Bealtaine: the transition from feminine to masculine

We are about to arrive at Bealtaine (April 30th to May 1st), the official start of summer according to the Celtic calendar and one of the four great Celtic feasts (the others being Imbolc, Lughnasa and Samhain)[1]. Sitting at a cross-point, half way between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, Bealtaine is the ‘fire’ festival. The first great bonfire would have been lit on the hill of Uisneach, the sacred centre of Ireland, as a signal to the rest of the country to light their own; the spreading fires symbolising the growing strength of the sun and the longer days. Bealtaine fires are usually lit at dawn while the bonfires of Samhain are generally lit at dusk.

Given its ‘main event’ status in the Celtic calendar, there is a huge amount of tradition and symbolism associated with the Bealtaine festival. Most notably, it is a time for cleansing and purification. Embers from the Bealtaine fire would be used to rekindle hearth fires and farmers would walk the four corners of their land blessing it with its ash. Herdsmen would drive their cattle between two Bealtaine fires, or even singe their tails to stave off ailments in the coming months. Bealtaine also marked the time when it was deemed safe to move cattle to higher pastures1 and failing to do so during the festival was considered bad-luck and frowned upon2.

In the not too distant past, Bealtaine also marked key economic points in Irish society where it was considered a ‘hiring day’, marking cattle fairs where labourers would be hired and business deals struck, and a ‘gale day’, when rent should be paid[2]. As such, Bealtaine is strongly associated with new beginnings and being a ‘blessed’ time to start an important new project (there are several key points in Irish myth where great new events occurred on Bealtaine, such as the invasion of Ireland by both the Partholonians and the Milesians1).

However, what is perhaps most interesting and curious about Bealtaine in Ireland is its relationship with fears and superstitions of the ‘feminine’.

In early Ireland, the yearly cycle was divided into two seasons; the warmer summer season of Sam beginning on May 1st (Bealtaine) and the cold winter season of Gam beginning on November 1st(Samhain)[3]. These two seasons where also divided by their masculine and feminine energy where Bealtaine marks the transition from the feminine time of Gam to the masculine time of Sam[3]. During the summer months, women and children would leave and move with the animals as they were driven to graze on the higher pasture. As such, Bealtaine marked the end of the prior reign of the feminine and was characterised by the separation of the sexes, the end of marriage season and the beginning of the masculine focus of hunting, raiding and warfare[3].  Indeed, unlike Imbolc, which was a celebration of femininity (notably birth and lactation), Bealtaine festivities (such as the lighting of fires and the preparation of ‘caudle’ or ‘bannocks’) where presided over by the men and the festival itself is often connected to the God Dagda; a mythical vision of manliness, strength and vigour.

Bealtaine is known as a ‘boundary’ festival, marking the transition from the feminine to the masculine half of the year. Its place, at such a critical juncture, contributed to the embedding of fears and superstitions associated with female energy at this time. After all, although the start of May meant longer, warmer days and the growth of animals and crops, it was still a dangerous and uncertain time where ‘ill-winds’ could destroy a families’ prospects of a good harvest later in the year – best not to risk feminine energy overpowering the masculine as it begins its seasonal return to power. Thus we see many accounts in Irish Bealtaine folklore of fears associated with females and femininity. For instance, old women (often referred to as hags or witches) were said to go out and be seen ‘dragging the dew’ in a neighbour’s fields as a way to steal their luck or wealth, witches were thought to be able to cast their most dangerous spells during Bealtaine, red-haired women were thought particularly unlucky and avoided and Bealtaine is also the time when many of the folk tales of women transforming into hares to suck the milk from the udder of their neighbours cow (i.e. to steal their luck) are set2. Consequently, across Ireland (and Scotland) many Bealtaine rituals stem from a perceived need to stave off ‘witches’, such as not giving anyone a ‘coal’ from the (Bealtaine) fire lest it be used to “charm the butter away”.

It’s easy to look back on such customs and rituals, particularly those which have such an obvious distaste for older, unmarried and childless women (which are often negatively portrayed as bitter hags and witches in Irish folklore), with a certain amount of eye-rolling at the pettiness and ignorance of it all. However, I think it is enlightening to look behind this and take note of the much deeper, symbolic, message of Bealtaine as the transition time from feminine to masculine; a time of cleansing and purification, a time for new beginnings, the importance of ‘not counting your chickens before they have hatched’. At this time of year, we can find ourselves swept up by the Summer energy (the sun and ‘energised’ being two notable features of the ‘masculine’) and end up rushing to start new projects and trying to do too much at once. Before we launch ourselves into new things it’s always good to take a step back, let go of old baggage (cleansing and purification) and take stock before making decisions.

