Resurrecting the Bog Queen: Exploring the Gender Politics of Ireland's Bogs in Postcolonial and Nationalist Literature
IN THIS ARTICLE
Bogs are one of Ireland’s most notable and mysterious landscapes. As explored in the work of Seamus Heaney, the bog’s capacity to preserve memory across generations makes it a melancholic terrain that is uniquely suited to explorations of Ireland’s national identity, particularly as Ireland emerged out of the grip of British colonialism. This paper draws upon postcolonial, feminist, and literary theory to explore why the bog has become such a provocative terrain for the exploration of Irish identity and Irish femininity. Beginning with the writings of colonial administrators, the bog has been a site where colonial theories of gender were written into the language of the bog; this gendered association continued even as Britain’s colonial rule ended, leaving many literary explorations of Irish womanhood tied to the feminized landscape of the bog. In Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats… the naturalized association between Irish femininity is disturbed, making way for a new imagination of the bog as a melancholic space where neither nationalist or colonial theories of gender hold in the wake of colonial trauma.
In this paper, I examine how Marina Carr’s use of melancholia as a literary method in By the Bog of Cats… challenges hegemonic assumptions about the linkages between land, gender, and ownership. Carr initially rose to prominence in 1994 with her play The Mai, which was followed by By the Bog of Cats… in 1998. Since her debut in the 90s, Carr has become a prominent voice in Irish theatre and is a member of Aosdána, an association of notable Irish authors (Aosdána, n.d.) Although much of Carr’s work is set in the Irish midlands, where she is from, By the Bog of Cats.. is perhaps the play that deals most directly with the bog as a landscape. Carr’s work uses the melancholic landscape of the bog to stage a critique of the gender politics of land ownership in a post-colonial context, paying particular attention to the violence of accumulation and the ways in which control over women and control over land are often collapsed. Carr’s critique intervenes in the utopian dream of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years, which Western governments and political commentators considered Ireland’s escape from its colonial past.The Celtic Tiger era, a period of rapid economic growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was heralded as Ireland’s arrival in the modern age through economic advancement that placed Ireland on par with its neighbors in the EU, despite the country’s history of poverty and colonial dispossession. While the Celtic Tiger years eventually ended around 2008 when Ireland was plunged into an economic depression, the early years of the phenomenon gave rise to a dominant discourse that positioned the period as something to be celebrated. However, some critics identified the Celtic Tiger years as a neocolonial moment that re-articulated the power relations of Ireland’s colonial past of English domination. This history of domination was centered around the confiscation of Irish land and the imposition of English economic systems that disrupted traditional Irish relationships to the land and, notably, the bog.
These disruptions were articulated in part through English attempts to manage the bog in order to make it a more ‘efficient’ space for agricultural production, which made the bog a site of colonial tension and colonial memory. Thus, the colonial history of the bog makes it a site of melancholic memory that allows the violence of the past to remain alive and to rupture the capitalist euphoria presented by the Celtic Tiger era. In Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, Irish women’s melancholic relationship to the bog and the traumatic memories it contains disrupt the progress narrative of the Celtic Tiger that asked the Irish to ‘forget’ their colonial history in order to embrace neocolonial modernity. Instead, By the Bog of Cats… insists that Ireland must remember its colonial history in order to draw attention to the consequences of the Celtic Tiger era’s neocolonial ideology, which sought to erase Ireland’s contentious relationship to colonialism in favor of asymmetrical economic advancement.
In framing my discussion of the bog as a site of melancholic memory, I gloss the colonial history of the bog and its incorporation into both colonial and anti-colonial nationalist schemas, drawing heavily from Derek Gladwin’s description of colonial texts in his book, Contentious Terrains. I am particularly interested in examining how the bog has been gendered both by colonial forces and by Irish nationalists; to this end, I also conduct an analysis of the gendered nature of the bog through the work of Patricia Coughlan and Anne McClintock.
My paper concludes with a critique of Gladwin’s analysis of By the Bog of Cats… and a counter-reading that proposes melancholia as the key to understanding the play’s critique of gender and land. I argue that through her use of the bog’s ability to alter temporality, Carr deploys melancholia as a literary strategy that calls attention to the violence of land ownership in a post-colonial context. Thus, Carr is able to disrupt the progress narrative of the Celtic Tiger’s early years by bringing histories of colonial violence and the neocolonial nature of Ireland’s economic advancement to the fore.
Gladwin’s Contentious Terrains is unique in that it is one of the only book-length studies of cultural representations of bogs in Irish literature. It traces the colonial history of the bog and examines why the bog has become a central fixture of Irish cultural production. Gladwin’s work offers historical insights and incisive descriptions of the bog’s power as a space where authors can explore complex questions of nationalism and Ireland’s continued relationship to colonial power. Where Gladwin falters, however, is in his discussion of the gendered nature of bogs, exemplified by his analysis of By The Bog of Cats. While Gladwin’s work on the bog’s literary significance is an important source for my paper, Gladwin’s characterization of By the Bog of Cat’s central character, Hester, naturalizes her relationship to the bog in ways that reinforce sexist colonial narratives that reify women as emblems of the land. Contrary to Gladwin’s understanding, I move away from naturalizing Hester and instead conclude that Hester’s relationship to the bog should be understood as melancholic, facilitated by the bog’s geological and historical terrain.
