An Irishman's Diary


LIKE ALL our great institutions, the Irish mother has undergone major reform in recent decades. Her increased role in the workplace has reduced some of her former influence in the home, for example. And because of this and other changes, the modern Mammy – or “Mum”, as some have attempted to rebrand her – is less likely to wear the mantle of martyrdom to which she was once automatically entitled.

There is probably a generation of children now growing up who have never heard the following old joke. Q: “How many Irish mothers does it take to change a light-bulb?” A: “None. Sure amn’t I grand sitting here in the dark.” But even so, the Irish Mother retains an exalted role. She has generally avoided the sort of scandals that have rocked her fellow institutions, the church and Fianna Fáil. Indeed, of her former rivals, perhaps only the GAA is in as good a shape today.

A small but hard piece of evidence of her continuing influence landed on my desk this week, in the form of a book called My Mother Always Used to Say, by Valerie Bowe.

Collating nuggets of maternal wisdom that have guided its many contributors through life, this was originally published late last year. Since then it has been reprinted twice to meet the unexpected demand. Now, and for the same good cause (which we’ll mention later), the book has been expanded and reissued, in time for Mother’s Day.

The first thing that needs to be said, as Valerie acknowledges in her introduction, is that the title is a misnomer. In seeking the reminiscences of various well-known people, she opted for an inclusive approach, rather than discriminating against motherless children. Consequently, the wisdom of both genders – parents, grandparents, and guardians alike – was deemed admissible.

Which is only right, because it was two men who, indirectly, prompted the book: the germ of which sprouted when Valerie read Brian Keenan’s account of his Beirut captivity and was struck by a passage in which he sought to lift his fellow hostage John McCarthy’s spirits by reminding him of something his (McCarthy’s) mother used to say. The resultant collection covers a wide range of subject-matter: from the very general – Bill Cullen’s grandmother saying “Every day you can get out of bed is a great day” to the specific, viz poet Michael Longley: “If I was picking my nose my mother would say, ‘Bring us down a picture of the Pope’.” Some of the nuggets have taken on added topicality since they were first given.

Here’s what broadcaster John Creedon’s mother always used to say: “Banks will happily loan you an umbrella when the sun shines. As soon as it rains they ask for it back.” If only Ireland had had more mothers like her.

One of my favourite pieces of advice is that attributed by Maeve Binchy to both her parents, who explained to her early on that the phrase “How are you?” is “a greeting, not a question”.

Most Irish people know this instinctively. But there are many who still mistake the non-question for a genuine inquiry and respond by sharing lengthy and intimate details of their recent medical history. As with many faux pas in Ireland, nobody will take you aside on these occasions quietly and explain the rules. They just won’t ask you again. And if you get a name for this sort of thing, they’ll start crossing the street when they see you coming.

Writer Dermot Bolger is one of the book’s contributors who quotes his father: “Do anything you want with your life but just don’t go to sea.” So does musician Finbar Furey, whose old man devised a mathematical formula: “If you can be yourself for at least one-third of your life, you’ll always win.”

Another musician, father of broadcaster Mark Cagney, apparently used to “drum” this message into his students (although not literally, we hope): “Don’t worry about being popular, worry about

being good. Popular

comes and goes; good always works.”

Mothers being mothers, much of the remembered advice concerns the recipient’s personal appearance. Hence broadcaster John Kelly’s mother: “Fix yourself up: you’re like the wreck of the Hesperus.” On a broader note, but speaking for the genre as a whole, the mother of celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin always told him this: “Your mother’s never wrong.”

The book is not confined to Irish contributors. Bill Clinton and Alex Ferguson cite maternal wisdom too. And in probably the book’s grittiest piece of advice, the veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson quotes his father, a coalminer who wanted his son to do something else in life.

“If I ever see you at the pit gates,” Parkinson Snr would say: “I’ll kick your backside all the way home”.

Valerie Bowe is, incidentally, related to the rugby player Tommy, whose mother also features (on the theme of how a good night’s sleep is a cure for everything, although vitamins can help too). But proceeds from the book are going to a charity named after another relative: Valerie’s own mother. The Kitty Whittle Fund provides educational services for female lone parents; and in this case the monies will be administered by the Lourdes Youth and Community Services organisation in Dublin’s Inner City.