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I still recall the time I heard the word 'virgin' outside of a prayer...

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AN old book helped remind Niamh Boyce that to move forward, we should never forget our past...

A friend gave me a precious gift a few years ago – a black book, thick as two Harry Potters, bound together with pages dusty from age. It was called The Woman's Book and had belonged to her grand aunt. It had been a school prize once; a label inside announced it as an award to Brigid for "her excellent attendance, and progress". She must have been so proud.

When doing research for my novel The Herbalist, which is set in small-town Ireland in the Thirties, I had become fascinated with the past, so Brigid's book was a real treat. It covered cookery, laundry, home nursing and first aid, domestic science, gardening, dress-making, arts and crafts, the care of children.

There was a whole chapter on etiquette, which according to the book was "a label attached by an unwritten convention to the best observances in the social life of well bred people". I read eagerly about tact and manners and how a lady should behave (quiet and unassuming, in case you're taking notes). "The aim of a gentlewoman is to escape notice out of doors; that of an ill bred woman is to attract it. Therein lies the difference."

It made me wonder what the unwritten conventions of our lives nowadays are. Or do we, as we go about our lives – both real and virtual – have a sense of any convention at all? Are we free to do what we please?

It seems we are free, doesn't it? Gone are the constraints of living in a small town, gone are the eagle eyes of that two-headed monster, Church and State. Gone are its doctrines and conventions, dead are the men and women who swooped down to whip women and children away for the crime of being poor, vulnerable or pregnant.

Yes, things have changed for the better, things are much better now than in the 1930s when women were institutionalised for being pregnant and unmarried. But are one-parent families praised enough for the job they do? Are they recognised often enough as valid and loving families? While there is no nosey neighbour standing in the window any more, no one twitching the net curtains, are people still watching but just not the way they used to?

 

There are other windows through which we examine each other, other screens. The most googled word in recent years is 'facebook'. In this sphere, we have a certain amount of control. We can chose to show people only what we want them to see – the happy faces, the birthday cakes, the odd whinge, the flattering head shots, the baby bumps, the scans even (there seems no limit to what some of us are willing to share with each other) – from a distance. And yet, in the same way as before, we can hide the truth about ourselves. We can always hide.

Looking back, you'd think people knew each other inside out if we chose to believe the myth of 'how things used to be'. But I doubt that was true, for, as we know now, many secrets in Irish family life were let lie. Was it that these secrets were unmentionable? Were there not the words?

While editing my novel, I had to replace the word 'pregnant' with other words, more vague words. It seems it wasn't a term that was used in those days, even within a family. I can't think why, other than that it was too... specific? Too biological? It's hard to imagine such a normal thing being taboo, isn't it? But being in my 40s, it's not outside the reach of my imagination. I can still recall the first time I heard the word 'virgin' outside the context of a prayer (I'm beginning to sound ancient). It was the Eighties, and Madonna hit the charts with Like A Virgin. My, did we feel bold and liberated singing along to that chorus, bless our cotton teenage socks. Life was changing for us, we didn't have The Woman's Book, we had Cosmopolitan, we were moving forward, making progress, leaving everything old fashioned well behind us.

 

Rewind a bit, to those years long before Madonna. The girl whose book I now own grew up and got married. I wonder did Brigid read The Women's Book as a young wife? Did she flick through the chapters on sewing, mending, care of the child?

As it turned out, Brigid had poor health. Her doctor told her it wasn't safe to have children. That childbirth would mean death. She turned to her priest, told him her dilemma. He insisted she must not do anything that would stand in the way of having a family; it was, after all, a mortal sin to deny your spouse sex. But, of course, he wouldn't have had said 'sex'. Whatever he said, Brigid obeyed him. And she died during the birth of her child. She must have been so scared.

Yes, we are moving forward. But we need to remember the past; we need to remember Brigid and women like her. We need to remember their names, we need to imagine their faces and how they might have felt. Because even as we talk of how far we have come, and how good that is, we need to be able to recognise the need to discard destructive conventions and invent new – good – ones. Otherwise, no matter how far we move, we'll have only come full circle.

The Herbalist, by Niamh Boyce, published by Penguin, €14.99


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