Theoretical Background and Key Terms
Bogs are a kind of wetland that are comprised of up to 90% water. They cover about 1/6th of Ireland’s land area, a staggering proportion of the island’s territory that can partially explain their importance in Irish culture and cultural production. In addition to their sizable geographic presence, the unique composition of the bog’s ecosystem makes it a generative landscape, both literally and figuratively (Gladwin, 2016, pp. 29-30).
Bogs are distinct from other kinds of wetlands in that they are anaerobic, acidic, and not very nutrient rich. They are made up of partially decomposed organic matter called peat, which is a central feature of the Irish bog (Gladwin, 2016, p. 32). Within Irish culture, peat has many uses. Primarily, it has been used as a fuel source for thousands of years; many Irish families have farmed the same bogs and used their peat for fuel for generations (p. 34). In addition to being a fuel source, peat can act as a “natural time capsule” that has, in some cases, “absorbed and preserved artifacts that help document the island’s ecological and cultural history” (Toner, 2019).
The preservative properties of peat, along with its liminal status between life and death, is crucial to the otherworldly aspects of the bog that make it loom so large in the world or Irish literary production. Gladwin asserts that the allure of the bog is due precisely to its ability to “collect and record memories of the material and cultural human past, thereby serving as a useful tool for writers to account for re-visitations of certain histories” (p. 34). These histories are often marked by trauma and violence, such as Ireland’s centuries-long struggle against English colonial rule. Some of this history has become embedded in the bog through cultural artifacts buried in peat such as “bog bodies,”1 old books, and remnants of ancient battles, which are eventually – and often inadvertently - brought to the surface through peat digging operations (p. 34). These cultural artifacts bring history into the present, which allows the bog to serve as a site of melancholic memory that opens a relationship to the past within Irish culture.
To theorize melancholia, it is important to turn to the work of David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. Eng and Kazanjian situate their exploration of melancholia within Freud’s use of the term, but they argue that it is not merely a pathological phenomenon, as Freud believed. Eng and Kazanjian conclude that as “a mourning without end, melancholia results from the inability to resolve the grief and ambivalence precipitated by the loss of the loved object, place, or ideal” (p. 4). Eng and Kazanjian’s intervention is to state that melancholia’s lack of closure can provide a fruitful ground for the colonized and the dispossessed to reopen their relationship to the past by asserting that the moment of colonialism or dispossession was not simply a one-time loss; it was, instead, a process that has continuing implications. Examining these continuing implications can allow for new perspectives on lost objects (p. 4) as well as “new representations and alternative meanings” (p. 5). These alternative meanings can lead to new understandings of past injustices – in the Irish context, an understanding of the full scope of the destruction of English colonialism –which in turn can create revolutionary potential. In this sense, melancholia allows subjects to contest their relationship to the past in order to create changes in the present, which Eng and Kazanjian point to by describing melancholia as “full of volatile potentiality and future militancies” (p. 5).
The ‘future militancies’ generated by melancholia can often be mobilized through literature, as is analyzed in Jonathan Flatley’s Affective Mapping. Flatley’s work explores how the radical potential that melancholia generates, as identified by Eng and Kazanjian, can be generated from literature. Flatley, reading Benjamin, claims that melancholia can be a radicalizing state wherein “clinging to things from the past enables interest and action in the present world and is indeed the very mechanism for that interest…it might allow one to gain access to the historical origins of one’s suffering” (p. 65). As acknowledged in this quote, melancholic affects can create deep shifts in how individuals understand their history and social position and as such, melancholia is a political method that must be taken seriously. The challenge, for Flatley and Benjamin, is how to use melancholia as a literary method to inspire political change.
In order to imagine what melancholia as a political strategy in literature might look like, Flatley draws on Benjamin’s writings on Proust and Baudelaire. Benjamin’s central contention, summarized by Flatley was that modernization has overwhelmed people to the point that individuals have had to shield themselves from “affective contact with the materiality of the world around us” (p. 69) In order to shield individuals from intense and overwhelming affective experiences, our consciousness rides “the flow of homogenous time” (p. 69) by encasing out memories into a narrative while simultaneously erasing its full contents. Benjamin believed that certain authors, such as Proust and Baudelaire, were able to use their writing to jolt us out of homogenous time in order to bring attention to the past:
The goal of political literature, then, is to jolt the consciousness out of the lulling rhythm of linear time and into a melancholic remembrance that “focused attention on what had been lost and thus, also, by way of these losses, on the specificity of the present moment” (p. 69). That moment of uncanny, melancholic remembrance cultivates new understandings of social relations and the potential for revolutionary affects.
