“We Have Not Lost…”: Anti-Abortion Rhetoric and The Futility of Female Power in Edna O’Brien’s Down by the River

Author: Kaylee Jangula Mootz (University of Connecticut)

Twenty-five years after the infamous X Case, which challenged traditional, conservative views on the issue of abortion in Ireland, the topic remains a source of endless contention for Irish society. Ireland continues to have some of the strongest abortion regulations in the developed world, despite significant protests and movements to repeal abortion restrictions. Backlash against abortion policy in Ireland saw an enormous upsurge in 1992 during the X Case. The X Case refers to when “X,” a fourteen-year-old, Irish girl, was raped by a close family friend. Fearing for their daughter’s life because of her suicidal thoughts, her parents brought her to the UK to receive an abortion. Before X was to have her abortion, her parents called the Irish Garda to ask if DNA evidence from the products of conception could be used against the rapist. Once the Garda reported that the family was intent on seeking an abortion, the Irish government forced X to return to Ireland and detained her in Ireland to stop her from seeking an abortion in the UK. The significance of the X Case lies not only in the debate between pro-choice and anti-abortion groups, but also in the core beliefs of Irish identity and culture. For the first time since the Eighth Amendment in 1983, which equates the life of the unborn child with the life of the mother, giving the fetus the same rights as a person, Irish society began to shift its perspective away from traditional, conservative views of abortion and sexuality.[1] The public outrage caused by the X Case and the ensuing interrogation of the patriarchal ideal which had defined the Irish family and State for centuries, put anti-abortionist activists on the defensive and increased the intensity with which they pursued their cause. Edna O’Brien’s novel Down by the River (1998) uses visceral and poetic language to scrutinize Irish womanhood/girlhood and in so doing brings to the fore the cultural impact of the X Case on Irish society. Many scholars have explored the power of O’Brien’s use of symbolism in Down By the River; few, however, have discussed O’Brien’s purpose in creating anti-abortion activist characters and using the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement. My purpose in investigating this subject is not to analyze the effectiveness of the rhetoric used by the anti-abortion activist characters, or of the movement in general. Instead, I will show how O’Brien uses the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement to reveal the powerlessness of women in Ireland.


The anti-abortion women in Down by the River attempt to control Mary and her pregnancy in every way available to them. They appeal to her sense of nationality, morality, and womanhood to try to guilt and shame her into keeping the child, which is a product of incest. They disregard Mary’s feelings, body, and future in favor of protecting the product of her rape. These anti-abortion activists feel, and tell Mary, that they own her. This exertion of control betrays the characters’ underlying motivations for their anti-abortion affiliation. These women are attempting to gain power in the only way afforded to them inside a patriarchal society: through controlling other women. The female anti-abortion activists simultaneously adhere to strict gender roles and police other women in order to obtain approval from men and garner a feeling of power and control. However, this attempt at power and control only underscores the powerlessness of women in Ireland. Not only does the text render Mary powerless to make her own decisions regarding her pregnancy, but highlights the powerlessness of the anti-abortion women in the face of male-dominated government and society. The anti-abortion rhetoric and the depiction of the anti-abortion activists in O’Brien’s novel expose Irish society’s disregard for women’s lives and the strict gender rules that limit women’s power.


This scrutiny of patriarchy in Irish culture has been a common theme throughout O’Brien’s work, and has resulted in the censorship of her novels. Shirley Peterson remarks that O’Brien’s novels are distinct in that each uses “individual instances of domestic trauma” to illustrate larger issues like domestic abuse, incest, and restrictions on women’s healthcare.[2] O’Brien is known for writing against the grain of the Irish mythos and for celebrating the lives of real women. Eileen Morgan writes that O’Brien’s characters challenge the figure of the idealistic Irish woman as perpetually chaste and that they contribute to the emotional complexity of Irish women and girls, which had been previously denied by Irish mythos and the ideals of Irish nationalism.[3] In each of her novels, O’Brien effectively critiques the figure of the Irish heroine, the maiden-victim who suffers stoically and marries the hero, and the Irish woman/mother who cannot be separated from her place in the family.[4] This critique comes in many forms throughout her novels, the most significant of which is her statement about abortion. In two of O’Brien’s novels, Girls in Their Married Bliss (1963) and House of Splendid Isolation (1994)[5], the female main character (Baba and Josie, respectively) obtains an illegal abortion and recalls the experience after it has occurred. By including completed illegal abortions in the stories of sympathetic main characters O’Brien offers her readers a perspective on abortion, which is lacking in other Irish novels. However, the abortions in Girls in Their Married Bliss and House of Splendid Isolation are somewhat tangential to the main plot arc. In Down by the River the issue of abortion maintains a crucial position in the narrative. By highlighting bodily autonomy for women, O’Brien brings together political, reproductive, and familial freedoms denied to women in Irish society.


