Fiona Sinclair reviews a new collection of short stories by Maria McCarthy, finding them both harrowing and hopeful.

As Long as it Takesmccarthy
Maria C. McCarthy
Cultured Llama Press, 2014
ISBN 978-0-9926485-1-0
166 pp   £10

 

 

These tales give voice to generations of woman of Irish extraction who have hitherto been silent. The majority find themselves in England, often as a means of escape from a stifling Catholic faith and a patriarchal society.  Yet what permeates the narratives is the sense of exile, a feeling that ultimately Ireland is home.

The Catholic Church, it is shown, has a long reach and seems to collude with patriarchy.  It enters the psyche of the women.  This is best seen in the matter of sex where it seems original sin is laid firmly at the feet of women. Stories such as ‘More Katherine than Audrey’ reveal the tensions of the father- daughter relationship.  Fathers’ believe that girls go to England ‘for the boys’ not to better themselves by training as nurses.  And when girls become pregnant out of wedlock – as in the case of the tale ‘Biddy’ where the central character is raped by an employer – the sense of shame is overwhelming.  McCarthy has done her research well, for it is revealed that such girls were often hidden away for fear of bringing shame on their families: ‘’I’d heard about girls back home being sent away and never seen again if they got into trouble.’’  One of the most arresting aspects of the story ‘Biddy’ concerns a young woman resorting to a back street abortion and the subsequent callousness of the medical profession when the procedure threatens her life.

Indeed the author does not flinch when dealing with female sexuality. The tension between desire, shame and fear extends as far as the late 20th and early 21st century.  Girls in the 1970s find their sexuality awakened but inevitably, as good Catholic girls, eschew contraception and then have to marry with their bouquets discreetly concealing a three-month bump.  Women from earlier generations are also seen to succumb to sexual urges and end up in rushed weddings.  However for the majority of women pre 1960s, sex is shown as a duty.  In ‘A Coffee and A Smoke ‘, Maura the main protagonist is quite simply ‘worn out ‘ by giving birth to and bringing up five children.  A doctor, as was common in the 50s, makes the unilateral decision to abort a sixth child and sterilize the woman.  Whilst this is vital to save her life, the character is terrified for the effect upon her soul, as evinced in her prayer, ‘’Lamb of god, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us’’.

By contrast, one of the most powerful narratives reveals the shame felt by women who cannot have children.  In the titular ‘As Long as it Takes’ the writer skilfully recounts the agony felt by a woman who cannot carry a child to term.  Her husband is uncomprehending of her feelings and responds to her reluctance to get over the situation by burning the cot and other baby items she has held onto for comfort.  The woman returns to Ireland where she experiences a breakdown, not least because her dying mother remarks ‘’ It’s a woman’s life. What else will you do if you don’t have children?’’

Men are, I feel, quite rightly marginalised in these stories. This is after all a collection of tales celebrating Irish woman.  These working class men are heavy drinkers, frequently gamble the house-keeping away and work on building sites.  When daughters or grand-daughters go to university their achievements are seen as rebellion rather than success.  Home is secondary to the pub and their mates where they are lauded for their heroic drinking capacity.  In ‘A Coffee and A Smoke’ even the local priest mentions at the husband’s funeral  ‘’Jack was a man who enjoyed a drink’’ as if it was a virtue.  The narrative goes on to reveal his wife’s struggles to feed and clothe her children with what is left of the house-keeping.  Thus, given the men’s marginal participation in the domestic lives of their families, it seems appropriate for the writer to focus on the heroism of the women who kept the family going.

I particularly enjoyed the way McCarthy interweaves the narratives of different family members throughout several tales.  In this way we are able to see events from different perspectives.  There is also a strong sense of the links between generations.  We begin to recognise familiar names, such as Maggie or Maura, which strengthens the reader’s emotional ties with the characters and their lives.  For me the stories of young women in the 70s especially resonated, taking me back to shared experiences such as Saturday jobs in Woolworths , pick-and-mix counters and of course the music of the time.

The writer shares with the reader her pride in her Irish ancestry. The women are beautiful, with voluptuous figures and glorious red or black hair. I found quite shocking the contempt felt by the English towards Irish immigrants evinced in the signs ‘’No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs ‘displayed in the windows of lodgings.  By the same token I was touched by the Irish immigrants’ naivety when first arriving in England, where they greet strangers on the streets as they would in Ireland, only to be met by hostility.

Whilst the lives of the women are often melancholic there is much joy to be found here especially among older woman who, having outlived their men as in ‘A Coffee and a Smoke’, enjoy a certain freedom after their husband’s death.  It is not just taking control of the TV remote to watch Emmerdale but a growing sense of the possibilities of a life without the restraints of patriarchy. Indeed many such stories end with intriguing cliff-hangers in which the woman is poised to embark on a new lease of life.

Whilst this is a collection of short stories focussing particularly on the lives of Irish women, their struggles are in fact universal. This is a celebration of women with indomitable spirits who are devoted to their families and above all are survivors.

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Fiona Sinclair is an ex-English teacher who is now a poet and reviewer. Her third collection Wonderland was published by Indigo Dreams Press in May 2013. She is the editor of the on-line poetry magazine Message in a Bottle .