The Colonial History of the Bog
While the bog’s function as a site that preserves historical artifacts and, by extension, historical memory can explain its melancholic resonances, the bog’s own colonial history as a site of tension over land use is central to why the bog has become a terrain on which Irish authors negotiate their ongoing relationships to colonial tensions. This colonial history cannot be separated from discourses that depict colonized land as feminized and therefore open to masculinized, colonial conquest. This history, however, is complicated by the fact that Irish anti-colonial nationalism also centered around feminized figures, particularly that of Mother Ireland and Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen, as the mother of an emerging anti-colonial nation.
In her discussion of nationalism and colonialism, Anne McClintock eloquently examines how and why colonized land is discursively figured as feminized. Although McClintock’s work was primarily about the colonization of South Africa, her insights can be applied to the Irish context due to the shared gender ideology behind both colonial projects. For McClintock, colonial projects are organized around “a male national narrative figured as an imperial journey into empty lands” (McClintock, 1993, p. 69). The conceptualization of land as empty - or, in the case of the bog, misused - allows for the erasure of colonized populations and the conquest and appropriation of their land. In McClintock’s analysis, empty land is not just empty, it is virgin:
Thus, the discourse of colonialism paints colonial land as passive, feminized, and awaiting masculine, colonial intervention. In the Irish context, English colonial intervention into ‘virgin’ land was justified through rendering bogland as a “wasted,” or unused and therefore virgin, that needed to be properly commodified by the application of civilized, English systems of land use (Gladwin, 2016, p. 41).
The depiction of Irish land as wasted, and the subsequent interventions that were seen as ‘necessary’, are a striking example of McClintock’s theorization of colonial ideology. Because Ireland’s boglands were rendered as a wasted, virgin space that had been mismanaged by the Irish, the “thrusting male insemination” of European - in this case, English - intervention was justified in order to civilize the Irish (McClintock, 1993, p. 69). In this case, however, not only the land was feminized: the linkage of the Irish and their land by colonial administrators had a secondary effect of feminizing the Irish people as a whole.
The feminization of Ireland as a whole began in the Tudor period through colonial writings that linked the passivity of Irish land with the Irish themselves, but was further articulated by Matthew Arnold in the late nineteenth century, a time when struggles over land use were becoming violent (Gladwin, 2016, p. 180). Arnold positioned the “Celtic races” as feminized, and thus more “passionate, sensual, and non-rational,” which reified Ireland’s perceived pathology and renewed the perceived need for English intervention (qtd. in Gladwin). While Arnold’s description is certainly pejorative, Irish nationalists seemingly re-appropriated the feminization of Ireland through the figure of “Mother Ireland,” who metaphorically “birthed” the new, independent Irish nation in the 20th century. Despite the elevation of the figure of “Mother Ireland,” new Irish nationalisms continued to fall into sexist traps that positioned women as idealized “bearers of the nation” (McClintock, 1993, p. 62) without granting them political agency.
When describing anti-colonial nationalisms, McClintock analyzes the tension between women as symbolic bearers of the nation (in this case, the newly minted Republic of Ireland) and their reality as politically marginalized subjects. In her discussion, McClintock attributes this tension to the fact that the central figure of anti-colonial nationalism is male (p. 62). McClintock asserts that most revolutionary nationalisms position themselves around a male revolutionary subject, just as colonial projects positioned themselves as masculinized “penetrations” into virginal land. Thus, the struggle over nationalism becomes a struggle over feminized space which leaves little room for women’s agency or participation. Instead, according to McClintock, “women are subsumed symbolically into the national body politic as its boundary and metaphoric limit...women are typically construed as the symbolic bearers of the nation, but are denied any direct relation to national agency” (p. 62). In the Irish context, women were elevated as the bearers of the nation both through their role in the domestic sphere and through the creation of mythicized tropes that came to represent Irish nationalism, such as Mother Ireland in 1916 and, during the Troubles, Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen.
In the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which was the beginning of Ireland’s transition from a colony to an independent nation state, the image of Mother Ireland looms large. The seven male signatories of the proclamation consistently feminize Ireland and refer to the newly emerging nation as a maternal figure who has “summoned” her revolutionary “children” to “strike for her freedom.” Thus, early Irish revolutionaries used the image of Mother Ireland both to represent the nation and, through the invocation of Mother Ireland’s “children,” reified women as the reproducers or, to quote McClintock, “bearers” of the nation. Thus, the anti-colonial struggle is framed as a call for male subjects to ‘defend’ Mother Ireland, the symbolic bearer of the nation.
