There is a long history of violence within Ireland, and subsequently a long history of violence within Irish fiction. Ireland, like all countries, has seen multitudinous violent acts perpetrated for many different reasons, but for a long time within the Western media the most widely publicised aspect of Irish violence has been the political violence of Northern Ireland; the ???Troubles??™. Understandably this has shaped the collective psyche of the country and influenced Ireland??™s people (author??™s included) and has therefore featured heavily in Irish Fiction. Gerry Smyth says that the type casting of Irish characters is detrimental to the quality and originality of Irish fiction;
Modern Northern Ireland has not always been well served by its novelists, or indeed by those foreign writers attracted to the ???novel opportunity??™ provided by the ???Troubles??™??¦ the fictional representations of Ireland seem to get stuck around 1972. The subgenre of the ???Troubles Thriller??™, for example, tends towards melodrama and a sort of voyeuristic violence in which stock characters and images are recycled in more or less disabling ways (Smyth, 1997: 114)
However, whilst the Troubles will always remain a large part of Ireland??™s history, contemporary Irish fiction has gradually began to move away from what is labelled the ???Trouble??™s Thriller??™ and a new, more diverse form of writing more in touch with the modernity of new Ireland has emerged. In these novels violence stems from not only more varied, but from deeper and more disturbing sources.
In this assignment I will examine the way in which violence is addressed in three contemporary Irish novels; Patrick McCabe??™s The Butcher Boy, Joseph O??™Connor??™s Cowboys and Indians and William Trevor??™s Felicia??™s Journey. I will show how violence can be shown in fiction to occur as a result of social isolation, from emotional trauma incurred as a result of physical and sexual abuse and yes, from the ???Troubles??™ but in a far less overt and direct way than the melodramatic and voyeuristic violence contemptuously identified by Smyth.
In The Butcher Boy the progressive narrative of Francie Brady??™s life exemplifies the theory that violence can be inextricably linked to both isolation and abuse. From the novel??™s inception Francie is depicted as being separate from the rest of his community and even from his family. Throughout the novel the gulf between Francie and the outside world grows increasingly large and as his sense of isolation increases he becomes more out of touch with reality. With the bond of friendship between Francie and Joe dissipating Francie is devoid of guidance and an ability to regulate his behaviour, subsequently his propensity towards violence steadily intensifies. The inevitability of this is evident as even before Francie himself perpetrates violence upon others the reader sees he is the recipient of vicious punishment beatings from his affectionate yet mentally unstable mother,
Ma pulled me down the stairs and gave me the mother and father of a flaking but it took more out of her than it did out of me for her hands were trembling like leaves in the breeze she threw the stick from her and steadied herself in the kitchen saying she was sorry over and over??¦ She put her arms round me and said it was her nerves it was them was to blame for everything. (McCabe, 1992: 4)The family are locked in a cycle of abuse; Francie??™s mother suffers at the hands of her abusive, alcoholic husband and in turn she disciplines Francie with violence. In contrast to the Nugent family, whose idyllic nuclear existence and cohesive family structure allow for clear lines of communication and cooperation from each family member, the Brady family is not so much a family as three isolated people living together beneath one roof. The sense of frustration and loneliness that is the catalyst for the Brady family??™s violence within and without the household also eventually leads to the breakdown of the family unit. The mother??™s suicide and the father??™s descent into a fatalistic routine of alcohol abuse are a symptom of their lack of communication and their inability to voice concerns or feelings to one another. In their isolation they are unable to have a controlled impact or influence upon even their own lives except through the most extreme and violent means.
