1For years, Joyce’s short story “A Mother” has perplexed readers of Dubliners. Initially, many scholars dismissed it in much the same manner as “Hoppy” Holohan and O’Madden Burke discount Mrs. Kearney at the story's end. The tale's focus was quite clear to these early critics: Kathleen Kearney's mother is a fright--nothing more, nothing less. Self-indulgent and willful, Miss Devlin marries the bootmaker Kearney because the Age, as well as her age, invests a certain urgency. She must soon marry or forever tarry. There is, too, her consolation that like a good pair of boots, Mr. Kearney would wear better than would a more romantic soul. A domineering wife and mother who yet harbors romantic notions, she skillfully manages the household and sees to it that her daughter Kathleen receives a fortified convent education, including the study of music and French. Kathleen's subsequent training at the Irish Academy of Music and her egalitarian Gaelic lessons bespeak her mother's shrewdness. Discerning her motherly regard as merely the masquerade of a frustrated stage mother, however, early critics like Hugh Kenner saw Mrs. Kearney's comeuppance at the story's conclusion as Joyce's own reproach for such a greedy, ambitious mother. The major weakness of the tale, felt a number of critics, was the absence of a serious issue. Ultimately, not enough seemed to be at stake (Beck 259). Thus, like Kathleen Kearney's partial payment at the start of the concert, “A Mother” seemed to these critics to be something less than what it should have been.
2Later scholars like A. Walton Litz disagreed. Might Joyce be doing more with this tale, they cautioned, such as criticizing the provincialism of musical programs in turn-of-the-century Dublin? After all, Joyce was bitter about having received a third-place award in a singing competition–having been awarded only the bronze medal at the annual Feis Ceoil because he refused to participate in the sight reading test (Litz 494). A number of critics concurred, and Ben Collins further noted Joyce's displeasure with the entire Irish Revival movement, thus discerning Joyce’s scathing treatment of it in “A Mother” (61). Collins, accordingly, viewed Mrs. Kearney as the hero of the piece rather than the villain: a form of Cathleen-ni-Houlihan bereft of champions to glorify her (65).
3More recent critics have viewed Mrs. Kearney as a woman with a mind of her own and the wherewithal to accomplish her goals. The mother manages effectively her household and her daughter's musical career. She is quite capable, as well, in her arrangement of the Eire Abu Society's music program, which “Hoppy” Holohan is only too happy to turn over to her better judgement. Mrs. Kearney’s humiliation at the hands of O'Madden Burke and the Society’s mostly male committee members illustrates her victimization by Dublin's patriarchal society, rendering her powerless (Miller 424). Indeed, described late in the tale as an angry stone image, Mrs. Kearney becomes literally and metaphorically paralyzed (Miller 420), one more casualty of Joyce's debilitated Dublin.
4The negative perception of Mrs. Kearney persists, however, as Linda Paige exhibits in a 1995 article wherein Mrs. Kearney, like Gabriel Conroy's mother in “The Dead,” is viewed as a manipulative selfish matron who emotionally scars her child (329). This perspective is in accord with Ellmann’s earlier assessment of Mrs. Kearney as a brow beater who is a failure as a mother (295).
5Such a conundrum of a tale deserves further attention, certainly. An historical-textual analysis of “A Mother” offers a new critical departure and, consequently, a fresh perspective that clears up some of the tale’s opaqueness.
6To begin, Mrs. Kearney's maiden name, Devlin, has been all but ignored by critics. To date, only Donald Torchiana has noted that the name is shared with that of Anne Devlin, the hero of Robert Emmet's failed 1803 Dublin uprising. Observing that Anne Devlin’s determination, though not her selflessness, inheres in the former Miss Devlin, Torchiana forsakes further comparison. A close historical-textual examination, however, reveals Mrs. Kearney to be a recast Devlin figure. Hardly of the historical Anne Devlin's stature or importance, Mrs. Kearney nonetheless becomes an admirable protagonist whose shabby treatment by other Dubliners serves both to indict them and to evoke the reader’s sympathy. To this end, Joyce’s presentation of Mrs. Kearney and her difficult campaign will be examined within the historical context of Anne Devlin's ordeals during and after Emmet's short-lived Rising of 1803.
