English 150: Sample Section Presentation

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Contents

Sample Presentation #1

While Prof. Duffy gave us a sort of abbreviated history of Irish abortion laws in class on Friday, I thought I would try to expand on this and give you all a more in-depth and current history of events over the last few years. Abortion and women’s rights are still a heated topic even this year as evidenced by various newspaper articles and journals that address and give various perspectives on this topic.

The US magazine The Economist gave us a brief overview of the political situation in late January of this year. According to the article, "Life Choices: Abortion in Ireland", approximately 7,000 women traveled abroad to countries such as England to receive abortions that are illegal in their own country. In the last 20 years, the Irish electorate has held four plebiscites (amendments?) concerning the hotly debated issue, and at the time of this article, were about to face another. The article also mentioned the 1992 Supreme Court case (I think this is the case that Prof. Duffy was referring to) where and entitlement was admitted to allow for consideration on the grounds of a teenage rape and in particular, when the life of the pregnant mother is in danger because of threatened suicide. Several other articles made reference to this case (it was referred to as the "X-case judgment" in the National Catholic Reporter) as it seems to still, 10 years later, be a major source of contention in abortion debates.

This new 2002 referendum sought to constitutionally eliminate even this small, limited right and is led by the prime minister himself to check what he refers to as, "a steady slide towards social abortion in Ireland". While the referendum is decisive about the issue of suicide risk and abortion, it reportedly takes a more liberal tact (to "the dismay of anti- abortionists") with regard to abortion and health risks to the mothers. Apparently, abortionist groups and conservatives in Ireland are unwilling to even consider abortion in cases where the life of the mother is at stake. It will also affect women’s ability to travel to different countries and procure abortions and would redefine its legal definition to exclude the morning after-pill and intrauterine devices. The Economist (with a decidedly liberal American standpoint) points out divisions within the anti-abortion coalition.

Three months later in March, The National Catholic Reporter announced the defeat of this referendum, a defeat that was achieved by less than 1 percent. Only 43 percent of the electorate was in attendance for this vote and were predictably divided amongst urban and rural lines.

Another related story is the emergence of a pro-women’s rights organization called "Women on Waves", a Dutch group that procured a converted fishing boat (named "Sea of Change") for the purpose of taking women out to international waters for non-surgical abortions by RU-486 pills. The National Catholic Reporter interviewed representatives from various Pro-life groups that denounced the idea as "a publicity stunt by a bunch of loonies" and dubbed the boat "a death ship".

The Lancet, an Irish newspaper, reported that the WOW claimed to have been contacted by over 300 women in crisis in the first month of their service. Not soon after, however, they ran into legal difficulties. The Dutch government announced that the group had not been issued the proper licenses, necessary since they were sailing under a Dutch flag. A spokesperson for the group said that they had chosen Ireland as the location for their protest and demonstrations because it has some of the most oppressive and restrictive laws in all of Europe.

  • 'Question for the Group: While Down by the River (or what I have read of it) seem to present a decidedly sympathetic view of the woman in crisis, does it represent the complexity and tension of the public debate? Is Down by the River take a simple pro-women’s choice standpoint, or is the discourse presented here more complex in its weaving together of national and personal issues on abortion?



Sample Presentation #2 (Hilary Johnson)

The Salmon of Knowledge

The Salmon of Knowledge (Salmon of Fec or An Bradan Feasa) is a Celtic symbol of the legend of the Irish hero, Finn McCool (Fionn Mac Cumhaill or Demne Mac Cumhaill). The salmon gained its knowledge from eating the nut from a Hazel tree. According to ancient Celtic mythology, the hazelnut contains all the knowledge of the arts and sciences.