Much later, in the context of the Troubles, an armed struggle against continued occupation in Northern Ireland between the late 1968 and 1998, Seamus Heaney used feminized figures to draw attention to the continuing trauma of Ireland’s colonial past. Through the use of bog bodies, such as the Bog Queen, Heaney drew parallels between the historic violences enacted against bog bodies and the violent anti-colonial struggle that was occurring at the time of his writing. Additionally, Heaney uses the bog as a metaphor for reclaiming emblems of ancient Irish identity – such as the bog butter and relics discussed earlier. While these symbols were instrumental in the construction of an anti-colonial national identity, particularly in Northern Ireland, theorists such as Patricia Coughlan have followed McClintock’s lead and pointed out the limitations of these tropes as a means to actualize liberation for all.
In Coughlan’s work, the author questions the valorization of Heaney’s work as a poetic voice for the liberation of Northern Catholics during the Troubles (Coughlan, 2003, p. 42). Coughlan’s critique centers around Heaney’s use of the bog and bog bodies as a literary tactic for reclaiming Irish national identity in the face of English colonial rule. Coughlan asserts that Heaney’s use of the bog, a feminized landscape of colonial struggle and remembrance, recapitulates colonial narratives and reifies gender roles by positioning the male poet as an “individuated masculine self” that must penetrate the feminized bogland in order to achieve self-discovery and, by extension, the discovery of national identity (p. 51).
While Coughlan has a broad critique of Heaney’s feminization of land, she zeroes in on Heaney’s representations of Irish women and their relationship to nature as a point of contention. Coughlan states that Heaney’s work reifies existing tropes of Irish women as “female icons of ideal domesticity...who are associated with unmediated naturalness.” (p. 42). Therefore, Coughlan is not only asserting that Heaney’s poetry engages in a sexual politics that continues to subordinate women. She is also making a pointed political critique by claiming that Heaney’s poetry recapitulates the very colonial narratives of feminized Irish land that his attempts at creating a new sense of Northern Irish nationalism is trying to counter. Thus, Coughlan shows us that a feminist reading of Heaney’s work disrupts claims that Irish Nationalism completely breaks from the colonial politics of the past by demonstrating that colonial narratives of feminized land continue to permeate Irish literature.
Finally, Coughlan’s critique of Heaney’s poetry centers around the ways in which his poems constrain women’s agency through the mythologization and sexualization of figures like the Bog Queen. The Bog Queen refers to the central figure of Heaney’s poem of the same name, which is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a female bog body that was found in Ireland. The poem positions the Bog Queen as a feminized emblem of Irish national identity who has been violated by a “peers wife” - here, peer refers to an English political figure - who steals a lock of her hair (Heaney, 1990, p. 66). While the Bog Queen’s violation and subsequent rage could serve as a rallying cry for the anti-colonial nationalism of the Troubles and position the bog as an empowering site for women, Coughlan asserts that the Bog Queen is merely a mythic representation who has no real agency. Coughlan writes that the Bog Queen’s lack of agency stems precisely from her mythologization:
Thus, despite seeming like an empowering figure for Irish women, the Bog Queen is actually, to borrow a term from McClintock, an appendage through which male nationalism works and female agency can be contained in the realm of myth.
Even though Coughlan was writing about Heaney’s work during the Troubles, contestations over literary representations of women’s relationship to the bog have continued into the present day; Gladwin focuses an entire chapter of his book on this subject. In this chapter, Gladwin analyzes Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats… in the context of Ireland’s embrace of neocolonial modernity during an economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger era. While Gladwin has done excellent work tracing the literary history of the bog, his argument falters when he approaches Carr’s work. Ultimately, despite attempting to frame the play as an empowering statement about Irish women’s relationship to land, Gladwin’s analysis essentializes Hester, thus falling into the traps identified by Coughlan and McClintock. Instead, I suggest that Carr’s play should be read not as an essentialized tale of female empowerment, but as a critique of land ownership in a post-colonial context. Notably, Carr staged her at the beginnings of the Celtic Tiger era, a period when Ireland was rapidly accepting neocolonial ideology about economic advancement.
The Celtic Tiger Era and Neocolonialism
Following an economic depression in the 1980s, The Celtic Tiger era was a period of rapid economic growth between the late 1990s and 2008 that was lauded by economists and political figures as a time during which “Ireland caught up on its previously much more prosperous EU neighbors” (FitzGerald, n.d.). Mary McAleese, Ireland’s president at the time, celebrated Ireland’s transformation and claimed that the country was finally “at the heart of the European Union, [and] respected by nations and cultures across the world” (McAleese, 1997). Thus, the Celtic Tiger era was seen as a time where Ireland could finally escape its colonial past and join the ‘first world’ through economic advancement. Most importantly, the promise of the Celtic Tiger years was that Ireland could finally shed its history of being a colonial subordinate and enter the global stage a respected economic power.
