For a month, Mr. Holohan has trudged up and down Dublin making the arrangements necessary for a series of concerts. But in the end, it was the insistent Mrs. Kearney who arranged everything.
Mrs. Kearney had once been Miss Devlin, educated in a high-class convent. She was a difficult, stubborn woman with few friends. When she was being courted, she was so icy and picky that no boy seemed to please her, but when people began to talk she married Mr. Kearney, an older man and a bootmaker. Mrs. Kearney felt that he would make a good enough husband, but she never completely put aside her romantic ideas. He's pious, as is she, and both are faithful and competent spouses. Mr. Kearney is a good provider, and their daughter Kathleen gets an excellent education and learns to play music. When a renewed interest in indigenous Irish arts and artists kicks in (the "Irish Revival") Mrs. Kearney tries to promote her daughter's musical career. Mr. Holahan, secretary of the Eire Abu Society, came to ask if Kathleen would be the piano accompanist for four concerts. A contract was drawn up, in which it was agreed that Kathleen would be paid four guineas for playing.
Mrs. Kearney took an active role in the planning, putting together the program and playing a charming hostess to Mr. Holohan when he visited for their planning sessions. Mrs. Kearney buys some expensive clothes for Kathleen.
The concerts were planned for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Mrs. Kearney and Kathleen arrive on Wednesday night twenty minutes before showtime, and the place is nearly empty. Backstage, they meet Mr. Fitzpatrick, secretary of the Society. He seems to take the bad news lightly. Everyone waits until 830, hoping for more people to come, but then the few people there begin to ask for the show to start.
At the first opportunity, Mrs. Kearney calls aside Mr. Holohan to ask what will happen. He says that planning four concerts was apparently a bad choice. Mrs. Kearney criticizes the artistes, saying that they're no good. Mr. Holohan says that the real talent will come on Saturday.
Mrs. Kearney is angry for having gone to so much trouble, plus the expense for Kathleen's clothes. Mr. Fitzpatrick's pleasantly vacant manner angers her. Thursday night is better attended, but the Society decides to abandon Friday night and push heavily for Saturday. Mrs. Kearney tracks down Mr. Holohan and begins to nag him about the contract: she insists that Kathleen be paid for four nights, even though one of the nights is now cancelled. Mr. Holohan sends her to see Mr. Fitzpatrick. Mr. Fitzpatrick says he'll bring the matter before the committee. Mrs. Kearney is upset about the whole thing, and Mr. Kearney suggests going with her to the concert on Saturday.
Unfortunately, it rains on Saturday night. When the Kearney's arrive, Mrs. Kearney searches for Mr. Holohan and Mr. Fitzpatrick. An old committee member named Miss Beirne comes out, offering her assistance, but Mrs. Kearney insists on seeing a secretary and does not discuss the issue with the old woman.
The bass and the second tenor have arrived. Mr. Duggan, the bass, is a young man with a good voice. He was an understudy at a big opera, but when he given his chance to perform his stage presence had been marred by the way he absent-mindedly wiped his nose. The second tenor, Mr. Bell, is jealous of other tenors and covers it all with excessive friendliness.
Mr. and Mrs. Kearney chat about Kathleen. Kathleen talks to Miss Healy, her friend and the evening's contralto. Madam Glynn, the pale and frail-looking soprano, arrives without fanfare. Not many people seem to know her; she's from London. The first tenor and baritone arrive. Mrs. Kearney brings Kathleen over to meet them; she'd like her daughter to be on good terms with them.
Mrs. Kearney spies Mr. Holohan and tracks him down. Once again, Mr. Holohan says that the matter of payment should be brought up with Mr. Fitzpatrick. Mrs. Kearney grows shrill, demanding a guarantee and invoking their contract.
When she returns to the dressing room a journalist from the Freeman and a fellow named Mr. O'Madden Burke are there. The journalist, whose name is Mr. Hendrick, will be unable to stay for the concert, but he'll make sure that a write-up is done anyway. Mr. O'Madden Burke is to write it. Mr. Hendrick is being flirted with by Miss Healy, and he's enjoying every moment of it. He assures Mr. Holohan that the write-up will be done. The two men go off to a secluded room where stewards are opening up bottles of booze for some gentlemen, including Mr. O'Madden Burke, who has found the room by instinct. He is a respected man, with a good family name.
