Reading Log on ‘Blood and Water’ by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne

Stories about mental illness are something I seek out, particularly. I may be a little harsh in these notes towards the author, not because I believe the author is wrong or the story is terrible, but because the treatment of mental illness is something that is so poorly handled in media in general that I have become oversensitive. ‘Blood and Water’ was published in 1989, and is a fascinating retrospective read on the condition of mental disability in rural Ireland throughout the twenty first century.

Thoughts in point form:

  • I have an aunt who is not the full shilling. The introductory sentence is in the present tense and more assertive as a result, compared to the cloudier and softer past-tense story that follows. ‘Not the full shilling’ must be similar to ‘lost her marbles’ or ‘not all there’.
  • …truth we couldn’t stomach: she was mentally retarded. Interesting that the children have an easier time accepting madness or psychosis compared to mental retardation. Is it that much scarier to the children?
  • Also interesting to note that in the same paragraph the Aunt is reffered to as being 'pitied' by the 'kind' country folk, and that the secret to her survival is that pity, and also the fact that she has her door open to visitors or ‘callers’ who invite themselves over for gossip. This gossip does not involve the Aunt, but her house is a good rendez vous point for the people who live in the area. The Aunt is being used, but this is also one of the reasons she is successful.
  • Another interesting detail is the author’s perception of the fact that those born before the fifties or sixties with mental illness are lucky:
    Luckily for her she was born in 1925 and had been reared as a normal child.
    Because the Aunt was reared ‘normally’ her occupation and life is perceived as being better and more interesting from the point of view of the author, who thinks that if the Aunt had been born in the fifties and gone to a ‘special school’ and then onto a ‘special job’ her life would have been much more dull. While this is an opinion from the narrator, who is presumably older as she tells the story, it is unfortunate that we don’t get the Aunt’s perspective on this firsthand.
  • Also interesting is that as a child, her annual family holiday is spent underneath the Aunt’s roof: And had it not been for the lodging she provided, we could not have afforded to get away at all. But we did not consider this aspect of the affair. The ‘we’ here is interesting – is it the oblivious children who are not aware of their family’s poverty (or class?) Or is it the family’s ingratitude or obliviousness that they don’t recognize their luck in having an Aunt with her own farm for them to use? Again, the Aunt is being used by outsiders, but is it to the benefit to the Aunt? Presumably the familial relations are positive and the Aunt enjoys her family’s company, but at this point in the story it’s not obvious at first glance.
  • Personally, I adore the narrator’s childlike and hazy description of the car trip. It’s very nostalgic and immediately reminiscent of old cars and country roads. Immediately I can smell the ‘fragrant’ leather seats and the nauseating garages when the cars inevitably broke down and stranded the narrator’s family en route. These paragraphs are undoubtedly some of the best description I’ve ever read of landscapes in a short story.

Apart from such occasional hitches, however, the trips were delightful odysseys through various flavours of Ireland: the dusty rich flatlnds outside Dublin, the drumlins of Monaghan with their hint of secrets and better things to come, the luxuriant slopes, rushing rivers and expensive villas of Tyrone, and finally, the ultimate reward, the furze and heather, the dog-roses, the fuchsia, of Donegal.

  • We discover after this beautiful voyage that the Aunt is deaf, or very hard of hearing – nonetheless she could still hear the car approaching a few hundred yards away. (It was always that kind of car, the narrator notes – either wistfully or embarrassedly I’m not sure – the child narrator might have felt embarrassed for the loud motor and its unsubtle marker or status, but perhaps the child was not that observant?)
  • The diplomatic stage of the holiday is the first night? Funny.
  • Writing letters only about death – strange habit of the parents. Is this the inheritance of some old supersition or custom, or just laziness on the part of the narrator’s parents?
  • The narrator thinks the Aunt is unclean and doesn’t like the bread she makes. The narrator’s sister loves the bread and never believes what the narrator thinks.
  • The holiday, magical feeling is activated outdoors by the stream. At that stream, on the first night, I would suddenly discover within myself a feeling of happiness and freedom I was normally unaware I possessed. This is an interesting statement.
  • Churned butter, which is put on the wall of the sculery for good luck, is something which really frightens the narrator as a little girl. (Personal note: my grandmother had the same disgust and fear of butter set up like this for luck!)
  • The ritual of Irish religion is on display, and it dismays the narrator, who is much more reserved in taste and embarassed of being seen in public with her aunt.
  • Going barefoot and seeing all the bare feet really bothers the narrator, who has a very demonstrable shame about her body. She feels much more at ease as a consumer than as a public religious figure.
  • The narrator hates that her aunt cries, breaking yet another taboo, and just being herself even though the aunt’s self doesn’t have the full shilling.
  • The root of the narrator’s anger towards the aunt is that they resemble each other physically. I grew to hate my physique. And I transferred that hatred, easily and inevitably, to my aunt.
    • (Hatred of the female body, or the female self, is a common thread in a quite a few stories about women…)
  • Publically unacknowledging her aunt in public, out of shame.
    The return to the present tense. The conclusion is altogether unlikable in tone, but perhaps it is so unlikeable because as a reader we easily identify with the narrator and the narrator’s embarrassment and quest for normalcy and propriety. The conclusion of the mind like butter is fascinating.

The ‘Mad’ Aunt:

  • She is only articulate about concrete matters. Abstraction escapes her.
  • She does not partake in gossip. She is hard of hearing.
    Care, formality: these were characteristics which were most obvious in her. Slowness.
  • Sometimes the Aunt tries to reply to questions, most often not.
  • After a few minutes of trying to converse she would indicate resentfully that the narrator’s family was late by two days, but the narrator’s mother would patiently explain that they were in fact due today. The Aunt has poor sense of time?
    Would love to go on car rides, but her family is ashamed of her.
  • Doesn’t help with the housework when the narrator’s family comes to visit.
  • Has feelings, and they are often hurt by her family.

Elements of Note

  • Blood – the resemblance between Mary (narrator) and Annie (her aunt)
  • Water – the love of the ocean, the love of the countryside
Gersande La Flèche

Gersande La Flèche

By day I am a writing coach & freelance English-French translator. By night (or rather by dawn because I'm an early bird) I scribble away at poetry, prose, and essays in one of my many notebooks.
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