Julia Cahill's Curse by George Moore, 1903

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by George Moore, 1903

"Julia Cahill's Curse" is a frequently anthologized story by George Moore. It was first published in Gaelic in 1902 and then included in his seminal 1903 collection The Untilled Field. In addition to being a finely crafted story in its own right, it is the single story that is most strongly and compactly representative of the collection's central interrelated concerns: spiritual paralysis, clerical abuse of power, individual exile, and the general depopulation of the Irish landscape. The phrase "untilled fields," which suggests that Ireland's potential is going to waste, appears in this story.

The story is told by a first-person narrator who is an "agent of the Irish Industrial Society," a group working to revitalize rural Irish industries such as weaving. Their aim is to attempt to stem the tide of emigration caused by lack of employment. One of the story's goals, however, is to show that the curse of emigration has come about not only because there are no jobs but also because the clergy are creating a joyless, intolerable atmosphere that is driving Ireland's brightest and most spirited people away. The interaction between the narrator and the young car driver, who is shuttling the narrator about the countryside, suggests the beginnings of the oral storytelling method Moore was later to perfect at great length in A Story-Teller's Holiday (1918). Part of Moore's method here is also to develop what he called the "melodic line," a flowing effect that he sought to cultivate in his prose. Relying heavily on the repeated use of the coordinating conjunction "and," this was a technique he used toward the later stages of his career especially.

After some coaxing from the narrator, the initially reticent driver tells the story of Julia Cahill, the parish's most independent-spirited and sexually attractive young woman and the one who seems to feel the greatest joy of life. She is described as "nearly always laughing" and as moving "with a little swing in her walk," traits that draw the attention of all the young men. Because she enjoys the courting of many men more than the limitations of marrying any one of them, she is considered immoral by the new priest, Father Madden, who denounces her from the altar. The fear inspired by Madden quickly spreads. Julia's own family soon puts her out, and no one in the parish will speak to her. Taken in by a blind woman—significantly, the only communicant at Father Madden's mass—she is sheltered until money arrives from America, after which, as a testament to her active, indomitable spirit, she walks barefoot the 10 miles to the station on her way to exile. The last thing she is observed to do before leaving is to curse the village, a curse whose effectiveness the villagers fully believe since they have superstitiously assumed that she has gained sinister powers from the fairies in the mountains. Julia's curse is that all of the villagers will eventually leave the parish, until it is entirely depopulated despite its exceptionally rich farmland.

Moore makes sure, however, that we see the actual curse as being the pernicious influence of priests who abuse their clerical power in an attempt to exert virtually complete control over their parishioners. The narrator says of Madden that "the religion he preached was one of fear" and that his sermons were "filled with flames and gridirons, and ovens and devils with pitchforks." Soon after his arrival in the parish, Madden outlaws courting, dancing, the telling of fairy tales, and even bowling. Instead of marriages for love, which develop through courting, Madden promotes marriages arranged by parents for financial gain, especially since he is then assured of receiving a hefty fee for performing the sacrament. Moore shifts the scene temporarily to Madden's "well-furnished" cottage so that we can see the relative luxury in which this little potentate lives while his parish remains almost entirely destitute. Madden is cynical toward the industrial and economic changes being promoted by the narrator and toward "new ideas" or any change in general. He acknowledges the undeniable depopulation that is occurring, but, taking a laissez-faire approach, he feels that that circumstance is inevitable and beyond temporal amelioration.

In sharp contrast, Moore gives us a few glimpses of Father O'Hara's bordering parish, a progressive, flourishing place that is already embracing the modernization offered by the narrator. O'Hara is described as being "a wise and tactful man" who deals with even harsh landlords "on terms of friendship" and who is also "energetic and foreseeing." Loved by his people, O'Hara is obviously intended as the antithesis of Madden and is offered by Moore to afford a sense of balance. Not all priests are like Father Madden, although enough are so that Ireland's brightest individuals continue to flock to America. This attempt at balance is typical of most stories in The Untilled Field.

It should be emphasized that the narrator is clearly speaking for Moore most of the time, as when he announces that "the only idealism that comes into the lives of peasants is between the ages of eighteen and twenty [because] afterwards hard work in the fields kills aspiration." Madden ultimately kills the joy of life in his parishioners, and this joy of life, as opposed to acquiescence to clerical demands in the hope of gaining eternal salvation in a potential "next life," is what Moore always valued most highly. In his novel The Lake (1905) Moore completed his clerical indictment by having his protagonist, a priest, renounce his vows and go into exile to seek exactly this quality. In "Julia Cahill's Curse" Moore tells us through the narrator that in Ireland "religion is hunting life to the death." It was perhaps Moore's most heartfelt ideological concern.

—Alexander G. Gonzalez