“The Irish Countrywomen’s Association Book of Home and Family: Practical know-how and Pearls of Wisdom from Irish Women”.
Have you ever seen a more condescending book title in your life? That is what I thought when I was handed it at my hen party as a gift from my mother, beautifully wrapped up and accompanied by a couple of disposable nappies no less. It was meant as a joke of course, a “Haha, you’re getting married, so you had better learn to be a good house-wife and mother; here’s a manual”. I could see the funny side of it and we had a great laugh but I also knew there was a part of my mother that was genuinely serious, and I was annoyed by that. I was an independent woman, living in London, doing a PhD, who happened to fall in love and decided to get married. Couldn’t my independent self-actualised life continue once I got married? Why would it have to be any different? We don’t want children and my other half can iron, make a bed and sew buttons on a shirt better than I ever could.
Truth is, nearly three years of marriage has awakened an inner ‘home-maker’ I didn’t even know was dormant. Still don’t want the children, but I bake, I cook, I clean, I walk the dog, I fuss and stress about what my other half is eating (or isn’t eating) and I apparently believe that these household duties are my responsibility. Or more accurately, that I’m the only one that can really do them right.
As Virginia Woolf famously said “We think back through our mothers”, and I am in no doubt that I am channelling my mother, my mother’s mother, and my mother’s mother’s mother when I am doing this. How often child-me and my father stood baffled by the front door, or sat waiting in the car, while my mother furiously tidied and re-ordered the house just so she could leave it ‘in peace’ to go out for coffee. Now I understand, but I still don’t think it was necessary for my mum to give me the Irish Countrywomen’s ‘wife manual’.
“Have you ever seen a more condescending book title in your life” I said, as I sent a picture of it to my friend today. She replied, “That’s OK too, it’s part of being an Irish Woman; it’s what we do well”. So perhaps, like my friend, instead of raging against the ‘house-wifey’ part of myself, I should imbue it with pride and accept it as part of my national self-identity.
And no doubt, the domestic goddess, or more accurately the domestic ‘Mammy’, archetype is such a part of Irish culture and identity it is enshrined in the Irish constitution. However, this social construct of Irish women really is quite a ‘modern’ one. Before the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the struggle for Irish sovereignty drew from Irish myths and stories of strong females leaders, such as Queen Maeve and Grace O’Malley, to characterise women as ‘warriors’ and thus validate the nation of Eire’s (derived from the feminine Celtic Goddess Eriu) right to its sovereignty. This often rallied political movements, such as Cumann na mBán and the Irish Women’s Franchise League, which campaigned and fought for women’s rights and Irish freedom alike. But all this came to an abrupt halt once Eamonn DeValera (well not him alone, but the TD’s of the time) decided to give women the governmental stamp of “life within the home”. Irish female movements during the middle to late 20th century consequently had names like, “The Irish Housewives Association” and, my friends, “The Irish Countrywomen’s Association” who taught generations of Irish women the ins and outs of good housekeeping and motherhood.
Thus, the female generations proceeding my own were raised
within a society which limited women’s social functions to that of wife/mother
or virgin/nun[i]. None
of them were the latter but they were excellent versions of the former; the
wifey-ist of wives and the mothery-ist of mothers. Despite being a fiercely 21st
century woman, who definitely does not see “life within the home” as my role, I
do find that I shape-shift from the independent career-woman to the home-making
wife on a regular basis out of some sense of in-built duty or personal pride.
To some extent I feel responsible for household duties and nearly always prioritise
them before my ‘real job’. I feel like I am neglecting something or failing if
I haven’t put the house in order and baked something nice before ‘the visitors’
arrive or if the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned in eight days. I often joke that this
is me in full ‘Irish wifey’ mode; it’s in the breeding. Perhaps I’d be less
stressed if, like my friend, I accepted rather than railed against this part of
me and reminded myself that “It’s what we do well”. After-all, it’s just one small piece of the
complex jigsaw an Irish upbringing has handed me; the ancient ‘warrior’ women
are never too far from joining the mix either.
[i] Bacik, I., 2007. From Virgins and Mothers to Popstars and Presidents: Changing Roles of Women in Ireland. The Irish Review (1986-) 100–107.