Meanwhile Mrs. Kearney is speaking so vehemently with her husband that he is asking her to lower her voice. The artistes grow nervous, some hiding it better than others; the audience is expecting the show to begin. Mr. Holohan comes out, and Mrs. Kearney informs him that her daughter will not play without the money. Mr. Holohan tries to appeal to Mr. Kearney and Kathleen, but Mr. Kearney strokes his beard and Kathleen looks down. Mr. Holohan goes off in a rush. The artistes look at Mrs. Kearney.
Mr. Fitzpatrick comes in with Mr. Holohan, and they give half of the money, promising the other half later. Mrs. Kearney is about to fight back, but Kathleen goes out with the first performer, Mr. Bell, who by now is shaking because he fears everyone will think he was late.
The first part of the concert goes very well. Madam Glynn's song is awful, but the other performances seem to please the audience greatly. Meanwhile, backstage everyone has divided into two camps. Mr. Holohan, Mr. Fitzpatrick, Miss Beirne, Mr. O'Madden Burke, two stewards, the baritone, and the bass are all talking in one corner. Mr. O'Madden Burke is scandalized, and says that Kathleen will not play music in Dublin again. The baritone, when pressed for his opinion, says he doesn't wish to speak ill of anyone, but he does wish Mrs. Kearney had been more considerate of the other artistes. In the other corner are Mrs. Kearney, Mr. Kearney, Mr. Bell, Miss Healy, and a young lady who recited a patriotic peace. Mrs. Kearney is railing against the unfair treatment she's received, after all of her trouble and expense. Miss Healy wants to join the other group, but she cannot because Kathleen is her good friend.
After the first part of the concert has ended, Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Holohan come over and tell her the rest of the money will be paid the following Tuesday. If Kathleen does not play, the contract will be considered broken and Kathleen will receive no money. Mrs. Kearney does not budge. She wants the money immediately or her daughter will not play. Harsh words are exchanged. Mrs. Kearney is so irritating that everyone sides with the committee. Miss Healy consents to play a few accompaniments. The second part starts. Mrs. Kearney takes her husband and daughter and leads the march out. She glares at Mr. Holohan, promising she's not done with him yet. Mr. Hollohan says coldly, "But I'm done with you." She leaves, and Mr. Hollohan fumes, while Mr. O'Madden Burke assures him that he did the right thing.
"A Mother" is yet another biting portrait, not only of Mrs. Kearney but also of the artistic scene in Dublin, such as it is. Joyce was often critical of some of the beneficiaries of the "Irish Revival," and he did not support the movement to restore the Gaelic tongue (called "Irish" by its supporters, to emphasize its supposed rightful place as the national tongue) in place of English. When Mrs. Kearney hopes to take advantage of Kathleen's very Irish name, Joyce is mocking the provinciality and faddishness of the Revival, and pointing out that the mix of nationalism and art does not always have good aesthetic results. The artistes at the show are a nervous, provincial lot. Mr. Bell's nervous jealousy of other tenors sets the tone for all of the artistes: each one of them has a list of unimpressive accomplishments, and a quite a few of them are rather petty. The listeners don't demand much, either: the surest way to please the crowd is to sing something patriotic. The small size of the audience also says something about the supposed revival of Irish arts.
As for Mrs. Kearney herself, she is a petty, grating, and inconsiderate woman. Her stubbornness and pride over the supposed slight to her daughter eventually turn everyone against her. She insists on the matter without any consideration of the fact that the Society is being squeezed financially as it is, due to the pitiful turnout for their musical performance.
Poverty is a theme here, and we see in this case how poverty and a certain stubborn pride make for an unfortunate combination. Mrs. Kearney helps with the planning, and buys expensive clothes for her daughter: it is disappointed expectation that drives her to demand stubbornly the promised eight guineas. Yet in her zealousness to ensure that her daughter's rights are respected, she destroys her daughter's chances at future employment in Dublin. Mr. O'Madden Burke says confidently that Kathleen will never play in Dublin again.