Marina Carr’s Swans and Goddesses: Contemporary Feminist Myth in Irish Drama

Author: Jenna Lourenco

"The Swan Maiden," Courtesy of Caroline Blackburn







“Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.

Thou art more than the day or the morrow, the seasons that laugh or that weep.”[1]







Celtic and Greek mythology pervade the culture and dramatic tradition of Ireland, providing a slowly evolving collective identity for the Irish people and the diaspora, and shaping cultural understandings of gender roles. Marina Carr employs myth and archetype in her plays The Mai and By the Bog of Cats to portray two epically flawed swan goddesses at a similar point in their lives who destroy themselves and their families rather than live with the loss of love.[2] From the very inception of the national theater in Ireland, playwrights and authors have used traditional Irish and classical Greek myth and folklore to approach issues that were difficult or controversial in order to sway public opinion and prompt discussion favoring their specific agendas. Lady Gregory and her numerous male counterparts at the turn of the twentieth century used themes from traditional myth and folklore as part of the national theater to portray a redeveloped definition of Irishness in support of the renascent struggle for Irish independence. Using a similar tactic to promote gender equality and portray women’s issues in a more pragmatic light, Marina Carr has used mythic structures to create strong, intelligent, capable women who, although fully capable of achieving success in every aspect of their lives, struggle against and ultimately fall prey to traditional expectations, expectations rooted in what Brenda Donohue calls, “the trope of the dedicated and selfless Irish mother.”[3] Melissa Sihra provides a probable source for the inception of this trope, asserting that, as the newly independent Ireland was defining itself in the 1930s, Éamon De Valera and his government instituted “severely confining roles for women […] in consultation with ultra-conservative Archbishop John Charles McQuaid,” which became “enshrined within the [Irish] constitution, [and] many of which remain in place today.”[4] Though crafted to have immense potential for personal success, Carr’s female characters frequently exhibit what are seen as negative characterizations of womanhood and motherhood, characterizations that reflect the reality of many women today who feel isolated and ashamed when they fail to achieve perfection in the home, the marriage, and the workplace simultaneously. This article will contend that it is precisely by portraying women who do not deal gracefully with loss and pain that gender equality and feminism have been advanced on the Irish stage and therefore within the Irish “collective identity.”[5]

The Mai, the titular character in Carr’s 1994 play, and Hester Swane, the Medea-like main character of Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, are the White Swan and the Black Swan of Irish mythology, each with her own metaphoric cloak of feathers stolen from her by a mortal man who wishes to possess and control her, and each unable, like the folkloric swan, to move on from their mate, even under the most untenable circumstances.[6] Swans have a deep history within folklore traditions across the globe. From the Greek myth Leda and the Swan to the Hindu nymph Urvasi, the idea that a swan might really be an enchanted maiden goddess or noble god-like hero in disguise captures the human imagination. Many superstitions associated with swans persist today. Swan-song is among the most widely known and long-held superstitions, Aristotle having recorded the apparent phenomenon, in which swans are able to predict their death, allegedly singing exquisitely just before dying.[7] The concept of the swan as harbinger of death and vehicle of the soul is deeply rooted in Celtic-origin cultures.[8] But the concept of the swan, or a swan-shaped deity, as a representation of the Goddess has been prevalent in Europe since the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, as evidenced by “monstrous Venus” figurines found by archeologists throughout Old Europe. As noted archeologist Marija Gimbutas explains, “The phallic neck and protruding posteriors of some figurines clearly depict a form not quite human but a hybrid of water bird and human female.”[9] She concludes that, “[i]n many beliefs, fairy tales, riddles, etc. of European peoples, mythical female images continue some characteristics of that prehistoric Goddess of Life, Death, and Regeneration,” and cites, as examples of this phenomenon, well-known ancient Irish female deities, such as “the Irish Machas, [the] Morrigan, or Queen Medb.”[10] The Celtic mythological history of swans and sovereignty goddesses informs these two plays by Carr and their protagonists.

The Mai is Marina Carr’s story of one woman’s mythic struggle against the harsh disappointments of domestic reality. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne calls the titular character “[a] sort of cross between a pagan goddess and the Blessed Virgin […], dressed in the pale blue of summer skies and May altars, […] the epitome of romantic marital purity.”[11] A wife and mother callously discarded by her husband, Robert, The Mai evokes the image of a sovereignty goddess.[12] As The Mai suffers, her entire family suffers and ultimately falls apart when their goddess and mother is destroyed by grief.