Beyond trying to fend off ‘evil witches’ some traditional Irish Bealtaine rituals you may like to try include (inspired by Ruth Marshall’s lovely book on ‘Celebrating Irish Festivals’):

  • Washing your face in the dew of Bealtaine morning – said to help protect aging women from disease and the aging process itself, a sort of traditional anti-wrinkle potion (thought to originate in Cork)!
  • Lighting a fire (ideally at dawn)
  • Setting up a May bush – hang posies of yellow flowers over windows and doors and set a bough of a tree (traditionally a whitethorn) outside the house, to guard against bad luck, decorated with flowers and ribbons.

[1]  MacKillop, J. (2004). Beltaine. In A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 26 Apr. 2020, from https://www-oxfordreference-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/view/10.1093/acref/9780198609674.001.0001/acref-9780198609674-e-434.

[2] Frédéric Armao. The Women of Bealtaine: From the Maiden to the Witch. Cosmos. The Journal ofthe Traditional Cosmology Society, Department of Folklore and Ethnology (University College Cork)2008, pp.71-82. ￿hal-02508032￿

[3] MacLeod, S. (2003). Oenach Aimsire na mBan: Early Irish Seasonal Celebrations, Gender Roles and Mythological Cycles. Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 23, 257-283. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25660739

Easter past, Easter present, Easter future

As an adult, I am often envious of the rituals and clear calendar marks I had as a child. There were dates and times to look forward to. There were holidays and festivals that had significance and marked a clear change from the mundane. At present, one week just spills into another and I barely pause to recognise it’s a bank holiday weekend. Today, Easter Sunday, I nostalgically think back on times when Easter meant, for a few days at least, that life would be centred around rituals and traditions.

As a child, Easter was most definitely a Christian festival; one where you just happened to get chocolate eggs but the reasons why were not made apparent. In primary school, each year, we were tasked to make ‘Easter gardens’ in old biscuit tins to display all the symbols of a Christian Easter; the ‘tomb’ Jesus was placed in, a bit of old cloth to represent his shroud, flowers and bits of shrubbery carefully placed and arranged around to make the ‘garden’. Where this tradition originated from or who came up with it, I have no idea but no doubt someone thought it would be an effective way to teach children the Easter story. Yet, despite all the efforts that went in to this education, as an adult I struggle to even remember which day is supposed to symbolise when Jesus did what. Quite simply, I don’t remember because it has no tangible symbolic application to my current life.

This morning, as a went for a gentle walk with my dog, I was really struck by the sudden rush of growth and rebirth all around me. Cherry blossoms I am sure where not there a few days ago littered the path I walked on, tree branches burst forth with new shoots, daffodils seemed to turn their faces to look at the sun and the air smelled of ‘green’. I felt calm, enlivened and energetic all at once. This is what Easter is all about, I thought; Spring and her growth and the pace-change that signals.  

It is no coincidence, I am sure, that Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the full moon after the Spring Equinox1. Easter is thought to be so named for the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostre, where rituals were held in her honour during Eosturmonath (April) to celebrate “the beginning of Spring, the new growing season and fertility” 2. Although the origin and credibility of Eostre as a pagan deity is often called into question by historians3 it is generally thought that much of the rituals and symbols we associate with Easter may have originated from celebrations in her honour. For instance, eggs represent fertility and growth, while the hare (which at some point we changed to an ‘Easter bunny’) is Eostre’s symbol. Eostre has also been associated with the dawn and the rising of the sun in the East3. Indeed, in Ireland, it was once quite a common to climb hills on Easter Sunday to watch the sun rise1.

With the direct tangible associations eggs, ‘bunnies’ and the rising sun have with Spring, the new growth we see around us and the rise in energy we feel, is it perhaps any wonder that most of us will share an Easter egg today but will barely give much thought to the ‘Resurrection of Christ’? As much as I enjoyed making the ‘Easter gardens’ as a child, I am very happy to leave it and it’s symbology in the past. Instead, I seek a future where I build more ritual into my life; one that is focused on the seasons, the changes in nature and a recognition of the old ways that are every bit as relevant today.  