While the Celtic Tiger’s early years presented a utopian vision for Ireland’s future, the neocolonial ideology of the project started to become clear in the early 2000s; economic stratification was increasing and there was a general sense of disappointment with the state of the country (Alvarez, 2005). Many felt like the ‘prosperity’ of the Celtic Tiger years had “just passed [them] by” (qtd in Alvarez). Thus, by the early 2000s, the Celtic Tiger was falling short of its utopian promise and leaving many, particularly those in rural or more impoverished communities behind. This economic stratification, along with Ireland’s reliance on foreign investment, led many to claim that the Celtic Tiger era as a neocolonial phenomenon.
In Contentious Terrains, Gladwin contends that the Celtic Tiger period was one marked by neocolonialism insofar as Ireland mirrored other neocolonial states “characterized by struggling economies from years of colonial servitude that offer multinational corporations cheaper labor, lower corporate taxes, and fewer environmental regulations” (p. 177). In the Irish context, multinational corporations were particularly interested in Ireland’s tech sector, which was seen as a symbol of modernity. This focus on economic modernity is notable in President McAleese first inaugural address, which specifically lauds Ireland’s “technologically skilled young people [who] are in demand everywhere” (McAleese, 1997). This embrace of economic modernity, in the form of Ireland’s growing tech sector, demanded an erasure of Ireland’s colonial past, particularly through an increased stratification between urban, modernized areas of the country and more rural spaces, such as boglands. According to Gladwin, this stratification constituted a ‘forgetting’ of the bog or, more generally, a forgetting or questioning of “prevailing nationalist idea[s] of Irishness as rooted in the land” (p. 179). Instead, Irishness became rooted in the neoliberal and neocolonial narratives of upward mobility and modernity that were constitutive of the Celtic Tiger years.
Eventually, the Celtic Tiger ended up failing the country as a whole. On March 17th of 2008, just three days after Bear Sterns’ bailout, Ireland’s stock market collapsed, plunging the country into a recession (Bielenberg, n.d.).Unemployment began to rise, as did mortgage debt; abandoned housing communities dotted the suburbs, a symbol of the failed excesses of the Celtic Tiger years (Bielenberg, n.d.). While this failure came as a shock to some, others saw the cracks in the Celtic Tiger façade from the beginning. Irish women playwrights in particular used their work to foreshadow the failures of the Celtic Tiger era. Unsurprisingly, one of these plays was set on a bog - a long-standing site of colonial, and now neocolonial, tension.
By the Bog of Cats and Melancholia as a Literary Method
By the Bog of Cats, written in 1998, is a retelling of the Medea myth set on an Irish bog. The play follows Hester Swane, an Irish Traveller2 living on a bog as she negotiates the wedding day of her former partner, and the father of her child, Carthage Kilbride. Hester has lived on the Bog of Cats for her entire life; she speaks fondly of the bog and, like her mother Big Josie, often wanders the bog at night. Big Josie becomes a central character in the play, despite never appearing on stage, because she abandoned Hester on the bog at a young age. As Hester contemplates and attempts to disrupt Carthage’s impending marriage, she becomes increasingly fixated on the memory of her mother and Big Josie’s act of abandonment - which can also be read as an act of forgetting.
As the play continues, it becomes clear that Carthage intends to remove all traces of Hester from his life, namely through obtaining full custody of their daughter, Josie. Hester refuses to let Carthage forget her through his new marriage, particularly because she secured Carthage’s economic advancement through the murder of her half-brother, Joseph, which resulted in all of Hester’s father’s wealth being transferred directly to her. Importantly, Carthage was present at the murder, but it is unclear how much he participated. Hester’s role in Carthage’s accumulation of wealth becomes a particular sticking point, as Carthage has become engaged to Caroline Cassidy, the daughter of Xavier Cassidy, who is a wealthy landowner.
Carthage’s marriage promises increased wealth and a way to transcend his violent beginning; he is so committed to erasing his past that he attempts to pay Hester back in the first act of the play. Carthage, of course, is unsuccessful and Hester’s past comes back to haunt her. After the ghost of her murdered brother appears and confirms that Big Josie did choose to leave Hester, Hester ensures that she will never abandon her own daughter by killing herself and Little Josie in front of the burning wreckage of the home she shared with Carthage.
In Gladwin’s analysis of this tragic tale, the bog is framed both as a space of neocolonial resistance and as a location of liberation from traditional gender roles. Primarily, Gladwin positions the bog as a space of “refuge and opportunity” for “disenfranchised women who are pushed to the edges of Irish society and onto the bog because of their resistance to prescribed gender norms and socio-economic class expectations” (p. 169). While the bog serves as a space of resistance to gender and class norms, it also serves as a space of resistance to dominant narratives of Irish modernity in the 21st century that sought to ‘expunge’ Ireland’s colonial past in favor of narratives of progress. Thus, for Gladwin, through Hester’s interaction with the bog as a space of refuge from Celtic Tiger modernity, the bog serves “as a reminder that the colonial past has only transformed into a neocolonial present and future” (p. 175) that continues to disenfranchise women.