Carr foreshadows the destruction of her goddess figure by inventing a new myth to parallel the action and events of the play: the legend of Owl Lake, as told by Millie. Although Owl Lake refers to the actual Lough Owel in County Westmeath,[13] the story in the play appears to be a myth entirely devised by Carr. Her deities, Coillte and Bláth, do not appear in any available dictionary of Irish folklore. Nevertheless, the tale captures many of the key themes that occur in Irish myth, which, according to Peter O’Connor, include “love at first sight; the wasting sickness caused by love; the father who is unwilling to give his daughter away; the otherworld woman taking the initiative in the seduction; the swan.”[14] Coillte is the Irish plural of a feminine noun, meaning “the forests.” Bláth is a masculine noun, which translates as “flower.” So essentially, Carr’s invented myth explains why the wooded areas appear to die off during the colder months of the year by equating their hibernation to the “wasting sickness” of unrequited or unattainable love, those themes, as listed above, that figure heavily in Irish mythology. In the context of the play’s main story, however, The Mai is figured as Coillte, drowning in a lake of her own tears at the prospect of being abandoned yet again by Robert, her Bláth. Their story’s cailleach, or crone hag, is not, however, Robert’s mistress; rather, the tale’s evil force is all the more menacing for being The Mai, herself. Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha’s semantic research into the word “cailleach,” also spelled “caillech,” sheds particular light on how The Mai functions in this role. Ní Dhonnchadha asserts that though the term “calleach” has evolved to mean a supernatural old witch or hag, the word’s original definition meant simply, “veiled one.”[15] She provides strong evidence that the word in Old and Middle Irish was used as a label for any woman who wore a veil in early Irish Christian society, which included married women, virgin nuns, and the penitent spouse or widow who might take a vow of chastity after her children were grown.[16] The veil of the cailleach, then, is a mark of ownership demanding subservience of the woman fettered by the veil. It is The Mai’s refusal to choose independence from Robert, preferring to fetter herself and her clan to an unworthy consort, that causes her downfall.

Owl Lake is home to swans and geese, which frequently draw the focus of The Mai throughout the play, and which seem to signal her larger hopes and dreams: “As the swan’s symbolic history demonstrates, transformation of whatever kind is about having aspirations, which may or may not be fulfilled.”[17] When we first encounter her, The Mai is full of such aspirations and believes that several of them have just been fulfilled by Robert’s return. She and Robert posture and preen in their courtship ritual, like a pair of mating swans. They dance as he plays parts of her body as if it were his cello, objectifying her as his instrument, as described in the stage directions: “cello bow in his hand. […] He taps her shoulder, hip bone, ankle […]. Now he plays the cello bow across her breasts.[18] The Mai is the mythical Swan Maiden, plucked from her bevy of swan maiden relations by Robert who has stolen her cloak of feathers and hidden it somewhere to gain possession of her as his wife.[19] The Mai built the house at Owl Lake for Robert, preferring their life to be isolated from her family; as he says in a telling moment to Grandma Fraochlán, “Well maybe if you and the rest of The Mai’s family weren’t livin’ in our ear—.”[20] For Mai, even after Robert’s second betrayal, it is as if, to quote O’Connor, “[t]he belief in faith unto death persists, echoed in the saying about a deserted wife: ‘She’s like a swan. There’ll never be another.’”[21] Though it is typically male gods who are unfaithful, Carr’s goddess, The Mai, did have a brief affair in an attempt to move on from Robert, “a one-night stand with a stranger passing through.”[22] The Mai acknowledges that this act of boldness empowered her momentarily but that it did not ultimately help her reach independence. “I know now, why Robert does it, it’s the excitement, the newness, it’s powerful and it’s wonderful, not old and weak like an eighteen-year marriage. […] Maybe he still loves me. What do you think, Millie?”[23] Symbolically, she has found her cloak of feathers hidden away, but refuses to remove her marriage veil and put on her swan-cloak. Tom Maguire and Carole-Anne Upton have recently asserted that the iconic representations of women found in mythic narratives cannot provide role models appropriate for a contemporary audience; during a pedagogic project conducted at the University of Ulster in 2005 concerning a production of Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy’s Women-in-Arms (1984), their “finding was that the students and indeed audiences repeatedly reconstructed the mythic narrative in accordance with dominant patriarchal principles.”[24] It is not necessarily the mythic narrative, however, that is inappropriate, but the way in which it is adapted and presented. In The Mai, Carr deftly shows the negative effects of clinging to the mythic icons of Irish tradition, warning the audience of the dangers of trying to meet impossible and unrealistic ideals.

Early in the play, Millie tells a story about her mother’s reaction to Robert leaving for the first time, five years earlier. After twelve years of marriage and four children, Robert simply packed up his cello and left, leaving his wife alone, grieving for the idyllic fairytale she had believed could be her life with him. On that day, The Mai took then eleven-year-old Millie to a pub in town to drown her sorrows. The puffy-eyed Mai, unable to hold back her tears and not wanting to cry in front of Millie, sent the girl on an impossible and illogical errand: “Millie,” she asks, “would you ever run up to the butcher’s and get me a needle and thread.”[25] Of course, needles and thread are not sold at butcher shops, but young Millie obliged, not wanting to cause any further distress. At first glance, The Mai’s request appears to be a simple device showing the depth of her despair—which it is—but there is also a mythic reference behind it. This reference is reinforced when Millie later remarks that “The Mai set about looking for that magic thread that would stitch us together again and she found it at Owl Lake.”[26] In the epic adventures, Immram Bran and Immram Curaig Maile Dúin—which translate, respectively, as “The Voyage of Bran” and “The Voyage of Mael Dúin”—the heroes and their crews encounter the island called Tír na mBan, or the Island of Women, three days by boat to the west of Ireland. The island is part of the Otherworld, and as such, time does not pass there in the same way as it does in the real world. The women of the island cater to their male visitors’ every desire, distracting them with food, drink, and the comfort of a woman every night. Both ships encounter, near the shore, a beautiful woman—in some versions she is the queen of the island—who hurls a ball of thread at the ship. Bran and Mael each catch this ball, in their respective tales, and in both, it magically sticks to their hand. The woman pulls the entire boat to shore by rewinding her thread. In Mael Dúin, this happens three times as Mael and his crew try to escape the island until, on the fourth attempt, Mael has one of his men catch the ball and cuts off the man’s hand freeing them to continue their journey.[27] The Mai is this goddess-figure, building her new home as a ball of magic thread to lure Robert back home: “And so the new house was built and, once she had it the way she wanted, The Mai sat in front of this big window here, her chin moonward, a frown on her forehead, as if she were pulsing messages to […] Robert wherever he was, her eyes closed tightly, her lips forming two words noiselessly. Come home—come home.”[28] Robert reacts much the same way as Bran and Mael, enjoying the initial delights of the goddess and her companions yet willing to cause harm to others to facilitate his escape in the end. These earlier tales paint the women of Tír na mBan as scheming and trying to entrap men who encounter their island, and certainly The Mai has planned and schemed to get Robert to return; but within the context of the divorce-less Irish state that existed when this play was written and premiered, she has the right to expect him to remain at her side and honor their marriage vows.

By applying the work of symbologists Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, one can say that the thread of Tír na mBan represents both a link connecting “this world to the other” and that “which link[s] puppets to the central will of the person who manipulates them.”[29] We are reminded of The Mai’s magic thread when Millie recounts what happened when she and Robert go to buy a nightgown and bed jacket in which to bury The Mai. Robert is knocked to the ground, scattering a rainbow of spools of thread and needle packages, suggesting that Mai’s attempts to reel her husband back to her private Tír na mBan with magic thread and stitch her family back together have both failed. Any cailleach-magic imbued into the house at Owl Lake was not strong enough to abate Robert’s issues with Mai’s success outside the home. In defeat, The Mai squeezes herself through the eye of the needle and into the Otherworld, leaving Millie and her three younger siblings to fend for themselves among those “proud mad women,” as Beck—The Mai’s sister—calls them.[30] Her failure to recognize her children’s needs before her own is in direct opposition to the ideal of Irish womanhood, but the honesty of the emotion, of the need to be seen as an essential individual beyond one’s status as wife and mother, is precisely the missing voice in the feminist conversation that Carr provides here. Opening the discussion into how women can find a happy balance between personal and professional success is an immensely important step toward gender equality.[31]