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  1. Marshall, R., 2003. Celebrating Irish Festivals: Calendar of Seasonal Celebrations. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Hawthorn Press.
  2. Cusack, C., 2007. The Goddess Eostre:Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Tradition(s). Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, 9(1), pp.22–40.
  3. Shaw, P.A., 2011. Pagan goddesses in the early Germanic world: Eostre, Hreda and the cult of matrons, London: Bristol Classical Press.

A pandemic perspective

As distasteful as it may sound, I am finding the Covid-19 experience fascinating and borderline exciting. Forced indoors, I watch it within the privileged safety of my home; at once both more inter-connected and grounded with others than ever before, yet infused with a peaceful sense of floating beyond it — a witness to something immensely powerful and primordial. More and more people seem to be considering the creation of a reality, beyond the extant material, previously unimaginable. I soak it up.

I love that Nature has spoken out. There is almost a sense of poetic justice that Covid-19 is believed to have originated from an animal source, crossing the species barrier from non-humans to humans1, when so many of us have lost our inter-dependent connection with the animals and the earth we rely on. I watch through the window of my rural home as people, who have only ever gone beyond the local village in a vehicle, walk daily in the open-air; Nature the only place they have to go. I like to imagine the daily internal shifts that may be occurring and the new things they notice about themselves and the world. I feel excited by the positive shifts and new habits this may bring.

People I admire have described this as a time for paradigm change. But ‘paradigm’ is a big word — a specific worldview, a prescription for how to do things, a system of ideals, values and beliefs — and to say that the current one we all live by, particularly in the western world, is shifting is big. It’s a big ask. But it’s one that I am very open to and inwardly feel myself growing more aware of and more ready for.

The price for this awareness though is an increase in frustration as I look at the systems and structures that fearfully cling on to ‘business-as-usual’. My employer, for example, sends daily organisational updates aimed towards employee well-being and ‘keeping us connected’ but this is just superficial to the underlying message of ‘keep working’, ‘be productive’, ‘fulfil your objectives’, ‘carry-on as normal’. Their fear of relinquishing the control they had of us in the office made all the more apparent by, in an organisation where we can easily work from home, waiting until the government ordered it.

Yet, what I have begun to realise is that those of us who are open and aware that things are shifting and have changed, can alter our own daily paradigms – and that does not have to be in a big way. It is just awareness. We are the ones that can choose to be aware of the double-meanings of our employer. We are the ones that can choose to, perhaps for the first time, respond to our needs in a time schedule of our own, not that of others. We are the ones that can feel there is another truth here, that the reality needed now is not ‘business-as-usual’ or ‘keep-calm-and-carry-on’. It is ‘business-is-not-usual’ and ‘keep-calm-by-surrendering’. When I look beyond the illusion I am filled with a great sense of ease and contentment. To acknowledge that routine and reality is not the same as I once knew it, is immensely powerful. I now have more control to decide what it should be in the future and the barriers I once deemed were in the way have been shown to be weak and insignificant.  

Once I come back down from this viewpoint, ‘floating above it’, and feel myself grounded again I am reminded that this is just another, entirely natural, pandemic in a string throughout human history. Even in Ireland, as far back as A.D. 1030, the Ulster Annals hold one of the first records of a zoonotic disease passing to and killing a human; “Maelduin Mac Ciarmaic….killed by the disease that killeth cattle, in Irish called Conach”2.

This experience shall pass and life will go on, as it has in the past. However, I for one would like to carry forward a new normal.

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1. Yuen, K., Ye, Z.-., Fung, S. et al. SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: The most important research questions. Cell Biosci 10, 40 (2020). https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1186/s13578-020-00404-4

2. Fleming, G. Animal Plagues: Their History, Nature and Prevention. Volume 1. (1872). Chapman and Hall, London, UK. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WjMSAAAAYAAJ&dq=plagues+in+irish+history&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Change

Sometimes I find linkages in the strangest of places.

I was reading a news article today about how ‘Harry and Meghan’ are stepping back as senior-royals and will no longer be HRH’s.

The story had many overlaps with a big change my own family is experiencing at the moment; my mother is ‘stepping-back’ as a wife, particularly a farm-wife, and also as a hands-on mother and grand-mother. She will no longer be the ‘Irish Mammy’ but the anti-thesis to it.

