Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, contained in three acts and set in the bogs of Midland Ireland, follows the tragic story of Hester Swane as she experiences abandonment, betrayal, and prejudice from the Bog’s other inhabitants. Here, authority presents itself not in any single form, but as many facets of an umbrella force that is both natural and supernatural. The three most prominent facets of that force are father figures, religious figures, and the community as a whole, but these are further entwined by logic and the binary definitions of masculinity and femininity as well. Moreover, Carr’s characters only demonstrate any meaningful resistance toward the father figures and the community; religious figures, on the other hand, are made complicated and stripped of their authority.
Dealing first with father figures, three relationships are of interest: Xavier Cassidy/Hester Swane, Xavier Cassidy/Caroline Cassidy, and Carthage Kilbride/Josie Kilbride. Xavier Cassidy, a wealthy farmer, can be considered as a surrogate parental figure for Hester. He tells Hester that he would occasionally leave food and money for her and her mother at their caravan, and when that was not sufficient, he would bring Hester home for his own mother to look after (Carr 39-40). Xavier supposedly did this out of ‘Christian compassion,’ stating that he would find Hester alone, chained to the door of the caravan in a dirty nappy (39-40). If Josie Swane, Hester’s mother, noticed she was missing, Josie would collect her from the Cassidys without a word of thanks. If Josie failed to notice, Xavier would return Hester to the caravan himself. While Xavier may present himself as good-hearted, he ultimately exposes himself when he reveals to Hester that he does not care about her family, only his own (40). His intentions in telling Hester these tales, whether true or not, are to undercut her pride and affection for her mother, hoping to sever some of her ties to the Bog and result in her finally leaving her house like she agreed to. Hester, refusing to be moved or insulted, staunchly defends her mother and father, retorting that she is ‘as settled as any of [them]’ (40). Moreover, the tension between Hester and Xavier comes to a physical altercation. Here, as well as in confrontations with Carthage Kilbride, Hester refuses to submit to the societal constructs of womanhood.
Second, Xavier and his daughter Caroline may resemble the traditional father-daughter hierarchy, but it is in no way an ideal relationship. Contrary to his previous statements, Xavier reveals that he ‘doesn’t care for the whiny little rip that much’ (71) and used her as a pawn to ensure his farms would remain within the Cassidy family. Furthermore, Hester implies Xavier has sexually abused Caroline when ordering him to go home and ‘do whatever it is [he does] with his daughter’ and keep his ‘sleazy’ eyes away from her and Josie (38). She later accuses him of poisoning his son, James, because he ‘wasn’t tough enough’ for Xavier’s liking (69). Unfortunately, Caroline does not have the courage or agency to break away from her father and is left to simply endure his temper and alcoholism.
The bond between Carthage Kilbride and Josie Kilbride is the closest representation to the virtuous father’s role in the family, but this is not ideal either. Carthage fixes his daughter’s jumper (27), protects her from the machinations of her grandmother (27, 49), and wants to give her the best chance at life even if that means taking her away from her mother, Hester (35). However, it seems as if Josie is destined to enter the same cycle. Carthage can be greedy and cold, though not of the same caliber as Xavier, and Josie could grow to become Caroline. At the same time, if Carthage gains sole custody of Josie, she would be abandoned in Carthage’s marriage to Caroline and may spend her life waiting for her mother who will never return. These seem to be the only two options for Josie in Hester’s eyes. She is not convinced when Caroline promises to protect Josie and persuade Carthage not to take her away, stating that Caroline has never and will never stand up for anything, even herself, because her spirit was broken a long time ago (76-77). Hester believes death is the only true way for Josie and herself to be rid of male authority.
Neither does the priest of Carr’s play, Father Willow, conform to the revered role of his vocation. Father Willow is portrayed as disorderly, confused, forgetful, and inappropriate. The play’s stage direction has him arriving at Carthage and Caroline’s wedding with his pajamas visible beneath his shirt and trousers, his vestments inside out, and later miming shooting Mrs. Kilbride in the back of the head with a gun as she walks by (48-50). This threat could indeed be real, since it is rumored he keeps a gun in the tabernacle for anyone who is late for Mass (48). He is asked twice to say grace over the reception meal, but is unable to get through a single line before digressing into an anecdote of his own love affairs (53-54). He mistakenly calls Caroline by Hester’s name, and when corrected responds with, ‘Whatever’ (51). He makes lewd comments to Catwoman, telling her, ‘If ya were a bar of chocolate I’d ate ya,’ and proposes they go on vacation together (50-51).
Because Father Willow is a rather useless priest – and so is the Archbishop, in Mrs. Kilbride’s regard – his position of religious authority is transferred to the spiritual authority of Catwoman. No one is particularly fond of Catwoman or enjoys her presence at the wedding, but nevertheless Xavier has extended her an invitation because it would be considered bad luck to do otherwise (50). Evidently it would actually be bad luck, because Catwoman’s dreams and visions are accurate. She predicted Carthage would not be a good man for Hester, warned Monica Murray to keep her only son from driving one night, gave Xavier herbs to cure his wife Olive’s disease, and advises Hester to leave the Bog before dusk (23). None of them heeded her, and all turned out as she foresaw. In addition to Catwoman, authority and significance are also given to the play’s supernatural elements, namely the Ghost Fancier, a reimagining of the Grim Reaper, and Black Wing, a black swan living on the Bog whose death was rightly foretold to coincide with Hester’s (22).
The interlocking nature of authorities found in By the Bog of Cats ensures that one cannot be examined without necessarily examining another. Majority of these depictions are represented in father figures, religious figures, and the community, but also involve aspects of logic and gender stereotypes. Hester’s final and only escape over all such forces allows her the last gruesome laugh, but at a steep price. It is, however, debatable whether murdering her daughter and then committing suicide are triumphs over the tyranny of the Bog, and with this final act Carr encourages her audience to contemplate notions of freedom, independence, and justice.
Carr, Marina. By the Bog of Cats. The Gallery Press, 1998.
Kader, Emily. ‘The Anti-Exile in Marina Carr’s “By the Bog of Cats.”’Nordic Irish Studies, vol. 4, 2005, pp. 167-187.
Wallace, Clare. ‘Tragic Destiny and Abjection in Marina Carr’s The Mai, Portia Coughlanand By the Bog of Cats.’ Irish University Review, vol. 31, no. 2, 2001, pp. 431-449.