Down by the River narrativizes the X Case through fourteen-year-old Mary MacNamara whose father, James, rapes her. As a result, Mary becomes pregnant and would rather die than continue with the pregnancy. A kind neighbor, Betty, finds Mary after she attempts suicide and agrees to take Mary to England to receive an abortion, without her father knowing. When a nosy neighbor, Noni who is a member of an anti-abortion group, goes snooping through Betty’s trash and finds abortion information she alerts the police, James, and the town. Mary and Betty are called back from England before Mary can receive the abortion and she is taken against her will to live with the anti-abortionist women. The news of Mary’s trial spreads throughout the country and the world and there is outrage on both sides of the debate. In the end, however, the verdict is never revealed and Mary suffers a miscarriage. As the anti-abortion women become enraged over their “loss,” the question becomes, whose freedom was truly at stake?


The introduction of the anti-abortion group and anti-abortion rhetoric in Down by the River happens long before Mary realizes she’s pregnant. The narrative characterizes the leader of the group, Roisin, early in the novel as militant, verbally coercive and emotionally intimidating and reinforces this characterization throughout.[6] Roisin forces the women, who she expects to join her league of followers, to look at graphic photos of what is purported to be an aborted fetus while simultaneously describing the “secrets” of the womb—babies sucking their thumbs, hiccupping, and swimming—and the methods by which fetuses are extracted. She even recites a poem used to guilt pregnant women who are seeking abortions: “[…] I love you dear mummy, of course I do / And I thought dear mummy you loved me too.”[7] Roisin effectively terrifies the women into submission by “ramm[ing anti-abortion rhetoric] down their throats.”[8] Women like Roisin, who participate in the anti-abortion movement, are, according to Gerardine Meaney, seeking to perpetuate a form of patriarchal “womanhood” which is dependent on motherhood.[9] Anti-abortion women attempt to be the idealized patriarchal version of “woman” and police other women who do not fit this definition. This role as the idealized mother/woman offers these women a sense of power and control within patriarchy, even though that power is severely limited. Roisin clings very tightly to this limited power throughout the novel and exerts it on whomever she can. Roisin’s lust for power serves to draw attention to what little power she actually holds. She becomes a metaphor for all women in Ireland, who lack even a fraction of control over their own lives. O’Brien crafts Roisin in such a way as to critique not only Irish women’s lack of agency, but also the illusion of power that their “pro-life” affiliation gives these women.


The host of this gathering, Noni, lusts for the power that Roisin holds. She “wears the trousers now and has mastery over that pig of a man to whom she has been married for twenty-five years.”[10] She imagines that her female guests will be enamored of her and that they will praise her convictions. This desire for women’s approval sets Noni apart from Roisin. Noni becomes an anti-abortion activist and performs the role of “perfect woman” for the recognition and admiration of her female acquaintances. Roisin, on the other hand, seeks the approval of men via the Church. Roisin boasts to the women at the gathering that when she visited the pope, he affirmed her righteousness and told her that she was “on the right path.”[11] In telling this story, she not only asserts her ethos to the women gathered, but also reaffirms her own mission to be a “true woman” and to police the women around her. Further, the priest present at the gathering praises her and agrees with her in all regards.[12] Because of this favor paid to Roisin by the pope and the priest, the women gathered are inclined to align themselves with her, even though they are afraid of her. These women want what Roisin has—to be revered and recognized by powerful men—because they believe that in so doing, they will become powerful themselves. To achieve this, the women must adhere to the strict patriarchal ideal of woman/mother.


The anti-abortionist women’s alignment with Roisin points to their feelings of inadequacy and the dissatisfaction they feel with the lack of freedom and power currently available to them. The women who join Roisin seek to become the “ideal” woman/mother in order to gain the freedom and power that Roisin seems to possess. Meaney writes that, the attraction to the feminine role as patriarchy defines it betrays the social indoctrination that causes self-hatred in women.[13] Anti-abortion women, like the ones in O’Brien’s novel, cleave to the fantasy of being chaste and revered “handmaids of the lord.” They are unable to accept themselves as “ordinary sinners,” let alone women with individual and independent thoughts and feelings, and further are unwilling to accept anyone else who threatens this role. Meaney also argues that: “Patriarchy’s strongest hold over women is its ability to promote this inner division, which inhibits women’s will for change and recruits women damaged by patriarchal ideology to the cause of patriarchy itself and sets them campaigning and voting against their own interests.” This division of women, and the concomitant need to exert control over other women, actively maintains Irish national identity, which equates Irish womanhood with subservience and chaste motherhood.