In order to continue the growth and the work she needs to do, she has to move away from the restrictions of the home, the home-maker, the wife and of being the ‘other’ on the farm. A bit like Harry and Meghan, to live her full-life she has to step away from the trappings of the expectations of these socially constructed roles – and create her own.

With these thoughts I found myself disappearing into a deep reflection of, what seems to me, the vast institutional and structural change currently happening in society. How, even monoliths of steadfastness (like the British Royal family), which once seemed so static, are now having to change, alter and be open to doing the unexpected (all part of the course in the Age of Aquarius we have now entered).

In my own life, my parents and their rock-solid marriage have been my monolith of steadfastness that I have always counted on – it has been the surest of ground on which to walk out on in life.

So, perhaps, just like the British Royal family is having to shift in ways it would have once been utterly unmovable, so I too am having to learn to navigate change and become less restrictive in my responses. If my mother has re-framed the meaning of marriage for her – what does this mean to me and for my own life going forward? How does this alter my own perspective on the steadfast monoliths in my own life, such as marriage, finishing the things you have started and ultimately, personal integrity?

I have never feared change. I’ve always embraced it, felt its coming and welcomed its arrival. However, this has been a change I did not expect and is one I am finding requires a daily shifting of reality and perspective to make sense of. My underlying core values have been left wondering where they stand.

However, if there is one positive thing I can take from this is the bravery my mother has shown in initiating this change for her. As I returned to my mulling of institutional and structural change across society, I reflected that this personal experience ties in well with the wider social narrative these days; women are increasingly emblazoned as change-makers, trail-setters and way-showers, rather than framed in the traditional female cornerstones of ‘family’ ‘self-sacrifice’ and ‘meekness’.

Although I don’t see my mother’s actions as a causal outcome of these changing narratives, I do see her new path as a parallel reflection of a wider, perhaps much deeper and primal, consolidation and reclamation of female strength in society. If such ethereal forces have guided women like my mother —who have made most of their decisions in life based on fear, judgement from others, and adherence to social and institutional norms (i.e. the church) — to empower themselves and set forth on a path that truly honours what makes them happy (not other people) then I can only see that as a positive thing. There is a beauty in it – and it feels right.

As my mother said to me as she made this decision “Never let anyone damage your spirit and your soul like I have. Let me be a lesson to you”. Who knows, perhaps this is how Harry and Meghan feel, they must leave the institution to reinvigorate their soul and mend their spirit!

What about the Men?

Writing about “What it means to be an Irish Woman” has meant I’ve focused all my attention on ‘women’ and the ‘feminine’. After all, I am a woman so I can’t really comment on or truly understand what it means to be a man or an Irish man – I’d rather leave that to those with the first-hand knowledge.

However, to write Men out of the equation completely would be to miss out on a huge part of what makes me who I am. The Men in my life have been some of my most important role models, my sources of strength and grounding and my teachers of compassion and fairness.

Yet, that doesn’t really seem to comply with current discourse at the moment, which is rightly focused on highlighting the inequalities in our society and how many of them give women a raw deal. However, I can’t help but think, yes this is great, but how are Men being included in this and what is happening to them? Lately, it feels that when I look around me all I see is lots of highly motivated and empowered women, but many lost young men, in pain, unsure of their purpose and place in society and seemingly ill-equipped with the life tools to do something about it, or even the desire to.

In the Irish context I usually dismiss this as the outcome of ‘molly-coddling’ by Irish mothers. That’s a whole other story, but ‘Irish Mammies’ are renowned for the cosseting of their sons and their dismissal of men:

“Women are much stronger than men. Men are just big babies in a good many ways and you have to treat them as such”[i].

In such an environment, women are raised to be “over-responsible and self-sufficient” [i]. which, although often leaves them emotionally restrained, equips them with resilience and an indomitable attitude to life. The young men, on the other hand, are kept as ‘boys’ well into adulthood, pampered and given little opportunity to become self-sufficient or self-responsible.  

However, this personal conviction fell slightly apart on a recent trip to attend a wedding in Germany; here too where many ‘lost’ young men who seemed to have accepted their lot in life and stopped trying, or even desiring, any more for themselves. I asked a friend what she thought, why do so many seem demotivated and underachieving? “I think it’s because their generation is one of the first that have had to truly compete with women”, she replied.

