Love Island’s Maura Higgins dances on grave of Official Ireland

TV star is far removed from De Valera’s vision of suppressed women

What has Maura Higgins, the pride of Ballymahon and the most striking personality on Love Island have to do with Lady Hazel Lavery whose image represented Ireland as Kathleen Ní Houlihan on our banknotes for decades?

They both contradict a traditional stereotype of Irish womanhood – a false image which has been falling apart anyway over recent decades and which Maura is pulverising into dust.

To say Maura is confident and assertive is to put it mildly. She has no time for the traditional Irish carry-on of hiding our emotions from the prying eyes of the parish for fear of upsetting anyone.

Official Ireland didn't like it when women kicked over the traces of Kathleen Ní Houlihan

She is far removed from De Valera’s vision of happy maidens listening to the wisdom of their elders around a turf fire and saying the Rosary every evening.


Kathleen Ní Houlihan was, we were invited to imagine, such a maiden (though she could also be a mother producing many babies blessed by bell, book and candle). Also, she leans on a harp on which she would be well able to play a hymn if you were very stuck for entertainment.

But if you look at Sir John Lavery’s other paintings of his wife you see a confident, glamorous woman dressed in a very modern (at the time) style. She looks like she would find the prospect of an evening with Maura far more agreeable than an hour with Kathleen Ní Houlihan. Yet the latter was the safe image preferred by official Ireland.

Official Ireland (I include church and state in this) didn’t like it when women kicked over the traces of Kathleen Ní Houlihan.

Country Girls

This was made very clear when Edna O’Brien, in The Country Girls, depicted young Irish women as warm, sexual, flesh and blood human beings who even dyed their underwear black (you wouldn’t find black knickers on Kathleen Ní Houlihan, I can tell you).

Edna O’Brien was closer to the reality of Irish womanhood than official Ireland. If you look at the figures for the large numbers of single women and girls who were packed off to mother and baby homes for getting pregnant, you’ll see the evidence. They were caught – crushed, sometimes – between two worlds – that of Kathleen Ní Houlihan and her harp and that of The Country Girls.

Unless you were there at the time you can have absolutely no idea of the depth of venom directed at Edna O'Brien by some Catholic clergy. She was a favourite target of priests at the "missions,' events that occurred in parishes over several weeks and at which parishioners were treated to fire and brimstone from the pulpits by priests who specialised in that sort of scare-mongering. She was depicted as a she-devil, there is no other word for it. Elizabeth Taylor, I recall, was another target, with one priest denouncing her as "a farrowing sow" i.e. a sow giving birth to piglets.

As I’ve written here before, this was the time when I and my classmates were told in school that to have sex with a girl was not only to risk one’s own soul but also to destroy ‘a temple of the Holy Ghost.’ The girl was the temple. It’s not an easy thing to be a temple (it’s also off-putting if, like me, you tended to take things too seriously).

Over the next two decades, women stepped out of the temples with the assistance of television, Gay Byrne’s radio programmes and The Late Late Show, the industrialisation of society and the women’s liberation movement.

But if they stepped out of the temples, many were mauled by the old Ireland which forced them into the adoption of their babies. Some of these women are still suffering today.

When Maura kicks off on Love Island, several nations hold their breath for various reasons. For me it’s in delight that the hard old, cod and nonsense Kathleen Ní Houlihan Ireland is dead and buried.

And when Maura struts her stuff it’s as though she is dancing on the grave of an Official Ireland that denied the reality of real women, ruthlessly, for too long.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (