The action takes place on a farm in the village of Killucan, a small town about 37 miles west of Dublin and nine miles east of Mullingar, the county seat of Westmeath. Neither Westmeath nor Mullingar numbers among Ireland’s scenic, historic, or romantic attractions, although several lakes in the vicinity do offer excellent fishing. Mullingar and Killucan, as the playwright acknowledges, are just “prosaic” places in the Irish midlands. It is against this down-to-earth background that the poetry of the human relationships in the play unfolds. In a sense, the setting provides a kind of foil for the action—a dull background which accentuates the vivid wit and passion of the characters.
Scene 1 begins in December, 2008, in the farm kitchen of Tony Reilly, “a wily old Irishman,” about 75 years old. He and his son, Anthony, aged 42, have just returned from the wake of Christopher Muldoon, their neighbor. Anthony, to his father’s dismay, has invited the dead man’s widow and daughter to pay a visit, and so the room must be put in order before they arrive. Tony tells his son a morbidly funny story about the death years earlier of another Christopher Muldoon—their late neighbor’s infant son.
Muldoon’s wife, Aoife (pronounced Ee’-fuh), arrives, informing Tony and Anthony that her daughter, Rosemary, is outside smoking. The three talk about what is to happen to their neighboring farms when Tony and Aoife die. Tony reveals that he is thinking about not leaving his farm to Anthony, who, in his view, isn’t a real Reilly. Instead, he feels that Anthony takes after his mother’s family, the Kellys, specifically, his grandfather, John Kelly, a man who “was half ghost and mad as the full moon. . . . It’s not in you to stand on your ground. . . It has to be said. You never stood up on the farm like a king.”
On this note of emerging family conflict, Anthony offers to bring Rosemary in from the rain, only to be told that she has hated him since she was six years old, when Anthony “pushed her and she fell down.” This revelation leads to more bickering between father and son about the farm, Anthony claiming credit for various innovations and improvements, and Tony accusing him of not loving the land and of taking no “joy” in it. Anthony retorts by saying, “Sometimes lately I can’t breathe in this house,” and exits angrily.
Tony and Aoife then talk about their children. Aoife excuses Anthony’s melancholy by reminding Tony that his heart has been broken ever since he was thrown over at age 16 by the girl he loved, Fiona. Now 42, Anthony has been moping for 26 years. Rosemary, too, is leading a loveless life. In her mid-thirties, she is “watching the clock spin” while “youth and beauty pass smartly by.”
So they have a pair of children who look as if they will never marry—which means for Tony that the farm will pass out of his family once Anthony, childless, dies. To avoid that, he has decided to sell the property to his American nephew, Adam, who “looks like a farmer,” and is “a Reilly through and through.” The only hitch in this plan is that the Muldoons own a strip of land that lies between Tony’s house and the roadway, and Adam would never buy the farm with that barrier standing in the way. So Tony wants Aoife to sell him the strip, which he sold to Muldoon years earlier at a moment of financial need. The farm would be returned to its original state, and would pass on to a real Reilly.
But there’s a complication: it turns out that Aoife doesn’t own the disputed strip. Instead, it belongs to Rosemary, who is holding on to it as an act of vengeance against Anthony for having hurt and humiliated her when they were children—and as we later learn, ever since. So now Tony will have to deal with the intensely stubborn daughter of his deceased neighbor.
The action moves outdoors for Scene 2, as Anthony and Rosemary converse in the shelter of a shed. Referring to Fiona, Rosemary wants to know why Anthony won’t “just get over her like other people.” To which Anthony responds with questions of his own: “Why do you do what you do? Why do you stay over there in that lonely house?” Each is keenly aware of the other’s solitude and emotional isolation, and urges the other to break free of it. “You should fly,” Anthony declares to Rosemary. “You should make plans to fly away.” She throws his words back at him:
ROSEMARY. Why don’t you fly?
Each character longs to “fly,” but each is moored to the earth, attached to the farms where they have spent their whole lives. As Anthony says, “I hear a voice sometimes when I’m in the fields, and the voice says Go. . . . I hate [the farm] for a prison. I came up out of it like a tree and here I am with it around me. . . . My life is fixed down with a rock on each corner.”