7In Ulysses, Joyce mentions Emmet's uprising, subsequent trial, and execution. Joyce easily could have learned the details of Anne Devlin's travails, too, for her prison journal was incorporated into R.R. Madden's The United Irishmen: Their Lives and Times (1846). Volume three of this work, entitled The Life and Times of Robert Emmet, was reprinted in 1902 in acknowledgment of the Rising's imminent centennial. Because of the impending anniversary, newspapers of the day made frequent mention of Emmet and his romantic failure. This renaissance of interest in the 1803 Rising occurred three years before Joyce composed “A Mother.” Joyce's passion for Irish history, generally, and for Dublin's history, particularly, ensures his awareness of Anne Devlin. This is borne out in “A Mother” wherein numerous parallels between Anne Devlin and Mrs. Kearney offset one another, effectively advancing Mrs. Kearney as heroic figure.
8Anne Devlin, like Joyce's later Miss Devlin, managed the domestic duties of a household. Both women, however, also took upon themselves additional duties. Privy to the most secret strategies of Robert Emmet's 1803 Dublin uprising, Anne Devlin threw herself heart and soul into the preparations for the insurrection, helping to ship arms and supplies from the Dublin headquarters on Butterfield Lane to rebel positions in other parts of the city. Mrs. Kearney, too, goes above and beyond the call of her household duties: she takes it upon herself to oversee Kathleen's professional future and to help stage the public-spirited exhibition for the nationalistic Eire Abu Society, at the behest of committee assistant-secretary Hoppy Holohan. Based upon Joyce's own 1904 concert experience at the Ancient Concert Rooms, this fictional program, too, undoubtedly emphasizes patriotic music, for its purpose is to “spread propaganda and to raise funds” (O'Neill 228). Thus, in their individual ways, both Anne Devlin and Mrs. Kearney serve Cathleen Ni Hoolihan.
9More parallels exist between these Devlin Dubliners. Anne Devlin knew full well the danger of her involvement in such a nationalistic campaign–her very life was at risk. Yet she understood also that the insurgents would fail to appear at the appointed hour of nine o'clock on the Saturday evening of July 23 to support the uprising unless given arms purchased by the United Irishman leader, Robert Emmet. While Mrs. Kearney's “peril” is minuscule by comparison, her commitment to the success of the Eire Abu patriotic program is complete, too. She devotes great attention to the arrangement of the details for the four grand concerts, simultaneously devising the triumphant launching of daughter Kathleen's musical career. The contract is drawn up whereby Kathleen, as piano accompanist, is to be paid eight guineas. However, Mrs. Kearney contributes more than just her time and skill to these matters; she invests money. She shops at fashionable Brown Thomas's for material to let into Kathleen's dress and, what is more, she buys twelve two-shilling tickets for the Saturday evening performance to send to friends who, like Emmet’s rebels, could not be relied upon to appear otherwise. Indeed, the commitmentof these women to "risky" patriotic campaigns further links historical hero and fictional.
10With the arrival of the respective Saturday nights (almost exactly 100 years apart, since the Eire Abu concert is based upon Joyce's August 1904 recital at which the piano accompanist left during the show's intermission), both Devlins' worst nightmares are realized. Due largely to broken promises and the subsequent lack of monetary and troop support from those who had initially encouraged him in the undertaking, Emmet's uprising hung fire. Poor communication among the leaders and the appearance of only a few hundred supporters compelled Emmet to suspend the planned action. Begun at nine o'clock in the evening, the Rising of 1803 was over by ten o’clock. Fatalities were few in number. Emmet returned to his headquarters to be berated by Anne Devlin, who questioned his courage, his loyalty, and his love for Ireland.