In Ireland, national identity and sexual identity are inseparably entwined.[14] Women are symbols of the Irish nation and must exude an appropriately “Irish” morality.[15] Women are expected to be “passive embodiments of Irish virtue” according to Heather Ingman, because purity for women has become synonymous with purity for the nation.[16] In the 1980s Ireland became concerned with a particularly “Irish morality,” which separated the moral identity of Ireland from the moral “decadence” of the rest of Europe.[17] This Irish morality, primarily defined by the Catholic Church, held rigidly to the patriarchal family ideal and policed any form of sexuality that did not lead to reproduction of familial “Irishness,” including homosexuality and any act that did not lead to procreation, as immoral.[18] Furthermore, Article 41.2.1 of the Irish Constitution states: “[…] the State recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” (emphasis added).[19] This statement places the responsibility of Irish nationhood on women’s sexual and familial identities as heterosexual wife and mother. As such, nationalism has become the justification for controlling women’s sexuality.


Women like Roisin and Noni believe that they are doing a service to their nation, and they equate Mary’s personal hardship with national crisis. Noni is ultimately responsible for the scandal that ensues around Mary and her attempt to procure an abortion. Noni believes that her finding the abortion information in Betty’s trash bin and exposing Mary’s pregnancy will be “her finest hour” and that people will come to thank her for her service to the unborn.[20] Further, she delights in seeing the shock on Mary’s father James’s face when she tells him that Mary has gone to England to get an abortion.[21] The glee that Noni feels at revealing another woman’s secret shows her investment in preserving the patriarchal definition of the Irish nation and displays how policing and diminishing other women gives her a feeling of importance and power. Likewise, when Roisin first confronts Mary after she has been forcibly returned from England she tells her that, “every right-minded person in the country is glad [you are home].”[22] Roisin believes that she, much like the government, protects the “rightness” of the nation by policing the morality of this one girl.[23] Also like the government, Roisin feels that she has the right to interfere in the private life of other women in order to uphold national purity.


Directly after Mary has gotten off the plane, Roisin and the women barrage her with anti-abortion rhetoric. The women surround Mary and try to control her, “vying with each other as to who was in charge, who owned her.”[24] When Mary is brought into a hospital room to speak to a doctor, Roisin and Noni cannot bear the momentary loss of control.[25] Their desire for power is so great that they force themselves into the room as the doctor and Mary are speaking, even though their conversation is protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and neither woman has a right to be present without Mary’s consent. This demonstrates not just their lack of respect for Mary’s privacy and independence, but also the cultural practice of interfering with the bodily and medical choices of women.[26] Women are expected to defer to others in their medical choices, especially choices concerning sexual health and this instance is no different.[27] Additionally, the anti-abortion women recognize that medical institutions hold power over women’s bodies and choices and they try to burrow into this entity of power, but ultimately are refused and not allowed to interfere.


The anti-abortion women’s interference does not stop at the hospital. Mary’s second cousin, Veronica, volunteers to house Mary during the trial. This should be a relief, because Mary can be away from her father, the man who raped her, but instead it becomes a worse nightmare. Veronica belongs to the anti-abortionist group, and she allows the other women constant access to Mary. Mary thinks to herself that she has been placed into a family of “bossy women” who are constantly voicing anti-abortion rhetoric.[28] They pray at her, which she resists, and one of the women leaves a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary on her pillow.[29] They even, at Roisin’s bidding, force Mary to wear makeup. When applying lipstick the women tell her to “spread her lips wide,” “smile,” and “pout,” which recalls her previous sexual assault by oral penetration.[30] The women in this instance act much like sexual perpetrators, ignoring Mary’s bodily autonomy and social norms regarding personal space. The women touch Mary and dress her without permission. They feel entitled to touch Mary’s body and invade her private space, like her bedroom. Just as rapists feel no remorse at using another’s body for personal pleasure and affirmation of power, Roisin and her followers use Mary’s body for their own purposes without her consent.


