Sunday 20 January 2019

Lessons from my mother

From dealing with tragedy to public speaking, Ireland's well-known faces tell Andrea Smith the practical things they learned from their mams

Presentation skills: James Patrice with his mother Fron Butler
Presentation skills: James Patrice with his mother Fron Butler

Our mums are our first teachers, and they try to equip us to cope with various situations in life. Ahead of Mother's Day this weekend, some well-known faces tell us about a valuable lesson their mothers taught them and how it has stood to them.

Miriam O'Callaghan (Broadcaster)

Miriam O’Callaghan with her mum Miriam
Miriam O’Callaghan with her mum Miriam

"My remarkable mum is also called Miriam - we call her the real Miriam O'Callaghan in the family - and the key lesson she taught me is how to be stoic in the face of great tragedy. In 1995, she lost her beautiful daughter Anne to cancer aged 33, leaving behind a broken-hearted husband and two little girls, devastated parents and siblings, including myself, my two sisters and my brother.

"And then eight weeks later, my perfectly healthy father left the house to get Anne's memorial cards printed and collapsed in the driveway and died of a stroke. So my mother went from having a great life to losing her husband and daughter within eight weeks, but I watched and learned from how she dealt with it. She never once said, 'Why me?' or pitied herself or made her emotions the centre of attention. She was more concerned about Anne's two little daughters.

"The more I look back on that now, the more remarkable I think she was in how she dealt with that great double blow, and it has stood to me to this day. My mother's generation had tougher lives than we have and I think stoicism is a trait they had in abundance. We have lost a lot of it, but I think everyone going through life needs to learn how to deal with the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'."

James Patrice (Social media personality and ambassador for Seachtain na Gaeilge le Energia)

On the shy side: Nancy taught Baz to speak up
On the shy side: Nancy taught Baz to speak up

"My mum Fron taught me to have my outfit ready for the next day when I was going to bed, and that's something I still do. I always plan ahead and it saves me so much time and stress in the morning. If I have a job on, I can put all my time into prepping for the real deal because I'll have my gear ready to go from the night before.

"Mum always taught me to put the best foot forward, so when I was younger, if I came down in tracksuit pants and a pair of runners to go into town, she'd suggest nicely that I change into a nice pair of jeans and shoes. I never like to have a hair out of place and that goes back to my Mum.

"She taught me about presentation and how first impressions are very important, so it's good to make an effort. Her hair is very long and she wears it in a bun and it's always immaculate. Mum never leaves the house without being dressed to the nines, so even if she's just going to the shop for milk, she'd be completely colour co-ordinated with the make-up done and a slide in her hair."

PJ Gallagher (Comedian and radio presenter)

Frances Black. Photo: Tom Burke
Frances Black. Photo: Tom Burke

"My ma Helen is as mad as a brush and the best person I've ever met. The most important thing she taught me was how to get food from a bag into my face. She just showed me the basics that really mattered, like how to know when a potato is done and a chicken is ready, because she knew I was never going to be Mr Soufflé.

"That was a bigger deal than I ever imagined, because one day you move out of home and realise you're three steps ahead of all the other goonballs. You're not just stuffing Chinese food into your big head all of the time. I wouldn't be a dinner party specialist by any stretch of the imagination, unless the guests are happy to eat 38 Brussels sprouts and a piece of fish.

"She's still my ma though, and I couldn't cook for her because sons are never allowed do anything for themselves. She'd be saying: 'Sit down, you work too hard as it is.'"

Kathleen Watkins (Author)

"A lesson that my wonderful mother Dinah taught me was that in the face of adversity, just to be strong and get on with your life. I hope I've inherited a bit of her sheer strength. My parents lost two toddlers and a 12-year-old, and I don't know how they got through it.

"There were four of us left - I'm in my 84th year and we're all still here, which is extraordinary when you think that three died so young.

"Another lesson my mother taught me is the value of friendship. She adored her friends and they adored her, and she had a great welcome for everyone.

"Neighbours dropped in and she and her friends would sit by the Aga with their cups of tea, and she was endlessly cooking and baking for everyone.

"She met her friends at daily mass and they'd go to each other's houses afterwards. They'd give each other tiny presents that would bring great happiness, and the sheer joy of giving and receiving small things has remained with me."

Matt Cooper (Broadcaster)

"My late mother, Kathleen, was a very softly-spoken, mannerly woman. The one thing she emphasised to me was to be polite and that if you treat people with a lot of respect, you'll get a lot back in return. I'm not sure she would have necessarily thought I always lived up to that advice, especially in my broadcasting career.

"My mother wanted me to do elocution lessons because she came to Cork from Belfast, and I think she couldn't get over the way everybody spoke and probably couldn't understand what they were saying. I refused to do the lessons, and I'm not sure if that was a good or bad thing. I don't know if I could have done with the elocution now or whether not doing it allowed me to have a normal enough accent for radio and television."

Frances Black (Singer and senator)

"My late mam, Patty, was really passionate about singing and she would take time out of her hectic day working and raising five children to sit down and teach us songs. Singing was her way of releasing anxiety or stress, and there would have been a lot of that at the time because money was tight and she was always worried about putting food on the table.

"When she sang, it was her way of letting emotions go, and she certainly passed that on to me, even though I don't think it was a conscious thing for either of us. My mam always made time for us around singing and the choir and she would help us practise songs. There was a singing competition in our school and she sat down with my sister Mary and me to help us write songs. We both came second in our competitions.

"On a Sunday night, my father would come home early from the pub with a few pals and there would be a sing-song and music. You could see the joy it gave my mam and the love and passion in her eyes for singing. It brought us all together as a family and gave us a wonderful connection, and it still does as the five of us still perform together as The Black Family."

Baz Ashmawy (Television personality)

"I was a bit shy talking to adults as a little guy, and the main thing my mother Nancy taught me was how to speak up and communicate with people. She showed me how to build a rapport and have a presence. People might find it hard to believe I was shy, but I think she created a monster after that!

"I found it hard to look people in the face and my mum taught me a little trick. She said if you focused on their left eye, it would seem as if you were looking at them properly. Nancy taught me about posture and holding yourself and having a firm handshake, as well as being polite and having manners. Funnily enough, I hear myself saying the same things to my kids now."

  • Throughout Seachtain na Gaeilge le Energia, the Irish Independent will be including a phrase guide to help you make the most of your cúpla focal. Today, the topic is Brexit on pages 12-13. Bain triail aisti.

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