Surviving Exile in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s “Summer Pudding

Throughout the canon of the Irish short story in the twenty-first century, special attention is given to the nature of Irish identity. From James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, to Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, the question of identity and nationhood haunts writers responding to a culture scarred by the transition into modernity and the subordination to the old British Empire. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s short story “Summer Pudding” is a relatively recent addition to the Irish canon of short stories, published in 1997. “Summer Pudding” recasts the question of Irish identity onto the female body. Hunger, transformation and silence are the elements of metamorphosis that Ní Dhuibhne inspects through her narrator, and this story offers a compelling glimpse into the conditions that dissemble the intricate cultural institutions of social, economic and gender identity.

In “Summer Pudding”, through twists of circumstance, two Irish sisters are orphaned and set adrift in Wales, where they must assume the identity of exiled ‘Gwydellion’ (1) in order to survive. Through these two sisters, Ní Dhuibhne offers differing perspectives of the situation. The unnamed narrator, one of the sisters, displays malleability and an open mind, contrasting her sister Mary, who clings to the strands of their old life. Mary, whose inability to reconcile her aspirations of propriety and piety with her current living situation causes tension between her and the fellow ‘Tinkers’. Ní Dhuibhne uses this friction between Mary and the itinerants to play into the reader’s expectations of what the Tinkers are like, giving the reader what it expects: base morals and unseemly behaviour.

Mary did not like them. ‘They are wild animals,’ she said. Not ‘they are like wild animals’, which is what I thought at first. [...] The women throw their bodies along the road rather than carry them like Mary does, and I suppose, me as well, as if we were jugs of milk that might spill if we don’t take care. (Ní Dhuibhne 282)

As sisters descend into homelessness and abject poverty, the Tinkers are reevaluated by the narrator. Ní Dhuibhne purposefully contrasts the sisters pious and saddening poverty against the "careless and jolly" poverty of the Gwydellion. The narrator, who at first pays special attention to the strong differences in comportment between her sister and the “wild” Tinkers, starts to mimic them when the time is right. Whereas the sisters begin their nomadic life behaving like “milk jugs” (which is a symbol of femininity, motherhood, and fertility), the narrator is soon able to mimic the Tinkers enough to begin stealing from the Welsh folk to survive. The narrator understands how the unwomanly and improper behaviour of the itinerants is key to their survival. In a world where the Tinkers “claim neither racial nor spatial territory,” they manage to thrive by dissembling the infrastructures of culture and society (Lawrence). Despite Mary’s opinion that the Tinkers are “a bad lot” that must be abandoned at the first opportunity, the Tinkers share their food generously. The narrator notices the abundance of food: “We were eating half a load of bread we’d got from them. We had not had bread in months.” (Ní Dhuibhne 283) The hunger that began in famine-struck Ireland is sated amongst vagabonds, and while Mary dismisses the Tinkers and only takes their food, the narrator discovers a hunger for more that bread: for new experiences. As Dr Anne Fogarty writes in the introduction of Ní Dhuibhne’s anthology Midwife to the Fairies, Ní Dhuibhne’s fiction distills the “tension of the woman’s internal perspectives of themselves and the conflicting social roles they are expected to fill as mothers, daughters.” (Fogarty xiv) With the protagonist and her sister Mary, we are able to witness the effects of exile and acute alienation on the sister’s identities. The association with the Tinkers displaces Mary and the narrator into a social class they have never before experienced. The sisters almost descend into prostitution, but only abstain because they won’t “get much of a price” out of their emaciated, hungry bodies (Ní Dhuibhne 284). Survival, not morality, dictate the sister’s new lives:

We went off down the road from the camp with nine or ten of them, women and few men. The women all had their stripped cotton dresses on and big blue cloaks flying around them, and their red hair flying, and the men had white shirts and black coats and carried thick sticks on their shoulders. They moved in a strung-out group along the thin road from the sea to the marketplace, and we were among them. I thought they must look like the wind, blowing into the place. People scattered before them as if they were – the wind, or a band of bad mischievous fairies. The little Welsh women in their black clothes, with their little white lace bonnets close to their faces, fled. (Ní Dhuibhne 284)

