Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2016
ISSUE 11 | Pages: 163-171 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2016-5977
2016 by Audrey Robitaillié | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
This article analyses the various connotations of the name of the protagonist in Jane Urquhart’s Irish-Canadian novel Away, first published in 1993. The heroine Mary changes her name to Moira at the start of the book, which leads the reader to ponder on the significance of these names. By exploring the classical, topographical, naval, linguistic and religious undertones of Mary/Moira, this study seeks to demonstrate how the Canadian author conveys notions of postcolonialism throughout her novel with the choice of a character’s name.
Este artículo analiza las diversas connotaciones del nombre de la protagonista de la novela canadiense irlandesa de Jane Urquhart Away, publicada por primera vez en 1993. La heroína Mary cambia su nombre por el de Moira al inicio del libro, lo que lleva al lector a reflexionar sobre el significado de estos nombres. Al explorar los matices clásicos, topográficos, navales, lingüísticos y religiosos de Mary/Moira, este estudio pretende demostrar cómo la autora canadiense transmite nociones de poscolonialismo a lo largo de su novela con la elección del nombre de un personaje.
Jane Urquhart; diáspora irlandesa; literatura canadiense; postcolonialismo; folklore irlandés
Jane Urquhart’s Away (1993) is centred on the character of Mary, who is thought to be “away with the fairies”, in a context of Famine and emigration. The novel, starting on Rathlin Island in the north of Ireland, ends in Ontario, and thus highlights the double meaning of its title. As a young woman on the island, Mary finds a dying sailor washed ashore after a shipwreck. Believing that he comes from another world, she falls in love with him and decides that her name has changed: “she recognized, immediately, that he came from an otherworld island, assumed that he had emerged from the water to look for her, and knew that her name had changed, in an instant, from Mary to Moira” (Urquhart 2002: 8). From then on, she is considered “away” by the rest of the community, that is, “away with the fairies”, gone to the Otherworld. In the islanders’ minds, the being who wanders on the shore and speaks to no one but the sea is not Mary but a changeling, a substitute for the stolen woman. She later marries a schoolteacher, Brian O’Malley, to whom she bears a child, Liam. During the Great Famine, the family is forced to emigrate to Canada, where a daughter, Eileen, is born. The narration focuses alternatively on Mary, Eileen and the latter’s granddaughter, Esther, spanning four generations of women who have, one way or another, been “away”. The Canadian writer plays on the meanings of the word itself to raise issues of belonging and identity in her fourth book.
The very fact that the protagonist of the novel changes her name at the start of the narrative prompts the reader to wonder what the significance of this name is. In the same fashion that Urquhart plays on the various meanings of the term “away” for the title of her novel, it seems that the numerous connotations of the name Mary/Moira are used by the author to develop a postcolonialist stance.
Postcolonialism is a political, social and cultural movement which aspires to look back on the colonial years with a new focus, not on the coloniser and dominant power any more, but on the oppressed and repressed peoples and cultures. Postcolonialism has thus seen a renewed interest in local cultures, languages, folklore, etc., which is also a feature of nationalist movements. The postcolonial current is characterised by a focus on the disempowered minorities, and on the effects of colonialism. Urquhart wrote Away from a perspective which criticises the colonial takeovers of Canada and Ireland (Sugars 2003: 5), though admittedly rather problematically (Goldman 2010: 133), while looking for a way of reconciling the various heritages brought together by colonisation. According to Libby Birch, “Urquhart draws on themes of muted cultures who can know a rebirth and thus emulates Lady Gregory and Yeats who play a vital role in effecting the Celtic revival in Ireland” (Birch 1997: 118). The novel indeed focuses on the Irish immigrants to Canada and their interaction with indigenous peoples, rather than with the dominant powers in place in the Dominion at the time. Urquhart diverges from the canonical models and shifts the focus to the unspoken stories of colonialism, of which Mary’s and her Native friend Exodus’s are thought of as archetypes. As an emigrant forced out of her country by colonialism and as a woman, Mary doubly personifies such a figure. The fact that she subverts the codes of traditional writing by being an unconventional mother partakes of postcolonialism as well (Loomba 2010: 215-6). As has been noted previously, “while Away deconstructs the imperial representations of the colonised and the coloniser, the individual is rendered visible” (Branach-Kallas 2003: 140).
Mary is the model of the postcolonial character in the narrative and this is expressed through the very choice of her double name of Mary/Moira in the novel. This article will first study the classical influence of the name before looking at the geographical elements. It will then focus on the ship imagery, to finish with the linguistic and religious connotations of Mary/Moira, in order to analyse how Urquhart uses the name of her character to convey a sense of postcolonialism throughout the book.
