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2017

Justified Actions:
Response to Constructed
Patricide and
Masculinity
MODERN IRISH LITERATURE AND CULTURE
RYAN J. KELLEY
In January of 1907, Play Boy of the Western World was performed for the first time after

being written by John Millington Synge. When the performance finished, the audience was

stunned but not for a good reason. The mostly Irish audience was outraged on how badly Synge

had depicted the native Irish people to be throughout the three-act play. This outrage was later

dubbed the name, Play Boy riots after people began acting out due to the portrayal of the Irish

men and women throughout the play. The controversy was over the fact that one of the main

characters Pegeen, a woman, was viewed as strong and independent while on the other hand her

fiancé Shawn was depicted as timid and weak. Synge showed the connection of patriarchy and

heroism through the character Christy and how he told the people of the village that he killed his

father. At first the people of the village, in Mayo, accept him as a hero, but that quickly changes

when Christy’s father returns looking for him after only receiving a head wound. The actions

taken by the people of the village are justified due to Christy spreading his false story of

patricide through the town.

During the middle of the 1800’s, the tragedy mostly called the Irish potato famine, swept

all across Ireland. A first-hand account of the horror claims that more than one million people

were lost to starvation and disease, while around two million people immigrated to surround

countries (Cantwell 2017). It also stated that during this time the population of Ireland was

reduced by one-third, between the years 1845 and 1855 (Cantwell 2017). Essentially, the country

of Ireland was left in shambles and allowed to Britain to gain an even stronger hold on its

freedom. During the horror of the famine, Britain continued to export goods from the country of

Ireland while its people left starving along the sides of the road begging for help. The first-hand

account of Cantwell’s (2017) Grandfather says, “Over the especially two years, life was

miserable. We were always hungry and lost weight. England gave us some Indian corn and
maize, but it was poorly ground and caused abdominal pain and diarrhea.” This excerpt from a

survivor of the famine shows that the little help the Irish people did receive, set them back even

more in survival. The Irish needed an outlet to help them regain what they once had before the

famine, and the creation of the Celtic Revival saved them. The people turned to the literature of

the Celtic Revival to find a hero that would help save them from the despair that the British

swallowed them in.

Towards the end of the famine and into the late 1800’s, the country of Ireland was

attempting to make a Celtic Revival back to their roots to try and recover from the famine. At the

heart of the Celtic revival, was the stories of heroes like Fionn mac Cumhaill. These heroes were

supposed to represent Irish people regaining a connection with their roots to recover an identity

as one people. Heroes like Fionn were depicted as strong and would dominant anything that

would come in their path. Another important aspect of the Celtic Revival was the use of

literature widespread throughout the stories and the people. For example, in the story about

Fionn, he was depicted as great warrior but described as having the gift of poetry. Literature was

the lifeline for the Irish during this time, and it connected them to something much deeper,

maybe even supernatural. This is important because the Irish people had just lost one third of

their population to disease or immigration and needed something that would pull them together.

Groups like the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, the Irish Literary Society, and

the Irish Literary Theatre were all created to bring the Irish people together in connection with

their heritage (Class Notes). Play Boy of the Western World was created and produced right

towards the end of the Celtic Revival which ran from 1890 to 1910, and was used to spread a

message.
At the heart of the controversy of the riots, was the way in which Synge depicted the Irish

people in the village of County Mayo. Even though the Irish were outraged, Synge had reasoning

to depict them as this way throughout the play. Synge had made the link between the colonizing

power, Britain, and how this power had made the Irish men emasculated and weak in a sense.

Britain was playing the patriarchal role in the relationship between the two countries and was

making sure that Ireland did not even gain an ounce of power. Some patriarchal characteristics

are strong, powerful, dominant, independent, and aggressive. This traits correlate directly to how

the British directed their rule on to the Irish people, creating the emasculation of many Irish men

during the time. The link between the patriarchal powers Britain has over the Irish, can be seen

throughout the play, and the reason why Synge depicted the people in this way. The goal of the

colonization was to oppress the Irish enough that they would not have the strength to fight back

and gain their independence.