In Felicia??™s Journey violence and loneliness also play a large part in the dynamics of the household. Felicia??™s background is shaped by violence through her father??™s unwavering support for those who fought for Ireland??™s independence, specifically his late grandfather who died during the ???Troubles??™. ???Felicia??™s father honoured the bloodshed on his own: regularly in the evenings he sat with his scrap books of those revolutionary times??? (Trevor. 1995: 24). Felicia never experiences violence herself, at least not at home, but because of her father??™s idealistic views she is left at home in daily isolation to care for her elderly and sick grandmother. Like the Brady family, Felicia??™s irregular home life is largely is due to a wider problem prevalent throughout Ireland at the time both the novel??™s were set. Francie and Felicia exist in an Ireland which has been taught to aspire to Eamon de Valera??™s unrealistic pastoral ideal; an environment which is designed for conformists like the Nugent family but which is unsympathetic to anyone who does not meet the criteria. Subsequently Felicia is unable to remain at home knowing she will be branded a disgrace and made a pariah because of her illegitimate pregnancy and her relationship with one whom is deemed an enemy by her father, and the Brady??™s are made to feel alienated from one another and from those around them because of how they are viewed within the community. Tom Herron says in the book Contemporary Irish Fiction,
The Butcher Boy ridicules de Valera??™s utopian vision, it should also be stressed that this vision bore little reality to an actual social formation which ruthlessly concealed such problems as mental illness, alcoholism, misogyny, domestic violence and child abuse??¦ The Brady??™s, in fact represent the underside of this idealized Ireland; they are the rural or semi-urban trash, the dysfunctional, the poor, the drunkard, the emotionally scarred, the lost, none of whom can be admitted into the authorized version of the socially integrated and exclusively rural republic (Herron, 2000: 176)This shows that the Brady family are representative of a largely ignored demographic and that their dysfunctional behaviour is not a result of inherent malice but that it stems from an inequality within society which leaves them marginalised and unable to reach out for assistance. Desperation makes violence the only mode of communication and expression available to them. In this context violence is used as part of a social commentary to highlight the harmful situation that Irish communities face; that ignoring social problems in a bid to construct an idealised version of Ireland renders the pastoral ideal unattainable due to leaving the problems untreated. Both Francie??™s and Felicia??™s fate corroborate this.
Like Felicia??™s plight, Marion??™s in Cowboys and Indians also gives the sense that unsympathetic, small town living can be destructive to those who are raised in non-nuclear or dysfunctional families. Her situation demonstrates that problems are often ignored at best, and made taboo at worst. As a result the victims and sufferers are unable to reach out for assistance when they need it the most. Rather than face the stigma that can be attached to speaking out and revealing oneself as ???different??™, a person will often submit and allow themselves to suffer in order to maintain the facade of respectability.
There are eerily similar circumstances in the lives of Felicia, Francie, and Marion, and also noticeable similarities in the ways that the turbulent and unconventional upbringings of the latter two characters affect them and induce them to lash out violently. Although nothing in Cowboys or Felicia is as explicit as the grotesquery in The Butcher Boy it seems, if Eddie Virago is to be believed, that
Marion has been engaging in an incestuous relationship with her father,
And suddenly, with a sickening shudder, he knew??¦ He thought of the way she had touched her father??™s face that morning. The way her father had pulled her soft body close to his chest. The way his gnarled purple hands had stroked her hair and her lips (O??™Connor, 1991: 176) Not only has Marion been abused by her father, but like Felicia who has taken on the role of housewife in her own home Marion??™s unstable home life and the absence of a mother in the family unit seems to have made Marion become complicit in her situation and take on the role of wife to her father; indeed she does not seem to consciously dislike him and it is only later when she reacts with violence to another situation that we see she may have been harbouring subconscious resentment because of her abuse. Similarly, the following passage shows how Francie??™s relationship with Father Tiddly plays out in a parallel manner,
Sit up here now, he says and took me on his knee??¦ I stuck my finger in my mouth and rolled my eyes mischievously??¦ What do you think say I putting it on and doing a twirl for him in the mirror. I went spinning round the room and Tiddly got so weak he had to steady himself against the arm of the chair (McCabe, 1992: 4)Both passages strongly insinuate that the absence of ???normal??™ motherly affection and presence of an abusive father have rendered Marion and Francie unable to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy displays of affection. Their innate instinct to abhor the unnatural situations they are placed in seems distorted; the feelings suppressed only to surface ferociously at a later time. It would be wrong to assert a link between Marion??™s abuse and her later violence without some kind of substantiating evidence, therefore an examination of the context in which Marion??™s, and also Francie??™s suppressed emotions result in violence is necessary.