- 1 Robert Emmet was executed on Tuesday, September 19, 1803
11Mrs. Kearney's venture also is a failure. When the eight-guinea fee promised Kathleen by the patriotic program's initiators is not forthcoming, Mrs. Kearney delays the beginning of the Saturday night concert until the committee partially honors the contract with the payment of four pounds. Launched by the audience's clapping and whistling that replicates the firing of a rocket that signaled the start of the 1803 Rising, the concert commences at about that same ominous hour–nine o'clock. Having been led to believe the money owed Kathleen would be paid at the intermission, Mrs. Kearney soon becomes incensed upon learning otherwise: further payment is denied until the matter can be taken up by the society's committee the following Tuesday.1 As it stands, Kathleen must either finish the program or be paid nothing more. Aware that the other artistes have been paid in full by the committee, the mother apprehends her betrayal. Mrs. Kearney demands her rights and vows that the committee will not take advantage of her simply because of her gender. Deceived also by Holohan, the very man who had solicited Kathleen Kearney’s services, had accepted Mrs. Kearney’s invaluable assistance, and had made the contract for eight guineas, the mother refuses to be put off. Kathleen will either receive the four guineas, four shillings due her, or “a foot she won’t put on that platform” (Joyce 148). Unwilling to pay the money at that time, however, and bristling at Mrs. Kearney's clamorous implication that Holohan’s gentlemanly air is mere pretense, the committee replaces Kathleen. In yet another act of betrayal, Kathleen's good “friend” Miss Healy assumes the role of accompanist. The mother’s endeavors to assist Eire Abu and to better her daughter’s social-musical prospects having come to naught, the Kearneys, whose Gaelic name ironically means “victor,” retreat reluctantly. Like Emmet and his supporters, the Kearneys meet with defeat before the nationalist enterprise could get well underway.
- 2 On several occasions, she was offered a 500 pound reward if she would reveal information that woul(...)
12Joyce adeptly provides additional parallels between patriotic crusade and concert. The similar abuse suffered by Anne Devlin and Mrs. Kearney reveals further Joyce’s development of Mrs. Kearney as a heroic figure. Hard on the heels of Emmet's failed initiative, Anne Devlin was set upon, subjected to “half-hanging” (a punishment wherein the victim is hanged until unconscious and then cut down), after which she was pricked with bayonets by soldiers in their endeavor to make her betray Emmet. She refused. Thus, though uncharged with any offense, she was incarcerated in Dublin Castle and later put in Kilmainham Jail, where she was placed in solitary confinement. Her cells were unheated and usually windowless. Still she would not name names.2 During one interrogation session when a former rebel compatriot tried to persuade her to expose her confederates, she displayed her renowned volcanic temper by grabbing his cravat and choking him with it until guards freed him from her grasp (Finnegan 62). Additionally, Anne's sharp tongue was responsible for adding to her already great suffering (Madden 149). Once when she was being tyrannized by Dr. Trevor, her chief tormentor, she likened him to her father's bald horse that, like Trevor, had a red cast to its eyes when bent on mischief. Having made him a laughing stock throughout Kilmainham by means of this comparison, Anne was punished more severely by the irate Trevor (Finnegan 97). On another occasion, Under-Secretary Marsden, infuriated at her loyalty to the rebels, told her that she was: “a most incorrigible girl, dead to all the kindness and noble feeling that adorn the character of a woman” (Finnegan 59). Furthermore, Anne Devlin suffered from a physical affliction. During the second year of her three years' imprisonment in cramped and stony-cold Kilmainham, she experienced what she described as “a kind of stiffness” around her whole frame (96). At times, she was “hardly able to move hand or foot” (Madden 149), momentarily paralyzed due to her limbs' customary disuse.
- 3 Madden further alludes to Anne Devlin's hands as weapons. Forty years after the uprising, returnin(...)
