The Irish Mammy is dead. Long live the Irish Mammy
Always a force to be reckoned with, there’s been a resurgence in the powers of this much-loved and parodied character
Brenda Fricker as the quintessential Irish Mammy, Bridget Fagan Brown, in My Left Foot
“Irish Mammy”: two small words – but one magnificent and treasured institution. As stereotypes go, you’d be hard pressed to find one more enduring and singular. Invariably flanked by boorish sons and long-suffering daughters, she is a force to be reckoned with in her own domain – a bewildering blend of wackiness, threats, affection, quick quips and, well, notions about herself. And amid her ongoing preoccupations with the weather, or tea, or the immersion heater, or the next-door neighbours, she’ll always find time to do her son’s weekly wash. She can’t text to save her life, but she’s well able to put manners on her kids (and their mates). She never let you have the good biscuits, in case there were visitors. She also kept her one nice pair of shoes and expensive face cream (Ponds) for “Sunday best”. She’s a woman who spoils her sons rotten, yet teaches her daughters the merits of hospital corners on a bed.
Of late, the Irish Mammy has certainly been having a moment. She may not know how to use the interweb, but she’s all over social media anyway; either as the shrieking mammy who gets a surprised visit from her “wee pet” in Australia, or the mammy trying in vain to teach her son Irish (“Cad as tú, Robert?”). She even has her own Twitter account, with 220,000 followers and counting. Sample tweets include: ‘Well?! How was your “party”? I suppose there was drink taken” and “Out in Dubai he is. On Big Money” (she follows the pope and Met Éireann, in case you’re wondering). Such is the Twitter account’s popularity that its creator, Colm O’Regan, has released three Irish Mammies books to date: Isn’t it Well for Ye?, It’s Earlier ‘Tis Getting, and That’s More of it Now. Irish Mammy merchandise – including a tea-towel with the immortal words “did you say a prayer to St Anthony?” – does a roaring trade, too.
There’s something reassuringly archaic about the archetypal Irish mammy, but according to Diane Negra, professor of film studies and screen culture at UCD, she’s a potent symbol, and product, of Irish modernity. In fact, the Irish Mammy could well be the postrecession icon we never new we needed.
“Obviously there are different societies that have that particular fixation on the mother as a keeper of the hearth, and Ireland is not unique in that regard,” says Negra. “The trope has a certain energy right now, and has deep roots in the idea of Mother Ireland, and of nationalising Ireland in female form, as a figure of domestic peace.”
However, she’s seen a resurgence in the post-Celtic Tiger era.
The Irish Mammy is a reminder that home will always be still available to you. At a time when everyone is encouraged to be entrepreneurial and changeable, she is an image of stasis and constancy
“It’s no coincidence that her pop culture visibility goes up with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger,” says Negra. “The sense of shock and trauma reverberated through society as the economy collapsed. At the same time, the recession was seen as a unique injury to men and male wage earners, hence the term “mancession”.”
And here’s where the Irish Mammy becomes an abiding figure: as Ireland experienced its latest brain drain, we needed to be reminded of the allure of home.
“The mammy becomes an important anchor to home at a point when Irishness was being made migratory,” says Negra.
It could be argued that at a point when the country was genuinely hurting, the Irish Mammy trope became a kind of salve.
“There’s a widespread idea that when Irish immigrants go out in the world and become successful, they remain fundamentally connected to home and what it is to be Irish,” says Negra. “The Irish Mammy is a reminder that home will always be still available to you. At a time when everyone is encouraged to be entrepreneurial and changeable, she is an image of stasis and constancy. When there has been a widespread feeling of precariousness that so many have, the Irish Mammy personifies stability.”
Yet despite all of this, the Irish Mammy has still remained a sort of social inferior. She’s often doddery, unsure of how to fire up “the Skype” and, despite being the queen of her own domain, probably a bit of a pushover. Case in point: one recent ad for WKD alcopops carried the line, ‘Give your mam a bell –to tell her to ring when your tea’s ready’.
Negra notes: “The Irish Mammy really only has agency and power within the domestic realm. That’s why those homecoming videos that you see on social media are interesting, because in them, she’s the emotional centre of the video, and there’s always an amused affection that she goes a little OTT in her emotions. Instead of focusing on the experience of loss and leaving that the emigrant is having, these videos emphasise the mammy as the most emotionally affected by the whole [emigration] experience.”
Of course, the new wave of Irish women appears to be rejecting the age-old image of the archetypal mammy. For a while, and during the Celtic Tiger years, the typical Irish Mammy became a figure of aspiration: “There was an idea of the new privileged, ‘Dundrum’ mother, a slightly aged version of a D4 girl,” observes Negra. “Her sense of maternity is definitely there, but it perhaps wasn’t as defining as for other, older mothers. She was more about consumerism, although that [idea] has been discredited in more recent times as part of a wider, social soul-searching.”
