Trawling the memories

Jan 5th, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Sitting at someone’s fireside, with a glass of Jameson’s in the hand, the bronze figure beside the fireplace had a familiar feel.  Where had I seen before a sculpture of a woman with outstretched arms?  Racking the brain for answers produced no results.  Coming home, the bronze figure continued to baffle.  Somewhere, the figure had appeared before.

Searching the archives, the woman I sought reappeared, from February 2006:

Standing in the wind and rain at Rosses Point in Co Sligo yesterday, we looked at a statue.

A woman waiting, looking out to see with a forlorn expression, her empty arms stretched seawards.

The plaque beneath the statue said that it was called, very prosaically, ‘Woman waiting on the shore’. The plaque went on to explain that it was a memorial for the seafarers from the parish who had sailed out and who had not returned safely and for the broken-hearted people who had waited on the shore for loved ones.

It is a very moving piece of sculpture.

Walking away from it I pictured the weather-beaten faces of Irish countrywomen standing on the headland; shawls wrapped around their heads as westerly gales whipped in from the Atlantic. But I thought also of the men who would have stood and watched? Why no statue of the father or the grandfather of the young man who would not be returning? Is there a perception that only female images can evoke memories of pain and utter bereftness?

Perhaps Irish men have not been good at articulating their feelings. I thought about the words of Clare to Here. The haunting tune is accompanied by lyrics that express the thoughts of an exile, including:

“Well it almost breaks my heart
when I think of Josephine
I promised I’d be coming back
With pockets full of green

It’s a long, long way from Clare to here
It’s a long, long way from Clare to here
Oh it’s a long, long way
It gets farther day by day
It’s a long, long way from Clare to here

I dream I hear the piper playin’,
maybe it’s just a notion
I dream I see white horses dance upon
that other ocean !

It’s a long, long way from Clare to here.”

The pain felt by Irish men through the centuries must have few equivalents; Ralph McTell’s words expressing the pain and disappointment of just one of the hundreds of thousands of men who were driven into exile.

Perhaps the new Ireland will bring a day when a statue of a man can be placed upon the shore and his expression and demeanour can be also seen as truly representative of the heartbreak of a people.

Like all the other hopes of the new Ireland, the hope from four years ago was never fulfilled.

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  1. I would imgine that the representation of a woman waiting has historically has more to do with womans’ position in society. Men would be ‘out there’ fishing and fighting, even the older man would have had their time, women would be waiting for the men to return to enable their roles to continue in a ‘traditional’ manner.

    During the miners’ strikes in the late 70’s/early 80’s, it was considered newsworthy that some women joined the men on the picket lines. The media still primarily focused on the women who set up community kitchens and charity bases for those who had nothing – this was a role that was recognisable and understood (and was valid and commendable).

    That the ‘heartbreak’ of a people is represented by a woman is not suprising in either context . Have you considered that it may be something as simplistic as Ireland – as most countries- is symbolically portrayed as a mother/woman?

    I hesitate to say this, the final paragraph of your item from 2006 is written firmly from a patriarchal mindset – although I guess that you thought it was written from quite the opposite perspective.

  2. Interesting response in the original post.

  3. Bette,


    As a matter of interest, in a context of relativism, how would you maintain that a feminist perspective is more valid than a conservative patriarchal perspective?

  4. It’s a moving statue alright. Why a woman? I think because they’re symbols of nurturing and empathy I don’t think it’s a sexist statement at all. But you’d have to ask the sculptor. Besides a man with outstretched arms would look silly. Big boys don’t cry remember!

    And . . not just the men in exile . . a quick look at our transportation and settler lists would highlight a great number of women who came out here against their will or as hopeful exiles.

  5. I don’t suggest that a feminist perspective is more valid, I wanted to offer an alternative. There is an overwhelming tendancy for the conservative patriarchal perspective to be the ‘norm’.
    As a liberal feminist I merely ‘offer’ people an alternative reading – to make them think – I don’t argue that they have to accept it!

  6. What suprises me is that people don’t challenge why/how they think. On a personal level men have found it bizarre when I offer an alternative reading of events (I have been insulted in a variety of ways for even offering the mildest alternative reading…)

  7. I always enjoy banter with radical feminists, they think their narrative is normative with the same degree of certainty as religious fundamentalists!

  8. Fortnately I am not a radical.

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