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Saturday 25 October 2014

The return of the Irish mammy

At a recent Christmas party choc-a-bloc with media folk, talk turned from the Budget to an Irish female celebrity and the facial work she may or may not have had done.

A woman ear-wigging on the conversation was appalled: "Tell me this is a wind-up," she implored, "there is no way she's had surgery or botox, not her, I really like her."

Her reaction epitomised the gap between the Irish women other Irish women look up to, and the parade of lightweights that took centre-stage during the boom. When you find out that someone you admire for being intelligent as well as beautiful has a secret botox habit, it's hard not to feel a little cheated.

It's an unease that doesn't just apply to celebrities, most of us would be slightly nauseous if Mammy announced over the Turkey dinner: "Ye'll all be pleased to know I'm getting a facelift in the New Year." Excessive vanity is not a trait that Irish women have ever really suffered from, and it still sits uneasily with us that spray tan, botox and waxing became so quickly a part of 'essential maintenance'.

The fact is that the image of the Irish Mammy took a battering during the Celtic tiger bonanza. But now she's having something of a comeback. From the BAFTA success of Mrs Brown's Boys, to Colm O'Regan's Christmas best-seller Isn't It Well For Ye: The Book of Irish Mammies, traditional mothers would appear to be having a retro-style revival. Beneath the 'things Mammy comes out with' humour, however, something more authentic and real may be emerging.



Complex

The mammy portrayed in The Book of Irish Mammies is probably a far mellower character than her real-life counterpart. It's Irish mammy as filtered by a benevolent PR person, one who softens the rough edges, censors her more blunt pronouncements. The truth is, Irish mothers are much more complex and, therefore, far more interesting than the kind of woman who says things like, "There's a letter here for you here, will I open it?"

The 'Mammy O'Rourke' moniker as applied to politician Mary O'Rourke hides a stronger and more particularly Irish personality. Who can forget the quote attributed to O'Rourke: "F**k off back across the Shannon" as directed at fellow FF-er Padraig Flynn back in the 1990s.

When writing up an interview with O'Rourke during her time as minister, I contacted a senior Fianna Fail politician for an off-the-record briefing on her chances of becoming party leader. "Too much of the school teacher about her," he muttered, "I wouldn't ever vote for her." Sensing he might have gone too far he tried to backtrack a little. "It's not just Mary, a woman could never be leader of Fianna Fail," he added, "sure they could go mad once every month and then say or do anything and then where would you be?"

Mammy going crazy with a bit of power; it would be nice to think that his views were a relic of another era. But in the not-too-distant past when O'Rourke was suggested as a potential programme panellist, a colleague was having none of it. "She's too much of a mad 'auld wan'," he argued. The fact that it is her ability to sometimes hint at her real opinions that people like about her, had somehow escaped his notice. It's no coincidence that O'Rourke's recent autobiography, Just Mary, has also hit the bestsellers' list, where other female Irish celebrity tomes have tanked. A life lived at the heart of some of the most interesting times in Irish politics, even if she doesn't reveal much, does trump more vacuous kiss-and-tells.

In a parallel development, our love affair with celebrity for its own sake has also gone off the boil. One independent TV producer outlining how he was completely overhauling his 'go-to' list of female presenters, told me wistfully, "I should have anticipated the whole Norah Casey trend." Along with the promotion of broadcaster Claire Byrne to Prime Time, Casey's burgeoning media career is part of the desire to pick substance over style, an attempt some might say to wipe out the not-too-distant past.

An abiding and uncomfortable memory of the decade of excess was of being in a restaurant in Dublin 4 for a post-work meeting and having my eardrums lacerated by a group of skinny black-clad women at a nearby table. The women had obviously been surfing a sea of Pinot Grigio all afternoon. One of the group slumped over a pasta bowl, as her friend tried unsuccessfully to prop her up.

A couple of their designer-clad children, high on fizzy drinks, were tearing around the room as the shell-shocked waiters looked on. These faux-posh mavens were as far from the self-sacrificing image of Irish motherhood as is possible.

The contradiction at the heart of the Irish charity queen circuit, women out lunching for charity while other women from Third World countries watched over their children, and cleaned their homes, was an unspoken one. One fundraiser to provide medical facilities for women in developing countries had as a guest speaker an expert in non-surgical facelifts. No one spotted the irony.

But behind nearly every one of the 'Chanel sunglasses and black jeep brigade', there was probably a clear-headed mother whose voice was temporarily muted. This was the woman who was still asking pertinent questions of her offspring. Questions such as, "Are you going on another holiday?" and, "Could you not clean the house yourself?"

When the stories emerged of expensive cars being repossessed in school car parks it looked as though Mammy was right all along, except that whatever satisfaction she might be feeling was offset by having to bail out her adult children as the banks closed in. So where did it all go wrong?

In the past what set Irish mothers apart was that they didn't particularly care if their offspring liked them or not. The adult child who accused an Irish mammy of ruining his or her life, would probably have gotten the instant retort, "Me ruin your life? Weren't you doing a good enough job on your own".

Therapists look away now, but sometimes a dose of hard reality from a loved one is no bad thing.

One friend describes his mother's ability to know when he has done something wrong in his life as being akin to Spider-Man's powers, "Her Mammy senses start reeling, so she rings me up", he says somewhat admiringly. When the BBC decided to run Mrs Brown's Boys, it faced an avalanche of criticism, but millions still tuned in. The Aussies also bought the show. The popularity of Brendan O'Carroll's mother-in-drag Down Under is partly, as one Australian reviewer termed it, the fact that 'family is the essence of her life'.

Though she will encourage her child to pursue every opportunity, new-wave Irish mammy, much like her older counterpart, will not be shy about putting the boot in when you can't find a job. The graduates who feel certain work is beneath them might be in for some harsh words as Irish mammies get their mojo back.



Outwitting

Unemployed in the recessionary 1980s, a law graduate of my acquaintance arrived home one evening to find a letter addressed to her on the mantelpiece, bearing the insignia of the Irish Prison Service. The Mammy had applied for the job of female prison warden on her behalf without telling her. When challenged, she tried to soften the blow saying, "I wrote on the form that you were very good with people."

Realising that the ability to make small-talk would not suffice when dealing with a drug-deprived prisoner, her besieged daughter took fright. Within weeks she had signed up for a work scheme and through that secured a legal apprenticeship. "Mammy couldn't have planned it better if she had tried," she told a group of fellow graduates in the pub one evening, prompting rather nervous laughter all round.

Outwitting their offspring at every hand's turn is a recognised part of the Irish mother's brand. The return of the Irish Mammy to full form should also inspire fear and loathing among our politicians.

As her hand hovers over the ballot paper in the next General Election, Irish Mammy may have two images in her mind, Phil Hogan in Doha, and the mother shivering in the cold as she pushed her adult child in a wheelchair while protesting outside the gates of Dail Eireann. No prizes for guessing who will bear the brunt of her rage.

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