Yet a whole host of factors are conspiring to make Ireland’s newest wave of mammies a different beast altogether than her foresisters. A multicultural society will bring entirely new facets to her character, for a start. With Facebook and Instagam looming large, keeping up virtual appearances have usurped having “the good room”, and in a world where kids are more tech-savvy than ever, and furtive about it, there’s no room for not knowing how to work “the Skype”.
As to what the new-wave Irish Mammy might look like in the next few years: “I see the current moment as quite undecided,” notes Negra. “In the context of the Repeal campaign, there’s a new sense of social visibility, and of self-determination. We’re in a moment where there is a lot of political social energy.”
Still, some things aren’t likely to change. The Irish Mammy threatened to withhold the Jelly Tots for boldness 30 years ago, and she’ll likely be doing it tomorrow. Whether she’ll still be obsessed with the comings and goings of the immersion? That’s anyone’s guess.
The Irish Mammy speaks
Anna Taylor (33), director/producer of the Film Fatale events from Dublin, is mum to Amelie (22 months).
“I’m exactly like my own mother. I hear loads of people saying about their mums, ‘she didn’t do this right’, but my mum broke the mould. She was working when I was a year old and my granddad minded me, which was a little strange in the Eighties. She raised me as an atheist and sent me to an Educate Together school. I try to be like her as much as humanly possible.
“One thing that’s completely different for mothers these days is the feeling that, even if the mum and dad worked, the mammy always used to do more of the cleaning and cooking. To be fair, my husband does everything and my daughter is growing up and seeing him doing all the shopping and cooking.
“There are plenty of upsides to being a mother today. We don’t have the benefits of having lots of neighbours as a support network. We’re a lot more closed off, although there are online groups that you can check in on at 4am and always have someone to hand for advice.”
Film Fatale’s event Masquerade is on April 15 in the RDS, Dublin. See filmfataleevents.com for details.
Sandie McCabe (30), a musician from Mullingar, is mum to Jayde (12)
“My mother also had me quite young – she was 17 or 18 – and I remember her having two jobs at one stage. She was a real Irish Mammy – very cool, and a bit mad. She always made sure there was a dinner on the table with a massive pile of spuds, and the fire was always lit. She was also pretty particular about the hot press. Maybe because she was the main parent in my life – my dad passed away when I was very young – and it does rub off on you.
“I think there’s less stigma now if you’re struggling as a mum. We can talk openly about things a little more. Single mothers a couple of generations ago were obviously treated differently. I often say, thank god I didn’t have Jayde in the Fifties or Sixties. God knows where I would have ended up.”
“I’m still very like my mum. I didn’t get my sons baptised, although I did with my daughter, mainly because I was doing my Leaving Cert, I was pregnant and didn’t want to throw the (non-Baptism thing) into the mix too.
“I had my daughter young and assumed I’d be a real cool mam, and I’d be able to talk to her more easily than my mum did, but it’s hard. If I’m bringing up tricky topics, I find myself trying too hard to seem casual. We Snapchat each other, but I do know my daughter has a different world on her phone that I know nothing about. I want to respect her privacy but I also need to be aware that something is going on. It’s way easier these days for parents to educate themselves on this stuff. I think if kids want to get away with stuff these days, they need to be more creative.
For more information on Emma, see Facebook.com/emmadorancomedian
“I think a lot is expected of mothers these days, especially if you’re working. The role of the mum has definitely evolved, and in some ways there is more pressure on mothers, but I think we’re living in a much better era. I feel we’re privileged as women; there’s equality, respect within the house, and communication is really open. My husband works an 80-hour week so when it comes to the running of the house, I’m probably still a little bit old-fashioned. I have a career too, and while there’s pressure to keep everything going and keep yourself going, we’ve managed to adapt really well to it all as a family.”
For Gail’s Make Up, see @gails_makeup on Instagram
Karen Carberry (33), owner of Satis Property, from Castleknock, Dublin, is mum to Victoria (10 months)
“I was brought up in a household with a stay-at-home mum and a dad that provided for the family by working two jobs. My mum passed down the cooking skillset, for sure: we’re known to have cook-offs together. Being pregnant with Victoria definitely made me appreciate everything that she had done for me – you take it for granted when you’re younger, and growing up.
“My home life would probably be quite different to my mum’s; my husband puts in as much time with childcare as I do. When Victoria was sick, Paul took as much time out from work as I did.
“I grew up in a cul de sac and the neighbours were around, all day every day. It’s pretty different now. If I wasn’t working, I’d have no social outlet other than the friends I grew up with, and my family doesn’t live around each other. We might be more lonely, but because of working, there’s more balance in our lives.”
For more information on Satis Property, see www.satis.ie