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Outside History: The Negotiation of History through representations of Irish Womanhood

Updated on June 4, 2015


The English occupation and colonisation of Ireland is remembered by Irish people as keenly today as it was felt in 1916. It is a nostalgia and pride in a history of misery and oppression that the Irish people clutch to their chests, holding their suffering high, with tightly clenched fists. It is a history that has been constructed by story-tellers and passed down the generations, influenced by perspective and subject to our own embellishments and values. Yet in the construction of this history, the poet Eavan Boland describes Irish women as ‘outside history’. Through the texts The Playboy of the Western World by John Synge and The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh, we are confronted with images of womanhood which challenge popular Irish sentiment and in the reactions from the viewers, see the representation of Irish womanhood, and the relationship between ‘woman’ and ‘Ireland’ as something constructed, absenting and dismissing women from its history through its romanticising of them.

The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World was received with mixed reactions by the public when it was first performed, many applauded in the first act, some were confused and angry by the second, and a large number were hissing in the third. It was controversial because it challenged representations of Irish womanhood through the main female characters Pegeen and the Widow Quinn. While Irish women are often portrayed as chaste and typically rural, fulfilling their duty in the home as wife and mother, Pegeen and the Widow Quinn are a far cry from Yeats representation of Ireland as the ‘comely maiden’ or an old mother who is protected by her dutiful sons. John Synge said of this play ‘‘The next play I write I will make sure I annoy them’2. Perhaps he knew, that in challenging the chastity of Irish women, he was challenging the version of history written by men, and airing out a less romantic representation of their history shared by the women who have been excluded from this story-telling fabric. It suggests that in excluding women from the telling of history through its romantic representations of them, it has also excluded versions of history and altered the way in which history has been told and retold to generations, bringing into the light aspects of their past that he was sure would ‘annoy them’; and challenge them.

Pegeen and the Widow Quinn, the primary female characters in the play, display traits of violence, lust, and manipulation, inciting horror and anger from Synge’s patriotic Irish audience. Ideals of the chaste woman and the domestic wife are shattered, so shattering the dream that Irish history has been built on, with stereotypical representations of women as paragons of virtue and a romantic symbol of Ireland itself. Through the use of Irish stereotypes, Synge both suggests that the play is authentic and also deconstructs the stereotypes in his mockery of them. The overuse of religious swearing mocks the stereotype of the religious Irishman, with Pegeen asking ‘Is it killed your father?’ and Christy replying ‘With the help of God I did surely’4. Pegeen’s lust over Christy is shocking to the theatre-goers of the time as it forces them to confront the negotiation of their own past and the story-telling of history as it has been told. Pegeen’s violence, lust, and lack of a negative reaction when she is told that Christy killed his own father are contradictory to the audience’s expectations of what a good Irish woman should be like. It therefore contradicts the representations of their own history that exclude women except for the purpose of idealisation, as an adornment for a cause. The Widow Quinn also bears a stark contrast to the image of the quiet unobtrusive widow, with her undisguised lust over Christy and her lies and manipulation to either get him or some other kind of material wealth. It suggests that Irish women are not beneath going to underhand means to get what they want and implies a sexual desire in the supposedly untainted sex.

Daniel Radcliffe playing The Cripple

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Similarly, The Cripple of Inishmaan was also a controversial play, performed in 1966 at The Royal National Theatre in London. The women in this play too, challenge the stereotypes of the Irish woman represented as the old Irish mammy, the Catholic matriarch whose sons will do anything for her or the beautiful young woman who is fiercely loyal to her sweetheart but guards her chastity like her mother taught her to. The women in the play, Helen, the two old aunts of Cripple Billy, Jim Finnegan’s daughter, and Johnnypateenmike’s old mother make a stark comparison with any of these representations or romanticised images of women in Ireland. Like Synge, McDonagh seeks to shock and challenge his audience with a pastiche of different versions of Ireland, using comedic religiosity and stage Irishry to bring humour to the play, saying ‘I was trying to write a play that would get me killed. I had no real fear that I would be, because paramilitaries never bothered with playwrights anyway, but if they were going to start I wanted to write something that would put me top of the list’1. Although the plays are performed 90 years apart, they deal with the same controversies and the same patriotic outrage still plagues their audience. Perhaps it is this shock factor that both plays possess that place women at the forefront of the audience’s outrage, as it goes directly to the heart of what they uphold in their women and consequently their country.

