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Writing Modern Ireland

Catherine E. Paul
Affiliation:
Clemson University
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Summary

As a refrain, “Ireland is changing Mother” drives Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins's poem of the same title, published digitally in 2008, and in 2011 in her collection of the same name. The poem's speaker asks,

And where have all the Nellys gone

and all the Missus Kellys gone?

You might have had

the cleanest step on your street

but so what mother,

Nowadays it's not the step

but the mile that matters.

Higgins's speaker laments that what Ireland was has been replaced by a much more complex and globalized picture. Goodbye to recognizably Irish names. Customs that used to matter no longer do. A national identity that—while contested—could survive for a time is threatened. A nation whose economic situation led to mass emigrations now finds itself full of immigrants seeking benefit from Ireland's rapid economic growth: Ireland's transformation from one of Europe's poorest nations into one of its wealthiest brought benefits, but also the inevitable strains of modernization, not to mention those strains that come with collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

Higgins's poem embodies this change in mothers and sons, warning: “your sons are shrinking mother.” This mother who may also be a motherland has borne sons who emblematize the Ireland the speaker knows. And although their mother doubtless loves them, these sons are—face it—not that impressive. The third stanza opens,

Before this mother,

your sons were Gods of that powerful thing.

Gods of the apron string.

They could eat a horse and they often did,

with your help mother.

The sons’ strength grew entirely from their relationship to the mother, giving them power but keeping them tied to home. And because of Ireland's isolation, these men could be mediocre but self-assured.

Now that position is threatened, and the speaker describes a football match, where the “local yokels” are challenged by players who “breeze onto the pitch / like some Namibian Gods,” much to the delight of “the local girls” who “wet themselves” and “say in a hurry, O-Ma-God, O-Ma-God!” The speaker cautions: “Not good for your sons mother, / who claim to have invented everything / from the earwig to the slíothar.”

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Writing Modern Ireland , pp. vi - xii
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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