13Joyce's latter-day Devlin, Mrs. Kearney, suffers corresponding betrayal, humiliation and punishment in early twentieth-century Dublin. (Her suffering is far less dramatic than Anne Devlin's, no doubt, but that does not preclude her as a hero.) When she demands Kathleen's payment as it was stipulated in their pact, Mrs. Kearney is set upon by Mr. Fitzpatrick and Holohan, the latter of whom like Anne Devlin's Dr. Trevor becomes “very red and excited” and speaks “volubly” (Joyce 146). Although she is paid less than half the amount that had been agreed upon, Mrs. Kearney nevertheless is condemned by the committee, by most of the artistes, and by the newsman Burke. Despite her complaints that they are being unjust and that they are trying to take advantage of her because “they thought they had only a girl to deal with” (Joyce 148), she be beset by the reneging committee during the intermission. So as not to break the contract, her daughter must finish the concert if she is to receive more money. Her daughter's rights denied, as well as to her own, and face-to-face with the turncoat Holohan, Mrs. Kearney looks “as if she would attack someone with her hands” (Joyce 148). She is somewhat more restrained than was Anne in this matter.3 However, suffering beyond human endurance, Mrs. Kearney's tongue lashes her disloyal tormentor, Holohan. She mimics: “‘You must speak to the secretary. It's not my business. I'm a great fellow fol-the-diddle-I do’” (Joyce 149). Her jibe backfires, as had Anne Devlin's, for it brings but more punishment. Mrs. Kearney is declared unladylike by assistant-secretary Holohan, as had been Anne by Under-Secretary Marsden, and she is roundly condemned. Subjugated and momentarily immobilized, Mrs. Kearney seems “like an angry stone image” when she sees the Kearneys’ frequent guest, Miss Healy, displace Kathleen as accompanist. Declared guilty by her superiors, as it were, Mrs. Kearney's campaign ends in disaster. Accordingly, as was the case with Anne Devlin, she is made to pay the penalty for her devotion, loyalty, and temerity.
14Besides these parallels between Anne Devlin and Mrs. Kearney, Joyce employs in “A Mother” other clever allusions to Anne Devlin and to Emmet's rebellion. For example, critics have puzzled over the significance of Miss Healy's query as to whether the baritone had seen recently the well-known actress Mrs. Pat Campbell. When one realizesthat following her release from Kilmainham in 1806, Anne married a Mr. Cambell, took his name, and bore him two children (Madden 144), Joyce’s puzzling passage suddenly makes sense. Within this offhanded dialogue lies an ironic allusion to Anne Devlin Cambell, who unlike the British actress reported to be “very fine,” is represented in the bold personage of Mrs. Kearney, who is faring but poorly.
15Another sly connection between Anne Devlin and Mrs. Kearney is found in the surname and function of the only named female member of the Eire Abu committee, Miss Beirne. Having hoped for “a good house,” she sighs, “‘Ah well! We did our best, the dear knows’” (Joyce 142). Though she is unmarried, her gender, her failed patriotic effort, and her subsequent disappointment are reminiscent of other Mother-Ireland figures, such as Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Anne Devlin, and Mrs. Kearney. In addition, her surname, despite its variant spelling, links her directly to Anne Devlin, for Byrne was the maiden name of Anne’s mother. How appropriate in a tale entitled “A Mother” for a symbolic maternal reunion among three Irish women nationalists–any one of whom could represent Mother Ireland: Miss Beirne, her “daughter” Anne, who, in turn, is represented by Mrs. Kearney. With regard to the historical analogue, Miss Beirne’s inability to help Mrs. Kearney parallels Anne Devlin’s own mother’s helplessness to come to her imprisoned daughter’s aid. Beirne’s later denunciation of Mrs. Kearney, advising the committee to pay her nothing more, also is pertinent. Joyce illustrates herewith war’s divisive nature. Guilty only of anti-English sentiment, Anne’s mother nevertheless was imprisoned after the uprising. There she saw her son James die of fever. Anne’s loyalty to Emmet and to Ireland, for she still refused to talk, was largely responsible for her mother and father’s continued imprisonment. There can be little doubt that Mrs. Devlin’s human frailty must have made her resent Anne’s unyielding stance at times, as Miss Beirne does Mrs. Kearney’s.
16Preceded in death by her husband, and too frail to continue to take in washing, Anne Devlin-Cambell died penniless in 1851. Despite this Irish patriot’s and Mrs. Kearney’s dissimilar economic circumstances, their unsuccessful and humiliating struggle for money due them unites the two women. Toward the end of Anne’s life, the Young Ireland Party opened a subscription list for her in the Nation newspaper. All total, she received less than five pounds, doled out to her in such small sums as two shillings, six pence. Otherwise reliant upon the income of a sickly son who was down with fever, Devlin lamented the “niggard hand,” but was too proud to ever appeal to the fund’s dispensers in the Nation’s office (Finnegan 120). Thus, both Mrs. Kearney and Anne Devlin were denied by nationalist organizations the funds that were rightly theirs.
17Personality and character also link these two Devlins. Anne has been described as a plain, earthy, realistic person, sharp-tongued when tormented by others, and she had a violent, volcanic temper... Her heart was big and warm, and all her energies were channeled to serve and protect the people she loved (Landreth 143). This word portrait also captures the essence of Mrs. Kearney.
