Most Irish people in the past 50 years have grown up in households where the matriarchal figure was the most powerful force in their lives.
“Irish mothers”. They are legendary, and many stories, plays and movies have been written about the archetypical version that so many of us are familiar with.
My mother didn’t fit into that category. She had a different outlook on life and one that was at odds with most of the other “mammies” that I was surrounded by as a small child growing up in the suburban streets of Dublin.
My father was a lovely man but he was also a man of his time who believed that he was entitled to nights out with boozy pals while my mam cared for myself and my other siblings at home. This was a ‘normal’ landscape for many couples in Ireland during the 1950’s/60’s.
Unlike the mothers of my friends that I was familiar with, my Mam simply believed that she was born to dance. She practiced it with vigour alongside her sisters as they were all growing up, and she was a regular “girl about town” in her day before she met my Dad. During their days of courtship they danced in every dance hall and every ballroom in Dublin. When she could, she would dance five or six nights a week.
My mother’s looks were stunning. She looked like a movie star. A “Maureen O’Hara look alike” she was. She had beautiful red curling hair and a figure that was “Pure Hollywood”. She was a great dancer too, so she was popular and was never a wallflower. She had many a suitor but was never inclined to ‘go out with’ anyone who couldn’t dance.
This is what defined my mother as a young woman in the post war years of Dublin. She lived her days working in a local factory making cigarettes, and when her beauty was noticed by a senior manager she was plucked from the obscurity of the factory floor to become a guide, taking tours of visitors around the production area explaining the process involved in the manufacturing of cigarettes. By day she conducted endless tours of the factory earning her wages, but by night she donned her sparkly shoes and clothes and danced until the early hours of the morning when my Dad would walk her home, or give her a cross bar on his bicycle when her feet were too tired after a nights dancing.These are her stories relayed down through the years.
When she married, the law in Ireland of the time meant that she had to give up her job.
The reality of being stuck at home after a honeymoon baby must have been a culture shock for her, and I have often wondered at how different her life was as a young married woman compared to her previous carefree existence as a single girl.
My early life is full of images of her getting ready to go out. I remember sitting on her bed as a child watching her getting dressed in beautiful clothes with sparkling jewelled accessories. I realise that there were days when she was washing clothes and ironing to beat the band, but my most vivid memories are the ones where she was fussing and excited, and these were all associated with dancing and going out with my father.
She was animated on those nights and made sure that dinner was over early and that the baby sitter was organised. I believe that because of her beauty she got a lot of attention in social settings and when she went out she was able to revert to being that young and carefree girl and dance the night away with my father, leaving behind her life as a wife and mother.
These days were the days that my mother loved. In reminiscing and talking about times past she would speak of how people loved what she was wearing and about how exciting the Dublin social scene was. It was all about the clothes, the jewellery, the dancing and the attention from my father. Looking back at old photographs I know that she was telling the truth, and there are so many captured images of her looking vivacious and happy, surrounded by laughing people who never looked quite as beautiful as she did.
Times change and the ballroom scene in Dublin changed during the 1960’s. The music changed too. The great show bands of that era were replaced by a new pop culture and I remember her hating the Beatles and all the new groups that were emerging during those times. The music that they produced was not music that she could dance to, and she yearned for the halcyon days of her youth and the crooners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald.
As her family grew larger, her nights out became rarer and eventually they stopped altogether. By the time my younger sister was a teenager my mother and father no longer danced together.
Raising a family of five children meant that a lot of her days were filled with washing, cooking, cleaning and other mundane chores that were hallmarks of life during the 60’s and 70’s. By the time my Dad died when she was a young woman in her early fifties, she was still rearing teenagers and worrying about future finances as my father had left no pension or nest egg to make life comfortable for her.
She was the most terrible cook !
Her philosophy of food was that “she ate to live -unlike most people who she believed lived to eat”! She dieted constantly and maintained her pre marriage weight through discipline and denial and “kept her figure” throughout her whole life. As children, we suffered burnt, horrible and unsavory meals and we were encouraged to” eat bananas” if we didn’t like what was on offer. She still considers banana sandwiches to be a “meal”, and despite her loss of appetite recently she still gets through at least one a day !
Her determination and vitality were instrumental in her going back to work full time after my Dad died and she continued working until she was into her mid seventies long after all my siblings had left home and built their own lives.
She has enjoyed wonderful holidays to many countries with close friends, and her two dear sisters who remain a huge part of her life. She has travelled the world visiting relatives and has clocked up more air miles than I have. She has kept a loyal circle of old school pals close to her heart throughout her life, and has had to deal with heart-breaking loss as three of them have died in recent times.
At eighty two years of age she still enjoys watching dancing programmes on TV and it’s still all about the dresses and the jewellery.
She is a punchy little woman who is much admired for her indomitable spirit and unflagging energy. Her recent terminal illness has made many people realise how old she actually is and how her life landscape has changed so radically.
She has had a good life filled with music, dance and love, although her time is now taken up with hospital visits and treatments in the hope of gaining some extra time. She has a large extended family of siblings, children, grandchildren great grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins. She is loved and respected and is a true Matriarch although she never quite fitted into the archetypical role of the “Irish Mammy”.
Now is a time to celebrate her life and to look back at all it was. A life filled with dancing, beauty, fun, love and laughter. She possesses a determination, energy, stubbornness and an incredible quick wit that is unique to her. She has suffered the unbearable pain of losing her husband and her youngest daughter to untimely deaths, and yet she still has the strength and resilience to get up each day and live.
I may not say it often and sometimes it’s hard to recognise something special when it’s up so close to you, but I love her- and I fervently wish that she had more time to do more things, to go on more holidays, to laugh more and to live more.
“Stay with us as long as you can Mam- because no one will fill the hole that you will eventually leave behind”.
Is this feeling of living loss part of my Destiny?