This was really revealing to me. There is a lot of truth in that response but I couldn’t help but be struck by the word ‘compete’. Competition is normal, after all it’s a basic ingredient of evolution, but in a much wider sense the debate of gender equality seems to have been simplified as Man V Woman. As a competition for which is better, which has been more repressed, which has achieved more, but such push and pull can never achieve balance.

Perhaps part of the issue is that many people confuse patriarchy with masculinity. Patriarchy can roughly be defined as the social system in which men hold primary power and control [ii]. The society we live in is built on a patriarchal system; yes, and the nature of patriarchy is to dis-empower and disarm women, but that does not mean that every man is patriarchal. The significant men in my life certainly are not, they offer me every respect and treat me as an equal, moreover, they often put my needs and wishes before their own, seeing my happiness as what is most important to them. These are not qualities of patriarchy or masculinity, so why is so much conversation these days centred around the rights and wrongs of masculinity or being a man? Why do we, as my friend suggested, feel we are in a competition of Man V Woman, trying to get one over the other? The outcome can only be one of imbalance where at least one, if not all, parties are going to lose out.

When I was in my final days of primary school one of the traditions was to have a ‘tug-of-war’ competition between all the pupils of 6th class, before we left and moved on to secondary school. I remember really clearly how I felt that day, I was only 11 years old but I was completely confident that the team I was on was going to win because we were the ‘strongest’ – I was strong, so of course we would win! At that time, and for most of my teenage years, I tried to be the anti-thesis of a ‘girl’ or what I perceived a ‘girl’ was supposed to be. I was strong, physically strong not weak, I was emotionally tough, I didn’t cry, I was blunt not meek, I was capable, I didn’t ask for help. I was so far in my ‘masculine’ that my ‘feminine’ side well and truly lost that ‘tug-of-war’.

With age and more life experience I have recognised how damaging such an imbalance can be. Yes, it’s good to be tough, resilient and emotionally strong, but not to the point that your emotions are repressed. Yes, it’s good to be honest, speak your mind and be blunt, but not to the point that you dismiss the feelings of others. And yes, it’s good to be self-sufficient and capable but learning to ask for help is probably one of the most beneficial life skills (which I’m still learning!). Point is, we all have masculine and feminine qualities and energies and both serve different purposes and are needed at different times. The more we keep them in balance the more effective human beings we are.

In societies ‘tug-of-war’ women have managed to haul back some of the weighty advantage men have had for hundreds of years, but is the goal really to pull so strongly that we ‘win’; pull the centre of the rope over the line and knock the other team off balance? My competitive side might say yes, but in reality the harder but more beneficial thing to do, both individually and societally, would be to pull evenly on both the masculine and feminine sides, keeping the rope taught and the centre marker in perfect equilibrium.

Perhaps the negative elements of the ‘Irish Mammy’ is a good lesson of what goes wrong when that balance is not achieved; she is a great example of a strong female role model, but perhaps goes so far in her self-sufficiency and ‘do-it-herself’ attitude that she is unable to effectively share her responsibilities with others, sufficiently articulate her feelings and can be overly “critical, distant and lacking in affection”i. But with all these attributes, how incredibly powerful would a ‘balanced ‘Irish Mammy’ be? More importantly, how incredible would a balanced society be!


[i] McGoldrick, M. (1990). Irish Mothers. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 2(2), 3–8. https://doi.org/10.1300/J086v02n02_02

[ii] Walby, S. (1989). Theorising Patriarchy. Sociology, 23(2), 213–234. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038589023002004

The Intersectionality of being an Irish Woman

Iris Murdoch once said:

“I think being a woman is like being Irish…. Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time”

Here, Iris equals her experience as an Irish-born writer in 20th century Britain to being a ‘Woman’; both are like being a second-class citizen.

This highlights a specific challenge I face when I ask “What it means to be an Irish Woman”; both being ‘Irish’ and being a ‘Woman’ have unique meanings, which can outweigh and dominate one another in different settings. When you bring the two together, what happens then? What qualities does being ‘Irish’ bring to being a ‘Woman’ and how does being a ‘Woman’ influence the type of ‘Irish’ person I am?

This is an issue of Intersectionality.

The idea behind Intersectionality Theory is that people have multiple layers of identity (e.g. race, sex, social status, nationality etc.) which overlap, providing both advantages and disadvantages to our world experiences[i].