Though Mary is terrified of all the women, Veronica scares her the most, as the narrator tells us several times. Veronica not only forces Mary to share a bed with her, but also “hooks” her foot around Mary’s foot and wraps her arm around Mary while they are sleeping to prevent her from running away.[31] Veronica also roughly pulls Mary’s hair whenever she suspects that Mary is thinking about having the abortion.[32] These severe encroachments on Mary’s personal boundaries closely resemble sexual assault. Not only are hair pulling and sharing a bed expressly sexual in nature, but also wrapping an arm around someone (cuddling) and hooking a foot around another’s foot (“playing footsie”) mimics intimate actions that may precede or follow sexual intercourse. Veronica acts as a direct connection between anti-abortion activist and rapist in the minds of readers. This woman feels the right to physically violate Mary because she “owns her.” Veronica tells Mary “…I am your mother now” and produces for Mary a letter to prove her “ownership.”[33] Veronica symbolizes the anti-abortionists’ disregard for the personal body of the mother and the sense of entitlement that causes them to think they can control another woman’s life. Mary feels more afraid of these women than of her rapist.[34] The text’s graphic description of Veronica’s hair pulling highlights the threat of bodily harm and control that Mary feels. Mary’s experience with the anti-abortion activists communicates the very real threat felt by women seeking abortions.


Much of the anti-abortion rhetoric that Mary is bombarded with shows a complete disregard for her as a person and a woman. From the very beginning, the anti-abortion rhetoric places the value of the fetus above that of the mother.[35] Though the anti-abortion women know that Mary carries the product of rape and incest, they show little empathy for her situation and refuse to consider the psychological traumas she has endured. Roisin states that no exceptions can be made even for cases of rape or incest.[36] She also states brashly that “an abortion won’t unrape her, all an abortion will do is compound the crime.”[37] Roisin fails to see Mary as a human being and refuses to recognize her pain. This kind of sentiment is heard all too often in anti-abortion rhetoric. Ailbhe Smyth writes: “In Pro-Life discourse, women lose their independent lives and are deprived of their civil status: women are represented consistently and exclusively as ‘mothers’.”[38] The “mother” for anti-abortion groups must be a “good mother” who accepts patriarchal standards, and any woman who attempts to refuse motherhood is a “dangerous” threat to the fetus and therefore must be stopped.[39] Kathryn Conrad writes that for anti-abortion groups, the woman is always already a passive landscape for fetal growth and “life”[40] and that the fetus is considered vulnerable, unprotected, and unjustly imprisoned inside an unloving mother.[41] Furthermore, Lisa Smyth states that anti-abortion groups position the fetus and mother as enemies: “The woman is characterized as the external, or alien threat to the foetus, while the foetus is portrayed as vulnerable and helpless, whose rights need to be protected against the woman who is carrying and nurturing it.”[42] This view of anti-abortion activists can be seen in Roisin’s accosting of Mary: “‘A little thing that hasn’t harmed you… Would never harm you… Totally dependent on you for its life,’ Roisin said, inflamed.”[43] Roisin lacks the foresight (as all anti-abortion activists do) to consider that the fetus can in fact endanger the woman. Any number of countless complications can “harm,” as Roisin states it, a pregnant mother. Irreversible bodily damage can be done to a mother as a result of pregnancy, not to mention the inevitable pain caused by labor, delivery, and post-partum recovery. Medical professionals consider pregnancy one of the riskiest conditions for women and childbirth one of the most dangerous procedures, and to expect a woman to risk her life, health, emotional wellbeing, and comfort against her will is cruel. However, the fact that the fetus inevitably will cause harm to Mary should she carry it to term is overshadowed by the anti-abortionist belief that the mother is the ultimate threat to the defenseless fetus. Roisin continues in her assertion that the fetus is “‘[a]lready a person… Its sex, hair, eyes, fingers, fingernails already there… And what is it doing, it is listening to the music inside your womb and thinking you are its friend.’”[44] Evidenced in this passage is the common anti-abortion rhetorical claim that the fetus is an autonomous being, independent of the mother. Fetal imaging techniques have taken the fetus out of the context of the womb and resigned the woman to invisibility.[45] The fetus seems independent; complete with all the appropriate body parts regardless of actual anatomical development. However, these ideas are completely illogical and the paradox of the “independent fetus” that “depends” on the mother to make the “correct” choice goes unrecognized by anti-abortionists.[46] O’Brien illustrates, through Roisin’s behavior and use of common anti-abortion rhetoric, the disregard for women that manifests in anti-abortion activism as a direct result of the patriarchy which has spawned it.