If the house at Owl Lake is not the magic spool of thread from legend, what is it that brings Robert back from self-imposed exile after five years? Robert’s dream, which he reluctantly relays, and in which The Mai’s death is portended, offers one possible answer. In the dream, Robert’s cello case functions as The Mai’s coffin, and two black swans pull the carriage hearse over a large body of dark water. Robert views The Mai as his muse, and in losing The Mai, he fears losing his music as well. The black swans take the place of the traditional black horses that, until modern times, pulled carriage hearses. It is the sound of swans at the close of the play that announce The Mai’s suicide.[32] That he responds so abruptly to the possibility of losing his wife suggests Robert needs The Mai in the same way the ancient Celtic kings needed their sovereignty goddesses. Robert requires a “footholder” upon whom he can rest his feet in order to claim legitimacy as king of what he views as his domain.[33] As a further sign of his indebtedness to her, we see that The Mai even constructed a throne room in the new house for Robert, a semi-private room dedicated as his space in which to practice his cello and compose music.

Remembering Gimbutas’s “monstrous Venus” figures, one is struck by the “more naturally portrayed female body with a phallus-shaped neck” that evolved slightly later in history, “depicting life-promotion or the strengthening of life powers.”[34] It is not difficult to see in these descriptions their similarity to the shape of the cello and to thus find new meaning in the way that both Robert and The Mai treat her body as if it were the cello/goddess form.[35] They are both worshipping the idol of the Goddess, and drawing from it what strength they can. It is significant that The Mai gave up playing the cello for Robert many years ago when they married, relinquishing all those power-drawing opportunities to her husband in patriarchal deference. Even Millie, who wears her father’s large, shapeless sweater throughout the play—an article of clothing that distances Millie from her own female form—strikes a note on the cello-idol just before telling the audience about the day Robert first left, summoning its strength and protection against the bad memory.[36]

The shape of the cello echoes The Mai’s figure and form, ironically reinforcing her mother role, as the giver of life, a role that The Mai never fully embraces during the play. During their big fight at the beginning of Act II, The Mai sits down to play the cello, having taken off her knickers and thrown them at Robert.[37] In her summer dress, without her underpants, sitting at the cello, The Mai mimics the birthing posture as she prepares to create. Joseph Campbell tells us that we should see “the female body as the giver of life and thus of one constitution with the universe,” and that “the Great Goddess appears […] in many forms.”[38] In light of Campbell’s suggestion—and both in returning to the scene at the end of Act I (in which the audience learns that The Mai has drowned herself in the lake) and drawing again from Gimbutas’s work—we might argue that the lake symbolizes “the origin of human life: the water sphere, where all life begins, and the magic vulva of the Goddess in combination with her water bird shape.”[39] In taking her own life by drowning, then, The Mai becomes the Great Goddess and claims sovereignty over Life, Death, and Regeneration.

The Mai’s childhood was spent immersed in her own family’s myth and lore about her Grandma Froachlán and the Nine-Fingered Fisherman, her mother Ellen’s early death in child-bed, and the tropes of the selfless mother and subservient wife that would have been ultra-prevalent in 1940s and 1950s Ireland during her youth. This heavy mythic influence on The Mai’s early development deeply informs her choice as an adult to abandon parts of herself in deference to Robert’s needs, living out what Jean Markhale calls the “gigantic swindle” of contemporary society, in which, “the girl is given to understand that some things are not for her. She must […] be self-effacing and reserved (if not actually timid), be content to take second place […]: an inferior role, deprived of freedom.”[40] The Mai cannot reconcile her passions, talents, and success outside the home against the mythically supported patriarchal Irish society that tells her she should be happy being a wife and mother. Roland Barthes elucidates further myth’s effect: “Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.”[41] The Mai is more financially successful than her husband, and Robert is unable to remove the social stigma he associates with that reversed norm. Carr advances the feminist case by not being afraid to portray women who struggle with the limitations and expectations of the traditional cultural archetypes.

Similarly, Hester Swane, the protagonist of By the Bog of Cats, faces imminent death throughout the entire play, a fate suggested by her connection to the figure of the black swan. Swane was raised in her mother’s caravan on the Bog of Cats, in the midlands of Ireland. As the play begins, a black swan known to the people who live on the bog as Black Wing, is found dead. In the opening scene, Hester drags its carcass across the stage at dawn, where she meets the Ghost Fancier, who portends her death by sunset. Hester scoffs at this, and then digs a grave for Black Wing next to her Traveller-style caravan as the Catwoman tells Hester about the curse Big Josie placed on her, conjoining her lifespan to that of Black Wing’s. On the day Hester was born, her mother laid her in the nest of a black swan next to a newly hatched cygnet and declared, “[t]hat child […] will live as long as this black swan, not a day more, not a day less.”[42] The archetypal cailleach spirit of Big Josie and her curse loom over Hester and the bog throughout this play. 