Evidence suggests that incest victims, particularly post-adolescent females can experience a wide range of emotional and behavioural problems in later life. Herman and Hirschman say in ???Father-Daughter Incest??™,
??¦investigators, however, have testified to the destructive effects of the incest experience on the development of the child??¦ Indulgence in incest in the post-adolescent period leads to serious repercussions in the girl, even in an environment where the moral standards are relaxed??¦ Depression and guilt were universal as clinical findings…. a recent report by Benward and Densen-Gerber, document a strong association between reported incest history and the later development of promiscuity or prostitution. (Herman and Hirschman, 1977: 739)The reference to promiscuity is certainly significant as is testified by Marion??™s behaviour towards Eddie in the (very) early stages of their relationship, ???When she pushed her hand down the front of his trousers he didn??™t object. She jerked him off before she even knew his name??? (O??™Connor, 1991: 12). Knowing Marion??™s background and her lack of understanding of conventional rules and etiquettes surrounding interpersonal relationships it is no great leap to appreciate why her violent temper flares during another sexually intimate encounter,
He moved his thigh across hers and pushed his hand up the front of her T-shirt. His fingers touched her breasts??¦ In the dark, she screamed. She sat up straight and punched his face??¦ She lunged at the bed. The scissors cut into the pillow, and white feathers spilled up through the air??¦ She slashed the pillow again and again, until she was almost hysterical. Every stab felt to Eddie like it was aimed at him (O??™Connor, 1991: 190).The phrase, ???In the dark she screamed??™ seems to indicate more than mere anger at an unwanted advance from a steady boyfriend, and instead seems to imply a more savage reaction to intimacy, one that would appear more in tune with the surfacing of a repressed discomfort with being touched sexually. The destructive slashing of the pillow and the specific allusion to its whiteness stand out vividly as symbols of Marion??™s destroyed innocence; the savage penetration and violation of her virginity with the scissors acting as a spectral phallus. Once again parallels with Francie??™s situation are evident. ???I think I hit him first he fell back and I and I heard him shout Don??™t hurt me Francie I love you! There was a paper knife in his desk??¦ tried to cut him??? (McCabe, 1992: 90). When Francie attempts to stab Father Tiddly with a paper knife his attack is not direct retaliation for the sexual abuse he is suffering at that moment, instead it is his way of expressing anger at being forced to remember past family transgressions and his perceived disloyalty to his mother; repressed feelings that are now being forced to resurface.
As earlier stated, each novel steers well clear of the predictable and hackneyed conventions used within the ???Troubles Thriller??™ genre, yet all three are united in common themes that show violence as a result of an unstable, abusive upbringing and the catalyst for much confusion and isolation for the sufferer. Each character has, to a greater or lesser degree, suffered abuse and neglect. Whilst this was invariably perpetrated upon them by those closest to them it is also symptomatic of wider social problems. In this sense it can be said that the violence in these novels is not a consequence of the ???Troubles??™ of Ireland, but is instead the result of the troubles of Ireland.
Bibliography:Primary Source/s:McCabe, P. (1992) The Butcher Boy: Picador
O??™Connor, J. (1991) Cowboys and Indians: Vintage Books
Trevor, W. (1995) Felicia??™s Journey: Penguin BooksSecondary Source/s:Herron, T. (2000) ???Bright with cosy homesteads: The Butcher Boy (1992) In: L. Harte and M. Parker eds. (2000) Contemporary Irish Fiction: Themes, Tropes, Theories: PalgraveSmyth, G. (1997) The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction: Pluto PressInternet Source/s:Father-Daughter Incest Author(s): Judith Herman and Lisa Hirschman Source: Signs, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Summer, 1977), pp. 735-756 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173208