Other women in the text also fail to recognize Mary as a real person with thoughts, feelings, and a future. A nurse in the hospital tells Mary, “The worst is over”[47] after she has spoken to the doctor. The nurse completely fails to acknowledge the realities that Mary is about to face. Not only has she become the epicenter of an ideological battleground for the politicians to debate her fate, but should she be forced to carry to term, she would effectively be raped again and again with its every movement, a foreign and unwanted presence inside her body, for the rest of her pregnancy. Such discomfort and sense of invasion would occur throughout the pregnancy, even before considering labor and delivery, which is terrifying for many women who want children. Mary remains a fourteen-year-old girl, whose mother is deceased, carrying her rapist/father’s child, increasing the fear and anxiety of her circumstance. Furthermore, the nurse does not even begin to consider what it would mean for Mary should she be forced to raise the product of incestuous rape. The nurse in this passage represents the cultural belief in Ireland that motherhood for women is natural and fulfilling and that women and mothers are interchangeable, regardless of circumstance.[48]


The anti-abortion activists also fail to acknowledge the reality of Mary’s future, should she have to keep her rapist’s child. The women muse about Mary’s future wedding as if her life post-pregnancy will be perfect.[49] They also try to manipulate Mary into keeping the fetus by buying her a pet fish and asking her if she would like to kill it: “You see, once you get to know something or someone… once you touch it… once you see a little soul struggling for life, you do not think of killing it… Isn’t that so?”[50] By comparing the care of a fish to the care of a child, especially a child who is the product of rape and may need more physical and certainly more emotional care, these women betray their lack of understanding for Mary’s position. These women fail to recognize that the trauma that Mary has experienced, and continues to experience at their hands, is not going to vanish overnight with the decision to carry the fetus to term. If anything her trauma would be compounded. Lisa Smyth writes: “Abortion was the only available means of restoring ‘normal’ family life, through destroying evidence that the boundaries establishing the meaning of normative familial relations had been transgressed.”[51] Obtaining an abortion was the only way for Mary to maintain her own childhood, the only way to heal. This, however, is a fact that the anti-abortionists refused to see.


It would seem that the anti-abortionists fail to recognize the horror of rape at all. Three separate times an anti-abortionist woman flippantly discusses rape as if it were nothing. One of the women asks Mary,


did she realize the miracle that had happened, that it was that thing, the little life growing in the depths of her body, which brought the truth to light, the whole sordid business of the rape, that the little life was the saviour and that it would also save the rapist, because all rapists long for the day when somebody would find them out and put a stop to what they know to be shameful but which they cannot control.[52]


This idea, repeated twice in the text, shows the willingness of the anti-abortionists to not only put the life of the fetus before the life of the mother, as does the Irish state and the Irish constitution, but also to put the life and salvation of the rapist before the good of the mother. This statement is an extreme insult to any rape survivor. Anti-abortion activists eagerly ignore the pain, suffering, and trauma of rape in favor of the rapist and the fetus. For these women, rape is an expected and normal part of femininity and they are more concerned with preserving the male perpetrator. [53] Mary is not only silenced by her rape, but also by the women who ignore her experience in favor of the fetus.[54] The anti-abortion women seem to be acting at the behest of patriarchy itself.


The way that the anti-abortion activists discuss rape, and the mere presence of rape throughout the text, underscores the lack of power afforded to women in patriarchal societies like Ireland. The existence of rape, and the flippant, dismissive way rape is discussed, suggests that all women in Ireland are powerless and unable to protect their bodily autonomy, which is exacerbated by their inability to make reproductive decisions for themselves. Powerlessness is not reserved just for Mary, rather the text shows how women of this society remain almost completely powerless, especially over their bodily boundaries.


Mary, however, does seem the locus of powerlessness for much of the novel. She understands the inherent danger of being female.[55] Throughout the novel, Mary is passed between people who “own” her, first as her father’s property, then as the anti-abortionist’s plaything, and then as a ward of the state. It is only when Mary is living on the streets that she experiences a moment of short-lived freedom.


The anti-abortionists feel a sense of short-lived power and control as well. Roisin in particular feels that she has control over many people around her. She demands that the lawyer produce Mary when she runs away, and is shocked that the lawyer does not comply.[56] She strictly regulates the women of her group and even calls a press conference to celebrate the victory she anticipates from the court’s decision.[57] However, Mary challenges Roisin’s power more than once. In the hospital, Roisin exclaims, “It’s not your child,” to which Mary replies, “It’s not yours either.”[58] This statement not only defies the power that Roisin believes she has over Mary, but also reveals a lack of power for all women. Mary’s statement “It’s not yours either” is imbued with meaning. Mary’s statement is accurate in that the child is not biologically Roisin’s, nor is it her responsibility, but neither is it Mary’s: she conceived the fetus by incest and therefore does not feel responsibility for the child, nor can she control what happens to it. In this sense, it seems that the child belongs to the state.[59] The courts are deciding whether the fetus lives or dies. The ability to choose has been taken from Mary, though the choice may never have existed in the first place.


