“All I am or can be, I owe to my angel Mother.”
Those lines could almost be the motto of the Irish male. Although penned by Abraham Lincoln and not your 45-year-old neighbour Fintan who still can’t work the washing-machine, they encapsulate the sentimental view most Irishmen have of their mother, a feeling which is more than reciprocated.
Indeed, their intense attachment is only rivalled globally by the Italian mamma, though that formidable lady – and her equally formidable hold over her son – may now be under threat. None other than the Catholic Church has identified Mamma as the enemy of Italian marriages (ironic, considering their millennia-old veneration of the ultimate mother, the Madonna).
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco recently risked life and limb by claiming Italian mothers infantilised their boys, who consequently can’t handle a relationship with a woman who doesn’t want to iron his underpants and make the dinner every single night.
This can break up marriages, although in fairness, Italy has the third lowest divorce rate in Europe – and Ireland is lowest. So maybe Mammy/Mamma are on the right track after all.
The Irish mammy and son relationship is an undeniable anthropological phenomenon. (And it has to be mammy: “mam” is too mature, “mum” too pretentiously middle-class, “mom” too Hollywood). When people crack that gag about Jesus being Irish because he lived at home until 33, hung out with the lads all the time and figured his mother for a virgin, they’re only partly joking.
Fussing over Junior when he visits, doing his laundry, ringing obsessively to check he’s eating nutritious food, fretting about his inability to find a “nice girl”, extolling his virtues to disinterested company and, above all, subjugating her own needs for his greater good… Mammy is the living embodiment of the selfless martyr or stoic manservant, living a vicarious life through Son’s achievements.
Every Sunday the male offspring will call to her pristine house, where she serves an immaculate four-course meal over which she’s slaved for the last six hours, then bites back the tears when he only eats half of it anyway because he “doesn’t like broccoli and the broccoli’s touching off the roast”.
Should he find himself penniless through his own stupidity and recklessness, she’ll frantically shake her long-suffering husband awake in the middle of the night and demand he withdraw a sizeable amount of money, then drive through the worst storm in living memory to present it to their son in person, along with a flask of soup, freshly baked cake and new socks.
Immortalised on humorous tea-towels, eulogised in jokes and the cause of fights when someone in the pub calls their virtue into question…the traditional Irish mammy is a strange and wondrous creation indeed. But it’s also probably a dying breed.
Things have changed in recent years. What with feminism, political correctness and equal rights for all, women have assumed more power and exert their individuality to a greater degree.
One minute they’re breeding like badgers and not having any opinions, the next they’re earning much more money than you and refusing to shave their armpits “just because the system says so”. Whatever next, eh?
These go-getting career women are more likely to wear sharp suits and hold power breakfasts with Japanese conglomerates, than clean their middle-aged son’s room while smiling fondly at his endearing messiness and convincing herself that the stack of adult magazines in the wardrobe must belong to his shifty friend. Whose mother is no good anyway, so what would you expect.
For birthday or Christmas she’d like a stress-relieving miniature Zen garden or leather-bound copy of The Female Eunuch. Old-school Mammy, on the other hand, loves nothing more than a bunch of wilted lilies, a framed portrait of himself in heroic pose, and a bottle of oven cleaner for when she calls round to clean his kitchen.
The bad old good old days, you’d imagine, are on the way out. Mammy, like Romantic Ireland, is with O’Leary in the grave. But in her honour, we’ll finish with one of those jokes that are funny because they’re true:
How many Irish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? “Arrah don’t mind me, pet, I’ll be grand here on my own in the dark.”
- First published in the Irish Independent