Sive and the Ghosts of Ireland’s Past

Fiana Tobin (top) and Wrenn Schmidt

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
December / January 2008

It was Frank McCourt who first brought Sive to New York.

A friend at the Irish Players, a 1950s New York theater group, now defunct, that showcased Irish classics, requested that he carry her over.

And so the playwright John B. Keane traveled up to Limerick from Listowel to hand Sive over to Frank, who dutifully carried her across the water.

The National players decided not to do the production for reasons long lost, and in all my years in America I had not seen the play until this season’s presentation by the Irish Rep players directed by Ciaran O’Reilly.

O’Reilly and his partner Charlotte Moore have been carrying on the National’s tradition of producing Irish plays with an emphasis on the classic – G.B. Shaw’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape are recent productions.

Like all good things  we sometimes take for granted – like breathing – the Irish Rep has been turning out stellar work for over 20 years and so it’s just expected – taken for granted. Frankly, it was the idea that the company might lose its theater on 22nd Street that woke many of us in the Irish community up. And I, for one, became a more frequent visitor. (Ellen McCourt, Frank’s wife, spearheaded the campaign to raise the $4 million needed to purchase the Rep’s theater, which it did last year).
John B. too, has had his time of being underappreciated. Tagged a “naturalistic writer,” his plays, depicting rural life in all its hungry wants, were considered a bit too raw for the establishment.

He persevered. The Field (1965), turned into a movie (in 1990) by Jim Sheridan and starring Richard Harris, brought a measure of respect, and The Listowel Writers’ Week, which draws the best writers Ireland has to offer, now honors Keane, who passed away in 2002. But I admit that a tiny seed of “maybe it’ll be a bit too Irish” crossed my own mind as I approached the Rep’s final dress rehearsal for Sive.

Being from rural Ireland, a generation removed from John B. (Sive is set in 1957) and more insulated from the poverty of the West by being born into the rich farmland of Tipperary, I’ve never overly identified with the more primitive aspects of the plays of J.M. Synge, Martin McDonagh, or John B. Keane. “I’ve never seen a play that reflects my Ireland,” I’ve been heard to lament.

But after seeing Sive, I have to admit that maybe it was  a case of “the Ireland I didn’t want to see.”  For in Keane’s Sive – the story of a young schoolgirl (played by the beautiful and talented Wrenn Schmidt) who is to be married off to an old farmer – I saw my own grandmother who at 20 was married off to a man 25 years her senior.
There is a similar subtext to the play and my grandmother’s story. In Sive’s case, the family is stuck on the fringes of poverty, and Sive’s illegitimacy is also at issue. In my family’s case, it was fear of poverty inherited from the previous generation that saw to it that marriage was not a thing of romance but a  contract that merged two farming families.

My great-grandfather, who lived through the famine and was evicted from his 10-acre holding, passed on his fear of dispossession to his sons, to whom the acquisition of land became paramount. My grandfather and his two brothers worked hard to buy up farms, first for one brother then the other, but by then they were middle-aged – on the far side or middle age even – and it was time for wife-taking. And why wouldn’t they take a practical approach and find a young woman with “good child-bearing hips”?

To put my family story in context, this was the early part of the last century, and Ireland was stuck in the strict social mores imposed by the Catholic Church and Britain’s Victorian attitude towards women, which meant a woman had no rights, she belonged to her husband, and any property she brought to the marriage became her husband’s. (Ireland stuck to its Victorian principles longer than elsewhere, and right up to 1973 women had to resign from Civil Service jobs when they married, lest they stand in the way of a man’s career).

I have looked often enough at the photograph (top right) of my grandparents on their wedding day to notice that my grandmother looks somewhat daunted, but it wasn’t until I watched Sive struggle with the awful weight of her powerlessness on the night before her wedding that I understood, emotionally, how my grandmother must have been felt.

Like most women of that generation, she suffered in silence. I remember her as a kind woman, who never complained. She gave freely of what little money she had (her old age pension was the first money she ever received that was hers), and took to her bed when things got too tough (a trait I’ve inherited).

And things were tough, especially when her daughter Lil became pregnant and had a child, who like Sive, was born out of wedlock.

“Now listen to me!  [Mena to her husband Michael, Sive’s uncle] The child was born in want of wedlock.  That much is well known from one end of the parish to the other.  What is before her when she can put no name on her father? What better can she do when the chance of comfort is calling to her.  Will you take stock of yourself, man!  There is a fine farm waiting her with servants to tend her so that her hands will be soft and clean when the women of the parish will be up to their eyes in cow-dung and puddle.  What better can she do?  Who will take her with the slur and the doubt hanging over her?”

Sive’s mother dies during childbirth, and Mena who is married to Sive’s uncle Michael is insistent that Sive marry the old man. (Fiana Toibin is magnificent in realizing Keane’s observation that Mena’s nastiness and bitterness is weaved out of her circumstances, for she too is a woman who is hard done by. Michael married her for the dowry she brought to the farm. “I have every right to this house. I earned it,” is one of her lines.)

Nana, Sive’s grandmother (Terry Donnelly, a veteran player with the Irish Rep, who gives, as expected, a splendid performance), tries to save Sive but she is powerless. Her son won’t take her side over his wife’s who threatens Nana with banishment: “Go on and put your bag on your back and go begging from door to door.”

My own grandmother tried to save  Lil from banishment, the usual punishment for girls who got into trouble (see Peter Mullan’s movie The Magdalene Sisters), and Lil did come home for a stay after her baby was adopted. But it was a short visit. There was too much weighted against her – church, community, the “slur” to the family, which could not recover from its fall from grace with the reminder of the disgrace ever present. My grandfather was long dead but my father, like Sive’s uncle, an otherwise kind man, could not deal with Lil, who by some accounts was behaving irrationally – walking the roads at all hours. In any case, she was soon committed to a mental home where she remained until succumbing to breast cancer in her sixties.

“We resisted doing John B for years because we thought his work might lose its primitive power in the journey,” Ciaran O’Reilly tells me. If Keane’s work is primitive, then it is because Ireland’s treatment of women in the not too distance past was primitive, barbaric in fact.

It is the power of good theater that it allows us to access our country’s past in all its ills and glories. And it is the power of this play, in particular, which allowed me to connect up with two women who have long lived in my subconscious, my grandmother and my aunt, and helped me know them better. It behooves all of us women who are lucky enough to have control over our lives, to give voice to the many women the world over who are still treated like chattel.

In the closing act of the play Sive barely speaks, her voice muted by her circumstances. I’ve asked people in Ireland about Lil – they are nearly all gone who knew her, but  I learned from one old friend of hers that she was full of fun and that “she had a lovely voice.”

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