"Nun, Married, Old Maid": Kate O'Brien's Fiction, Women and Irish Catholicism.
PhD thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth.
The settings of Kate O’Brien’s novels span late nineteenth early twentieth-century
Ireland and are concerned with the lives of middle-class women. This thesis argues that
O’Brien’s rendering of the interiority of the bourgeois family and the inner lives of
middle-class women, reveals a site of the public discourse of Church and State.
O’Brien’s representations of female characters are analysed through the framework of
the Family, as well as the social, cultural and religious background of this period,
focusing particularly on the influence of Catholicism on women’s roles as wives and
mothers in Irish society. O’Brien provided a powerful dramatisation of the lives of
women that were determined by the particular modes of femininity advocated by Irish
society and Church teaching, as specified by Church writings, especially Papal
encyclicals, on woman’s role in the family. Catholic Social Teaching edicts on
women’s roles in the family were incorporated into the 1937 Irish Constitution, which
in Article 41 especially, defined a woman’s role as that pertaining to “her life within the
home” (Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 41.2.1).
Chapter One sets the historical and ideological context in which the “struggles” of the
characters subsequently analysed takes place. Chapter Two looks at instances of
struggle in O’Brien’s work for some mother characters, who exemplify State and
Church discourses of ideal womanhood, and those around them, while Chapter Three
explores the instances of protest in the lives of ideologically-bound wives. Chapter
Four focuses on the struggles of single women who are precariously positioned with
regard to the family. The common theme shared by O’Brien’s female characters is their
negotiation of personal desires and energies within and without the structures of the
family unit. By focusing on the individual experience, O’Brien questioned ideological
perspectives of middle-class women’s homogenised acceptance of their prescribed roles
in the family and in society, and made the seemingly private, public, a space for
ideological analysis and debate.
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