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Motherland: Writings by Irish American Women about Mothers and Daughters

Motherland: Writings by Irish American Women about Mothers and Daughters

by Caledonia Kearns

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The writings in this collection, fiction and nonfiction, are written from the perspectives of Irish American mothers and daughters.From Angela's Ashes to Riverdance, Irish literature and art are capturing the American imagination as never before. Ireland's literary legacy has taken root in American soil, and this dazzling anthology captures the spirit


The writings in this collection, fiction and nonfiction, are written from the perspectives of Irish American mothers and daughters.From Angela's Ashes to Riverdance, Irish literature and art are capturing the American imagination as never before. Ireland's literary legacy has taken root in American soil, and this dazzling anthology captures the spirit of this Celtic renaissance.

Motherland presents a poignant collection of Irish American women's writings about the mother-daughter bond in all its variety: sometimes a source of strength and solace, sometimes of sorrow and resentment, but always and everywhere central to the author's identity.

Acclaimed anthologist Caledonia Kearns has collected more than twenty pieces of fiction and nonfiction to create a rich tapestry of emotion, humor, and truth, featuring the work of contemporary writers, such as Anna Quindlen, Mary Gordon, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mary Cantwell, Martha Manning, Rosemary Mahoney, Susan Minot, and Maureen Howard, along with voices from past eras like Margaret Sanger, Mother Jones, and M.F.K. Fisher.

This book speaks directly to the hearts of every mother and daughter. Irish or not, readers will find treasures to cherish, wisdom to live by, and words that sing with the spirit of the Celtic soul. It's a wonderful gift for St. Patrick's Day, Mother's Day, or any occasion when eloquence is the order of the day.

Author Biography: Caledonia Kearns is the editor of Cabbage and Bones:  An Anthology of Irish American Women's Fiction.  A graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, New York.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Kearns (Cabbage and Bones) has done an exemplary job of assembling this anthology of writings by a wide variety of Irish-American women. Although many of the selections are memoirs and essays concerning motherhood, some fiction is also included, such as the sample from nearly forgotten novelist Ellin Mackay Berlin (Lace Curtain). Of particular interest are selections from the autobiographies of two important Irish-American labor activists: Helen Gurley Glynn (1890-1964) delivers a stirring tribute to her mother, an immigrant whose political activism made her a role model for her daughter; Mother Jones (1830-1930) recalls how she began agitating for the rights of strikers after the deaths of her husband and four children from yellow fever. There is a touching piece by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who recalls her childhood attempts to wish away her mother's serious illness. Mary Cantwell describes the painful birth of her baby. Other contributors in this thoughtful collection include Mary Gordon, Anna Quindlen and birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger.
Library Journal
Kearns, who previously edited an anthology of Irish American women's fiction (Cabbage and Bones, LJ 10/15/97), has collected 24 fiction and nonfiction pieces "to expose what motherhood can be and how daughters experience their mothers." The majority of the selections are reminiscences about mothers, some filled with praise and nostalgia, others with sorrow and anger. The most entertaining ones — Jean Kerr's satiricial essay about her returning adult children and Martha Manning's piece about her daughter's goldfish — focus on being a parent. Some selections lack clarity and effectiveness because they have been taken out of context from novels. Although they are all written by Irish American women, there is often no mention whatsoever of Irish ways or the Irish American experience. This uneven collection contains few outstanding pieces and is appropriate only for larger libraries with a demand for Irish-related materials.
--Ilse Heidmann, San Marcos, TX
Irish America Magazine
...[A]ny reader will surely find something...which reflects their own relationship with Mom.
Kirkus Reviews
Kearns (who edited Cabbage and Bones: An Anthology of Irish-American Women's Fiction, 1997) has assembled a delightfully diverse collection of essays (old and new) and fiction about the struggles and unique joys of motherhood, written by some of America's finest Irish-American women writers. Two dozen stellar contributors examine motherhood in all its complexity, from the stresses of pregnancy, to the challenges of raising teenagers, to functioning as a single mother or a mother-in-law, to the difficulties of growing old and letting go. What unifies this collection is the consistent excellence of its prose and its profound respect for the mothering role. In an essay suffused with self-awareness and hypnotically spare prose, Anna Quindlen describes how her mother's death forced her to become a mature, independent woman. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes powerfully about how her mother taught her to love books and the beauty of language. In a comedic masterpiece, Jean Kerr bemoans that her adult, unmarried "children" have yet to leave the nest: "they don't belong to anybody else yet," so they show up unannounced for dinner, usually carrying a bag of dirty laundry. In another hilarious essay, Martha Manning describes how she accidentally killed her four-year-old daughter's pet goldfish, forcing her to confront the sort of absurd neurosis long associated with Woody Allen. "Mother" Jones, the legendary labor organizer, writes about her mother's unconquerable independence and how it encouraged her budding political activism. Mary Doyle Curran and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn strike similar themes of social activism triggered by a mother's courageous example. In the most emotionally powerfulcontribution, novelist Mary Gordon writes with lyrical intensity about caring for her aging, senile mother. These pieces, sad and funny and always surprising, work well individually but also form a thematically satisfying whole. A thoroughly outstanding exploration of motherhood that's sure to delight mothers, daughters, and lovers of skillfull prose, no matter their ethnic background.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.69(d)

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Read an Excerpt

The Bonesetter
Carolyn Curtin Alessio

Until I was twelve, I considered my mother an ethnic renegade. She'd repudiated her Irish-immigrant parents in a single, flagrant act, by marrying a young engineer by the name of Sergio Antonio Alessio. My pride in my mother's daring was great, and for years, when I signed my full name, I often paused, considering all the Irish surnames I might have had if my mother had complied with tradition and added to Curtin, her maiden name, a last name that might have begun and not ended with O.