18Constructing “A Mother” around Emmet’s failed bid for Irish freedom, Joyce was careful in his choice of Miss Devlin’s husband’s surname, occupation, and place of business. Although critics have contemplated Mr. Kearney’s significance, in fact little has been done with the bootmaker of Ormand Quay. As it happened, two men named Kearney figured prominently in Emmet's Rising. Several days following the fiasco, publican William Kearney of Bohernabreen, Co. Dublin, concealed Emmet and several rebel officers in the garret of his inn. Kearney successfully diverted attention away from these rebel leaders when soldiers arrived to search the premises. William Kearney was imprisoned later in Kilmainham for this assistance. The second Kearney was less fortunate. At the order of Lord Norbury, who presided over the trial of Emmet and the rebels, Edward Kearney was the first to be executed, having been adjudged guilty of participation in the bid for Ireland’s freedom. The religious fervor of Joyce’s Mr. Kearney gains poignancy with the realization that Edward Kearney was forced to face the scaffold without benefit of a priest to hear his last confession or to offer spiritual comfort.
- 4 Twenty-nine years later in Dublin, these Hessian boots and a black velvet stock that had a lock of(...)
19As for the role of boots or bootmakers in the Rising, Emmet was fitted for a resplendent uniform that included a pair of Hessian boots. This dramatic ensemble Emmet first wore the night of the rebellion. At his trial, a witness placed him at the scene of the violence by recalling those very Hessian boots. Emmet, in fact, would be executed wearing them.4
- 5 While there, Long wrote an inflammatory proclamation entitled Citizens of Dublin wherein he pronou(...)
20Although no bootmaker named Kearney from Ormand Quay played a notable role in the 1803 Rising, a shoemaker from Ormand Quay, William Cole, did. His shop was designated by Emmet to be a Point of Check on the night of the Rising and thus “occupied by blunderbusses” for it “opened suddenly on the flank of the army without being exposed to their fire” (Madden 23 & 106). In addition to occupation and address, another similarity connects William Cole, Joyce’s Mr. Kearney, and publican William Kearney. As had the latter, William Cole concealed in his shop a very important officer of the uprising. Following an explosion in the rebel's Patrick Street depot on July 18, speech writer Mr. Philip Long hid himself for several days in the shoemaker's house on Ormond Quay.5 Joyce’s Mr. Kearney thus becomes a composite of William Kearney and William Cole. He, too, has a “rebel” under his roof, and her campaign he resolutely “backs.”
- 6 This umbrella, soon to be employed by Burke after he leaves the theater on this rainy night, sugge(...)
- 7 Emmet learned of his mother’s recent death only on the morning of his execution. Asking a friend a(...)
21Joyce also skillfully correlates facets of this tale with the trial of Robert Emmet. O'Madden Burke, the concert reviewer for the Freeman's Journal, was afforded the respect of his peers, his “magniloquent western name” serving as the “moral umbrella” upon which he “balanced” the delicate difficulty of his finances (Joyce 145). Making his moral pronouncement to Holohan at the tale’s conclusion while poised upon his umbrella, Burke's prop thus becomes an ironic symbol for a balance, the very scales of justice themselves6. O'Madden Burke thus becomes the counterpart to the magistrate Lord Norbury. Burke, clearly, serves as judge in this tale, condemning the Kearneys (Torchiana 196). Suitably, by means of his forthcoming review he will sentence Kathleen Kearney's career to death7, declaring her musical vocation in Dublin “ended” (Joyce 147). And this same concert notice will be placed in the Freeman's Journal, fittingly, by Mr. Hendick, a surname associated with a family of Dubliner undertakers (Gifford 100). Another example of Joyce's allusive wit, Burke’s disparaging review regarding Kathleen Kearney will serve the same function with regard to her career as the obituary notices that the Hendicks frequently submitted to Dublin newspapers.
22So as to develop most satisfactorily this short story as an historical analogue, Joyce forges ahead. Burke's review, in that it will serve as the epitaph for Kathleen's career, parallels ironically Emmet's famous speech containing his own epitaph made from the platform to Norbury's court. Proclaimed Emmet, “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written” (Sullivan). Joyce's view that Ireland was far too parochial and in desperate need of becoming more progressive is implicit thus in the hypertext of this tale that tells of the betrayal and thwarted ambition of two Dublin Devlins.