The alignment with the Tinkers, or ‘Gwydellion’, with supernatural or elemental imagery punctuate the deliberate nature of Ní Dhuibhne’s writing is. By aligning the sisters with these frightening outsiders on the outskirts of Anglo civilisation, Ní Dhuibhne places the sisters in a space where their former values are meaningless. By association, and in order to survive, the sisters not only learn how to pitch a tent to keep out the rain and live in the woods, they also learn how to steal and beg. By associating with the Tinkers, even the narrator surprises herself:

I pretended to be looking at the apples and pears which were heaped on the stall. [...] I did not look quite like the other Gwydellion, with my black hair, which I tied back again behind my neck, and my plain dress. It was easy to snatch the bread and then I ran like the hammers of hell.
“Good girl yourself,’ Molly Dunne said. “I didn’t think you had it in you.” Neither did I. I was proud as punch, and Mary was as downhearted and disapproving as you would expect her to be. (Ní Dhuibhne 285)

The narrator’s realignment of values (“proud as punch”) starkly contrasts against her sister’s disapproval. Whereas Mary still dreams of becoming a “kitchen nun”, the narrator sates her hunger using any physical means within her reach. Even the methods of Molly Dunne and the Tinker women are fine to use, not only as a last recourse, but as a way like any other. The narrator finds exhilaration in stealing, and thus is able to sate her emotional, bodily needs despite their lack of cultural or societal approval.

I never begged. I couldn’t, although Mary became quite good at that. I stole all before me, preferring that, even though I knew what would happen if I got caught. I stole from farms as well as from towns – eggs and milk, bread sitting out to cool on windowsills. I took the red stuff called, I knew now, cheese. Once, I lifted a lamb from under the nose of a boy on the side of Wydfa. Naoise, whom I had got to know by then, killed it for me and we all ate it, roasted over the fire, for supper. (Ní Dhuibhne 286)

The narrator has followed a long journey since her characterisation as a “jug of milk”. Hunger has unlocked countless possibilities before her. Her agency as an outcast in abject poverty gives her, paradoxically, much needed freedom to support herself. Stealing gives the narrator peace of mind, so much so that she begins to enjoy and analyse the attentions of Naoise, and the natural beauty of the woods the Tinker people camp out in. This discovery of agency through hunger is key to understanding what Ní Dhuibhne offers in “Summer Pudding.” Hunger, which caused the exile in the first place, which caused the sisters to join with the vagabond Tinkers, which causes the narrator to discover sensory experience and agency, is what ultimately breaks down all societal infrastructures such as morality and propriety. Furthermore, as Ní Dhuibhne emphasises, hunger is a physical need of the body. The narrator’s body becomes her sole, real ‘possession’. The narrator claims full agency over her own body and mind thanks to poverty and hunger, and this agency allows the blurring of the gendered and sexual expectations on her body. The narrator is no longer a “jug of milk”, a holding point for the values of Irish womanhood that have been impressed upon her since birth. Her body is wholly her own, and she can use it as she will, even if it means prostitution, stealing, and having extramarital liaisons with Naoise in order to sate her bodily hunger.