Black Wing’s carcass again recalls the “monstrous Venus” figures of Marija Gimbutas’ work. Symbolically, burying the swan’s body conjures many possible mythic images, including that of the Mórrígán in the form of a black bird, the war goddess choosing sides in the battle to come.[43] For Black Wing to perish just as Hester begins the most crucial day of her life (at least since the day she was abandoned) does not bode well, and the audience is immediately greeted with a sense of foreboding. Through the act of burial, Hester could be figuratively burying or giving up any number of precious, long-held dogmas or beliefs. Her actions and her dialogue throughout the play, however, delimit those possibilities; in the end, it is her spirit or soul that she is burying, ahead of her body, which according to the curse has never been a vessel for her soul.

Critics, academics, and even Carr herself acknowledge Bog to be heavily influenced by Euripides’ Medea; Carr once acknowledged in an interview that, “The plot is completely Medea.”[44] The basic elements of the Medea myth, however, are not unique to Greece; Ireland has its own version of this plot. In the story of Ruadh, for example, a young nobleman on a maritime journey makes love to nine mystical women,[45] one of whom bears him a son. Ruadh leaves the women and his son to continue his journey, but promises to return to them on his way home. Ruadh does not keep his promise, and in anger and vengeance, the mother grabs the boy and throws his head against the rocky shore, killing him. Modern readers will be horrified at the idea of a mother murdering her own child. As Lisa Fitzpatrick notes, “Female violence is often considered more disturbing than male violence because it disrupts normative ideas of gender which force upon women the role of nurturers and carers.”[46] The image of filicide in Bog also invokes two high-profile cases of filicide in the United States during the mid-1990s: the Susan Smith case in 1995 and the Darlie Routier case in 1996. Hester Swane does not murder her daughter for vengeance like Medea or Ruadh’s mermaid, nor due to unmitigated insanity or post-partum psychosis like the two American mothers mentioned above, but rather from a place of compassion and mercy. Young Josie enters just as her mother is preparing to take her own life. She tells Josie that she is going away, and that she will not be able to return. Abandoned by her own mother (Big Josie) at the same age, Hester is moved by her daughter’s pleas to come along. “It’s because ya wanted to come, Josie.”[47] Vengeance is already gained by setting fire to everything Carthage, Hester’s lover, owns. Hester is only thinking of her daughter, Josie, and her unhappy fate if she is left behind. Hester also fears for Josie’s safety were she to be left behind with Xavier Cassidy, who would take on the role of step-grandfather, but who has a violent nature and history of sexual assault against his own daughter, Caroline. Unable to retreat from her course of action, Hester tells Josie to close her eyes; she then slits the girl’s throat. Hester’s maternal grief manifests in an immense keening wail that brings the Catwoman, Carthage, and Monica running back to the caravan. This compassionate murder from Hester is paradoxical however, when compared to the fratricide she committed many years earlier against her brother, Joseph, who had usurped her place with both their parents (at least in her contorted view).

Hester at times, unlike The Mai, embraces the Crone/cailleach archetype assigned to her by her neighbors. In the absence of Big Josie, Hester has assumed the mantle of the sovereignty goddess of the Bog. She has been Queen Medb to Carthage Kilbride and has given him a sense of legitimacy through the consummation of their sacred marriage, a union of a spiritual nature that was a common practice used to ensure the fertility of the land in ancient Celtic kingdoms.[48] Hester has long been haunted by her role as the Mórrígán, the shape-changing goddess of war, death, and slaughter, but she embraces it in the end. When Hester killed Joseph and gave the inheritance money to Carthage, she sacrificed the May King, her brother Joseph, to place Carthage on the throne.[49] Though the couple have since profited and their lands have been fertile for a time, Carthage ultimately proves to be an unworthy king consort. It is therefore inevitable that Carthage should lose everything built with Hester’s support when he leaves her for Caroline Cassidy, a younger, more traditional woman whose dowry will undoubtedly secure his financial future. He has taken his feet from his sovereignty goddess’s lap and tried to maintain his throne by replacing her with an imposter.