In assuming my mother's heroism, however, I overlooked several key factors which suggested that perhaps my parents were not such an unlikely match: both were the children of European immigrants (my mother's parents hailed from County Limerick, my father's parents from Bassano del Grappa in Northern Italy); both were avid readers and had put themselves through college, and both were practicing Roman Catholics. But in my irrepressible ability to romanticize, I reveled in the improbability of their union. At Sunday Mass, when the priest spoke in his sermon of "mixed" marriages — ironically, he meant Catholic and Protestant — I privately substituted Irish and Italian. Even looking in the mirror took on a sort of mystique: though I have my father's dark eyes and ability to tan, my face has always been so freckled as to resemble an experiment in pointillism.

I learned many Irish customs and habits from my mother's mother, Mary O'Connor Curtin. Though it seemed incongruous to me, my mother's family had not renounced her for her marital defection: perhaps they viewed it as an inevitable dilution of the gene pool,or yet another trial in the family's narrative. In any event, I often wound up with my mother in Grandma Curtin's dim kitchen, in a Depression-era bungalow in a predominantly Irish neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago.

Sipping tea from Beleek china dotted with pale shamrocks, we'd listen to scratchy recordings of Irish tenor John McCormick, or sometimes, the more modern Clancy Brothers who cavorted and sang such whimsical numbers as "The Boys Won't Leave the Girls Alone." In that house on Massasoit Street, my grandmother read us obituaries from the Tribune (focusing on the deceased with Irish names), smoked, and imparted folk beliefs. For example, she told us that a bird lingering on the roof of one's house foretold certain death. And always, my grandmother told stories from the Old Country, a place that she always called "back home," though she'd left it at age sixteen to come to the States, where she took a job as a live-in nanny for a wealthy German family.

Hardship and hyperbole were mainstays in my grandmother's tales. In one story that she repeated often, her mother broke her leg while working the family's farm. There were seven children then, a baby on the way, and a husband who wasn't always reliable. At this point in the story, my grandmother would pause and purse her lips, as though considering the pathos of the situation for the first time. Cigarette smoke rose up around her in tiny, gray cyclones. I would try to imagine my grandmother's family home, her ailing mother, her youngest sister Bridie, who later would die in my grandmother's arms. All I could summon up, though, was the damp Chicago kitchen in which we sat, sipping tea and listening. "But the Bonesetter came," my grandmother would say, leaning forward, "the Bonesetter came and fixed Ma's leg."

We were never certain who the Bonesetter was — a combination chiropractor and orthopedist, or even some kind of Celtic shaman. My grandmother took it for granted that we would understand the power of such a person. Further, she seemed to believe that answering petty inquiries about his profession might somehow weaken the Bonesetter's storied capabilities. Years later, I would read of a bonesetter in Ulysses, an old lady's "medicineman," but somehow I could not connect this definition with the semimythical hero of my grandmother's tales.

Despite the Bonesetter's ability to mitigate suffering, the majority of my grandmother's tales took on a maudlin twist, evolving into tales of misplaced love and longing, of dissipation and the failure to combat the cruelty of the surrounding world. Children, like her infant sister, died of quick, feverish illnesses; women over forty married out of desperation and bore children who were "never quite right." These tragedies were not confined to Ireland, however, but seemed to follow the immigrants to the States, where middle-aged men would keel over from heart attacks in pubs, priests would begin to spit up blood while saying a funeral mass, young women would spend their earnings on war bonds, only to receive word that their fiances and their brothers had died overseas.

It would be years before I would read Joyce, Yeats, Frank O'Connor and Flannery O'Connor, but I learned early from my grandmother's heartbreaking stories a sense of Irishness that I would later translate — however illogically — into my own sense of complicity in the disappointing of God. As a child, however, I knew only that I experienced a curious mixture of yearning and relief when my grandmother would finish her stories for the day, and bid us "Safe Home" as she waved from the front porch, a cigarette still burning in her hand.

Predictably, it was my grandmother, not my mother, who told me about my mother's prophetic dream. One night during the late fifties in the Chicago house, my mother was awakened by a dream. A pleading, raspy voice was calling "Ma" again and again. Startled awake, my mother awoke her own mother, who assured her that nothing was wrong. The next morning, they received word from Ireland that Brigit McNamara O'Connor, my mother's grandmother, had passed away during the night.

What People are Saying About This

Frank McCourt
How can anyone resist a collection of writings that includes M.F.K. Fisher, whom I've idolized for years, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mary Gordon, "Mother" Jones? And when you have Jean Kerr and Anna Quindlen sending in the message from two generations, you won't believe your good fortune.

Irish Americans are just beginning to create a distinct literature and Irish American women are carving out their own territory. You'll need many copies of this book — as presents for men!

Meet the Author

Caledonia Kearns is the editor of Cabbage and Bones:  An Anthology of Irish American Women's Fiction.  A graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, New York.

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