As Adam Lawrence writes in his essay “Erotic Deterritorializations in the Traveller Fiction of Liam O’Flaherty and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne” contrasting the two sisters in “Summer Pudding” :

While one sister is repulsed by the itinerant “Gwydellion” [...] the other sister relishes each new experience, exploring the sensual possibilities of travelling, working, eating, and possibly loving in an unfamiliar territory. Her ability to insinuate herself into both the Irish tinker community and the Welsh settled community blurs the distinction between the male and female, the Irish and non-Irish domain of work and travel. (Lawrence)

The blurring of the genders within the narrator’s body is a direct result of the alienation and fragmentation of the narrator’s sense of Irish identity. The dissolution of the narrator’s old way of life results in the narrator claiming full control and agency over her experienced body. (Ingman 12) This is emphasised in the narrator’s first romantic tryst with Naoise, where the narrator initiates contact in a unwomanly manner, trapping him by the well in a manner right out of a fairy tale: “One night I caught him alone, behind the encampment, where I was fetching water from the stream. He stood still beside me while I filled the pandy and when I stood up he was right in front of me, his face close to my face [...] I put my free hand on his face and caressed it.” (Ní Dhuibhne 290) The narrator, no longer woman but almost mythical, transforms through agency into a creature unbound by any expectations upon her person. She can transgress any boundary posed before her, and adapt to any situation: her driving principle is to sate her hunger. She begins to dismiss the marriages and ‘wives’ in the Tinker camps, seeing them as frightful assaults on independence: “She was the way the tinker women are as soon as they are married any length of time at all. Scrap. Poor thing, poor thing, poor scrap.” (Ní Dhuibhne 291)

The narrator’s alignment with the old Irish fairies innovates the traditional folklore surrounding Irish myth: “Éilís Ní Dhuibhne draws on folklore but rewrites the traditional ending to render it more attuned to contemporary women’s lives.” (Ingman 4) The narrator’s attention lingers on the food, the orchards, the pudding given to her in the Ladies of Llangollen’s kitchen: she is a hard worker in any situation, easily transitioning from nymphlike thief to quiet scullery maid, but she no longer accepts subordination. Her time as an outcast has taught her to submit to no one, not Naoise, not even religious men:

“Kneel down there the three of you.”

I would not kneel for him. The little girl would not kneel, but Naoise held her in front of him so the blessing would land on her. I watched him, bowing his head and closing his eyes, to the man he believed was the priest. (Ní Dhuibhne 296)

The narrator has lost all urge to pray, and it is telling that Naoise’s little daughter also does not understand the importance of a religious blessing. The two females will not submit to the religious man: even the little daughter is not accustomed to the traditional values of female or moral subservience. Only the stubborn Naoise is preoccupied with such matters, superstitiously afraid of invoking the banshee (Ní Dhuibhne 282) and stubbornly clinging to the idea of a blessing from another man before crossing the sea. As Caitriona Moloney writes, Naoise’s stubborn obsession with finding “Father Tobin”, the Catholic priest, adds another level of subtlety to “Summer Pudding” in order to unveil the complicated workings between the Irish in exile and the local Welsh and English folk:

However, operating intertextually with “real” history, Ní Dhuibhne inserts a silent character, the narrator, whose thoughts are directly read. Her thoughts represent the colonized mentality of “cunning, exile, and silence.” The narrator doubts the story of a priest in Wales who ministered to the Irish there; she teases Naoise about Father Tobin being like a banshee, “someone only your friend’s friend has ever laid eyes on” (Moloney 5)

Faced with the prospect of “Father Toban” being a fraud, she quietly lets Naoise do what he likes. She does not care that “Father Toban” is a priest of not. The particular value of superstition and religion are altogether lost on the narrator, just as she no longer prizes marriage or sedentary occupations as ideal. Only carnality and hunger hold any meaning to the narrator after her experiences in exile. The fragmentation of her identity, the result of hungry July during the famine, causes the narrator rebuilt her own identity and independence out of hunger.