When Roisin suddenly feels that the courts may disagree with her, she becomes panicked and says,


If they let her out we go in there as a group and we do everything under the sun to persuade her not to go… We each do our own thing… She can’t go… She doesn’t want to go… We have not lost… Whatever they say… Rubbish, we are not going to lose… The country is behind us… So never mind the legal scum… We’ll over turn it… We’ll win.[60]


Roisin in this moment scrambles to maintain the power she has been exerting over Mary’s decision. Her desperation to retain this modicum of control betrays how fragile that control was to begin with. Within the extreme patriarchy of Ireland, any power and control for women is an illusion. It seems to Roisin and the anti-abortionists that adhering to strict gender codes and restricting other women will garner them some power and respect from the patriarchal system. However, O’Brien makes it clear that this attempt to gather power is just as fruitless as any other attempt.


In the end, the power to choose the destiny of the child is taken from all parties involved. Mary miscarries the baby.[61] When Roisin discovers that Mary has miscarried, she becomes enraged: “What has she done… What have you done? […] May you rot in hell… You have murdered it… You wanted that baby dead… You willed it… You’ll pay for it every day of your life…”[62] Deprived of her victory, Roisin’s only solace is found in shrieking curses.


This ironic ending to a battle fought so violently, further serves to illuminate the futility of women’s attempts to gain power through controlling other women. Mary’s own body rejects patriarchal motherhood and removes the decision from outside entities.[63] Though Mary wanted the fetus gone, the miscarriage, which is painful and a public spectacle, is not the way that she wanted it removed. In the end, it didn’t matter what Mary wanted or how much time and effort the anti-abortionists spent on “saving the baby”; the fetus’s destiny was never in their control to begin with. This scene becomes the ultimate declaration of powerlessness for the anti-abortionists. They did everything that patriarchal society wanted and expected of them; these women acted as the “ideal” woman/mother figure by strictly following the rules of patriarchy and policing any woman who refused to do the same. Their obedience however, is all for naught. O’Brien denounces the internal division of women by patriarchy and exposes the ineffectiveness of attempting to gain power from within the patriarchy’s hold. The novel shows that living within the woman/mother ideal diminishes personhood rather than providing real autonomy.


In direct opposition to the powerlessness of women in the text is the power afforded to men. One of the many examples of this is James, Mary’s father and rapist. James maintains ultimate control over his life by committing suicide.[64] He is able to choose when, where, and how he dies, as well as avoiding public scandal, jail, or execution.[65] As male, father, and perpetrator, he has exerted power over Mary throughout her life and maintained the power given to him by society until his death.[66] The fact that male judges and lawyers are deciding Mary’s fate also underscores the power inequalities of Irish law.[67] Though less time is spent exploring the thoughts, feelings, and lives of the men involved with Mary’s case, their willingness and ease in controlling a situation that would have otherwise not involved them highlights the imbalance of power within this society.


Though the novel does not reveal the outcome of the trial, one chapter gives readers a glimpse of one of the male judges as his teenage daughter, Molly, confronts him. Molly tries to persuade her father to let Mary travel for the abortion and she offers a moment of clarity and eloquence for the reader. Molly attempts to convince her father that Mary is just a scapegoat and that the real criminal is Mary’s rapist: “Yes. The him in this case is the rapist, that’s who you should be pursuing, he’s the one who has bombed Parliament, not her.”[68] She also has a moment of mature understanding of the gender dynamic in Ireland: “[…] you’re not fourteen years of age and sick and vomiting and a thing inside you put against your will, God knows how brutally, no, you’re men, you’re dignitaries, you hold the reins.”[69] O’Brien’s decision to offer some of the most insightful dialogue in the book through a teenage girl is important. Molly’s position is multifaceted. She stands as a surrogate for Mary, finally able to speak for herself. She is a teenage girl in conversation with her father, something that Mary could never do. Mary never had (at least within the text) a relationship with her father in which she could speak openly because he was more interested in sexualizing her. This father-daughter relationship, though it may be tenuous when the reader witnesses it, makes Molly both powerful and powerless at the same time. She is powerful because she has the captive attention of her father and may be able to influence his decision in the courtroom, but she is also powerless because it is only through a man that she can have any impact. Molly understands her powerlessness in the conversation with her father, but is still able to walk away hoping that she has made a difference. Molly represents a new generation of Ireland, a future that understands the flaws in the current system and works for change. O’Brien’s placement of Molly near the end of the novel acts as a thread of hope for this New Ireland.