Eventually Anthony asks Rosemary if she really hates him, as Aoife said earlier. “I don’t hate you,” she replies, “I just don’t like you. . . . I’m fed up. You’re a bit of a lump. . . . . You never do anything.” She derides him for working day and night merely, “To keep things going on the way they already were.” And Anthony acknowledges the justice of that description: “I’m in the business of carrying on what was going on when I stepped on the bus.” He also tells her that his father has threatened not to leave the farm to him.
A set of related themes weaves continually through the scene: flight versus stasis, doing what one wants versus doing what one must, acting for oneself rather than acting for another. These oppositions prompt Rosemary at one point to reveal that she considers herself the White Swan from the ballet, Swan Lake, in which a young maiden is transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer. Thereafter, she spends her days as a swan and her nights as a beautiful woman. In effect, Rosemary is telling Anthony that she is somehow cursed, oppressed by a spell that conceals her real identity and thwarts her desires. She also identifies Anthony’s lost love, Fiona, as the Black Swan, the White Swan’s evil doppelganger.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to the disputed strip of land lying along the roadway. She confirms what Aoife told Tony earlier: that she owns the land, and that she is holding onto it out of anger with Anthony for having “pushed me down . . . . and left me crying in the yellow grass. . . . Like I was nothing.” And now Anthony must pay the price “because there’s none to blame but yourself.” The mutual taunts continue, but the scene ends with Rosemary, alone on stage, quoting some moving words Anthony spoke earlier, and declaring, “When you say those things . . . I know that I have a soul.” So we see that beneath the antagonism she has expressed, there lurks a powerful sense of attraction, just as the beautiful maiden hides inside the White Swan.
Scene 3 begins directly following Christopher Muldoon’s funeral, with Tony and Aoife in the kitchen together. Rosemary joins them, and immediately begins to castigate Tony for his plan to prevent his son from inheriting the farm. “Anthony Reilly and I were born on two farms side by side, and we will die side by side.” Tony asks if she is in love with his son, and she answers, “More than love.” “He’ll never marry,” Tony asserts. “Then neither will I,” declares Rosemary.
The confrontation escalates, with Rosemary threatening at one point to kill Tony if he disinherits his son. When he assures her once again that Anthony will never marry, she insists that she has not given up hope on that score. In fact, she stuns them by revealing that she has “been to the doctor and I have frozen my eggs. . . . I will keep my options alive. . . . I believe he will come to me.” Eventually Rosemary’s vehemence, her determination, and her insight into Tony’s feelings persuade the old man to relent, and to allow the farm to pass to his son.
Scene 4 begins in darkness, with Tony calling his son’s name. The old man wants his pipe, but Anthony refuses to give it to him because his ailing father is hooked up to an oxygen respirator. But Tony detaches himself from the tubes and the gas, pushes the tank away, and demands to smoke.
Certain that he is soon to die, he launches into a valedictory conversation with his son. “Your Mam. I didn’t love her,” he discloses, introducing the story he feels he now must tell. It’s a story about two wedding rings: the one he gave his wife when they were first married, and the one he gave her years later. The first was brass, an object of little value bestowed on a woman he didn’t love.
But as the years passed, he changed: “the quiet hand of God touched me so soft I thought it was the breeze.” He realized that he had in fact come to love his wife, and with that discovery be broke into song out in the middle of the fields, “That old song. Mam’s song. Wild Mountain Thyme.” After singing a bit of it with Anthony, Tony resumes his story.
Having come to love his wife, he wanted to give her a new ring that would embody his new feelings—a gold ring to replace the brass original. But he had no money, so he sold the strip of land to Chris Muldoon for 200 pounds.
Tony apologizes to his son for having done that, for having threatened to disinherit him, and for, “All my shortcomings. The things I didn’t say. However I hurt you. I want to die with the slate clean between us.” As the scene ends father and son embrace, declaring their love for each other. And Tony predicts that Anthony will have a moment of revelation just as he did: “I have faith that love will find you. Out in those fields where you wander. God bless you.”
