Imogen Gunner — Towards an Irigarayan Re-imagining of the Irish Traditional Story and Song, Eoin Búrcach

In this paper I aim to explore an Irigarayan analysis of the traditional Irish story and song, “Eoin Búrcach”, collected in 1937 from singer Nellie Nı́ Dhomhnaill (see www.bit.ly/3T4sJ63). This piece, thematically linked to Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), was passed down orally, from mouth of the performer to ear of the listener in rural Irish contexts, where intimate gatherings of musicians, story tellers and singers formed the basis of social entertainment. The significance of this oral culture is relevant to an Irigarayan exploration, as it existed and survived in parallel with, and outside the established confines of written language and mainstream European cultural outputs, which were often the domain of men. A part of Irigaray’s critique of phallocentrism concerns the privilege of vision, which promotes an understanding of the world through relations of objectification. In her philosophy of sexuate difference, Irigaray notably asks us to use our ears, and not only our eyes, to relate to the world. Music, in this case, song, is an aural, oral art form and language, involving the mouth, physicality and breath. Women’s cultural practices in Ireland, in this case, song and story, were historically based in orality. Thus, by examining oral cultures, in the form of stories and songs, we discover a rich portal to underrepresented, even ‘silenced’, stories regarding value systems; roles of women in society and in the family; relations of women to each other and to themselves.

The story of “Eoin Búrcach” involves a wealthy family sacrificing its only daughter to the deoch buí (yellow drink) – a pagan spirit, later referred to as Rí (King) – interweaving the themes of class, child abandonment, misogyny, murder, familial greed, and superstition. I suggest that the story operates as the outer circle, or framing dialogue to the song, in the narrative piece, and is reflective of the patriarchal order of a wider society. In addition to the impact of capitalism, and the prioritisation of money and ‘success’ over well-being, the daughter is treated not as a human being but as an object of exchange. This sacrificed girlchild functions as an object in the phallocentric order, and the relationships follow the subject-object logic, described by Irigaray in her text ‘Towards a Sharing of Speech’ (in Luce IrigarayKey Writings).

However, it is the song that accompanies the story which, I suggest, operates as an inner circle, or a focal point, and involves a marked contrast in the gendered approach: the daughter, who as a baby was sacrificially abandoned, then widowed in adulthood, takes centre-stage. She has a voice, character, aspiration, and agency. Dialogue and speech unfolding between the mother and the daughter, and between the daughter and the keening women, can be analysed according to a horizontal subject-subject logic, described by Irigaray in ’Towards a Sharing of Speech’ (op. cit.). Moreover, in her work And One Does Not Stir Without the Other, Irigaray explores the pitfalls in a mother-daughter relationship: the mother, isolated and paralysed by the patriarchal structures, becomes so foreign to her own self that she cannot relate to her daughter, as one individual or subject to another. This particular mother-daughter relationship can be read through Irigaray’s criticism of phallogocentrism: first, the mother abandons her baby daughter. She is then complicit in the drowning of the daughter’s husband by her own brothers. Although the mother-daughter relationship exhibits the dysfunction of a broken relationship, the song becomes a site of tension and of feminist prescience and clarity as we are drawn into a dramatic scene of mother and daughter friction, a rejection by the daughter of her relatives and the multi-faceted complexities of all present in a society of women.  

However, this troubled mother-daughter relationship is not the sole focus of the song, as the dialogue moves on to address the wider company of keening women present, who represent unbroken feminine genealogies of the past and aspirations for a redemptive future. Thus, the song also offers moments of hope in the dialogue between the daughter and the keening women, upon whom she calls, as if invoking a gathering of feminine deities, to heal her anguish, and to give her ‘chequered shoes’. The reference to shoes here is a trope commonly found in Irish poetry and traditional song, a metaphor for status and comfort.  In this community of women, there is perhaps an opportunity to ‘re-found’ – to use an Irigarayan term – the phallocentric culture, in which mother and daughter are turned against one other, to create a new, sexuately feminine culture. Between these women we see the possibility of a genuine solidarity between feminine subjects. The song, in its company of women, exemplifies a specific sexuate knowledge in the feminine and a practice of the ‘between-women’, within historical Irish traditions.  

My research involves looking to the past, into places where women’s voices lie, not only in text, but in sound. The song and story of “Eoin Búrcach” reflect the paradoxes of complex feminine relationships and histories which take place in domestic spheres, behind closed doors, and which rarely feature in history books. Through the connection between lips and breath, between body and sound, our worlds – yours, mine, ours – are connected with that of Nellie Nı́ Dhomhnaill, and the timeless characters of her story and song. As happens in oral traditions, the song and the story are also likely to contains words and images of multiple authors, across centuries of singing and performing from memory. Each becomes a kind of embodying the first breath of a child, as Irigaray would say – “a gesture of autonomy, a new culture of energy” (‘Arriving at Speech by Way of Silence’ in A New Culture of Energy, pp. 53-7 ).    

My ultimate aim is to create a new composition, developing the characters of the women in the original “Eoin Búrcach” song, into a new song cycle. I will specifically examine the syntax and the context of the original lyrics from an Irigarayan perspective. I will also explore the sexuate nature of the elements of the song and the story. Thus, I will provide myself with a framework within which to compose, and explore character development, narrative, and lyrics. This work is a response to Irigaray’s invitation to ‘re-found’ culture, a departure from a patriarchal song, story, and theatre tradition to the birthing of a new piece, in dialogue with Irish women’s traditions of the past, breathing new life into art and culture of the future.