The Tale of Finn McCool

In order to take his father’s place as King of Ireland, Finn had to be well schooled in ancient poetry. He studied under the master poet Finegas (Finnecas or Finn the Poet). For many years Finegas had been watching the Salmon of Knowledge in Fec’s pool in the Boyne River. One day, Finegas caught the Salmon of Knowledge and planned to eat it to gain the knowledge of the world. Finegas instructed the young Finn to cook the fish for him, but not even taste the tiniest bit. Finn was an obedient student and planned not to eat the fish, but as it was cooking the skin of the fish bubbled up and Finn pushed it down with his thumb. Finn burnt his finger on the hot fish and a blister formed immediately on his thumb. As a reaction to the pain of the burn, Finn put his thumb in his mouth and the knowledge of the salmon was transferred to him. From that day forward, whenever Finn put his thumb to his mouth, whatever he needed to know would be revealed to him.

The Salmon of Knowledge and Yeats

The salmon is mentioned quite a bit in Irish Literature and refers back to the Salmon of Knowledge and the story of Finn McCool. Perhaps the most famous reference to the Salmon of Knowledge is in Yeats’ poem "The Song of Wandering Aengus":

I went out to the hazel wood,

Because a fire was in my head,

And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

And hooked a berry to a thread;

And when white moths were on the wing,

And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream,

And caught a little silver trout.

According to the legend of Finn McCool, we know Yeats was really writing about the Salmon of Knowledge and was not actually writing about a "silver trout." Perhaps Yeats used trout rather than salmon to follow the rhyming scheme of the poem.

The Salmon of Knowledge in O’Brien’s Down by the River

The Salmon of Knowledge is mentioned immediately on page 3 of Down by the River. Father and daughter are out by the river and the father decides to catch a big fish in the river as a "snack." He then states "We’ll make a fire and we’ll roast him… Who was that fellow… I know… Finn Mac Comhill who ate the salmon of knowledge… We’ll be the same."

Closing Question

What does the act of father and daughter fishing for the "salmon of knowledge" foretell in Down by the River? What does the salmon symbolize?

A little background on Edna O'Brien and Down by the River

Edna O'Brien was born in Twamgraney, County Clare. Her family was opposed to anything that had to do with literature and later described her small village as "enclosed, fervid and bigoted." When O'Brien was a student in Dublin and her mother found a book of Sean O'Casey in her suitcase she wanted to burn it. Several of O'Brien's books, that deal with childhood and the disappointments in sexual love, have been banned in Ireland, but are loved in both America and England.

O'Brien's novel Down by the River (1997) is based on a true-life legal and moral battle from 1992, in which a 14-year-old rape victim was forbidden by the courts to leave the country to obtain an abortion. Down by the River is the story of Mary MacNamara. After being raped by her father, Mary conceives his child. A sympathetic neighbor who rescues Mary from drowning takes her to England for an abortion, but the authorities haul them back before the procedure can take place, cowing them with ugly threats. Mary refuses to name the baby's father, and her case becomes a cause that turns her own friends and neighbors against her. She's seen as both a villain and an object of sanctimonious condescension in the Catholic community.

That community's cruelty is the bitter, driving force of the book -- but it's Mary's suffering and loneliness that are at the heart of it. O'Brien never takes the easy way out: not even Mary's father is painted as a monster. She describes how he helps birth a colt -- reaching into the mare's womb and coaxing it out by both brute strength and force of will, saving the mother's life in the process -- with such grace and tenderness that even against your will, you feel yourself almost growing to understand him. But O'Brien doesn't hold back when it comes to her wrath at the Catholic Church, and at the small-minded Irish who slavishly follow it at the expense of their own humanity. O'Brien has lived in London for more than 20 years -- she isn't welcome in her own country, for obvious reasons -- and yet Ireland will always be a part of her.


My question is this: Abortion is a very controversial subject and is becoming even more so in America, but who do you think has the right to make the decision whether or not that this young girl can have an abortion? Father, Church, Government, Society, the victim?

"There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance." -Goethe


Sample Presentation #3

The Censoring of Edna O'Brien

On my search for a topic to write on for my presentation, I found that Edna O'Brien is considered a controversial author, and I then realized how many other authors and novels are considered controversial-and for the strangest reasons. So, my presentation will center on the idea of the controversial novel, and O'Brien's place in that category of writing.