As the next scene opens, a year has passed. Tony and Aoife have died, and Anthony and Rosemary are now the owners of adjoining farms. The remainder of the play shows us Rosemary’s wooing of Anthony, as she tries to break through his diffidence, his fear of his own feelings, and his self-doubt. Four more years pass before we reach the final scene of the play, which is set in the year 2013. Anthony is now 47 and Rosemary is about 40—which is to say life is passing them by as they remain stuck in their solitude.
In the final scene, Anthony visits Rosemary with a peculiar objective in mind: he wants to prepare her to receive his American cousin, Adam, who is about to visit Ireland in search of a wife.
This is the last straw for Rosemary, who demands to know why he has steadily resisted her. She asks him if he’s gay, or “oddly put together somehow,” or a “morphrodite,” her mangled version of “hermaphrodite”—a person who has the biological characteristics of both sexes. The answer to each of these questions is “no.” So, then, what’s the problem? Has he never noticed her womanly shape, her female allure? And the answer to those questions is an emphatic yes. In fact, Anthony praises her beauty, something he has never done before.
Then why are they still living apart, Rosemary wants to know, watching the years go by without one another? Anthony has two principal answers. The first is that he’s afflicted with “the Kelly madness,” which causes him to believe that he is a honey bee. He told this long ago to Fiona, “and she ran like Satan.” And as a result, he has concluded that no sane woman would have him.”
ROSEMARY: I don’t care if you ARE a bee. I’m half dying with living for you. But wait, do you think I’m a bee?
This declaration bowls her over, leaving her even more baffled by Anthony’s resistance. He then comes to the second of his reasons for keeping away from her.
ANTHONY: I had a sign. I came to your door with me mother’s ring three years past, but when I reached in the pocket, nothing. It was gone. . . . That I lost it was a sign. A man who thinks he’s a bee should not marry. . . .
His avowal calls forth another sign, this one revealed to Rosemary. She produces the lost ring, which she found outside her door three years ago—just after Anthony had come to give it to her. “I thought it heaven sent,” Rosemary declares, “to stop me from suicide and give me hope. . . . I prayed for a sign, and there was my prayer’s answer in my hand.”
And with this second sign—and despite a few final moments of hesitation—Anthony surrenders to Rosemary, telling her, “The voice I heard in the fields. It didn’t say go. Not just that. It said ‘go to her.’” As the play ends, they stand together looking out the window with Wild Mountain Thyme playing in the background.
The Reillys have owned their farm for 120 years, and Tony’s most compelling desire is to keep it in the family. This objective dictates his behavior through most of his time on stage. And this is why he has a problem with leaving the farm to his son. Anthony seems strange to him, somehow not truly his own flesh and blood, a kind of outsider. “I don’t see a clear path. . . . From me to you,” he says. “The way your eyes are set in your head, and the color of them—it has to be said, it’s not right.”
Tony accuses Anthony of being touched by the Kelly madness, but his own behavior seems equally irrational. A man who will pass over his own son because of the set of his eyes, and convey the family farm to a virtual stranger in America is also in the grip of a kind of madness.
It’s only when Rosemary appeals to his love for his dead wife that Tony relents. “And what would Mary Kelly say if she saw this farm taken from her only son BECAUSE he was a Kelly?” she asks. And then to summon Mary’s presence even more effectively, she sings the dead woman’s favorite song, Wild Mountain Thyme.
Aoife then steps in to drive the point home: “You’re trying to serve the Reillys, at the expense of the Kellys, even if doing so . . . would overturn the living issue of your one true love.” That settles the matter, and Tony gives in, agreeing to will the farm to his son.
In his final scene on stage, Tony undergoes a reversal, changing from a hectoring father to a loving parent who begs forgiveness from his son. The story he tells about the two rings is also about transformation, about his growth into love and its effects on the rest of his life. Those effects have been paradoxical. On the one hand, love brought him fulfillment and happiness. But on the other, it led him to sell the disputed strip of land, a decision that has resulted in resentment and bitterness. He dies having wiped the slate clean between him and his son, but also bequeathing him the mixed results of buying the golden ring.