Irish mythology makes itself felt in other ways. Last to enter after young Josie’s death is the Ghost Fancier, Carr’s version of the “psychopomp,” a guide to help spirits find the way to the afterlife, which is originally derived from the Ancient Greek.[50] Irish mythology, however, has its own spirit guides, which may appear to those spirits they collect before their death. Most of the Irish psychopomp characters are, in fact, women (the bean sídhe, Badb, and the Mórrígán), though there are instances of male spirit guides, who are usually gentler in their task. Manannán Mac Lir, for example, the sea god riding his chariot across the waves guiding ships to Tír na mBan, is also a psychopomp. But in By the Bog of Cats, it is Hester who takes on the characteristics of a psychpomp. Hester’s neighbor Monica, in the last line of the play, reveals of Hester’s death that “She’s cut her heart out—it’s lyin’ there on top of her chest like some dark feathered bird.”[51] This description is reminiscent of the Mórrígán, who is known to appear in the form of a black crow or raven and perch briefly on those whose death is imminent. Hester herself provides the wail of the bean sídhe. Twice Hester looses her pain and anguish: her first wail occurs while talking to the ghost of her brother Joseph, during which she reveals her inner child, still waiting for her mother’s promised return across the bog; her second, more powerful wail—a great caoine[52]—occurs when little Josie dies. The stage direction for the text of the play found in the Faber collection of Carr’s plays describes Hester’s wail as a “terrible sound, barely recognizable as something human.”[53]

Another harbinger of death and soul ferrier, Hester Swane’s soul is represented by Black Wing, the dead black swan. Her surname “Swane” is an obvious connection, but, more importantly, Black Wing functions as her spiritual doppelganger and shadow. Indeed, the Ghost Fancier makes that very observation in the opening scene when he asks of Hester, dragging the dead corpse behind her, “What’re you doin’ draggin’ the corpse of a swan behind ya like it was your shadow?”[54] Being separated from Black Wing, by either death or distance, allows Hester to commit her heinous acts of violence and murder, as if she were suddenly sociopathic. When she leaves the bog, or when Black Wing dies, Hester loses all connection with her soul, allowing her to behave without the moral restrictions of a soul. Away from Black Wing, she kills her brother and convinces Carthage to help hide the body. After the swan’s death, she is able to burn down her home and Carthage’s farm, and then kill her own daughter. At play’s end (as described in the Faber collection), the Ghost Fancier takes only the knife with him.[55] This is significant in that he leaves her heart and her body behind. No spirit form of Hester leaves with the character whose job it is to accompany souls to the Otherworld, further suggesting that Hester Swane’s soul did not reside within her own body. The concept of a spirit connected to an animal familiar, especially a swan, has precedence in Irish mythology, as in The Children of Lir and The Dream of Aonghus Óg. That Hester’s familiar is a black swan further connects her to the Mórrígán, whose animorphic powers allow her to appear in a variety of forms (though as established earlier, she favors black birds). The swan is not specifically attached to the Mórrígán in Celtic lore, but both similarly portend death.

To conclude, I would like to posit that The Mai and Hester are mythic feminist characters, Carr’s dauntless new archetypes for the modern Irish stage illustrating the inherent obstacles facing generations of women raised with the contradictory images of the feminist movement and the ideal Irish woman. Both Hester and The Mai are entrenched in the romanticism of their mythic ideals, refusing to help themselves, even as they see their world crumble around them. The Mai carefully constructs an inside place for herself, the traditional domain of the Irish woman, in which she attempts to live both as wife and mother, and as successful career woman. In the end, however, she removes herself from the home to the lake outside to take her own life. Hester, too, is constantly out of doors where she feels more at home. It was Carthage who built her a traditional house to replace her Traveller’s caravan, who tried to shut her inside, and who left her for a more conventional bride when she could not conform to the mythic ideal of homemaker.