Some Background Information

Every day we hear about how one artist, writer, etc...or another has incurred the wrath of the general public. Books, in particular, are always under fire for controversial themes. Some books that have gone under the scrutiny of the public eye (or, many times, that of school systems) are:

  • Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster.

Challenged, but the 1,100 copies of the dictionary were returned to the Sparks, Nev. elementary school classrooms (1993). A sixth-grade teacher objected to the book because it includes obscene words.

  • The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Jacob and Wilhelm K. Grimm,

translated by Jack Zipes; Bantam. Restricted to sixth- through eighth-grade classrooms at the Kyrene, Ariz. elementary schools (1994) due to its excessive violence, negative portrayals of female characters, and anti-Semitic references.

  • Jambo Means Hello: The Swahili Alphabet. Muriel Feelings; Dial Books, Puffin.

Challenged by a school board member in the Queens, N.Y. school libraries (1994) because it "denigrate(s) white American culture, "promotes racial separation, and discourages assimilation." The rest of the school board voted to retain the book.

(taken from http://www-mitpress.mit.edu/bookstore/banned.html)


O'Brien's books have elicited the anger of Irish society. Her books have been burned by a church, her mother inked out obscenities in the content, and she has been spurned in general for her obscene themes and language. She left Ireland for England because she felt unsupported and her novels were looked down on. On Ireland, O'Brien comments:

"They used to ban my books, but now when I go there, people are courteous to my face, though rather slanderous behind my back. Then again, Ireland has changed. There are a lot of young people who are irreligious, or less religious. Ironically, they wouldn't be interested in my early books - they would think them gauche. They are aping English and American mores. If I went to a dance hall in Dublin now I would feel as alien as in a disco in Oklahoma." (O'Brien in Writers at Work, ed. by George Plimpton, 1986)

Edna O'Brien's trilogy of Country Girl, The Lonely Girl, and Girls in Their Married Bliss confronts sexuality, religious conflict, and feminist issues. The trilogy and six of her other novels were banned in Ireland for these very reasons. In an interview with O'Brien, she said:

"My first book, 'The Country Girls,' was a simple little tale of two girls who were trying to burst out of their gym frocks and their convent, and their own lives in their own houses, to make it to the big city. It angered a lot of people, including my own family. It was banned; it was called a smear on Irish womanhood. A priest in our parish asked from the altar if anyone who had bought copies would bring them to the chapel grounds. That evening there was a little burning." The novel, Down By the River, is no exception. The book includes issues such as incest, sexuality, abortion, etc... The story is based on a real court case and, therefore, poses a larger threat because the story is very telling of the culture involved. On censorship and a lack of support in Ireland she said, "It's important when writing to feel free, answerable to no one. The minute you feel you are answerable, you're throttled. You can't do it."

Looking at the many issues of censorship present around the world, it comes to no surprise that Irish authors experience the same threat. Many, like O'Brien, have to leave their country to feel free to express their thoughts and write what they please. Without the ability to do so, books would be structured and bounded by the rules that society places, and topics that challenge our respective cultures would not be available for the public to mull over.

Sites on censorship and Edna O'Brien:


Sample Presentation #4 (Nate Hill, Mon. 2pm): Edna O’Brien and James Joyce

Background

"The road silent, somnolent yet with a speech of its own, speaking back to them, father and child, through trappings of sun and fretted verdure, speaking of the old mutinies and a fresh crime mounting in the blood."

So begins Edna O'Brien's new novel, Down by the River. The consequences of that crime are far reaching. For the girl, her family and the conflicting mores of the land. Set in her native Ireland, Edna O'Brien's novel explores the dark and umbilical aspects of family ties. As Mary, the young heroine, tries to conceal, then escape her fate, she finds herself driven into the emotional styx. As her private - and redeemable - tragedy is dragged into the public realm, her power of decision is usurped by militant factions on all sides.