A Classical Heritage
As has been remarked in previous studies on Away (Birch 1997: 116), moira is an ancient Greek word, meaning “destiny” or “share”, “portion”, expressing the idea that destiny allocates a certain quantity of good and evil, of happiness and sorrow, of life and death to each human being. The Moira is the law in ancient Greece according to which their lot is assigned to each individual. It was embodied by the three faceless Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, whose hymns to the dead were known as Moirologhia in Greek. Their action on human destinies were represented by a thread, which one spun, the second measured and the third eventually cut. Moira sometimes appears as a synonym for death (Karamanous 2013: 293). Echoing Mary’s obsession with the dead sailor, the Moirai were also thought of as a trinitarian form of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, leading Anne Compton to write that “Mary O’Malley is the mythic figure of death and renewal” (Compton 2005: 139). The first page of the novel reads, after an enumeration of the characteristics of the O’Malley women: “That is the way it was for the women of this family. It was part of their destiny” (Urquhart 2002: 3). As pointed out in the very first paragraphs of the book, the fate of the O’Malley family, struck, like innumerable others, by the Great Famine in Ireland and then the plight of the poor settlers having to build themselves a new life from scratch in North America seems to echo the Greek meaning of Mary’s other name.
That moira means destiny in Greek also brings a sense of tragedy to Away. The helplessness of humans facing events brought about by Fate creates a tragic effect. The latter highlights the limits of the human condition, that against which men and women cannot fight, however noble and brave their behaviours. As Ruth Scodel notes: “The entire tragic tradition, from Greek tragedy onward, concerns itself with some core issues: the vulnerability of human life; the value of facing the limits of our control with courage; and the powerful, sometimes inescapable, effect of our decisions” (Scodel 2010: 7). That the family inevitably had to emigrate because of the Famine illustrates this tragic sense around which the narrative is centred. By focusing the narrative on a poor Irish settler family, driven away from their homes by the forces of colonialism, the writer is also taking a postcolonial stance. The fate which is referred to through Mary’s other name is an allegory for the colonial power against which the O’Malleys struggle.
The novel also recurrently refers to the “curse of the mines” (12), a “desecration of landscape for profit” in the words of Herb Wyile (1999: 29). The curse of “awayness”, by which nearly all women in the family are affected, is evoked implicitly as well. The O’Malleys in Canada are first allocated their plot of land on the Canadian Shield where the soil is not fit for agriculture. After the deaths of their parents, the children Liam and Eileen are able to sell this land to a gold prospector who turns out to be their parents’ former landlord in Ulster, Osbert Sedgewick. This results in the curse of the mines being brought on the family, as Eileen learns (225). The siblings settle along the lake where Liam can finally become the farmer he had always dreamt of being. But a few generations later, Eileen’s granddaughter Esther remains alone in the big ancestral house on the eve of her eviction. A neighbouring quarry is in fact about to swallow the family fields, garden, orchard and house. The curse of the mines is thus a leitmotif in the novel, leading the O’Malleys to move homes several times throughout their history (349, 355). Since this is how the novel ends, it gives the reader a sense that the family could not have escaped this fate, that this moira was meant to be.
The same is true of the “curse of awayness”, the latter being a term coined by Urquhart herself (Urquhart 1995: 11). As Eileen explains to her granddaughter in memories that Esther recalls at the end of the book (354-5), all the women of the family have been “away”, except for Deirdre, Eileen’s daughter and Esther’s mother. The first of them, Mary, went away to the Otherworld the day she encountered the dying sailor on the beach on Rathlin Island, before going away with her family to Canada, fleeing the Famine. Her daughter, Eileen, got carried away by her lover, Aidan Lanighan, and politics she did not quite understand when she was a young woman, before living as a recluse in her room overlooking the lake for the rest of her life after he left her. Esther reproduces her grandmother’s behaviour too, inheriting the house and the room, as well as the curse. The awayness that runs in the family is the connecting thread running through the novel, it is the O’Malley women’s moira. Besides, just like the three Moirai weaving the thread of human existence, three women in the family are cursed with awayness: Mary, Eileen and Esther. As Marcia Anne Bell rightfully notes (1997: 232), much more could be said about the importance of the number three in the novel.
Jane Urquhart remarks that the name has a particular significance in the novel: “the word Moira was not just another name for one of my characters, but
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