23Yet two more links cleverly connect this story and Emmet's renowned oration. Appalled that Norbury had handed down to him the dishonor associated with the hangman’s rope, Emmet told the assembly, “the sentence of the law which delivers over my body to the executioner, consigns my character to obloquy” (Sullivan). Mrs. Kearney’s “good name” thus shares the fate of Emmet’s. Furthermore, a dramatic echo from Emmet’s oration is heard in the speech of Mrs. Kearney so as to juxtapose Joyce’s story with Emmet’s famous address. The condemned rebel's final words from the dock were, “I have done” (43). Backstage at the nationalistic recital, Mrs. Kearney’s last address to her betrayer consists of, “I'm not done with you yet,” to which Holohan rejoins, “But I'm done with you” (Joyce 149). At the conclusion of the long and unpleasant trial, having been lectured by Emmet before the entire court, Lord Norbury’s was impatient. In all likelihood, his sentiments were akin Holohan’s as he sentenced Emmet to death. From the Crown's perspective, Emmet's subsequent death was that befitting a traitor: a most shameful end. To Irish patriots, conversely, his horrible ordeal upon the scaffold was nothing short of a noble blood sacrifice. Fittingly, in “A Mother” Joyce indicts the Dublin “judge figure,” O’Madden Burke, as well as the committee of the Eire Abu Society. They, in fact, become the living embodiment of Emmet's view of Ireland under English Rule! Wrote Emmet in his 1803 manifesto, The Provisional Government to the People of Ireland, “Ireland has been left in a state of ignorance, rudeness, and barbarism, worse in its effects and more degrading in its nature than that in which it was found six centuries before” (Madden 250). Ironically, the condemners in the tale, as in Norbury's Court, become the condemned. Joyce thus has recast ingeniously, character, plot, mise en scène, and dialogue in “A Mother” so as to recall one of Irish history's most memorable episodes.
24In so doing, Joyce has tailored “A Mother” to fit perfectly into the Dubliners collection. Positioned directly after “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” another tale of public life that treats ironically the fall of a different Irish patriot, Charles Stewart Parnell, it continues the thematic thread of failed nationalistic enterprises. Preceding “Grace,” “A Mother” focuses upon the importance of money in matters that should rise above it–art and nationalism–anticipating Father Purdon’s simoniacal sermon to the important Dublin businessmen in the penultimate tale. Certainly, the chief concerns of Joyce's short-story collection–paralysis, gnomon, and simony–are central to the theme of “A Mother.” Mrs. Kearney, a capable and loyal mother who has been ambitious for both herself and her daughter is exploited, betrayed, and demeaned. The same lot fell to Anne Devlin and Robert Emmet, of course. Emmet, too, had been charged with “ambition,” an accusation he hotly denied. This, also, is Mrs. Kearney's unanticipated consignment. She is no longer deemed a “lady,” and her daughter's musical career is finished, as is her own managerial role. At the story's open-ended finale this mother, who some view as a Mother-Ireland figure (Collins 65), static as “an angry stone image” (Joyce 149), has been banished from the public platform because of her demand for justice. Like her historical counterpart, Anne Devlin, this twentieth-century Devlin also is relegated to a life of expiation.
25To conclude, Joyce’s high regard for his own mother seems to have found expression in this tale. Mary Joyce died on August 13, 1903, one month before the centenary of Emmet’s own mother’s death in September of 1803. To his brother Stanislaus, Joyce once remarked that there are only two forms of love in the world: that of a mother for her child, and that of a man for lies (Ellmann 293). Joyce’s paradigm of love finds superb expression in “A Mother.” After all, he wrote to Nora soon after Mary Joyce’s wake that his dead mother’s wasted face seemed to him the visage of a victim, and Joyce cursed “the system” that had victimized her (Ellmann 169). In this light, “A Mother” becomes Joyce’s universal tribute to all long-suffering mothers like his own, Robert Emmet’s, Anne Devlin’s, the Cambell children’s, and Kathleen Kearney’s.