They thought they had only a girl to deal with and that, therefore, they could ride roughshod over her. But she would show them their mistake. They wouldn’t have dared to have treated her like that if she had been a man. But she would see that her daughter got her rights: she wouldn’t be fooled.
As the assistant secretary to the Eire Abu, or “Ireland to Victory,” Society, Mr. Holohan tries to organize a series of concerts showcasing local musicians. He finally visits Mrs. Kearney, whose eldest daughter Kathleen has a reputation in Dublin as a talented pianist and exemplary speaker of Irish. Kathleen studies the piano and French in a convent school like Mrs. Kearney did, and she receives tutoring in Irish at the insistence of her mother as well. Mrs. Kearney is not surprised when Mr. Holohan proposes that Kathleen perform as an accompanist in the series, and she advises Mr. Holohan in drawing up a contract to secure a payment of eight guineas for Kathleen’s performance in the four concerts. Given Mr. Holohan’s inexperience in organizing such an event, she also helps him to lay out the program and complete other duties.
After her efforts, Mrs. Kearney is disturbed when the concerts turn out to be sub-par for her high standards. The first two concerts are poorly attended, the audience members behave “indecorously,” and many of the artists are mediocre. Mrs. Kearney complains to Mr. Holohan, but neither he nor the head secretary, Mr. Fitzpatrick, appear bothered by the turnout. Nevertheless, the Society’s committee cancels the third concert in hopes that doing so will boost attendance for the final one. This change in plans infuriates Mrs. Kearney, who already has become aggravated by the men’s lax attitudes and what she sees as loose manners. She approaches Mr. Holohan and insists that such a change should not alter the contracted payment, but Mr. Holohan only refers her to Mr. Fitzpatrick, who also dodges her inquiries.
On the night of the final concert, Mrs. Kearney, accompanied by her husband and Kathleen, arrives early at the performance hall to meet the men, but neither Mr. Holohan nor Mr. Fitzpatrick has arrived. As the musicians gather and await curtain call, Mrs. Kearney paces in the dressing room until finally she finds Mr. Holohan and, following him to a quiet hallway, pursues the issue of the contract. Again he insists that such matters are not his “business” and that she must consult Mr. Fitzpatrick. Enraged, she returns to the dressing room, where the musicians wait for Kathleen to join them so they can start the performance, for which the audience loudly clamors. Mrs. Kearney detains her daughter, and when Mr. Holohan arrives to query the delay in performance, she announces that Kathleen will not perform unless paid in full. Mr. Holohan departs in haste and returns with Mr. Fitzpatrick, who gives Mrs. Kearney half of the amount, explaining that the remainder will come at the intermission, after Kathleen’s performance. Kathleen plays, during which time the artists and committee members criticize Mrs. Kearney’s aggressive conduct. At the intermission, Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Holohan inform Mrs. Kearney that they will pay her daughter the balance after the committee meeting next week. But Mrs. Kearney angrily bickers with Mr. Holohan and finally whisks away her daughter, leaving the concert hall.
In “A Mother,” Mrs. Kearney’s practical but inflexible approach to life, while it gets her what she wants most of the time, ultimately does nothing but increase her own anger. Mrs. Kearney drives herself to accomplish whatever task, challenge, or need is at hand, often without much show of emotion. She marries her husband just to be married, not because of love. In her unyielding insistence that her daughter, Kathleen, receive full payment for her performance, Mrs. Kearney pursues her interests to such a degree that she undoes her own efforts to perfect the concert, and herself. When the organizers provide only half of the fee, Mrs. Kearney embarrasses her daughter and ruins her career by sweeping her out of the concert hall and irritating everyone. Mrs. Kearney is not concerned with a trifling amount of money, she insists, but her rights and her respect. The story leaves the reader guessing why Mrs. Kearney abandons her cause and leaves the concert hall. Is she humiliated? Does she realize that no one shares or sympathizes with her frustrations? Like “an angry stone,” Mrs. Kearney will not soften to the circumstances and reconsider. Like other characters in Dubliners,she will continue to live according to her own routine.
Through the fastidious character of Mrs. Kearney, “A Mother” subtly critiques shallow concerns about social profile. Mrs. Kearney’s immense efforts to organize and perfect are not motivated by an ambition to succeed, the story suggests, but by a concern with status and appearance. She crafts an education for Kathleen of piano, French, and Irish, which makes obvious the family’s interest in culture and nationalist efforts. The concert provides Mrs. Kearney with an ideal opportunity to let Kathleen shine as a darling of Irish culture, but her frustrations with the lax society members and her complaints about the venue and selection of artists indicate that Mrs. Kearney obsesses over details to ensure neither Kathleen’s happy career nor a successful concert, but her own respected appearance. As more things sully her ideal vision, Mrs. Kearney makes snide observations to herself and struggles to maintain her composure. When she approaches Mr. Fitzpatrick about the contract, she inwardly ridicules his accent, which she perceives to be lower class, but she resists making nasty comments about it, which would “not be ladylike.” In the end, Mrs. Kearney’s attempt to boost her social appearance results only in her tarnishing it dramatically.
Mrs. Kearney perceives herself as part of a struggle between men and women, noting to herself when she begins to face difficulty with the contract that she would be treated differently if she were a man. This concern briefly places Mrs. Kearney in a sympathetic light and leads the reader to question Mrs. Kearney’s circumstances. Yet while Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Holohan appear lazy and uninterested in the concert proceedings, nothing in their actions suggests that they take advantage of Mrs. Kearney. In fact, they struggle to provide the demanded payment for Kathleen. Like Mrs. Mooney in “The Boarding House,” a female protagonist challenges the reader to consider her plight in a larger social context. Mrs. Kearney wants to ensure her adequate rights, but she also must appear ladylike—for her, the combination is incompatible.