Aoife acts as mediator between Tony and the two younger characters, protecting mother to Rosemary, and surrogate mother to Anthony. She begins the play grieving over her husband’s death and expecting to be dead herself within a year. Sick with emphysema and a bad heart, she worries about Rosemary’s welfare after she has gone. Unlike Tony, she has no reservations about leaving the farm to her child, even though Rosemary takes after her father’s side of the family, and not hers. “Her father’s curse is hers. Stubborn to the point of madness.”
She counsels Tony not to “tease” Anthony about his personal oddities, his Kelly tendencies. “He’s sad,” she says. “You know he feels more deeply than most. God love him.” She and Tony ponder life’s meaning:
AOIFE: I’ve buried husband, son. Was I only born to bury and be buried?
When Tony tells her his plan to sell the farm to his American nephew, Aoife takes Anthony’s part, calling such an act “a folly. . . . [D]on’t lose faith in your boy.”
And she also defends her daughter’s right to refuse to sell Tony the crucial strip of land: “If you want that land, you’ll have to get around her. . . . I’m not stepping into this.”
Later, Aoife is instrumental in persuading Tony to reconsider his plans for the farm. It is she who reminds him that in disinheriting Anthony, he would be treating his late wife’s memory with disrespect, harming her beloved son, and banishing Mary—the Kelly presence—from the farm. So throughout, Aoife presents a strong contrast to Tony, he (until the end) the grudging father; she the nurturing and protective mother.
That Rosemary imagines herself as the White Swan tells us a great deal about her character. As we have seen, the White Swan is actually a beautiful young woman imprisoned by an evil sorcerer’s spell in the body of a bird. Swan by day, maiden by night, she is fully neither one nor the other. And so when a handsome prince is smitten with her, she knows that their love is doomed. Only if the spell is broken could the White Swan know happiness.
Rosemary is also under a sort of spell. Her love for Anthony causes her to reject the many men who have shown a romantic interest in her. This makes Anthony the unwitting sorcerer, holding Rosemary as his prisoner without ever realizing it. And the Black Swan, Fiona, has done her part in creating this stalemate by rejecting Anthony, crippling him emotionally, making it impossible for him to open his heart to Rosemary.
But the script tells us two crucial things about Rosemary: that she has inherited her father’s legendary stubbornness, and that she is determined to have Anthony. As she tells Tony, “Anthony Reilly and I were born on two farms side by side, and we will die side by side. And no old fool . . . will bungle that.”
In order to achieve that objective, she must overcome two formidable obstacles: first Tony, then his son. She must force Tony to leave the farm to Anthony, and she must force Anthony to accept their love for each other, even if “it be years” before that happens.
She accomplishes the first goal in Scene 3, and the second by the final scene of the play. In pursuit of Anthony, she cooks him meals, washes his dirty linen, quits smoking because he disapproves of the habit, and lures him into her kitchen for drinks and ardent conversation.
But all this unconsummated wooing takes its toll on Rosemary. She’s “shattered” by depression, and thinks “of little else” but suicide. “I can’t stand being alive,” she announces. “You can’t know it. It’s a madness. It’s like a kettle boiling blood that comes into me head from down below. You know. Feelings.”
So Rosemary is torn between her stubborn pursuit of Anthony and the boiling blood of her despair, between hope and desolation. Anthony is forever there, a neighbor rooted to his land as she is to hers. And he is forever not there, lost in his honey bee fantasy, terrified of rejection, shying away from what he most wants. The object of her desire is simultaneously present and absent, a walking, maddening contradiction.
Anthony has been living with a voice he hears in the fields telling him, “Go.” But he has also been dutifully doing his best to keep the family farm running. Like Rosemary he is also torn between contradictory demands, a conflict that literally drives him to distraction. As Aoife tells him, “you never notice anything. . . . You’re famous all over Westmeath for what goes by you.” The German philosopher, Hannah Arendt, says somewhere that people in pain stop noticing anything outside themselves. Perhaps this explains Anthony’s penchant for never noticing.
The pain has its original roots in romantic rejection. When he told Fiona that he believed himself to be a honey bee, she “ran like Satan.” This heartbreak then evolved into a generalized fear of self-exposure. To make himself known would be to make himself unwanted, so concealment would become his strategy for avoiding pain—concealment, in particular, from Rosemary, the woman he came to love after Fiona. However, hiding didn’t prevent pain; it only increased it. He says he suffered “like Christ” every time another man visited Rosemary. “I never thought of you without fear. . . . The pain. Of love.”
