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12 November 2011

Big Maggie Programme Note by Catriona Crowe

Willie Cullen, Orchard Street, Derry, plays with his children, November 1955. Photo courtesy of University of Ulster.

The following programme note was commissioned by Druid for the Big Maggie programme. The author, Catriona Crowe, is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland, and Chair of the Irish Theatre Institute.

Land, Religion and Family in Ireland: Intertwined Dark Systems

As a young archivist in the late 1970s, I found myself assigned to evaluating the records of the Land Registry, the agency established in 1892 to provide a comprehensive and secure system of land registration, arising out of the Land Acts which were the fruits of Michael Davitt’s campaign, and which achieved the transfer of over 75% of the land in Ireland from landlord to tenant before 1922 It could be said that the real revolution was over before the War of Independence began. The Land Registry filed the deeds submitted to them, and relevant particulars are entered on folios, which, with their accompanying maps, are available to the public on payment of a fee.

What are not available to the public are the deeds, or instruments of transfer, which underlie the information in the folios. In the late 1970s, I got to see these documents, hundreds of thousands of them, stored in a warehouse near Smithfield. What they contained astonished and disturbed me: the overwhelming majority dealt with the transfer of land from parents to children, and very many of them contained clauses guaranteeing the parents a seat by the fire, a bed to sleep in, and provision for food, such as the milk of a cow or a proportion of the potato crop. Did this mean that if such instructions were not legally enforcible, the older people of Ireland would be put out of their homes by their own children?

The history of land ownership and its transformation in Ireland is essential to our understanding of class, religion, family structure and family behaviour. The sweeping land transfers in the seventeenth century caused huge upheaval in society at that time, and created a justified bitter sense of dispossession on the part of those who lost, and a bad conscience on the part of those who won.
Tom Inglis, in his still absolutely relevant book, The Moral Monopoly, published in 1987, examines the change from peasant sub-division of smallholdings between all the children of a family to stem family practises (only one child to inherit his father’s holding) already prevalent in Europe.

This change began in Ireland before the Famine, but was consolidated into a rigid pattern thereafter. There were obvious advantages to the system in terms of preservation and enlargement of landholdings, designation of one child, not always the eldest, as protector of aged parents and dependent siblings, and the capacity of the lucky inheritor to build wealth and pass it on in turn to his chosen successor. The disadvantages were enforced emigration for those who did not inherit, and enforced celibacy for siblings who could not afford to marry. Parents often complicated the situation by refusing to name the inheritor until quite late, thus forcing their sons to postpone marriage.

Inglis identifies the Catholic church as a powerful enforcer of these new arrangements, with its elevation of the celibate above the married state, its strategic alliance with mothers as centres of power in the domestic sphere, and its ambitions for a powerful Catholic middle class to further its power in the secular sphere. This linkage between a landowning largely peasant society and an all-powerful church has massive implications for how family life and structure has developed in Ireland since the middle of the nineteenth century. While it might be said that all that was very long ago, we only have to look at the absurd obsession with land and property which recently drove this country into a frenzy, and which extended from developers and speculators paying ridiculous money for land and then putting up jerry-built apartments, to small farmers who could suddenly sell plots of land for funny money, to taxi drivers spending the equity in their newly valuable houses on apartments in Bulgaria, to drug dealers with backgrounds in our citys’ local authority housing complexes who bought big mansions in the country to enhance their misshapen sense of self.

What did our peculiar land and religious situation do to family structure? The first and most obvious effect is the result of the Catholic prohibition on contraception, leading to unsustainably large families, high levels of child mortality and women worn out and sometimes killed by excessive childbearing. This single injunction tells us a lot about how affection and its opposite must have operated in Irish families. Everyone knew they were producing surplus children, that most of them would not find work in Ireland, let alone in the places where they were born, and that emigration, a much more final thing up to the 1970s than it has been since, was inevitable. Add this to anxieties, jealousies and hopes about inheritance of smallholdings, and you have a recipe for disastrous and dysfunctional family relationships, unhealthy inter-generational alliances and mistrusts, and feelings of rejection and loneliness for children who knew they would have to leave the place where they were born.

Another consequence of this alliance of Church and rural families was a distorted sense of sexual respectability, which had its most obvious expression in familial rejection of young women who became pregnant outside marriage. When looking at the background files on the foreign adoption of Irish children between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, I came across a letter from a young woman who had been brought, pregnant, to Castlepollard mother and baby home by her father in the 1950s. Before she got out of the car he said to her: “Take a good look at me now, because you’ll never see me again.” And she never did. That level of cruelty and abandonment does not come from nowhere; this girl threatened her family’s respectability and the marriage prospects of her siblings, and she had to be utterly cast out.

We start to get a coherent, deeply experiential version of these aspects of the Irish family in the plays of John B. Keane, from Sive to Big Maggie to The Year of the Hiker, and of course, The Field. Many of these plays were turned down by the professional theatre and had their considerable successes on the vibrant amateur circuit. (Ernest Blythe, manager of the Abbey Theatre in the 1950s and 60s did not think there were people in Ireland like those in Sive, or for that matter, like Tom Murphy’s ferocious Carneys in A Whistle in the Dark.) Keane was not afraid to confront the visceral acquisitiveness, hypocritical Catholicism and thinly hidden violence at the heart of some Irish families, and he was able and willing to identify the root causes: land-hunger and powerful priests.

As usual, literature was ahead of Official Ireland. The huge audiences that turned out for Sive in 1959 indicated that people were ready to hear about the unspeakable, and hungry for more of the same. They have been getting it ever since, on stage from Keane, Tom Murphy, Brian Friel, Teresa Deevy, Mairead Ni Ghrada, Sebastian Barry, Martin McDonagh and Marina Carr, among others, and in fiction from John McGahern, Mary Lavin, Maeve Brennan, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Dermot Bolger, Roddy Doyle and Joseph O’Connor, among others.

The literary correlative to the Land Registry documents protecting the basic rights of old people occurs in Tom Murphy’s masterpiece, Bailegangaire. Mommo, the old woman of the house, is telling an interminable story from her bed to her two grand-daughters, Dolly and Mary. Dolly, the flightier of the two, and perversely, her grandmother’s favourite over the conscientious long-suffering Mary, gets fed up with her and says: “If you don’t stop, we’ll walk you”. “Walking” meant getting a frail old person up and walking them round the room until their heart gave out. Not the cosy version of inter-generational harmony eulogised in De Valera’s address to the nation in 1946.

The Irish family has been, and in some cases continues to be, a dark place for some of its inhabitants. Illuminating and valuable work has been done over the last twenty years on the abuse of our citizens by two of our most powerful institutions, church and state. That the family, the most fundamental institution of all, needs exploration of a similar kind is underlined by horrific cases like the recent Roscommon incest case, and the continuing lack of any constitutional rights for children. The acute understanding of the dark side of the Irish family which has been offered to us by our writers, particularly our playwrights, needs to be augmented by honest civic discussion and scholarly research.

Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland, and Chair of the Irish Theatre Institute.

More from the Big Maggie Programme

To read an article with an excerpt from *The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement” released on March 6th, 1971, click here.

This page was archived on 28/03/2017 and is no longer updated.

The contents of this page may be out of date or incomplete. Go here to browse our current site