April 2, 2004


Seminar: Irish Studies, 535


Meeting Date: April 2, 2004


Chair: Mary McGlynn


Speaker: Jessica Scarlata

            Ph.D. Candidate, New York University Department of Cinema Studies


Title of Talk: Into the Quagmire: Feminism, Nationalism, Partition.”


Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons


Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Séamus Blake (WFUV); Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, Connecticut); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Martin J. Burke (CUNY); Thomas Ihde (Lehman College, CUNY); Vivian Valvano Lynch (St. John’s University); Gerard J. Lynch (NYC Board of Education (Retd.)); Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College); Deirdre O’Leary (CUNY Graduate Center); Mary Thurston (Columbia University); Robert St-Cyr (Blackwater Valley Museum); Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey); Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Beth Gilmartin (Monmouth University); Susanne Forman (Pearson Publishing).


Into the Quagmire: Feminism, Nationalism, Partition.”

A copy of the paper that Ms. Scarlata gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.  Ms. Scarlata also showed a clip from the film Hush-a-Bye Baby.


            The paper looks at two films by feminist, nationalist filmmakers, which buck cinematic tradition in Northern Ireland by balancing a critique of patriarchy with an indictment of political repression of Catholics.  These films present the intimate relationship between body politics and state politics, often represented as two unrelated domains.  Maeve and Hush-a-Bye Baby address the relationship between these two domains by exploring multiple forms of what Lauren Berlant has called “hygienic governmentality.”  They relate two perceived “states of emergency” in the 1980s on either side of the border to each other—one concerned with terrorism, the other with abortion.

            In Maeve, Maeve constantly defends her feminist position against accusations that her politics will weaken the nationalist cause.  The pregnant Goretti, in Hush-a-Bye Baby, has to contend with the conviction that a woman’s attainment of corporeal autonomy ushers in the ruin of the nation, an idea that reaches its shrillest pitch in Bishop Joseph Cassidy’s cry that “The most dangerous place to be at the moment is in the mother’s womb.”  Bernadette Devlin McAliskey’s ironic identification of “outbreeding” as an instrument of the nationalist struggle makes sex in the North “patriotic sex,” with the baby naturally carrying the politics and religion of the mother. 

Goretti becomes pregnant by her Irish teacher, the Irish language both facilitating their relationship and blocking it.  The language equally sets the tone for her pregnancy, when she finds that the Irish term for pregnant means “to carry the family.”  She leaves for the Gaeltacht (Donegal) to learn Irish, and during her stay in the republic her pregnancy grows in significance, confining her through ever-increasing levels of fear and loneliness.  In the scenes set in Donegal the film associates Goretti’s pregnancy with contemporary occurrences in the Republic—moving statues of the Virgin Mary, the Kerry Babies case, and the death of Anne Lovett after giving birth in a Marian grotto in Granard, Co. Longford.  The effect of this use of well-known crises of pregnancy and motherhood in the Republic is to criticise the concept that the erasure of women from the public sphere will “restore” the well-being of the nation.  The logic of these celebrated cases, which is foregrounded in the film, is that women who submit to the laws of family become mothers of the nation, but those who look for some kind of corporeal agency beyond marriage become enemies of the state.

Hush-a-Bye Baby, this paper argues, implicitly compares the physical imprisonment of Northern nationalists with the less tangible social confinement of women within patriarchal structures that see the female body only in its reproductive capacity, and appropriate it for their own purposes.




Q. There appears to be a violation of the sacred in Hush-a-Bye Baby, which one can see in the names.  Is the film playing with the names?

A. Yes it definitely is.  Maria Goretti was a saint who died rather than give up her chastity; Saint Gerard Majella is the patron saint of childbirth; and Deirdre, in the Táin, emits a scream from the womb.

Q. When Goretti is in the Gaeltacht her host-mother switches the radio from an abortion debate to Radio na Gaeltachta.  Why is the Irish language not subtitled here?  There is subtitling throughout the rest of the film.

A. The subtitling throughout is focalised though Goretti—the home-stay mother is not subtitled.  The film stays focussed on what Goretti is saying and thinking.

Q. What is actually said on the radio?

Q. The DJ is running a quiz, and the question is about which band Dickie Rock sang with, which is somewhat ironic, given Dickie Rock’s status as a sex symbol.

Q. This clip runs counter to Ryan’s Daughter, in which it is permissible to talk about sex in Irish—here it is not.  Out of interest, have you seen The Magdalen Sisters, and, if so, what did you think of it?

A. I thought it was very good indeed—not only was the storymoving, but it was cinematographically powerful.  The use of close-up was striking.

Q. You have translated “Ag iompar clainne” as “carrying the family,” but this is a very literal translation—it means quite simply carrying a child.

A. This is actually the translation that Goretti herself finds—we see a close-up of this dictionary translation.

Q. The correct translation would actually be simply “carrying family.”  The absence of the definite article changes it somewhat from the connotation of family that we know, and from the element of the burden.

Q. Back to the Irish and the question of translation—the lack of subtitles may signal Goretti’s incomprehension.

Q. You use the unusual term “Free State” to describe the Republic.  Does this term occur in the film?

A. No—I am using the term ironically, given that for Goretti the republic is not at all “free.”

Q. Which character is played by Sinéad O’Connor?

A. In what seems almost a rehearsal for The Butcher Boy she plays a girl who sits in front of a mirror and plays dress-up in order to see what she would look like as the Virgin Mary.

Q. You mention at the beginning that feminism’s role in the nationalist and unionist communities is quite different—do you have examples of unionist films and how they have dealt with women and feminism?

A. I have not found any.

Q. Unionism tends to be more homosocial, removing the option of female imagery.  There are also no films being made by unionists, in general, apart from John T. Davis.  We have had papers here recently dealing with unionist iconography in the murals, and there appear to be no images of women, apart from the queen.

A. Yes—I agree that there are few examples.