Cleanliness and household chores are next to godliness

Domestic labour has become so unfashionable that when it makes a rare appearance in public discussion, as it did in the Vatican last week, it seems exotic


Quite a few of us get the bus and do our own housework, thanks. It is true that not all of us can be elected pope – that’s just for biological reasons, obviously. We knew that.

What we didn’t realise was that being found in possession of a return ticket and a bag of Roosters was a surefire signifier of sainthood. Or, to be more accurate, that being in possession of a return ticket and a bag of Roosters is a surefire mark of sainthood – if you're a priest or a cardinal. The rest of us out in Dullsville are just expected to get on with it. (Point of information: the Rooster is a variety of potato widely popular in Ireland. )

The one belief that unites us all these days is that ordinary life is for losers and is to be avoided if at all possible. And that attitude is going to cause us problems, as the nuns used to say, later on.

In fact, this contempt for menial tasks has already caused us problems. It’s a fair bet that this country was brought to ruin by men who are simply too important to iron their own shirts. Unfortunately, all the time they saved by getting other people to iron their shirts was not spent improving their financial skills, or being even adequate at their jobs. At the end of the day, they proved to be incompetent and crease-free.

The shocking news that the new pope travelled by public transport and can make his own meals constituted one of the more patronising moments in the 24/7 coverage of the papal election last week. Coverage that treated cardinals as if they were celebrities, and ordinary believers as if they were – and this is an ugly word – punters.

The astonishment that greeted the news that the new pope – or indeed anybody at all – would voluntarily turn down the opportunity to ride in a limousine said more about the secular media and its craven attitude to privilege than it did about the clergy. Although the clergy’s surprise that the new pope would actually pay his own hotel bill – “in order to set a good example”, the newspapers said – and be unimpressed by the bling of the Vatican wasn’t very edifiying either. Isn’t eschewing limousines and servants, after all, the kind of thing Christian priests are supposed to do? And the new pope does it. To paraphrase Sinéad O’Connor in another context : “He’s a priest, for f***’s sake.”

We may despise domestic tasks but the pope’s namesake and role model, St Francis, was pretty clear on domestic matters. He didn’t agree with his priests having servants, for example. “He wanted us to be the servants, to be subject to all,” said Fr Joe McMahon, who is secretary to the Franciscan province, based at Merchant’s Quay in Dublin.

Domestic tasks
According to Fr McMahon, for many years it was the Franciscan brothers – as opposed to the Franciscan priests – who performed all domestic tasks for those who lived in the monasteries: “They made our sandals, cooked, did everything.”

This two-tier system at least demonstrated a desire that domestic tasks, no matter how menial, should not be farmed out to the laity but remain part of monastic life.

Unfortunately, since the time of St Francis domestic labour and even ordinary cooking have fallen into disrepute. The western world now consists of people who are too important to wash their own clothes, and the people they hire to do the menial work for them.

This group of important people includes those who spend good thinking time genuinely trying to come up with ways to make the world a better place: how to make our society more equal; how to address the gap between rich and poor; how to improve our education and health systems and help the disadvantaged; and so on. In other words, good people.

But the questions that must be put to them are: When did they last make anyone a sandwich? When are they going to vacuum-clean the stairs? Who cleans their toilets? Because equality is an idea; housework is a reality. And, although no one says so these days, the two are inextricably linked.

This is why it is wise for priests such as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and the new pope, and St Francis of Assisi in his day, to say no to servants and to stay with the grounding reality of making their own dinners.

There was a reason why spiritual communities were founded on hard work and prayer.

There’s nothing like washing the kitchen floor, or discovering for the hundredth time that you’ve run out of milk, to put a stop to your gallop and make you a little less fascinated with yourself.

Domestic labour has become so unfashionable that when it makes a rare appearance in public discussion, as it did in the Vatican last week, it seems positively exotic. And yet the floors of the world are still washed, the dinners are still cooked, the toilets are still cleaned. We are now in a sort of denial about domestic labour, the sort of denial that used to surround sex. It takes the election of a pope, for goodness sake, before you can get housework talked about on prime time. Or, indeed, on Prime Time .