Watching "Herself" while reading "Himself"

I had purchased Jess Kidd's debut novel Himself a few years ago on a friend's recommendation, but never got around to reading it until over the holidays. The book is sort of a magical realist Irish noir set in a small west coast village called Mulderrig. Here's the synopsis:

Having been abandoned at an orphanage as a baby, Mahony assumed all his life that his mother wanted nothing to do with him. That is, until one night in 1976 while drinking a pint at a Dublin pub, he receives an anonymous note implying that she may have been forced to give him up. Determined to find out what really happened, Mahony embarks on a pilgrimage back to his hometown, the rural village of Mulderrig. Neither he nor Mulderrig can possibly prepare for what's in store…

From the moment he arrives, Mahony's presence completely changes the village. Women fall all over themselves. The real and the fantastic are blurred. Chatty ghosts rise from their graves with secrets to tell, and local preacher Father Quinn will do anything to get rid of the slippery young man who is threatening the moral purity of his parish.

While the book is largely centered on Mahony and his supernatural ability to commune with the dead, the story mostly uses these two things to explore the full scope of the town. Mahony is both the main character, and also just a catalyst. The issue of a local community theatre production takes up a whole lot of the story, in a way that delightful juxtaposes the brutality of the murder mystery component; indeed, there are some points where the mystery of what really happened to Mahony's mother takes a backseat to the inner squabblings and melodrama of this small coastal community.

But the strength of Kidd's deliciously evocative prose makes the book compelling enough to continue. Dare I say, the language in the book is chewy. The Hiberno-English rhythms pass through your mind to fill your mouth, each syllable bringing the villagers to life with poetry and simplicity. It's even right there in the title: "Himself," a reflexive pronoun that's a common feature of English as it's spoken in Ireland, which itself derives from Irish grammar.

While I was reading the book, my wife and I caught the trailer for a new Amazon Prime film called—coincidentally—Herself, about a single mother in Ireland who escapes from an abusive relationship and tries to build a new house for her and her kids.

Again, this reflexive pronoun is common in the Hiberno-English of Ireland. So it's not too strange that I would encounter two Irish-set stories in different mediums that named themselves after a similar linguistic tick.

But in both cases, it's a curious choice for a title.

While Herself does focus on the character of Sandra, her choices are driven largely by what's best for her children. She's clearly the protagonist. But, like in Himself, she also ends up serving as a sort of catalyst to build a community. There's even a pivotal moment in the film that turns on the use of the word "meitheal," an old Irish word that refers to the collective efforts of people to work for the greater good. Sandra must rely on the kindness of strangers to build the little €35,000 house of her dreams. Much of the plot—and the heart of the story—revolves around the ensemble who come together to help her. There are so many moments in Herself that fill you with utter joy. Rarely have I felt such elated highs at the hopefulness of community and human spirit while watching a movie (though also, fair warning, this is a movie, and so of course there are absolutely crushing lows as well). There's something particularly beautiful in the diversity of the friendships that Sandra forms throughout the film, which included a Nigerian-Irishwoman and a lad with Down's Syndrome.

In other words, Herself is about much more than herself, just as Himself is about much more than himself. But both stories also deal heavily with the fallout from domestic violence, and the ways that institutions—whether government social services, like in Herself, or the church and local community theatre in the more rural-set Himself—can help, or hinder, in the aftermath of such a tragedy.

podcast from the Minnesota Public Radio site explained the history and meaning of this reflexive pronoun in Hiberno-English:

Ó Broin explains that in Irish English, the two normally reflexive pronouns himself and herself can be used nominatively—that is, they can be used to indicate the subject of a sentence or even with the verb to be. "So you can say things like 'It's herself' or 'Is himself in?'" Ó Broin says.

Ó Broin clarifies that himself and herself can often be used to refer to somebody of importance, or at least somebody of importance to both the speaker and the listener in the conversation, and that there's a clear understanding between the speaker and listener who is being spoken about. "For example, my sister is in hospital right now about to give birth to a baby," Ó Broin says. "So if I were to call her husband up and say, 'How's herself?' it would be absolutely understood that I'm not speaking about Michelle Obama or my mother. The person in question is my sister." 

Ó Broin is quite certain this usage came out of Irish Gaelic. He says that Gaelic does not have a reflexive equivalent to English, but that when Irish people assemble a sentence that requires some sort of stress or an intensifier on the subject, they will use the Irish word, féin which means self. "So the Irish sentence, Sé féin atá ann, meaning 'It's him—that one,' becomes translated into Hiberno-English as 'It's himself,'" Ó Broin says. "So it's almost certain that Irish Gaelic is the origin of this phrase, 'It's himself.'" 

There's a certain honorific quality to "himself" or "herself" as used in this context as well. And certainly Himself author Jess Kidd and Herself director Phyllida Lloyd were aware of the double-meanings. Perhaps that's why they both resonated with me so well—two stories about an individual and the way they impact, and are impacted by, the meitheal of their lives, at a time when we're all so sorely lacking in community thanks to a global pandemic. Both stories share a sense of sincerity towards both solitude, and togetherness. And that endurance is particularly powerful right now.

Herself is available now on Amazon Prime, and oof, it's an emotional roller-coaster. Himself is more wickedly funny, but a similar delight to read.