Each woman knows she is unhappy and unfulfilled in her marriage (legal or not), and each knows the source(s) of her pain and how to alleviate it on an intellectual level, but each is unwilling or unable to take the necessary steps to save herself from tragedy. As Frank McGuinness writes, “Tragedy is so often the consequence of a fatal lack of self-knowledge. Marina Carr rewrites the rule. Her characters die from a fatal excess of self-knowledge. Their truth kills them. And they have always known it would.”[56] We as Carr’s audience, having the clarity of perception provided by distance, are able to benefit from the lessons to be learned from these two unruly goddesses. Joseph Campbell has argued that, “Myths are infinite in their revelation, […inspiring] the realization of the possibility of your perfection, the fullness of your strength, and the bringing of solar light into the world. Slaying monsters is slaying the dark things. Myths grab you somewhere down inside.”[57] They provide us with inspiration as children, and, as we mature, the lessons revealed from the same myth will change over time. On the role mythology should play in our modern society, Campbell says that “[myths] are the world’s […] archetypal dreams and deal with great human problems.”[58] Marina Carr uses myth in her dramas in just this way. By depicting women who fail to overcome their challenges, and by connecting their stories to the mythology in the Irish collective subconscious, Carr’s plays capture the imaginations and the consciences of her audiences the way myth is meant to do. For actresses of a certain age, roles that demand powerful portrayals of personal struggle with modern accessibility are extraordinarily hard to find. Throughout the canon of contemporary English-language drama, most roles for women are marginalized, and most leading female parts fit a similar generic description. Plays containing strong female characters capable of simultaneously challenging the actress and the audience are rare. These roles are the female actor’s equivalent of playing Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman and Katurian in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Carr’s extraordinarily well-crafted contemporary domestic dramas are propagating new feminist myths and pioneering iconic images of what it is to be a woman on the Irish stage.

[1] Algernon Charles Swinburne, “Hymn to Proserpine,” Victorian Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, ed. Francis O’Gorman (Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), 476.

[2] The Mai was first performed October 5, 1994 at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin; By the Bog of Cats on October 7, 1994 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

[3] Brenda Donoghue, “Marina Carr: Writing as a Feminist Act,” in Performing Feminisms in Contemporary Ireland, ed. Lisa Fitzpatrick (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2013), 55.

[4] Melissa Sihra, “Introduction: Figures at the Window,” in Women in Irish Drama: A Century of Authorship and Representation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 1-2.

[5] See Tom Maguire and Carole-Anne Upton, “Myth and Gender in Irish Drama” in Performing Feminisms in Contemporary Ireland, ed. Lisa Fitzpatrick (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2013), 82.

[6] Peter O’Connor reminds us of “the saying about a deserted wife: ‘She’s like a swan. There’ll never be another.’” O’Connor, Beyond the Mist: What Irish Mythology Can Teach Us About Ourselves (London: Gollancz, 2000), 43.

[7] See Ernest Ingersoll, Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore (New York: Longmans Green, 1923), 76; Peter Tate, Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition (New York: Delacorte, 2007), 147; and Peter Young, Swan (London: Reaktion, 2007), 35, 44-5.

[8] See, for example, “The Wooing of Étain” when Midir transforms himself and Étain into swans and they fly away to the land of the sídhe. The world inside the mounded earth fairy forts of the sídhe were frequently depicted as an afterlife, as in Yeats’ The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894). Also, in “The Isle of the Lok,” a tale from Celtic Brittany, the main character is transported to the Isle, an Otherworld, by a swan-shaped boat.

[9] Marija Gimbutas, “The ‘Monstrous Venus’ of Prehistory: Divine Creatrix,” in In All Her Names: Explorations of the Feminine Divinity, eds. Joseph Campbell and Charles Musès (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 30.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11]Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, “Playing the Story: Narrative Techniques in The Mai,” in The Theatre of Marina Carr: “before rules was made,” eds. Cathy Leeney and Anna McMullan (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2003), 67.

[12] The sovereignty goddess, common to Celtic mythology, is usually depicted as a crone priestess or queen who symbolically marries the new male ruler to give his claim to the throne legitimacy. The consummation of their union blesses the land over which the new king rules and restores to the goddess her youth and beauty. He can only keep his place as king as long as she grants him that right. As the king’s power wanes or as he proves himself unworthy of the throne, the goddess will age and wither, mirroring the declining state of the land. Examples of sovereignty goddesses include: Medb to Ailill mac Máta, Aine to Ailill Olom of Munster, Nessa to King Fachtna and his brother Fergus Mac Roth, Morgan le Fay to Arthur (in some accounts), and the Mórrígán (aka Macha) to the Dagda, to Cuchulainn, and to Cormac. For more on the discussion of the Sovereignty Goddess, see Juliette Wood, “Celtic Goddesses: Myths and Mythology,”in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, ed. Carolyne Larrington (London: Pandora, 1992), 118-136, and Kathleen A Quinn, “Re-visioning the Goddess: Drama, Women, and Empowerment,” in Proceedings of the Leiden IASAIL Conference: Ritual Remembering: History, Myth and Politics in Anglo-Irish Drama, ed. C. C. Barfoot and Rias van den Doel (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995), 181-2.

[13] Olwen Fouéré (actress), in discussion with the author, February 2011.

[14] O’Connor, Beyond the Mist, 97-98.

[15] Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, “Caillech and Other Terms for Veiled Women in Medieval Irish Texts,” Éigse 28 (1995): 71

[16] Ibid., 71-96.

[17] Young, Swan, 87.

[18] Marina Carr, The Mai (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2003), 7-8.

[19] Usually in myth, these “relations” are the Swan Maiden’s sisters, cousins, or ladies-in-waiting.

[20] Carr, The Mai, 17.

[21] O’Connor, Beyond the Mist, 43.

[22] Carr, The Mai, 59.

[23] Ibid., 59.

[24] Maguire and Upton, “Myth and Gender,” 81-2.

[25] Carr, The Mai, 9.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Traditions in Ireland and Wales (New York: Grove, 1961), 321.

[28] Carr, The Mai, 10.

[29] Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant.  The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, trans. John Buchanan-Brown.  (London: Penguin, 1996), 991.

[30] Carr. The Mai, 49.

[31] As Carolyne Larrington asserts, “Women need to know the myths which have determined both how we see ourselves and how society regards us.” See Carolyne Larrington, ed., “Introduction,” The Feminist Companion to Mythology (London: Pandora, 1992), ix.

[32] Carr, The Mai, 59.  

[33] Many old drawings of Celtic rulers depict the king resting his feet on the lap of the queen. Welsh king Math Ap Mathonwy lost his throne when his queen and “footholder” was stolen from him.

[34] Gimbutas, “‘Monstrous Venus,’” 30.

[35] Carr, The Mai, 7, 39.

[36] Ibid., 9.

[37] Ibid., 38-39.

[38]Joseph Campbell, “The Mystery Number of the Goddess,” in In All Her Names: Explorations of the Feminine Divinity, eds. Joseph Campbell and Charles Musès (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 104.

[39] Gimbutas, “‘Monstrous Venus,’” 30.

[40] Jean Markhale, Women of the Celts, trans. A. Mygind, C. Hauch, and P. Henry (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1972), 9, 11.

[41] Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard and Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 255-6.

[42] Marina Carr, By the Bog of Cats (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2003), 14.

[43] See Arthur Cotterell, The Encyclopedia of Mythology (London: Anness, 2010), 152.

[44] Clíodhna Ní Anluain, ed., Reading the Future: Irish Writers in Conversation with Mike Murphy (Dublin: Lilliput, 2000), 51.

[45] These nine women live under the sea, and though the word “mermaid” is not used in O’Connor’s version of the tale, the women would seem to be an Irish equivalent of the mermaid, as they swim after Ruadh’s ship, keeping pace with him. See O’Connor, Beyond the Mist, 105-6.

[46] Fitzpatrick, Lisa, “Women Writing Violence,” in Performing Feminisms in Contemporary Ireland, ed. Lisa Fitzpatrick (Dublin: Carysfort, 2013), 199.

[47] Carr, Bog, 59.

[48] See Quinn,181-2.

[49] The May King is “a sacrificial king who must eventually be sacrificed to [the May Queen] and through her, to his people.” See Edain McCoy, Celtic Myth and Magick: Harness the Power of the Gods and Goddesses, World Religion and Magic Series (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1999), 183. The May Queen is another name for a sovereignty goddess.

[50] As originally noted by Charles Rowan Beye, “Medea of the Bogs,” review of By the Bog of Cats, directed by Dominic Cooke, Wyndham Theater, London, GreekWorks, April 2005,

[51] Carr, Bog, 61.

[52] Translates as “keening,” or a vocal outcry of grief. According to tradition, keening began with the goddess Brighid, during a great battle between the Tuatha Dé Danaan and the Fomorii when her son Ruadhan was killed.

[53] Marina Carr, Marina Carr: Plays One (London: Faber, 1999), 339.

[54] Carr, Bog, 7.

[55] Carr, Plays One, 341.

[56] Frank McGuinness, introduction to The Dazzling Dark: New Irish Plays, ed. Frank McGuinness (London: Faber, 1996), ix-x.

[57] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, ed. Betty Sue Flowers (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 148.

[58] Ibid., 15.