Without the strong foothold of culture and location to cling to, the bodies in “Summer Pudding” are free to crash into each other, and the infrastructures of proper occupations and proper liaisons and associations are dismantled. Ní Dhuibhne offers a complex reading with her quiet narrator: she uses her silence to her advantage to survive her displacement, the subsequent alienation from mainstream society, and the fragmentation of her identities. The narrator is also able to survive, without grief or thought, separation from her sister Mary, who she leaves behind in Wales. Whoever the narrator was before her exile from Ireland, that woman has transformed into a cunning person. As Moloney writes: “the historical fiction of [Ní Dhuibhne] uses myth, biography, and family history to deconstruct simplistic essentialist hierarchies of good/bad, female/male, rural/urban, and Irish/English, creating a voice for the subaltern woman.” (Moloney 13) As her body is her only possession and her only tool for survival, the narrator must protect this body with necessary silence. Even when poverty and hunger obliterate the narrator’s need for marriage, gender roles, and other societal constructs, the narrator maintains a necessary silence in the face of colonisation, religion, and other institutions when it is most opportunistic. As when the narrator kept quiet with Naoise and “Father Tobin”, so does she with her sister and with the Ladies of Llangollen when they question her about her past:

“Summer Pudding” illustrates how, like colonized subjects, women have at times colluded in their own misrepresentation in history. The story uses the Great Potato Famine of 1845 to dramatize how histories are falsified in times of great stress and how, in such times, women can collude in their own erasure from history. (Moloney 3)

When the traditional safety nets of womanhood, marriage, and societal structure vanish, Ní Dhuibhne demonstrates in “Summer Pudding” that identities can be dismantled, and that persons can remain in flux and pliable in order to survive hardship. Through devices such as abject poverty, hunger, and silence, Ní Dhuibhne creates a narrator who navigates a hostile environment easily, partaking in the sensory experiences offered to her and learning how to take agency over her own body and silence. Poverty and hunger dismantle the intricate cultural institutions of social, economic and gender identity, and nowhere is that better demonstrated in “Summer Pudding” when the narrator undergoes countless transformations in order to survive. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne “uses a narrative strategy of intertextualizing old Irish myth with contemporary stories, a technique that emphasises the longevity of practices that silenced women in literature and history.” (Moloney 2) The narrator in “Summer Pudding” subverts and appropriates the silence and oppression imposed by her exile and alienation. Instead of fracturing beyond repair, the narrator builds herself an identity that allows her to negotiate the complexity of a displaced life. While scholars are quick to link the imposed silence of women and colonialism, Ní Dhuibhne problematises this reading by giving her narrator considerable cunning and agency. The narrator exhibits great clarity over the precariousness of her life, and is able to derive enjoyment and exhilaration surmounting obstacles such as poverty, destitution and hunger. In writing “Summer Pudding” Éilís Ní Dhuibhne creates a protagonist in flux, a narrator who sees the truth and creates deception when necessary. This Irish woman is a multivalent and multifaceted body who responds to the fragmentation and dissolution of the Irish identity by continuously undoing and relearning her own identity. A woman linked to the many shape-shifting Irish folk tales yet navigating complex political, economic, and gendered relationships, the narrator assumes whatever role allows her to survive the present moment, whatever role allows her to sate her hunger.

Notes

1 - Gwydellions is Welsh for ‘Irish persons’, according to Adam Lawrence in his essay : “Erotic Deterritorializations in the Traveller Fiction of Liam O’Flaherty and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne”

Bibliography

Fogarty, Anne. “Preface” in Midwife to the Fairies by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. Cork, Attic Press, 2003: ix-xvi. Print.

Ingman, Heather. A History of the Irish Short Story. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Lawrence, Adam. “Erotic Deterritorializations in the Traveller Fiction of Liam O’Flaherty and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne” Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies: 12 April 2013. Web. 13 Jun 2013.

Moloney, Caitriona. “Re-Imagining Women’s History in the Fiction of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, and Kate O’Riordan.” Postcolonial Text, Vol 3 No 3: 2007. Web. 12 Jun 2013.

Ní Dhuibhne, Éilís. “Summer Pudding.” Cutting the Night in Two – Short Stories by Irish Women Writers. Ed. Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser. Dublin: New Island, 2002. 281-296. Print.