Unfortunately, the fruits of this positive hope for Ireland are slow in coming. It was not until 2013 that Ireland introduced the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which allowed for abortion in circumstances where there is significant risk to the life of the mother, including risk of suicide.[70] Arguably, this Act was only passed as a result of extremely negative media attention and massive protests after the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, a woman who died because the University Hospital of Galway refused to abort Halappanavar’s miscarrying fetus.[71] Thankfully, it seems that a new Ireland is beginning to emerge. Significantly, an Amnesty International Ireland poll (2015) found that 72% of the Irish population favored decriminalizing abortion, and 87% favored widening the grounds for circumstances in which abortion is allowed.[72] These statistics, and other significant statistics suggesting widespread support for decriminalizing abortion in Ireland, have led to the creation of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment (2013) made up of over 40 organizations that are campaigning to remove restrictions on abortion access as a major oppression of women’s rights.[73] Though these are certainly heartening developments, more work is still necessary to improve the lives of women in Ireland.


O’Brien’s criticisms of Irish gender politics still resonate as strongly as they did in 1998. Though I do not argue the importance of abortion access in this paper, it is clear that in order to heal the divisions caused by patriarchy through anti-abortion rhetoric the anti-abortion movement’s false ideologies must be revealed. Women’s use of anti-abortion rhetoric causes inner divisions between women, and women divided are more easily conquered by patriarchy. If women could heal from their inner divisions, they could work to end patriarchy more effectively. Down by the River offers an indictment of women who attempt to gain power by controlling other women, and reveals the utter lack of power afforded to women within Irish society. Understanding the illusions that hold these flawed systems in place is the only way to bring about positive change for Ireland and understanding Down by the River in this way is a small step in that direction.


[1] Abortion was already illegal in Ireland in 1982 when the Eighth Amendment was proposed under the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861. However, the amendment was proposed as a way to make sure that no rulings allowing abortions could be passed in the future, such as the American Roe v. Wade of 1973. When the Irish people voted in 1983, it passed with 67% of the votes.

[2] Shirley Peterson, “Homeward Bound: Trauma, Homesickness, and Rough Beasts in O’Brien’s In the Forest and McCabe’s Winterwood,” New Hibernia Review 13, no. 4 (2015): 45.

[3] Eileen Morgan, “Mapping Out a Landscape of Female Suffering: Edna O’Brien’s Demythologizing Novels,” Women’s Studies 29, no. 4 (2000): 450, 451.

[4] Ibid., 457.

[5] See Danine Farquharson and Bernice Schrank, “Blurring Boundaries, Intersecting Lives: History, Gender, and Violence in Edna O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation” in Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O’Brien, eds. Lisa Colletta and Maureen O’Connor (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 122. Josie in House of Splendid Isolation is also a victim of rape, like Mary. Josie has been raped by her husband Jamie and chooses to abort the fetus with help from a gypsy mid-wife with a wire hanger. Danine Farquharson and Bernice Schrank argue that Josie’s fetus represents the “tangible evidence of Jamie’s conquest and humiliation of her” and that the abortion offers Josie a way of “achieving autonomy and control of her own body. It is also her revenge for Jamie’s mistreatment of her, her means of denying him the proof of his virility and the heir to his estate.”

[6] Edna O’Brien, Down by the River (New York: Plume, 1998),16-17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Gerardine Meaney, Sex and Nation: Women in Irish Culture and Politics (Dublin: Attic Press, 1991), 4.

[10] O’Brien, Down by the River, 18.

[11] Ibid., 22.

[12] Ibid., 23-24.

[13] Meaney, Sex and Nation, 5.

[14] See, among others, Meaney, Sex and Nation; Kathryn Conrad, “Fetal Ireland: National Bodies and Political Agency,” Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 36, no. 3-4 (2001): 153-73; Heather Ingman, “Edna O’Brien: Stretching the Nation’s Boundaries,” Irish Studies Review 10, no. 3 (2002): 253-65; Miriam O’Kane Mara, “Reproductive Cancer: Female Autonomy and Border Crossing in Medical Discourse and Fiction,” Irish Studies Review 17, no. 4 (2009): 467-83; Lisa Smyth, “Narratives of Irish and the Problem of Abortion: The X Case 1992,” Feminist Review 60 (1998): 61-83; and Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, “From Invisible Child to Abject Maternal Body: Crises of Knowledge in Edna O’Brien’s Down by the River,” Critique 53 (2012): 393-409.

[15] Meaney, Sex and Nation, 7.

[16] Heather Ingman, “Edna O’Brien: Stretching the Nation’s Boundaries,”  Irish Studies Review 10, no. 3 (2002): 254.

[17] Kathryn A. Conrad, Locked in the Family Cell: Gender, Sexuality, and Political Agency in Irish National Discourse (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 71-72.

