Ireland, 1966: ‘A visitor realises after a few days that he has seen few fat people’

A US book portrayed Ireland as a land of subservient housewives and men in pubs

“Most housewives in Mayo still bake their bread in iron pots, with red coals of smouldering turf on top of the closed lid, and boil their bacon and cabbage in their cottages’ fireplaces rather than on stoves.”

This was apparently how the housewives of Mayo – as seemingly distinct from the housewives of any other Irish county – were operating in 1966.

That's the year Ireland was included in a series of books published by the US Time-Life International company, in its World Library imprint. The series featured countries around the world: China, tropical Africa, Russian Scandinavia, Japan, eastern Europe, and many more. I have most of the set, picked up here and there over the years in second-hand bookshops.

These books featuring different countries were intended to be snapshots of the era they were written in. So what was Ireland like – as seen from an American perspective – in 1966, more than half a century ago?


Well, for a start, surprise surprise, Irish women were clearly seen as inferior to men. It starts on the cover, which depicts a solitary person: an older man, fag in hand, leaning over a stone wall on Inis Mór. No women in sight, which is more or less where they remain throughout the book, reductively referred to through the text as “housewives” or “mothers”.

“The father is the head of the closely knit family, and although he never pushes a perambulator or washes dishes, he takes charge of the boys when they reach the age of seven or eight.”

We never learn what this father actually does with his small sons once they reach seven and eight – bring them to the pub?

“The Irishman seldom drinks at home, partly because his wife, like most middle-class Irishwomen, is likely to be a teetotaller. He prefers having his glass of stout in the male company that he finds in a pub.”

The writer presents a grim picture of the home life of a middle-class teetotal subservient Irish housewife.

“The housewife does not eat dinner until the men have left the table. She has no part in her husband’s social life; he goes off with his sons and other men to the village pub and to football and hurling matches while she stays home with her daughters.”

Weirdly intense

The relationship between mothers and sons is presented as weirdly intense, and hinted at as an emotionally stronger bond than hers with her husband. A connection with daughters is never mentioned.

“The attachment between an Irish mother and her son is strong. She sees to it that her son gets the best cut of the meat, sometimes better than the one she serves to her husband. She secretly slips him money for a dance. She hates the thought of him leaving home to marry, and in many cases, so does he.”

Is this how the “Irish mammy” trope started out?

The Irish mother who doesn’t want to see her beloved son marry, will, however, happily part with him if he embraces God instead of a future housewife.

“The church is the one thing that comes before obligations to the beloved family. The mother who is reluctant to see her son married will never raise her voice in protest if he decides to go off to Africa as a missionary for the rest of his life.”

The church gets an entire chapter to itself, written throughout with a tone of breathless hagiography.

“The priest is deeply involved, directly or indirectly, in everything in his town, and he is an unofficial clan leader, consulted for advice and guidance not only in matters of family trouble but also in business or legal disputes, arguments over the ownership of livestock or land boundaries and squabbles about the selection of the local football team. In certain aspects of town and county government that concern social life, the priest’s word is law.

“Like a general in an army community, he belongs to a special high caste. He is too respected and honoured for his calling to be treated like other men.”

Tender regard

There is a full-page colour picture of a priest in his clerical garb, in a a picturesque green field with a castle and four small children with their sheepdog. The caption reads: “A priest shows a tender regard for his charges.” Decades would pass before the population learned what some priests had been doing to the children in their charge.

The writer is approving of the Irish body image, and theorises as to why that may be.

“The old-fashioned custom of eating dinner at noon and a light supper in the evening may account for the slimness of both men and women in Ireland; a foreign visitor realises after a few days that he has seen few fat people.”

And so to politics.

“The big change of the 1960s in Ireland, shaping a new course for the future, is the country’s abandonment of its stubborn nationalism of the last half-century.”

Well, we all know what happened next in Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s possible entry into the European Common Market was mulled over. “A provocative question is what will happen to Ireland’s partition if North and South end up as fellow members of the Common Market. Inevitably, the economies of the two regions will become increasingly interrelated. If that happens, some members of the government argue, the partition will not last long.”

Fifty-five years later, with Northern Ireland having since joined and then left the EU, that same discussion continues to be relevant.

As for us “housewives” of Ireland, thankfully we are no longer the subservient citizens we were made out to be in 1966.