There is an inherent tension between Gladwin’s framing of the bog as a space of quasi-feminist resistance and as a space of colonial remembrance because the feminization of the bog was instrumental in the subjugation of the Irish people. Gladwin does not address this tension and instead asserts that this play intervenes in conventional tropes of the feminization of the bog precisely because Hester rejects dominant notions of motherhood. He argues that Hester is instead engaging in a project of “reinventing the rural bog as a liberating space separate from the domestic.” (p. 172).
While I agree with Gladwin’s analysis of the bog’s disruption of neocolonial sensibility, I argue that his reading of Hester and her actions fails to adequately analyze and break free of the colonial tropes that essentialized Irish women and associated them with “unmediated naturalness” in the first place (Coughlan, 2003, p. 42). Gladwin frames his analysis of Hester’s action primarily through asserting that she is an “embodiment of the bog,'' despite claiming that these plays represent a rupture of the traditional linkages between Irish women and the bog. This clearly is in conflict with Patricia Coughlan’s work, which contends that figuring Irish women as an embodiment of the bog, and therefore of the mythical Bog Queen, constrains their agency through reifying their connection to the land and constraining their resistance within the realm of myth. Therefore, Gladwin’s analysis unintentionally moves focus away from Hester’s agency within the play and instead focuses on her mythologization as an embodiment of the bog.
In Gladwin’s discussion of Hester, much is made about her connection to the land. She can see ghosts on the bog, often wanders the land at night, and is literally said to be an “embodiment of the bog” (Gladwin, 2016, p. 186), which dooms her to never being able to escape the land; Gladwin states that “there is a reason Hester never escapes the bog - she embodies it and must return to it, even in death” (p. 196). While this embodiment is figured as a means of escape from the patriarchal order she lives within, Gladwin’s analysis continues to re-inscribe the harmful notions that Coughlan and McClintock have identified by associating Hester with an “unmediated naturalness” that reiterates colonial tropes of ‘woman as land’ and creates a doomed relationship between Hester and the bog. As such, Gladwin’s analysis of Hester raises questions of empowerment: if, in Gladwin’s own words, Hester’s embodiment of the bog constitutes a trap that results in her inevitable return to the land through a violent death, how can it be a source of empowerment that somehow allows her death to be of her own volition?
While Hester’s death is certainly informed by her inability to integrate into the changing political landscape of Celtic Tiger Ireland, Gladwin’s analysis unknowingly positions it as far from volitional, particularly as he continues to place Hester in a cycle of death and rebirth that is defined by a matriarchal, mystical embodiment of the bog. Additionally, despite his focus on Hester’s act of maternal agency, he never mentions her murder of Joseph which, I argue, constitutes another radical moment of disruption that refuses the utopian dream of the Celtic Tiger years and points to the violence and dispossession that allowed for the phenomenon in the first place.
In describing Hester’s murder-suicide, Gladwin presents Hester’s choice as a ‘return to the bog’:
While it is certainly possible that Carr intended Hester’s sacrifice to be read this way, Gladwin’s insistence on the “cosmogenic” cycle that informs the sacrifice continues to re-inscribe the mythologizing tropes of Irish womanhood that Coughlan identifies. In this sense, Hester’s connection to the mythologized world of cosmology and ancient rites of sacrifice – not to mention her already mythologized embodiment of the bog – does seem to position her as a goddess-type figure. Additionally, Gladwin’s focus on Hester’s relationship to the bog as a trap, along with his assertion that such violent deaths are part of some “cycle,” undermines his claim that Hester’s death was a liberatory action. As such, Gladwin’s analysis ends up totalizing Hester’s relationship to the bog rather than examining how she navigates the tensions between her relationship to a rural life that is rapidly losing its legitimacy under the force of Celtic Tiger modernity. While the conclusion of Gladwin’s chapter does nod to the potential of the bog for “bringing the past to challenge the present to promote a better future” (p. 211), his discussion of these women’s roles seems couched in outdated gender and sexual politics of nationalism that have been criticized by feminist scholars like McClintock and Coughlan.
Instead of examining Hester as an embodiment of the bog, I believe that it is more generative to examine Carr’s use of melancholia as a literary method. By the Bog of Cats…is an exercise in Benjamin’s literary melancholia, as it takes a familiar myth and makes it uncanny by altering its gender politics and rejecting modernity’s insistence on ‘homogenous’ temporality in order to call attention to the violent reduction of land to women and women to nation. Additionally, Carr makes use of the bog’s unique terrain in order to create an environment that is inherently melancholic. Ultimately, Carr leverages this melancholic landscape to critique the valorization of land ownership in Irish culture, but she begins by de-centering heteropatriarchy in her framing of the Medea myth.
