In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf suggested that “we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure.”
Where were all the mothers’ voices in literature? Why were women’s lived experiences so absent from historical records? This was 1929, and although Woolf did beat a path as a literary foremother for others to follow, Anne Enright was still quipping in her 2004 memoir, Making Babies, “Can mothers not hold a pen?” Enright was interested in the drama of being a new mother that appears so little in literature and, in so doing, addressing the cultural silence surrounding Irish motherhood in particular.
When I started writing my new novel, The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually, I was burning to write about Ireland and bear witness to the societal changes we’ve experienced in recent years through the lens of one family. Inevitably I found myself writing about motherhood. It seems strange to me that anyone could write about Irish society and not interrogate the cultural meaning of the ‘Irish Mammy’ to some degree, and yet, Irish mothers as protagonists, as subjects with agency and autonomy rather than a symbolic role, have historically been largely absent from our literature.
Nobody has done more to redress this than Anne Enright, who has deployed her own representations of Irish motherhood to resurrect these silenced women’s voices. Her novels capture the imaginative lives of women whose voices are absent from collective memory, and makes explicit the secret interior world of ‘Irish Mammies’ in particular. I wanted to participate in the conversation as best I could. Enright is a guiding light, which I could follow in an attempt to reveal what it was I needed to say about the damage caused by the iconisation of our mothers.
Historically and culturally in Ireland the ideology of the perfect mother was long curated by the State and a dominant Catholic Church who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in their subjugation of women. As Edna O’Brien wrote in Mother Ireland in 1976, “Countries are either mothers or fathers… Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot.” The heavily loaded, legendary notion of ‘Mother Ireland’ has endured in Irish iconography despite its sinister association with ideas of possession and martyrdon.
In the century preceding the establishment of the Irish Free State, there was a period when Irish women could embrace the image of warrior women. The Celtic mythology of Queen Medhbh and Grainuaile was invoked to describe real-life feminist revolutionary leaders and suffragettes such as Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne. It is no coincidence that the mother in my own book is named Maeve.
After independence, however, the nation changed its tune. In 1922, the catholic priest James F Cassidy wrote in The Women of the Gael, “Whenever a child is born outside wedlock, so shocked is the public sense by the very unusual occurrence, that it brands with an irreparable stigma, and, to a large extent, excommunicates the woman guilty of the crime.” It was this culture of condemnation, female culpability, shaming and hypocrisy that enabled the prolificacy of institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries where unmarried mothers and ‘fallen’ women could be incarcerated and ‘othered’ by society. And so, the 1930s became a decade when the country’s leaders doubled down on the image of the ‘perfect mother’ – a self-sacrificing ideal that was committed to the domestic sphere and devoted herself to raising virtuous daughters in her likeness, and nationalistic sons.
There can be no doubt concerning the determined activism in the 1930s on the part of Catholic Church leaders and Eamon De Valera to curtail women’s independence, subjectivity and freedoms in society – it was written into the 1937 Constitution. Article 41.2, still in effect today, decrees that a “Woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved and the State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”
As a consequence, Irish women were subjected to a pervasive State-sanctioned, ecclesiastically supported erasure of their political and social relevance outside of their permitted roles of wife, mother, or nun. Let’s not forget the greatest iconic mother of all, Mary, against whom all Irish women were measured and found lacking, was able to achieve an immaculate conception. Men could have sex, but women could only have babies.
In 2018, of course, the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment finally succeeded in placing a value on women beyond their potential maternal function. It was a long time coming, however, and the hypocritical double standard that distanced pious mothers from sexual pleasure or bodily autonomy still casts its shadow today, as exemplified by the reaction to Normal People on Liveline.
Modern Irish women may have distanced themselves from the idolisation of the Virgin Mother as a role model, but the toxic image of the iconic mother still pervades. It may not represent itself explicitly as sexual piety now, but rather in the form of the ‘Good Mother’ who can embody the inherited characteristics of a domestic goddess still, but also have a career and be the perfect wife, colleague, mother, daughter, sibling, leader – without anyone or anything feeling neglected.
The American author, Liz Gilbert, asked at a conference in May 2018 for any women in attendance to stand up if they were afraid they would turn into their mothers? Almost all the women did, and Gilbert despaired at the injustice – how harshly we judge women for their humanity – and begged the women present to have mercy on their mothers.
The mother in my novel, Maeve, moved to Ireland from Brooklyn when she was 18, and so embodied the role of the ‘Irish Mammy’ to her children. Her outsider existence allowed me to observe the Mammy as an Irish cultural phenomenon – to consider how much of the plight of the mother was universal, and what was specific to our own tiny island.
Writing this book forced me to confront a painful truth – sometimes I am a very bad feminist when it comes to my own mother. As Enright writes in The Gathering, “When I look I can only see the edges… we did not look at her but everywhere else: she was an agitation behind us, a kind of collective guilt.” It is so much easier to have empathy for other people’s mothers – to wish for them agency and autonomy beyond their symbolic role – but so much harder to reconcile that with what we have been indoctrinated to expect from our own. In Ireland, we force our mothers on to pedestals, and then resent them if they are perceived to fail.
Intertwined with an Irish commitment to maintaining the sacred mother icon is the perpetuation of the ‘Irish Mammy’ as a figure of fun – catchphrases and stereotypes galore fill the space where these women’s individual power, intellect and agency should be the subject. “Don’t mind Mammy,” the self-sacrificing servant to the family; “Sure, if we’re happy, she’s happy”. A beloved figure of fun, no harm is intended, of course, but impact is more important than intention and punching down on these women is inexcusable. That joke just isn’t funny any more.
My mother had six children, of which I am the youngest. The last time she went to confession the priest immediately absolved her and said, “A woman with six children could be forgiven anything.” The first time I heard that story I laughed, but since then I’ve thought about it some more, and now I feel differently. In his eyes, nothing she may ever have said or done could possibly undo the great work of her mothering.
There is some truth in this, of course, but it’s also so reductive of her as a person – and it summed up for me once again the status of the iconic ‘Irish Mammy’. It’s 2020 now, and we need to embrace a rebranding. The Irish mothers I know are powerhouses – imperfect, complicated women of agency who have earned the right to choose any way of mothering that works for them and their families. The ‘Irish Mammy’ of today should not be an icon or a stereotype, but a symbol of choice. Put our mothers on pedestals if we must, but while we’re at it, please put them on boards, ballot papers, and platforms too. And build some infrastructure to support them while they are up there.
‘The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually’ by Helen Cullen is published by Michael Joseph and is available nationwide from August 20