[18] Ibid., 72.

[19] Ibid., 73.

[20] O’Brien, Down by the River, 131.

[21] Ibid., 133.

[22] Ibid., 151.

[23] Lisa Smyth, “Narratives of Irish and the Problem of Abortion: The X Case 1992,” Feminist Review 60 (1998): 66.

[24] O’Brien, Down by the River, 151.

[25] Ibid., 153-54.

[26] Miriam O’Kane Mara, “Reproductive Cancer: Female Autonomy and Border Crossing in Medical Discourse and Fiction," Irish Studies Review 17, no. 4 (2009): 469.

[27] Ibid., 470.

[28] O’Brien, Down by the River, 180.

[29] Ibid., 184, 185.

[30] Ibid., 251.

[31] Ibid., 186.

[32] Ibid., 185, 188.

[33] Ibid., 189.

[34] Ibid., 188-89.

[35] It is not only anti-abortion rhetoric that holds the life of the fetus above the desires of the mother. Article 40.3.3, also known as the Eighth Amendment, of the Irish Constitution states that: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right"; 167, 2012.

[36] O’Brien, Down by the River, 23.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ailbhe Smyth, “A Sadistic Farce: Women and Abortion in the Republic of Ireland,” in The Abortion Papers, ed. Ailbhe Smyth (Dublin: Attic, 1992), 9.

[39] Kathryn Conrad, “Fetal Ireland: National Bodies and Political Agency,” in Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies (Literature Resource Center, 2001), 159.

[40] Ibid., 158, 159.

[41] Ibid., 159.

[42] L. Smyth “Narratives," 70.

[43] O’Brien, Down by the River, 151.

[44] Ibid., 151.

[45] Conrad, “Fetal Ireland," 158.

[46] A. Smyth, “A Sadistic Farce," 11.

[47] O’Brien, Down by the River, 169.

[48] Authors Conrad, L. Smyth, A. Smyth, Meaney, Ingman, Mara, and Dougherty all recognize that for Irish culture womanhood is synonymous with motherhood. Each discusses what these limited roles mean for women in slightly different contexts.

[49] O’Brien, Down by the River, 183.

[50] Ibid., 183.

[51] Smyth, “Narratives,” 76.

[52] O’Brien, Down by the River, 152 (emphasis added).

[53] See Adrienne Rich, “From Compulsory Heterosexuality” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent Leitch (New York: Norton and Co, 2010), 1591-1609 for more information on how patriarchy uses rape to control women and for a further discussion on how rape and sexual assault are seen as an inevitable part of femininity.

[54] Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, “‘Never Tear the Linnet from the Leaf’: The Feminist Intertextuality of Edna O’Brien’s Down by the River,” in Frontiers 31, no. 3 (2010): 78.

[55] Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, “From Invisible Child to Abject Maternal Body: Crises of Knowledge in Edna O’Brien’s Down by the River,” in Critique 53 (2012): 398.

[56] O’Brien, Down by the River, 198.

[57] Ibid., 250.

[58] Ibid., 154.

[59] Ingman, “Edna O’Brien," 262.

[60] O’Brien, Down by the River, 256.

[61] Sources differ on the outcome of X’s pregnancy. Some sources state that X, like Mary, miscarried the fetus before she could obtain an abortion. While other sources state that X did go to England after the court’s decision to get an abortion. However, this would not be the only departure the text takes from the real case of X. X was not raped by her father, but by a close family friend. This was still seen, as several sources state, as a breach of the family unit.

[62] O’Brien, Down by the River, 259.

[63] Dougherty, “From Invisible," 404.

[64] O’Brien, Down by the River, 249.

[65] Mara, “Reproductive Cancer," 473.

[66] Mr. Z the rapist in the X case was originally sentenced to fourteen years in prison, but had the sentence reduced to four years because he was a “hard-working man” who had never been in trouble before; see L. Smyth (78).

[67] Smyth, “Narratives,” 75.

[68] O’Brien Down by the River, 240-41.

[69] Ibid., 242.

[70] Office of the Attorney General, “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013,” Irish Statute Book Online, accessed April 28, 2016.

[71] Shane Harrison, “Woman Dies After Abortion Request ‘Refused’ at Galway Hospital,” BBCNews.com, last modified November 14, 2012.

[72] Amnesty International Ireland, “Amnesty International/Red C poll reveals Irish public want expanded access to abortion to be a political priority for incoming government,” Amnesty International, last modified March 4, 2016, accessed April 28, 2016.

[73] Ailbhe Smyth and Sinead Kennedy, “Letter to Committee Members," Repeal 8 Coalition, accessed April 28, 2016.