Mom’s the Word – Frank McNally on the Americanisation of the Irish mother

An Irishman’s Diary


When did everyone in Ireland start using the vowel “o” in a certain single-syllable version of the informal term for mother? Did I miss a meeting at which it was agreed we would all now say “mom” instead of “mam”, or even “mum”? Because suddenly, it seems to be everywhere.

Okay, it was no surprise to see it in a recent Ross O’Carroll Kelly classic about the “Mount Anville Moms”, as they call themselves. Despite their acronym, which seems to argue for the traditional spelling, you somehow expect Mount Anville mothers to be in early on all the hottest trends. 

Nor did it raise eyebrows in the latest cast of socio-economic types from another chronicler of the Irish zeitgeist, David McWilliams. His “Sliotar Mom” (“suburban GAA goddess”) is, after all, a homage to that cornerstone of modern America, Soccer Mom, who herself has done so much to popularise the word.

But I knew the usage had reached epidemic levels when reading a report on the sports pages of the Irish Independent on Monday. It was about the former Kerry GAA star Kieran Donaghy playing basketball in Tralee. At the end of which, the paper reported that “his mom and his wife” came onto the court to hug him.

We’re not talking here about the decline of the full-blown Irish “mammy”. That word is now reserved mainly for intimate family settings.  

When used in the public sphere, it tends be laced with at least some ironic intent.

Mam, on the other hand, was the semi-formal and respectable alternative, suitable for both conversation and print.  

And yes, it has always had competition from the great maternal powers to our west (Mom-world) and east (where Mum still reigns, in every sense). 

In fact, there was a time when the latter seemed to be the bigger threat, thanks to the vast ranks of Mumsnet users massing on our sea-borders.

But the uniquely-Irish Mam seemed to have been holding her own on both fronts. Then, overnight, or so it appears, she capitulated to the pressures of American-accented globalisation.  

I suspect not even Unesco heritage listing would save her now, although maybe Brexit might. France will soon be our nearest neighbour in the EU and is a natural ally on this issue, the French equivalent being Maman. Time will tell.

For now, I’m tempted to find some profound reason behind this maternal vowel shift. And the natural suspicion with all such sudden changes in the way we speak is that it’s a conscious rejection of something considered old-fashioned or embarrassing.

The once-notorious Dart accent is an obvious precedent. Thirty-odd years ago, a generation of young people – many of whom lived nowhere near the DART – spontaneously decided that the broad vowel sounds of their elders – in particular they way they pronounced the diphthong “ou” or “ow” – were things now best avoided, like buttermilk or snuff tobacco.

The resultant strangulated attempts to say “how now”, “brown cow”, or “roundabout” set the teeth of older people on edge for decades afterwards. Despite which, Dart-speakers got their own TV shows eventually and the sound became normalised.

But along with the GAA, the Irish mother is one of the few institutions to have emerged unscathed in the great social changes that have swept this country over the past generation. And yet she too now appears to have had phonetic reform forced upon her.

It can hardly have anything to do with the US history of “mammy”, which has a whole different meaning there. Thus my Oxford English Dictionary still lists a second meaning of the term (after “child’s word for mother”) to be “coloured woman in charge of white children”.

And the black Mammy was indeed a stock character in many books and films of the American south, from Gone with the Wind to Forrest Gump. She was also the inspiration for the old Vaudeville song, made famous by Al Jolson. When the singer says he’d walk “a million miles/for one of your smiles”, it’s his surrogate Mammy (back in “Alabammy”) he’s eulogising.

That must have added to the cultural complications of exporting a recent RTÉ series, otherwise very successful overseas, in which an Irish man placed his mother in various fraught situations and recorded her reactions.  

Not, by the way, that I’m blaming Baz Ashmawy for the decline of the traditional Irish terms for mother. On the contrary, he did his best to revive them. It’s just unfortunate that his 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy should also have coincided with the mysterious disappearance of “Mam”.

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