In contrast to Gladwin’s analysis, Carr’s choice to reframe Hester’s infanticide is not just about a ‘cosmogenic cycle of rebirth’, particularly because in the original myth, Medea escapes to start her life anew. Instead, Carr recontextualizes Hester’s infanticide and suicide to shift the focus away from relationship between Hester and Carthage - the Jason/Medea coupling at the core of the myth - and towards Hester’s love for her daughter. Doing this grants Hester agency, as the decision is framed not as an act of revenge against Carthage, but as Hester’s misguided attempt to save Josie from the trauma that has made Hester’s life unlivable; this trauma, in the form of Hester’s abandonment at the hands of her mother and Carthage, is a metaphor for the colonial, patriarchal entanglements of gender, land, and nation.
In addition to changing Hester’s central motivation, Carr’s decision to stage an Irish Medea on the bog allows her to use the melancholic temporality of the bog to further recontextualize Medea’s infamous ending. Hester’s history is intimately present in the staging of By the Bog of Cats…; Little Josie repeats the songs Big Josie once sang to Hester, Xavier Cassidy graphically recounts his relationship with Big Josie, and, most chillingly, Hester’s murdered brother appears on stage in a bloodied shirt, the throat wound Hester gave him still visible (Carr, 2004, p. 39). Carr’s use of bog’s melancholic terrain is where she is best able to use melancholia as a literary method, as she makes frequent use of the bogs otherworldly nature and ability to bring the past to bear on the present. Thus, by choosing to stage this story on the bog and altering the emotional core of the play, Carr has made By The Bog of Cats… an inherently melancholic work that seeks to disrupt the valorization of patriarchal practices of ownership.
Through her use of the bog’s colonial history and melancholic temporality, Carr critiques central claims about Irish land from both the colonial and nationalist era by pointing to the violent linkages between women, land, and capitalist accumulation. First, she critiques the colonial linkages between land, gender, and capitalist extraction through the character of Xavier Cassidy, a prominent landowner and unrepentant misogynist. Then Carr expands her critique to point towards the violence inherent in valorizing land ownership in a post-colonial context, particularly when dealing with terrain that has been the subject of colonial tension.
Critique of Ownership
By the Bog of Cats… does not idealize or romanticize landowning or capitalist accumulation through agriculture; the play is even set in a community of Travelers, thus decentering the importance of landownership in the first place. This, of course, is in contrast to the centuries of violent struggle over ownership of Irish land, which eventually culminated in Ireland’s independence. Land ownership became a symbol of proper belonging and economic advancement in Ireland’s early nationhood, which wed citizenship to control of feminized land. Ownership of farmland was particularly contentious, as British colonists prized capitalist farming practices and went so far as to drain bogs in order to make them more ‘productive’ for crops. This dynamic is problematic in and of itself, but Carr furthers her critique of the primacy of land ownership in the Irish imagination by pointing to the violent nature through which ownership occurs.
In By the Bog of Cats…the relationship between a desire to control land and a desire to control women is embodied by Xavier Cassidy, a prominent farmer and land owner whose daughter is marrying Carthage. In her characterization of Xavier Cassidy, Carr uses dialogue and melancholic glimpses into the past in order to recontest ideologies that would valorize Xavier as an Irish success story by virtue of his land ownership; in this sense, her portrayal of Xavier is inherently melancholic.
In line with critique of landownership, Xavier is the cruelest character in the play; he assaults Hester in the play’s final act, and it is implied that he poisoned his son and has abused his daughter3. Additionally, while assaulting Hester, Xavier is implied to have had a tempestuous relationship with Big Josie. These melancholic glimpses into the past set the stage, so to speak, for Carr’s further villanization of landownership, which occurs through Xavier’s dialogue.
Through his dialogue, it is made clear that Xavier is obsessed with control of both land and women and, as such, stands in for the colonial mindset identified by McClintock, wherein controlling women and controlling land were touted as the highest form of civilization. Although nationalist movements were able to dislodge the colonial powers, they retained the powerful connection between women and land that is exemplified by Xavier. At one point, Xavier insults Carthage by stating that if he can’t control a woman, he can’t control anything (p. 69). This insult is followed by a more chilling: “There's nothin' besides land, boy, nothin'! A real farmer would never think otherwise” (p. 69). These two quotes powerfully elucidate Xavier’s menacing obsession with control of women and land, making him a stand in for the colonial-patriarchal mindset that Carr is trying to critique. Rather than valorizing land ownership, and by extension symbolic control over women, Carr’s play calls attention to the ways in which the desire to control land and women are often inseparable.
In addition to villainizing the sexist desire to control Irish land, Carr shows audiences the constitutive violence of land ownership in a colonial context by emphasizing that Hester and Carthage’s accumulation of wealth wouldn’t have been possible without a grisly murder. In Act 2, it is revealed that Hester gave Carthage the money he used to buy his farm after stealing it from her estranged brother, Joseph, whom she murdered4. Carr uses a cunning melancholic strategy to demonstrate the constitutive violence of Carthage’s economic success by having the personification of Hester and Carthage’s violent past take the stage in the form of Joseph’s ghost. Joseph’s ghostly appearance punctures “flow of homogenous time” (Flatley, 2008, p. 69) of the play, jolting the audience –and Hester – into a new awareness. The effect is to remind the audience that Carthage is not engaged in a peaceful project of upward mobility; instead, Carr reminds us that violence undergirds Carthage’s project, down to the gendered land he stands on.
