What makes an Irish Mammy?
Dublin author Ciara Geraghty, mum to Sadhbh (14), Neil (11) and Grace (41/2), on how the role of the Irish mammy has changed over the years.
A friend of mine was at a wedding recently. After the ceremony, the guests repaired to a hotel where the groom's mother cornered the new bride, gripped her elbow -- a little tighter than might be deemed appropriate -- and said, in a worried whisper, 'You will take care of him, won't you?' The groom was a balding 37-year-old.
The Irish Mammy. She's not a person. She's an institution.
The First Lady of Irish Mammies was perhaps Peig Sayers (1873- 1958). She was a raconteur who did a brisk trade in martyrdom, suffering and put-upon-ness. She had a dreadfully hard life, out there on the Great Blasket Island, but instead of getting all British Mammy about it (stiff upper lip situation), Peig decided to write a book about her miserable life, which was published by a miserable publisher and spawned several generations of miserable Irish schoolchildren who were forced to study it.
Textbook Irish Mammy.
But then there's the likes of Miriam O'Callaghan, who has about 17 children, 10 jobs, great hair, Celtic Tiger teeth, a huge intellect and killer heels.
Mammy O'Callaghan sews a button on the sleeve of her well-cut suit, poses for a photoshoot in her immaculate house, interviews Angela Merkel, intimidates An Taoiseach, has afternoon tea with Lady Gaga and makes it home in time to make the dinner (paella from scratch), fill school lunch boxes with nutritious yet tasty fare for the next day and tuck her children into bed, all of whom adore her and all of whom she loves, EQUALLY.
The only thing Peig and Miriam have in common is that they are both Irish Mammies.
The Irish Mammy is still very much the lynchpin of the Irish family. Who else remembers what you got in Civics in the Christmas exam in second year? And who will know where to find the spare button that came in a little see-through sachet, attached by a fine plastic tag to the jacket you bought back in 2002? Who knows how to get red wine and tomato ketchup stains out of a silk, dry-clean only, dress that cost you nearly a month's salary? And who is the only one who will say, yes, your arse does look big in those trousers. Huge, in fact. Irish Mammy, that's who. The worst thing is, she'll be right.
Irish daddies know the significance of Irish Mammy. That is why they say, 'I'll put you onto your mammy' as soon as you ring home. Even if you haven't spoken to your father in weeks. Months! Even if he's just been mugged or undergone a quadruple heart bypass and it is this very mugging or this very life-threatening operation that is the sole reason for your call.
Even then, he'll say, 'I'll put you onto your mammy' because everyone knows that she'll tell it better. She'll remember the names of the mugger(s), the heart surgeon, the anaesthetist, the judge, the solicitor, the investigating gardai, the exact contents of your father's stolen wallet, down to the last ha'penny, the complicated spelling of the post-op medication. Everything. She'll have it all in her head. She's amazing. Irish Daddy can't compete. He doesn't even try.
In the era between the demise of Mammy Sayers and the rise of Mammy O'Callaghan, a few things have happened to Irish Mammy.
She got the vote. She burned her bra. She put herself on the Pill. She got a job. She threw away the charred remains of her burned bra and invested in a swanky underwire bra.
She invested in the stock market and in a pair of Bridget Jones knickers. She experimented with The Perm in the eighties, The Rachael in the nineties. She got divorced. Now, she's considering the cropped look; look how well it's worked out for Mary McAleese.
The Irish Mammy has risen to heights that could never have been dreamed of by the likes of Peig Sayers. She has been the President of Ireland. Twice. She writes novels and poetry and plays and short stories. She paints, she sprints, she swims, she wears skinny jeans and Converse, she runs successful companies, she makes the perfect cup of tea, she directs films, she keeps Club Milks in the cupboard for 'emergencies', she sings to packed auditoriums, she carries hankies in her bag to wipe snots that run like rivers from children's noses in the wintertime, she dances, she keeps stamps in her purse for the thank-you cards she insists her children send when it is appropriate for them to do so.
Peig Sayers would say, 'Isn't it well for ye? With yer swanky cars under your big arses and yer washin' machines and yer notions and yer pay cheques.'
Miriam O'Callaghan would say, 'Cop onto yourself, Peig. Quit the whinging. And for God's sake, buy yourself a decent pair of shoes.'
And if you're wondering what the new bride said to the mother of her balding 37-year-old groom ... well, she nodded and assured the woman that, yes, of course she would look after her son. Because while it's pretty unwise to look crooked at an Irish Mammy, it's downright INSANE to cross swords with an Irish Mammy-In-Law.
Lifesaving for Beginners by Ciara Geraghty, is published by Hachette Books, price €13.99. For more information log onto www.ciarageraghty.com.