. This is what Polly concludes on discovering in a book the rest of the story told by her mother:
- 11 This idea is corroborated by another story by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne where the main character is suddenl (...)
The story is in a collection of German ballads, which [Polly] finds in one of the bedrooms. So how did her mother learn that? Had she read the book, or were the stories flying around in the air like migratory birds, landing wherever they found suitable weather conditions, a good supply of food? (163)11
23In fact, tales appear to have the same characteristics as repressed memories: they appear unbidden, the reason being that, like repressed memories, they speak the language of the unconscious. As Bruno Bettelheim underlines in The Uses of Enchantment:
There is general agreement that myths and fairy tales speak to us in the language of symbols representing unconscious content. Their appeal is simultaneously to our conscious and unconscious mind, to all three of its aspects—id, ego, and superego—and to our need for ego-ideals as well. This makes it very effective; and in the tales’ content, inner psychological phenomena are given body in symbolic form. (36)
24And so, because Polly’s mother has become deaf to the language of her subconscious, it is up to tales to relay her feeling of guilt by taking hold of her psyche. Indeed, it is not a coincidence if her memory is particularly haunted by William’s tale as a token of her unavowed remorse at having rejected her daughter and provoked her misery; it is also significant that the tale should be interrupted at a climactic point, just before the girl discovers the ghastly truth about her dead lover, as if Polly’s mother unconsciously wanted to prolong the blissful moment shared by the two lovers so as to atone for her own relentless behaviour regarding Polly’s relationship with Paddy.
25What Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s short story beautifully underlines is how the oral word and the written word are not to be set apart and antagonised, but on the contrary how their complementary action presides over the creative process. Indeed, it is after Polly manages to find the rest of her mother’s tale in a written form that she can take hold of the narrative of her life and find a voice of her own. She who had chosen to devote herself to the written word by becoming a scriptwriter can now become a storyteller and reconcile her present with her past, as well as recover repressed memories. One may indeed presume that her desire to become a scriptwriter had been unconsciously triggered by the feeling of exclusion she experienced when, still a teenager, she had been forbidden by her mother to take part in the shooting of a film in which all the other village people participated. That feeling had been so painful that she had completely erased it from her memory, until back on Irish soil again, it violently returns to her mind:
A film set, that is what it is, Polly remembers suddenly, a chink opening like a trapdoor in her head. There it is, something she has not thought about in thirty years: the commotion when the film had been made in the valley […]. The film had been a disappointing experience, an experience of total exclusion for Polly. No wonder she had forgotten all about it. (141)
- 12 The importance of images is also asserted at the beginning of The Dancers Dancing: “Every picture t (...)
26Even if Polly doesn’t seem to realize that this repressed memory may have influenced her career and her decision to become a scriptwriter, there is no doubt that such a resurgence participates in “cleansing” her memory so as to restore its full scope and capacity for creation. For memory is inseparable from the creative process, as is underlined by the narrative voice when Polly starts telling her story: “Polly has to decide. […] She decides, or memory decides, or […] the pressure to create, what to leave in, what to exclude” (166). With all its voids and fullness, memory thus appears as an essential component that presides over the creative process, so that Polly’s tale is at the same time “half-remembered, half-invented” like Muriel’s (166). This creative process is so powerful that it enables Polly to conjure up the figure of Paddy for a brief moment, and to bring him back from the world of the Dead: “They sit in silence. They let the story settle. And for minutes it is as if he is here again, on this earth. Alive, seventeen. […] He is sitting on the bus, silently staring out of the window, motionless as a seagull on a rock, lost in a boy’s dream” (166). What is at work here is Ní Dhuibhne’s painterly aesthetics, as the reader is left to muse over the picture of Paddy’s face, itself described looking out of the window. This painterly aesthetics is all the more appropriate as the functioning of memory itself relies on images: as was underlined by Freud, both dreams and memories use similar plastic form and iconicity (Freud 62). Besides, this painterly aesthetics illustrates the central role played by images in the author’s way of writing; in an interview with Donna Perry, she declares: “I find that [my short stories] gel after I’ve written the first draft: I get ideas about images that tie things together” (255).12
- 13 Ezra Pound describes that phenomenon as “phanopoeia,” that is to say a casting of images on the vis (...)
27We can further argue that it is the very presence of these images that ensures the link between orality and literacy since through these images, the author manages to recreate, with a written—and so visual—medium, the kind of auditory reverberation created by an oral tale. Indeed, the lingering effect produced on the reader’s mind13 by the final image of Paddy looking out of the bus window can be compared to the kind of auditory impact left by a tale performed in front of a live audience. It is a way to recreate in the reader’s mind the kind of solitary rehearsal that accompanies oral verbal arts: “Oral verbal arts need live audiences for their transmission, but the music and metre of songs and the highly patterned shapes of oral stories mean that the solitary individual can also remember, rehearse and contemplate them” (Bourke 1194).
28The story’s embedding, by making the two narratives echo each other, also contributes to reinforcing that phenomenon of reverberation. And so, even if readers are deprived of Polly’s oral performance because her tale is not transcribed (they have been previously given all the details of Polly’s life by the narrative voice), Paddy’s image produces on them a physical effect that is akin to the one experienced by a live audience listening to a tale; it is a physical reaction also similar to the one experienced by Polly when, on closing the book of German legends, she felt a shiver running through her body, as if the dead hand of William had touched her very forehead (164).
29If reasserting the iconographic dimension common to both memory and writing is so central to Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s art, it is because it is a way for her to address the issue of what she calls “the iconoclastic present”; when asked by Christine St Peter what she meant when she spoke of her work as being an exploration of “the different sides of Ireland” and an attempt “to negotiate the boundaries of the different worlds” (“Why Would Anyone Write in Irish?” 80), the author replies: “By “different sides” I mean the traditional past and the iconoclastic present, the rural and the urban, the oral and the literary, […] and most particularly, the Irish and the English languages as used in Ireland” (68). In this respect, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s artistic approach can be said to be a kind of poetic manifesto insofar as it asserts iconicity as the prevailing link between orality and literacy so as to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity.
30Polly’s tale precisely illustrates that reconciliation of tradition and modernity. It celebrates more than just her symbolic reintegration into the Irish community; it also marks the end of an era when single mothers like her were ostracized, when the individual was generally entrapped in a social, religious and moral network or what Ní Dhuibhne calls “the social and cultural web that enmeshed everybody” (135). Polly’s oral performance is a way to renegotiate this outdated social web (here represented by her deaf mother) so as to insert her story into a completely different social organisation where the needs of the individual are stated and acknowledged. As such, it illustrates the evolution of an Ireland that has learned to open itself to the outside world and is best represented by Muriel’s character. The Ireland that Polly confronts on her return after thirty years of exile is “an Ireland where it’s OK to be Irish” (“Holiday in the Land of Murdered Dreams” 118). It is an Ireland that is outward-looking, as is exemplified by the townspeople’s interest in hearing about Polly’s son (the latter now lives in Australia doing university research on whales): “They want to hear about Australia and the whales. Lots of the local young peopledo round-the-world trips as a matter of course, in their gap year” (162).
31So, while acknowledging the evolution of Ireland over a thirty-year span, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne reasserts in this story the power of orality, its capacity both to renegotiate the place of the individual within the community and to provide a powerful reservoir of imagery inscribed in the collective and individual memory. Her painterly aesthetic is a way to renew with that imagery while emphasizing the importance of preserving it from a pervasive visual culture imposed by the media and whose harmful impact is symbolized by Polly’s mother’s dependence on TV subtitles.