Tuesday 17 September 2019

Mary Kenny: Tug-of-love dilemma

The Loughrea writer Seumas O'Kelly poignantly portrayed a childcare conflict

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Is there such a person as an "unfit mother"? Should a child be taken away from its natural mother by the authorities? Is it sometimes in a child's best interest to be placed with stable foster parents?

These were relevant questions in 1909, when Seumas O'Kelly's powerful play The Shuiler's Child was first produced by the Theatre of Ireland (a competitor to the Abbey at the time). It is a heart-rending story, told with eloquence by the Loughrea writer, whose centenary has been marked this month with a number of literary events around Dublin.

The drama opens in the pleasant home of Nannie O'Shea and her husband, Andy, and it is clear that the childless Nannie is tenderly attached to her foster child, the young boy Phil. But singing by the door, by chance, is a woman of the roads - a "shuiler" - named Moll Woods, seeking alms and perhaps shelter.

Nannie is apt to be kind to this wanderer, who, we soon guess, is Phil's birth mother. She longs just to see her boy - "my poor little lost child".

Moll Woods' own story then emerges. She married a "wild, reckless man" and was shunned by her own family for such an imprudent match. "All my people were against me for marrying him at all," she laments. The wild, reckless man disappears and, being destitute, Moll ends up in the workhouse. But the conditions in the workhouse are so terrible - as is the company, since Moll is placed alongside "strange, bad women" - that she takes to the roads. She'd rather walk the byways of Ireland, she says, than ever return to that dreadful institution.

But because she left her son in the workhouse when she took to the roads, the child has been treated as abandoned: and in consequence fostered out to this worthy married couple, Andy and Nannie.

Molls yearns to have her child back but the boy is confused when she calls out to him, when no one else is present, "Come to me, child - come to your mother." It's a classic tug-of-love conflict.

Into this emotional melée strides the "Lady Inspector for Boarded-Out Children", representing State authority - one Miss Cecilia Stoney; bossy, bureaucratic, nitpicking and more interested in whether the child has fresh vegetables and "bracing air" than who loves him and cares for him. Miss Stoney takes a dislike to both the foster mother and the natural mother.

She reprimands Moll that "you deserted your child" and suggests that Moll was seen "fighting" in the poorhouse. She thinks Nannie fails to show sufficient deference to authority. "There is nothing I abhor more than unpleasantness in my intercourse with humble people."

The social worker is the villain of the piece, which may well be unfair, since they often have to struggle with very difficult situations. But dramas must have villains, and Seumas O'Kelly evidently feels empathy for the birth mother and the foster mother (there was no adoption law at this time) so they are both portrayed sympathetically.

In the end, a kind of compromise emerges.

But there is no skating over the problems: Moll has become accustomed to walking the roads, and how can she raise a child in these circumstances? She loves her son and the natural maternal bond is strong, although social prejudice is against her: gossiping neighbouring women call her "a slut of a mother". And the foster mother is a good woman who is heartbroken when the child is taken away.

Conditions are obviously different today - housing for single parents is a right - but the emotional dilemmas still exist: a child can be removed from a natural parent if the authorities judge it to be in the child's best interest. Today, drugs and abuse are more likely to be in the frame than being a nomadic minstrel singer but, at heart, the same human emotions prevail.

Seumas O'Kelly was an admired journalist, novelist, short-story writer and playwright, who died in November 1918, aged 38, from a heart attack possibly brought on by a fracas during the Armistice celebrations, of which he was entirely the victim. His story The Weaver's Grave is among the most acclaimed of Irish short stories - much admired by James Joyce and illustrated in a printed edition by Jack B. Yeats. When Mícheál Ó hAodha adapted it for radio, it won the Prix Italia in 1961. It features in many collections of great short stories.

There have been a series of readings, lectures and talks throughout November celebrating O'Kelly's work, which has a faithful following. Wouldn't it be fitting for the Abbey Theatre to produce a revival of The Shuiler's Child? (In the original production, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh played Moll and Constance Markievicz the Lady Inspector.)

Nuala Hayes, Mícheál Ó hAodha's daughter, who has remained involved with O'Kelly's work, says that he was "ahead of his time". But then, this is a story of all time, told first around King Solomon in the Hebrew Bible.

Exhibitions about Seumas O'Kelly's life and work are currently on display at the Dublin Writers Museum in Parnell Square and the Catholic Central Library in Merrion Square

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