It’s not only fear of rejection that paralyzes Anthony; it’s also the fear of failure. “If anything went wrong,” he frets, “we’d be throwing daggers. . . . We’ll kill each other when it goes wrong.”
Anthony, a virgin, describes Rosemary as having “been chaste as a dove all me life.” So as they enter middle age, they are passionate lovers who are both sexually inexperienced. That doesn’t stop Rosemary from inviting him to think lascivious thoughts about her, but he recoils, telling her she’s talking “like a pirate.” Does this lack of personal knowledge of the erotic side of life add to his fear? Things unknown are often the most threatening.
It is a critical commonplace that the most important character in a play is the one who undergoes the greatest change. By this measure, Anthony would qualify as the drama’s central personage. Stubborn Rosemary is steadfast in her pursuit of the honey bee. But Anthony, always flying away from the flower, finally alights on it. It was not, as he said earlier, the lonely verb “go” that he heard in the field, but the romantic sentence, “Go to her.”
The principal characters in this play repeatedly express a longing to escape, to fly away from their dreary lives, to travel to exotic places, like China. In this they are like vast numbers of their fellow Irishmen who have left home since the beginning of the 19th century. Something like 10 million people have emigrated from Ireland, a figure greater than the Irish population at its largest.
John Patrick Shanley’s father and his maternal grandparents were three of those ten million. But as we saw above, until Outside Mullingar, Shanley steered clear of writing about Ireland, his Irish roots, or Irish characters, or Irish themes. This play represents a reversal of that stance, enacting a return by its author to his ancestral home. In making this journey, he discovers poetry in the world he had been holding at arm’s length, the child of emigrants returning to pay his respects.
In this way, Shanley is somewhat like Tony and Anthony, each of whom holds a beautiful woman at arm’s length, and then changes. Tony is suddenly overwhelmed by love for Mary, whom he had earlier dismissed with a cheap brass ring. And Anthony, resisting Rosemary all his life, finally allows himself to accept her love and to offer his in return.
And both men find love, not in some far-away place, but at home, on their farm and on their neighbors’ farm. Similarly, Shanley discovers dramatic gold in his own ethnic back-yard.
Finding beauty and fulfillment in our everyday lives is a recurrent element in literature, an experience often described as an “epiphany,” which The American Heritage Dictionary defines as, “A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.” The Christian feast of The Epiphany—Twelfth Night—celebrates the visit of the Three Wise Men to Jesus in the manger. What’s revelatory in that story is not the arrival of the visitors, but the fact that divinity is to be found in such humble circumstances. Outside Mullingar is a play of epiphanies—miraculous discoveries amid the fields and mangers of an insignificant spot in Ireland.
Shanley chooses a much-loved Irish/Scottish song, “The Wild Mountain Thyme,” as the musical signature of the play. Various characters sing verses from it, and it plays in the background as the curtain falls. A lover sings of the blue mountain thyme growing among the heather on the hillside, and invites his lover to join him in gathering the beautiful blooms, repeatedly asking her, “Will you go, Lassie go?” Given the insistent voices whispering “Go . . . to her” in Anthony’s ear, we can understand the playwright’s choice. But the singer’s request that she go with him isn’t tempting the lassie to flee to another world. He is only asking her to climb the hills surrounding home and discover their wonder.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why doesn’t Tony want Anthony to have the farm?
2. Why does Rosemary give up smoking? Is it for her health, or is there another reason?
3. Why does Anthony imagine he is a honey bee? What does that tell us about him?
4. Why is Rosemary so angry when Anthony proposes that she marry his cousin, Adam?
5. Why does Rosemary refer to Amsterdam in connection with Anthony’s proposal.
6. Can you think of examples of other reluctant lovers in fiction, drama, or the movies?
7. Can you think of examples of other characters in fiction, drama, or the movies who long to escape from everyday life, but feel trapped in their circumstances?
8. Why does Tony change so drastically in his attitude toward Anthony?
9. How would you describe Aoife? What seem to be her main objectives?
10. Will Anthony and Rosemary be happy together in the future?