The dinner: quintessential sign of mother’s love

The cult of the Great Mammy endures, as young women in filling stations and Centra cafes all around the country feed dinners to large, rugged truck drivers


In the old days Cavan women had a tendency to force-feed other humans. Some anthropologists thought it was due to poverty in the Drumlin region, a place of small farms and millions of chickens. There was a shadow of hunger and famine on the drumlins, for which women compensated by stuffing as much food into other people as they possibly could.

Other scholars suggest this compulsive behaviour was the effect of the Reformation, brought to Cavan by John Wesley, Presbyterians, and a variety of strict Christian sects that repressed all urges of the flesh, and created in Cavan people a tendency to express affection by way of verbal insults, accordion music, and pinching each other on the bottom.

In Catholic marriages, Cavan people’s vanity was intensely policed by the clergy, which resulted in a society of plain hairdos, unvarnished nails, and lips without rouge. When young adolescents in Cavan emerged from the time of the bottom-pinching, they found themselves in marriages where affection could only be legitimately expressed with large plates of bacon and cabbage.

A final theory emanating from scholarly anthropologists is that Cavan people live unconsciously within the force field of the Eternal Mother, or The Great Mammy.

In fact Glangevlin in the west of the county is intrinsically linked with the Myth of the Green Cow of Gevlin, which provided milk for all of Ireland every day until a witch came to her owner and said: “I bet I can find a vessel that cow cannot fill.”

The witch took out a sieve and placed it beneath the cow’s udder. “Try that,” she said.

They milked the cow for three days and nights until it bolted away across the hills, its udder dragging behind and creating a gap in the Cuilcagh mountains.

Cult of the Great Mother
The cult of the Great Mother endures. Young women in petrol filling stations and Gala shops and Centra cafes all around the country feed dinners to large, rugged truck drivers every day, in the name of the Great Mammy.

I travel a lot in the Jeep, from Kenmare to Belfast, and from Letterkenny to Ballycotton, in and out of Birr, Athlone and other midlands towns as I round the roundabouts and zig-zag up and down the country, doing readings from my book.

And everywhere I see the same thing. Grown men standing in queues like little boys as some young woman from Krakow or Gdansk feeds them braised steak and asks them do they want gravy on their spuds.

The Great Mammy incarnates and is made manifest in a thousand different women behind the nation’s counters every day, all aproned for business. The apron is a vestment that can transform anyone into Mammy.

Matriarchal authority
A woman may be from Lithuania or Russia, or she may be 16 years old, but once she dons the apron she assumes matriarchal authority, and every middle-aged man on the road waits in line with the excitement of a 10-year-old child.

Almost every Friday I go to Scollan’s Gala shop in Drumshanbo for a dinner. Scollan’s is a fine supermarket that sells all the usual stuff, but at the back of the shop there’s an excellent food counter.

It’s run by Jenny, a woman with the unlimited energy of someone who has recently given up cigarettes. She comes in at 7am each morning and bakes coffee walnut and chocolate cakes, apple tarts, vanilla cheesecakes and banoffee pie.

When all that’s done she starts on the soups. By 11am she’s stuffing the ovens with roasts of pork, bacon or beef, and garlic potatoes.

By noon the clients are arriving: old men from the hills who live alone since their wives died, and can’t bear to cook alone. Teachers phone their orders in. Students swarm around the hot pots.

The meals go out the highways and byways of Leitrim six days a week; 120 dinners every day, and even more on Wednesdays when the local paper, the Leitrim Observer, appears in the shop.

I used to bring my own mother to such a food counter in Cavan every Friday for many years before she died, and we’d take the food back to her kitchen and eat it.

“Isn’t this wonderful?” she’d say. And I’d say, “Yes mammy.” And she’d say, “Sure you couldn’t cook as good as this.”

And I’d say, “No mammy, I couldn’t.” And I can’t. But I often think of her since she passed away, as I stand at various counters, up and down the country, waiting for that quintessential sign of mother’s love: the dinner.

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