The link between colonization and emasculation is shown throughout multiple characters

in the play, and each one is depicted for a certain purpose. The number one character that is

depicted as emasculated is Shawn Keogh, and is shown this way right off the start. Shawn is

telling a story about what he saw on his way to the pub and the reader is given descriptive keys

to pinpoint his emasculation. “I couldn’t see him at all; but I heard him groaning out, breaking

his heart. It should have been a man from his words speaking” (Synge), this is Shawn explaining

he saw a man in the ditch but did not help him. Pegeen responds with questions on why he did

not stop and help, and Shawn responded, “I did not, Pegeen Mike. It was dark, lonesome place to

be hearing the like of him” (Synge). This represents the emasculation well, because Shawn

knows a man was in need of help, but decided not to help, due to it being dark and not knowing
who the man was. Pegeen jokes about how Shawn is a daring fellow, and she eventually will go

on to be the deciding factor between the emasculated man and a masculine hero.

Not too long after the audience discovers the emasculation of Shawn, they come across

the pair Michael James and Jimmy Farrell. Once the pair discovers that Shawn will not stay at

the bar, even though Pegeen will be alone, they begin to harass him for his decision. Shawn gives

his explanation again that he does not want Father Reilly to see him in the bar, but the other

gentlemen are not having the excuse. Shawn tries to escape the bar but Michael James grabs the

end of Shawn’s coat before he is able to dash out of the door. This exchange between Shawn and

the two other guys, represents how Shawn is being looked down upon for not being man enough

to stay with Pegeen while the bar is open. They also began to harass him once they found out that

he was not attending the wake of Kate Cassidy and is deciding to go home to get to bed early. It

is important to note that during this time, it was common to consume alcohol at a wake and it

was almost a social gathering where people could have an excuse to get drunk (Class Notes).

This also shows how Shawn is turning down a night to drink with the other guys to get some rest,

and because of this they poke fun at him.

After the interaction between Michael, Jimmy, and Shawn, the supposed hero of the story

enters the pub exhausted and needing a porter. From the moment Christy Mahon enters the pub,

he is the focal point of the story and to the thoughts of the other characters. The first thing that

Christy does, is ask the people within the pub if it is a common place where the “polis” stop and

visit. After the others tell him no, he relaxes by the fire with his glass while the questions begin

stirring through the room. Soon enough after the questions were asked, the information that

Christy killed his father a week ago caught the attention of every person in the pub. Pegeen is the

first to speak up after the information, and the script of the play has her say this, “Pegeen: [with
blank amazement]. Is it killed your father?” From this point, the audience grasps the idea that the

people inside the pub are astounded that Christy would do such a thing and begin to view him as

a hero against his horrid patriarch. Even though Christy had committed such an awful crime, the

people within the pub love him because Christy claims that his father mistreated him and made

him do all of the work at their house. Pegeen even says, “Well, you’ll have peace in this place,

Christy Mahon, and none to trouble you, and it’s near time a fine lad like you should have your

good share of the earth” (Synge). This shows how the people hail him as a hero and make the

claim that he is deserving of more after the actions he took killing his father. The key within

Christy’s story, is the idea that he stood up to the patriarch in his life and had to destroy him to

bet set free. The audience is supposed to make the connection between Britain and Ireland and

the patriarchal relationship presented.

Later on in the story, is where the audience’s perception of Christy begins to become

distorted. It all begins when Widow Quinn and Christy are having a conversation in the pub.

