Poor Irish women. The journey from Peig Sayers to Miriam O’ Callaghan has not been an easy one, and for many women simply unattainable. While in that time, men have found new confidence in the worlds of business, science, sport, teaching and the professions (even having the confidence to wreck the country in a spectacular fashion, as they did some years ago ), women, in a patriarchal society, are still struggling to find their own expression, to escape the dominance of the Catholic Church, and, in the views of author Emma Comerford, ‘to control the tendency towards alcohol abuse and other manifestations of low self-esteem’.
It is a serious matter. Recently we have all read the stories of women seeking equality in the boardroom, the Dáil and the Seanad; and an appropriate acknowledgement for their role in our history. Even to secure a place on the stage of the national theatre, which was originally founded by a Galway woman, the great Lady Augusta Gregory, has been difficult, if not impossible. And much more.
Galway born Emma Comerford has presented a brilliantly amusing thesis as to why the end result of this pilgrimage ‘is a nation filled with functioning, female lunatics’. With the unlikely title Irish Bitches Be Crazy* she boldly sets out to examine how the lunacy came about, and offers helpful ‘How To’ guides; not of the more traditional cookery and domestic goddess tips, but mad, and sometimes wise, advice on such vital female matters, including dating, sex, funerals, the GAA, and the Book Club phenomenon.
With bravura exaggeration, Emma writes that teenage girls were advised never to leave home without a bicycle and a copy of the Golden Pages. ‘If a boy walked you home, you were to ensure the bicycle was positioned between your self and the lecherous youth’.
Similarly, if he tried to get you to sit on his lap, the trusty Golden Pages was to be placed between yourself and the offending region. ‘In hindsight getting sex advice from Irish nuns, was like getting dental hygiene tips from Shane McGowan.’
Despite this advice, and much more, Emma wonders how poor old Peig Sayers (a laborious autobiography on Island life that several generations of Irish school children studied for the Leaving Cert ), would have reacted to the modern obcession of shaving body hair:
…’lift the taypot from the hearth;
….Goile in the chickens;
….Close the gate behind her and trek 10 miles to the top of the nearest mountain; then….
Strap her 22 children to her back and hurl herself off that mountain.’
A mammy’s love
If you are lucky enough, the author tells us, to be born the son of an Irish Mammy you will obviously get far more love and affection than your sisters.
The below chart gives a rough guide to the division of an Irish mother’s love:
‘Son who is a qualified doctor: Congratulations! You are the primary beneficiary of your mother’s love. Nothing you say or do will dislodge you from this position. There may have been times earlier in your life when you found this adoration a bit cringeworthy, but as the years went by you managed to get over it.
Rebellious son who never phones home: If you are the black sheep of the family who rarely contacts your mother unless you’re in need of a financial bailout, you, too, will receive a high proportion of your mother’s love. In fact your mother will devote her entire life defending your behaviour and proving that you have turned over a new leaf, and have changed your selfish ways.
Son who is married to a wagon: They say that all Irish men marry women who are just like their mothers.
If you do marry a woman who has similar traits to your own mother, it will not end well. Your new wife will misguidedly believe that she is now the most important woman in your life. She may become a competitor and feel obliged to indicate to your mother that she has transformed you into a healthy-eating, smart-dressing Adonis.
During a maternal visit your spouse may even shrilly request that your mother desists from dusting the tops of your wardrobes, and refrains from running her finger along the tops of your skirting boards,
Throw a couple of bottles of Sangre de Toro into the mix and there will be tears shed and doors banged by bedtime. You will be caught in the crossfire.
Daughter who lives abroad: Although you will never attain the same levels of love and affection as your brothers do due to the fact that you are living abroad, you will receive the most mother-daughter love.
Your mammy delights in being worried sick about you, constantly fretting about you contracting Ebola, or being captured and sold to sex traffickers.
Ultimately, your Irish Mammy is thrilled to have an excuse for all this maternal concern, despite your assurances that your new day-to-day existence in Sheffield is relatively humdrum and uneventful.
Daughter who assumed role of parental carer: The day comes when the Irish Mammy grows weak and feeble, and needs daily care and domestic support. The role of the carer always falls to one of the daughters. It is inevitable that the daughter who lives closest to the old family home will assume this role.
One would expect that the provision of this service guarantees exalted levels of love and affection, but this is rarely the case.
The Irish Mammy will detest being dependent on you, and resent your intrusion. Your standards of cleaning will be inferior, and any attempt you make to organise your mother’s schedule, will be perceived as elderly bullying. Simultaneously, you, the carer, will grow bitter and twisted, and will no longer be able to clasp eyes on your own mother without hissing at her like a venomous witch.
Being Irish neither party will ever discuss their feelings or explain their behavior and so the cycle of familial resentment spins on; the inevitable conclusion being the death of the old Irish Mammy, and the subsequent adoption of all her character defects by her daughter.’
Despite the laughter, there are many sharp insights, and much wisdom in Emma’s book. It is the kind of annoying book that will drive you daft by someone snorting with laughter as they read aloud the funny bits.
Best get your own copy, find a quiet spot, and treat yourself to a whirlwind ride through the psychology of an Irish woman’s psyche, knowing that despite their hardships and battles, having one of these women in your life is a rewarding, fun, and a worthwhile experience.
NOTES: *Irish Bitches be Crazy, By Emma Comerford, published by New Island, on sale €9.99