Mommo is an elderly Irish woman living with dementia, although Tom Murphy characterises her as senile. This is likely to be a reflection on both when the play is set and when it was written. Mommo lives in a small, rural cottage and is cared for by her granddaughter Mary, who is a trained nurse. Mary is fed up with her isolated lifestyle. She has little company except for Mommo who repeats the same story every night. Every so often Mary and Mommo are visited by Mary’s sister Dolly, who’s also trapped in the life she’s created for herself. As the play opens we find all three women on the cusp of a new kind of existence.
Dolly is pregnant and trying to convince her sister to pass the baby off as her own. Dolly’s husband is working in England long term and she’s having another man’s child. If she can convince Mary to take responsibility for the baby before her husband returns at Christmas, he’ll be none the wiser about her affairs. Mary is hoping to leave her caring responsibilities behind. She’s looking forward to starting out again, independently, away from home. She’s convinced that if she can get Mommo to finally finish telling her story of a laughing competition -set in the town of Bailengangaire (‘the town without laughter’)- she’ll be free of her past and able to make a fresh start elsewhere.
Murphy’s characterisation of Mommo is incredibly rich. The language and dialogue employed in her repeated story is particularly distinctive and it’s refreshing to see such a believable and captivating portrayal of a working class, rural Irish woman. The dialogue and repetitive linguistic tics are worth reading for alone. I also really appreciated the way Murphy explores the weight and responsibility of caring for an elderly relative in a rural place. Mary’s experience feels both claustrophobic and isolating and, although it would have negative implications for Mommo, it’s hard not to root for her escape. Finally, I loved the humour in this play. All three women banter off each other. Mary and Dolly even use the tics in their grandmother’s language to gently take the piss out of her. They can be harsh enough in how they speak to each other and yet there’s a raw kind of fondness permeating their relationship. I’d love a chance to see this play performed.
Bailegangaire was published by Methuen in 2001.