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Tuesday 19 March 2019

A word of apology to the Irish Mammy

Ahead of Mother's Day, Damian Corless bemoans the clichés around motherhood and the advertising-led erasure of the Irish 'mam'

Award: Marie Cronin from Clondalkin with Terry Leonard from Calor Kosangas and host Gay Byrne after winning the Dublin Final of the Calor Housewife of the Year 1992
Award: Marie Cronin from Clondalkin with Terry Leonard from Calor Kosangas and host Gay Byrne after winning the Dublin Final of the Calor Housewife of the Year 1992

Tomorrow is Mother's Day, the first, and therefore perhaps the worst, of the makey-uppy Hallmark holidays. In truth, the card company hijacked a memorial made up by American Anna Jarvis to fete her peace activist mother. Realising she'd opened a Pandora's Box of filling station chocolates, Jarvis protested against the tat-fest her creation was becoming at the hands of "exploiters". Compounding the fakery is the fact that in Ireland tomorrow, we won't be celebrating the spending spree invented in America.

We'll be marking Mothering Sunday, invented by the Vatican to celebrate Mother Church. Hallmark's Mother's Day happens in May, our version is the third Sunday of Lent. And sticking with confusion, who or what is this Irish mother we're celebrating anyway? To judge from TV adverts, the typical Irish mother has serious anxiety issues with toilet odours - indeed all odours - together with winter colds, tissue absorbency, husbands not fit for purpose, light yoghurts and Operation Transformation. But then, how can we trust an advertising industry that has for decades been conspiring to extinguish the beloved Irish pet names 'Mammy' and 'Mam'? A generation ago, the only time an Irish child ever uttered the word 'Mum' was if they were mouthing aloud the Beano or Bunty. A generation ago in Ireland there were no Mums. If the Hallmarks of this world have their way, in another generation we'll be a nation of 'Moms'.

But while it is sad to lose Mam and Mammy, we can gladly shed the grisly stereotype of the Irish Mammy. In so far as she ever really existed, this sad creature was perfectly captured by Victorian superstar Percy French in his syrupy dirge 'An Irish Mother'. French's "wee slip drawin' water" was in perpetual mourning for the loss of her children to emigration. Crushed by the weight of this world, her lot in life was to kill time before moving on to the next.

This is the long-suffering stereotype we exported, and it's the one that came back to us in Hollywood movies and British TV shows like Me Mammy which was a ratings hit into the early 1970s. Penned by Hugh Leonard (who should have known better), and featuring the inevitable imperious priest played by Ray McAnally, Me Mammy confirmed that all Irish mothers were embittered domineering battleaxes, as Anna Manahan's Mrs Kennefick used every trick in the book to derail the permissive society romance between her son (Milo O'Shea) and girlfriend Yootha Joyce.

But while the Oirish stereotypes of Irish motherhood beamed from abroad were exaggerated to the point of grotesqueries, those upheld inside this patriarchal society were the more offensive because they came from within. In 1970, RTÉ's head of radio features Donncha Ó Dúlaing suggested there was no call for current affairs during the day when the menfolk were at work, saying: "I wonder if the housewife has time for discussions. What is often called 'wallpaper radio', with time signals, may be a good answer to her problem."

Fifteen years later John B Keane reckoned that Ireland's housewives had put their problems behind them, reflecting: "I think the Irish woman was freed from slavery by bingo. They can go out now, dressed up, with their handbags, and have a drink and play bingo. And they deserve it."

It was convenient for Ireland's men to forget that Irish housewives and mothers had played a key role in the birth of this nation, before being rudely bundled back into the kitchen. In this week of water shortages, it's worth recalling that enduring image of mothers in their headscarves gathered around the parish pump sharing gossip until it was time to make their husbands' tea. Insofar as this cliché had any basis in truth, it was a case of effect rather than cause.

From the moment there was the remotest chance of getting water piped into their homes, Ireland's housewives were ready, willing and anxious to do away with their regular treks to the pump to fill back-breaking containers. Standing in the way of ending this hard labour were their husbands. The Irish Farmers' Association vigorously opposed getting in piped water, fearful it would increase the rateable valuation of their properties.

Perhaps the death-knell of the Irish Mother of cliché came with the axing of RTÉ's Calor Housewife Of The Year in the 1990s. A Lovely Girls triathlon for the mature Irishwoman, it was shot down by both sides, with feminists saying it was sexist, and traditionalists complaining that too many women working outside the home were taking part. After what turned out to be the final show, a caller complained that too many of the finalists "would never get down on their knees to scrub the floor".

Just one word would do from the men of Ireland on all those cards tomorrow: "Sorry."

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