Helen is described as a pretty girl of seventeen and our mind involuntarily resurrects images of a bonny lass with red hair and shy downturned eyes but Helen quickly shatters these stereotypes with her colourful language and readiness to offer kisses and sexual favours in exchange for a boat-ride over to film-making. She unravels the audiences’ hopes that they’d placed in the young women of Ireland and therefore challenges their representation of Ireland itself, as Ireland is pictured as the chaste young woman who is the picture of rural domesticity and the depository of culture. Similarly, the scandalous picture painted of Jim Finnegan’s daughter also deconstructs these representations of women in Ireland as Helen suggests that she has a chart of the appendages’ of all the men in Inishmaan and that she knows that the egg-man’s sheets are often eggy. In challenging these representations of the supposed virgins of Ireland, McDonagh questions the accuracy of the country’s own virtue, destroying the image that people have constructed and treasured of Ireland as the oppressed, Ireland as the suffering and instead exposes its flaws and taints its name.

The two mothers in the play, Johnny’s drunk mother and Cripple Billy’s mother who tried to drown him, according to the two aunts, are hardly a testimony to the frailty and helplessness of the poor Irish woman. Johnny’s mother is an alcoholic who exudes an air of cheapness and vulgarity, disgusting Dr. McSharry. At one point, when Bobby is dragging Johnny out to beat him up, he pleads with him saying ‘You’ll frighten me mammy!’, but the old woman goes against the stereotype saying ‘Ah no you won’t, Bobby. Go on and give him a good beating for yourself’3. Her attitude towards violence and especially that directed to her son, typically the Irish mothers pride and joy, is that of indifference and amusement. Billy’s mother also contradicts the representations of women in Ireland as she tries to drown her crippled son in a bag of stones when he is a baby, shocking the audience who raise Irish mothers to the skies, believing them to be paragons of virtue, the perfect loving wife and mother in a domestic haven.

The women are typically portrayed as matriarchs who are protected by their sons, or comely maidens who are chaste and virginal, but the women here are not. The McDonagh enigma succeeds in perpetuating stereotypes through the comic Irishness of the characters speech, such as the illogical banter between Bartley and Helen, and also deconstructs images of Ireland through the mockery of the film scene, and renders these stereotypes as inauthentic. The characters themselves seem unsure of who they are and what Ireland is except through what they are defined as by others, repeating several variations of ‘Ireland can’t be such a bad place, so, if cripple fellows/ German fellows/ French fellows want to live in Ireland’3. The representations of women in this play deconstruct stereotypes of chastity and domestic bliss which is at the centre of the Irish ideal and the version of history that is treasured by the audience, one of Ireland as long-suffering and indignant. For critics like Merriman, this is disturbing because it questions the current version of history at a time when theatres were considered an ethical obligation to tell the truth and valorise the past, not expose its flaws.


The representations of women in Irish history with stereotypes of chastity and domestic bliss inevitably put women up on a pedestal as a symbol of something larger than life, and denies them the right to feel lust, anger, grief, and the pain shared by Ireland as a whole, as they are somehow beneath that, or above that. In exposing the flaws of these women and their very human wants and needs, Synge and McDonagh not only give women an alternative representation in history, but also includes them in its story-telling, and opens up possibilities of alterative histories. These plays suggest that history is not static or simply one version, but that it is a process of negotiation with the past, depending on whose representations are brought to the forefront of this version of it.


  1. Cronin, Jan. “McDonagh I.” Lecture, ENGLISH 266, The University of Auckland, August 15, 2012.
  2. Cronin, Jan. “Synge.” Lecture, ENGLISH 266, The University of Auckland, August 10, 2012
  3. McDonagh, Martin. “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” In The Methuen drama anthology of Irish plays edited by Lonergan, P. London: Methuen Drama, 2008.
  4. Synge, John. “Playboy of the Western World.” Cambridge Eng. Literature Online Copyright (1996). Doi: Voyager: BID1859809


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