Edna O'Brien is an Irish novelist, short story writer, playwright and screenwriter, known as a pioneer for her frank portrayals of women. She has written 13 novels, five collections of short stories and several plays and screenplays. Her writing is lyrical and intense with passion and longing. The influence of her Catholic upbringing is apparent in much of her work, which depicts both Irish village life during the 1940's and 1950's and contemporary urban settings. Her frank portrayals of female sexuality have drawn both praise and criticism, and have caused her books to be banned in Ireland.

We can see through O’Brien’s disturbing depictions of incest and physicality in the life of young Mary a great literary connection to James Joyce, who himself was the first English-writing author to discuss the human body in such great detail. Joyce’s description of Molly Bloom and her menstruation in Episode 18 of Ulysses is comparable with many instances within O’Brien’s Down By the River, particularly the scene beginning on pg. 257, in which Mary has her miscarriage. O’Brien’s raw descriptions of events like this, as well as the multitude of horrendous sex acts throughout the story caused her book to be banned in her native land of Ireland, just as Joyce’s works were.

We can clearly see that James Joyce influenced Edna the most

"[My biggest influence would have] to be James Joyce. It's not out of national feelings that I say such a thing. It is that simply that when I was working in Dublin in a chemist's shop, I one day bought a book for four pennies called "Introducing James Joyce," by T.S. Eliot, and I opened it to a section from "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," the Christmas dinner scene, with the blue flame over the Christmas pudding. Up to then, I had been writing rather fancifully, with a lot of adjectives. When I read that, I realized one thing: that I need go no further than my own interior, my own experience, for whatever I wanted to write. It was truly, without sounding like St. Paul, an utter revelation to me."

Though O’Brien does retain her very own style of beautifully descriptive prose, we can see more Joyce-like infusions throughout the story. There are several Stream-of-Consciousness segments, like that of Mrs. B on pg. 208. This scene, with Mrs. B’s rambling-on of sorts, is, I believe, meant to convey Mary’s sense of confusion of the situation. Mary is constantly subjected to the propaganda of these religious, feminist fanatics, and this string of incessant questions and unimportant statements is meant to let the reader see how ridiculous this whole situation must seem to the story’s poor heroine, Mary.

"War, whether it's between man and woman, or different parts of a country, or different nations, is always, always more complicated than just the two sides. It is that I want to write about. It's the dilemma and conflict within the obvious dilemma that matters. It would be impossible for a writer with any awareness at all about the human psyche and the human condition not to write about wars, whatever locale they are. Because people do disagree with each other; they do sometimes forgive one another, and then they re-disagree with one another. Life is not a placid pool, it's a raging, storming sea, which we're all in. And maybe I, being from the race I am, pay more attention to that than to the gentler aspects. But then, that's my fate."

  • In 1861 "performing, attempting, or assisting in an abortion" was made illegal by the Offences Against the Persons Act in Ireland. This later led to an amendment of the Irish constitution (the 8th amendment) banning abortion, and the spread of positive information about abortion, making Ireland the only country in the world which bans information on abortion.
  • The punishment for an illegal abortion in Ireland is not light. Despite horrible public ridicule, a person can be sentenced to death or life in prison, as Nurse Cadell was in 1956 for trying to induce a miscarriage.
  • In 1967 Britain called for Irish women to cross the border in to England to have a legal abortion.
  • So why would two counties so close in area hold such different opinions? The strict Catholic background of Ireland caused a very rigid opposition to abortion and even birth control, and even as the years of "free love" hit Europe, the government and many Irish citizens kept their conservative, unyielding opinion about abortion.

Mary's Troubles

Mary MacNamara's father brutally rapes her and leaves her with an unwanted, unasked for pregnancy. Her community and country condemn Mary for wanting to abort the fetus. Edna O'Brien only introduces one character, the neighbor Betty, as a liberal figure, and Betty is the one who takes Mary to England for a legal abortion.

Question: Why does Edna O'Brien only introduce one liberal character? What does this say about the authors view of Ireland and it's traditions?

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