Christy sees the supposed ghost of his dead father, Mahon, outside and hides when he enters the

pub. Mahon begins to question Widow Quinn with the whereabouts of his son and if she had

seen anyone that looked like him. Widow Quinn tells Mahon that she saw the young man, but he

had fled in a different direction. What comes from this situation though is that the Widow Quinn

learns that Christy actually did not face a bad life with his father, but he actually did no work at

all. The Widow then realizes that Christy is not the man he says he is, and knows the others will

be angry when they find out the truth. This is one of the most important parts of the play,

because the Irish people were looking to Christy as a hero because he had committed the greatest

act of rebellion which was patricide. Pegeen clearly fell in love with him from the start, because
Christy exhibited masculine traits that Shawn did not. The Irish people needed a hero during this

time, and they found out soon enough that Christy was no more than an imposter.

Towards the end of the play, Christy asks Pegeen to marry him in a fortnight, which is

equal to two weeks’ time. Pegeen is truly in love with Christy, because he answered her wishes

of a masculine man that can protect her and stand up for what is right. During this though,

Mahon appears and everyone’s view of Christy goes down the drain. The fake sense of

masculinity and patricide are thrown out the window, turning the anger of the crown onto

Christy. When Pegeen first had met Christy, she was amazed and what he had done, but now she

says, “And to think of the coaxing glory we had given him, and he after doing nothing but hitting

a soft blow and chasing northward in a sweat of fear. Quit off from this” (Synge). By looking at

just the word usage, it can be seen that the once masculine Christy, has turned to a soft-hitting

coward that fled in fear that he had killed his father.

After an argument between Christy and Mahon, Christy chases down his father with the

loy (spade) and strikes him supposedly killing him for the second time. A mob forms, and

Michael James comes in with a rope to hang Christy for the murder of his father. At this time,

Pegeen says one of the most important lines of the play, “I’ll say, a strange man is a marvel, with

his mighty talk; but what’s a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me

that there is a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed” (Synge). Pegeen is saying

through this, that it is easy for a man to pretend to be masculine, but it takes real guts to stand up

against the patriarch. Not only did Pegeen’s perception of Christy change, but the rest of the

folks that were associated with his story turned against him in the end.

The changed response to Christy, and his actions, is justified due to the hardships the

Irish people have dealt with over the years. Whether it was the potato famine, or the landlords
kicking the Irish off of their land, they have dealt with a problematic-patriarchal relationship

with Britain for too long. As pointed out before, the country of Ireland has been controlled by a

Patriarch for a few hundred years that has trodden down the people of Ireland to almost nothing.

The people of Ireland needed a hero that would be able to free them from their captors, and in

Playboy of the Western World, Christy pretended to be just that. This is why the stories of Fionn

mac Cumhail were so important to the people, because it fulfilled their imaginations of someone

powerful being on their side for once in history. Christy Mahon took advantage of a group that

was wounded and hurt them even more through his constructed stories. Pegeen Mike needed a

man in her life that would be able to take care of her and protect her, because all of the other men

around her were emasculated due to the colonizing power. When she finally discovers a man that

will stand up against the controlling power, she falls in love only finding the story to be false.

Christy Mahon took advantage of a weak group of people that were searching for a hero, and this

is why the reaction of the community is justified when they hear the truth.

In conclusion, the actions that the people of the village took against Christy are justified.

After everything the Irish have gone through, someone should not be able to deceive them in that

way and expect to still be received with open arms. The entire country was in dire need of

someone to pull them from the colonization, and in the play, Christy created a story to make it

seem like he was that guy. Even though the public was outraged from the depiction of the

characters, they understood that deep down they had become emasculated by the colonization

and nothing would change unless they were liberated. It would have been accepted better if the

people would have understood that everyone is waiting for a hero to step up and make them

separate from the colonizing power forever.


References

Cantwell, John Davis. "A great-grandfather's account of the Irish potato famine (1845-

1850)." Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, vol. 30, no. 3, 2017, p. 382+. Academic

OneFile,

link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.loras.edu/apps/doc/A499654068/AONE?u=lorascoll&sid=AONE&xi

d=5c98f10e. Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

Class Notes, Dr. Auge.

Synge, John Millington. “Playboy of the Western World”. Modern and Contemporary Irish

Drama. John P. Harrington. W.W. Norton and Company, New York. Second edition, pg. 68-111.