Mary Adams on PORTIA COUGHLAN, by Marina Carr

A 1996 Irish play about a lost sibling

I recently saw the play, PORTIA COUGHLAN, at the Almeida Theatre in London and was struck by how closely it linked with my work on James Joyce as replacement child.

Almeida Portia Coughlan DigitalBanner

This is a rare, raw and powerful play about a 30 year old woman whose twin, Gabriel, died when they were 15—rare in its brilliant portrayal of the effect of the death on the surviving twin and each member of the family. I know of no other play that gives the sense of the pain and confusion that pervades a family where a sibling has died.  Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, Sean O’Casey, David Storey, all replacement children, portray family turmoil but none, so directly, the haunting and inescapable presence of the dead child. 

Marina Carr, a classicist known for her plays about Greek mothers and wives (Girl on an Altar; Hecuba; Phaedre), is hailed also for her bold portrayals of Irish women.  Two of her later plays focus on endless childbirths:  one mother had 16 children and lost the youngest; in the other (Woman and Scarecrow), a woman, gaunt, ill and haggard, faces death after giving birth eight times and losing her ninth.  But in Portia Coughlan we have a family paralysed by the son’s death, each one isolated, unable to process the grief, guilt or blame. 

For Portia, her twin’s absence is a constant tormenting presence, destroying her ability to function as wife and mother.  Her family beg her to forget him. 

Portia:  Forget Gabriel! He’s everywhere, Daddy. Everywhere.  There’s not a corner of any of your forty fields that don’t remind me of Gabriel.  His name is in the mouths of the starlin’s that swoops over Belmont hill, the cows bellow for him from the barn on frosty winter nights.  The very river tells me that once he was here and now he’s gone. And you ask me to forget him.  When I lie down at the end of another impossible day, I pray for the time — Daddy, ya don’t understand nothin’. (p. 22)

She turns to drink. 

The play is also a study of twinship. Portia is entwined with the lost brother and cries:

Came out of the womb holdin’ hands…oh, Gabriel, ya had no right to discard me so, to float me on the world as if I were a ball of flotsam.  Ya had no right. (p. 20)

Particularly powerful is the fury at the mother who still favours the brother.  Shocking, too, is Portia’s fear of attacking her own children.  As I describe elsewhere, this was a crippling feature in my patients whose parents had lost a child – the unshakeable fear that they had caused the death and that they remain dangerous, murderous. As one patient said to me: ‘You say I think I’m lethal.  I know I am.’ (Adams, 2022, p. 2)

Portia: When I look at my sons…I see knives and accidents and terrible mutilations.  Their toys is weapons for me to hurt them with, givin’ them a bath is a place where I could drown them.  And I have to run from them and lock myself away for fear I cause these terrible things to happen.  (p. 41)

She fights with everyone to leave her alone while desperate for their love, wishing they could talk about Gabriel and what it’s like to be a twin.  She drifted into marriage too young, undeserving of an independent life of her own when she believed she had caused the death of another.

Strangely, the play was commissioned by the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin—a world of dead babies as well as newborns, and the setting in James Joyce’s Ulysses where Mrs Purefoy is having ‘yet another child (her 9th living child, 12th overall)’: 

One born every second somewhere.  Other dying every second.  Since I fed the birds five minutes.  Three hundred kicked the bucket.  Other three hundred born, washing the blood off, all are washed in the blood of the lamb, bawling maaaaaa.  (U p. 208)

There are echoes of Joyce throughout the play, as though subliminally aware, perhaps, of Joyce’s own struggle with a lost brother.  Perhaps Portia’s promiscuity reflects a search for the lost brother, similar to Joyce’s love/hate relationship with Gogarty (Adams pp. 71-79).

A river flows through the play and is the scene of the brother’s death—an image reminiscent of Finnegans Wake andAnna Livia Plurabelle’s final merging with the Liffey:

A way a lone a last a loved a long the . . .  riverrun  (FW 628, 1)    


Adams, M. (2022). James Joyce and the Internal World of the Replacement Child, Routledge.
Carr, M. (1996).  Portia Coughlan, Faber & Faber.
Joyce, J. (1960/80). Ulysses, The Bodley Head.
Joyce, J. (2012).  Finnegans Wake, Oxford World Classics, OUP.

Mary Adams,