In the final act of the play, Carr uses Hester’s last speech as a final attempt to stage her critique of ownership. Carr uses Hester’s final words to stage a final plea to the audience not to forget the gendered violence that underlies Carthage and Xavier’s desire for economic advancement:
With these haunting words, Carr makes clear that Hester’s memory is deeply intertwined with her fight against the tragic events that lead to her death. Additionally, it is implied that this memory will live on through the melancholic terrain of the bog. Importantly, Hester’s memory is not an embodiment of the bog, but yet another element in the complex, multilayered histories that the bog contains.
Through analyzing the colonial and nationalist history of the bog as a feminized site, and the various ways this history has been articulated in Irish cultural production, my paper has demonstrated that Gladwin’s positioning of Hester as an “embodiment of the bog” is reductive and serves to limit the potential of her agency. Following Coughlan’s analysis of Heaney’s work, I critique Gladwin’s assertion that Hester embodies the bog and as such belongs in a mythic, matriarchal cycle of death and rebirth. This assertion constrains Hester’s agency to the realm of myth and forecloses an analysis of Hester’s other acts of agency, such as her fratricide. Furthermore, the association of Hester with the bog naturalizes the feminization of land that has been critiqued by the work of scholars like McClintock.
While Gladwin was attempting to position Hester and her actions as a rupture in the neocolonial ideology of the Celtic Tiger years, his insistence that she is an embodiment of the bog simply rearticulates patriarchal gender politics that have positioned women as bearers of the nation or, in 1916, the revolution, without granting them agency outside of the essentialized and feminized spheres. Rather than suggesting that Hester embodies the bog, my analysis claims that Hester has a melancholic relationship to the past that is represented by the Bog of Cats. This relationship allows her to disavow the utopian view of Celtic Tiger Modernity by insisting that Ireland’s traumatic past, which was constitutive of the Celtic Tiger’s neocolonial ideology, be remembered. By analyzing Hester’s actions as a negotiation with melancholic remembrance, through and on the bog, we can depart from the essentialized tropes that Gladwin unwittingly reiterates in his analysis of the play.
The structure of the play itself, however, limits an analysis that is totally free from the mythologization of Irish women. As a retelling of Medea, By the Bog of Cats already has mythological elements by virtue of its thematic connections to Greek mythology. While counter-readings such as mine can be done, I would like to imagine what other forms of literary representations a melancholic space like the bog can present. What kinds of knowledge, and potential acts of resistance, can be gleaned from de-mythologizing Irish women’s relationship to the bog ? What kinds of temporalities and histories can be explored in the context of the bog, where layered histories are a constitutive elements of the very ground we stand on?
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Bielenberg, K. (n.d.). Hell at the Gates: How the financial crash hit Ireland. Independent.Ie. Retrieved November 12, 2019, from https://www.independent.ie/business/irish/hell-at-the-gates-how-the-financial-crash-hit-ireland-36709945.html
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Flatley, J. (2008). Affective mapping: Melancholia and the politics of modernism. Harvard University Press.
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Levine, J. (n.d.). Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets. Smithsonian. Retrieved November 12, 2019, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/europe-bog-bodies-reveal-secrets-180962770/
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Sihra, M. (2018). Marina Carr: Pastures of the Unknown. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-98331-8
Toner, E. (2019, October 19). The Secret World of Life (and Death) in Ireland’s Peat Bogs. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/19/multimedia/ireland-peat-bogs.html
1.) Bog bodies are preserved corpses that are found in bogs in Northern Europe, particularly Ireland and Denmark. Despite the fact that many of these bodies were interred during the Iron Age, they are well preserved by the anerobic environment and cooler temperature of the bog (Levine, n.d.). Bog bodies are the subject of a series of poems by Seamus Heaney, some of which are named after famous bog bodies such as the Grauballe Man.
2.) “Irish ‘tinkers’ were historically Travelling families who roamed the land in caravans while doing traditional artisan work for money” (Gladwin, 2016, p. 187). They have been persecuted since the reign of the Tudors due to their transient nature and refusal to conform to Irish social norms and are considered an ethnic group within Ireland (Gladwin, 2016, pp.187-88). ‘Tinker’ is considered to be an offensive term and although Hester uses it throughout the play, I will be referring to her and her family as Travellers, unless directly quoting from the play.
3.) In the first draft of By the Bog of Cats… Xavier admits to raping and abusing Caroline until she turned 12 (Sihra, 2018), p. 128
4.) Joseph was visiting Hester after the death of their father, whom she had never met, in order to execute his will. While travelling by boat with Carthage and Joseph, Hester slit Joseph’s throat and stole the money - money, it is later revealed, that Joseph intended to share with Hester.