I am a ‘Woman’, yes, but its impact on me is not independent from the fact that I am ‘Irish’. We could then even go a few layers deeper and bring out how I am an ‘Irish’ ‘Woman’, raised ‘Protestant’, on a ‘Farm’ in ‘Wicklow’, a ‘Well-Educated’, ‘Professional’ working in ‘Academia’ and ‘Married’. Each of these factors has shaped me and also, I am sure, how people see me and the associations they ascribe to me. How many times I have met other Irish people abroad and have them ask me “Where in Ireland are you from?”. “Wicklow”, I say, and I can almost see them nod in satisfaction that they rightly placed my slightly neutral, if not a bit ‘posh’ Irish accent.

Who we are, what we are and the labels attached to us, rightly or wrongly, matter to people. They enable both us and the people we encounter to make sense of who we are and place us within a social relationship or structure. In other words, these multiple layers of our social identities impact how we experience the world and also how we are allowed to experience the world by those in power or by the society in which we live. Intersectionality, as a gender-based theory, is about power, dominion and injustice; about how the social categories we occupy can overlap to discriminate us on multiple levels.  For example, being a ‘Woman’ has disadvantages but being a ‘Black woman’ in some societies brings greater disadvantages then being a ‘White Woman’.

What about being an ‘Irish Woman’ then? If you are to look at the literature on what it means to be ‘Irish’ then being an ‘Irish Woman’ must be extremely disadvantageous. Reflecting what Iris Murdoch felt, decades of research has found that being ‘Irish’ in Britain is to be racialised as inferior and Other[ii] or to be invisible[iii]. Then, being an ‘Irish Woman’ in Britain (as I am) must be an extremely disempowering double-bind of second-class or unnoticed race and second-class gender (if you want to see society as patriarchal).

However, this is not my personal experience or my personal perception of my own identity. When I say I am an ‘Irish Woman’ I feel strong. It galvanises me much more than simply saying I am a ‘Woman’. Maybe it’s the time I’m living in and the nature of the multicultural societies I’ve been lucky to experience, where everyone is ‘Other’ and different so we are all, at once, Equals because of our differences.

But I think there is more to it than that, it is my experience of other Irish Women, the key actors in my life or the Irish Women I’ve read about and identified with which have given me this self-perception. I have the knowledge, or at least self-created knowledge I come after Women who were capable, determined, extremely resourceful and occupied positions of status within their families and community. After all, Early Christian Ireland is renowned for the uniqueness of its Brehon Laws. Laws which, although did not make men and women equal, gave wives the right to be consulted on every matter by their husbands, gave women the right to choose who to marry, entitled them to initiate divorce in their own right and ensured they retained their own property. Such laws meant Early Irish Women were not confined to household duties but could pursue status in their own right through education and leadership. It is this past which I feel strongly connected to when I say I am ‘Irish’, and when I link this to my gender, then being an ‘Irish Woman’ is to be pretty strong and fierce indeed. This is the intersectionality of my identity:

 “If I grew up in the simple-minded belief that women were as strong and intelligent as men, it was because I came from a society that once believed it”

(Quote from Shirley Abbot, reflecting on her Scots-Irish heritage growing up in the American South).


[i] Robinson, Z. F. (2018). Intersectionality and Gender Theory. In B. J. Risman, C. M. Froyum, & W. J. Scarborough (Eds.), Handbook of the Sociology of Gender (pp. 69–80). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76333-0_5

[ii] Hickman, M. J., & Walter, B. (1995). Deconstructing Whiteness: Irish Women in Britain. Feminist Review, (50), 5–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/1395487

[iii] Barton, R. (2011). Screening the Irish in Britain: Introduction. Irish Studies Review, 19(1), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1080/09670882.2011.541640

The ‘Home-Maker’

“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.

What is your love language?

Mine is ‘Acts of Service’ according to Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages Profile.  I don’t tell people I love them, I show them I do. My love is expressed when I cook a nice dinner for my husband, when I bring him a cup of tea or when I bake a cake for a friend. Every little act of self-sacrifice, no matter the size, is a demonstration of my love. My husband, on the other hand, showers me in daily compliments and ‘Words of Affirmation’ – “I love you”, “You are appreciated”, “You are so beautiful”. I know how wonderful this is, but I’ve had to teach myself to appreciate and accept them — they’re not my love language, so I have to translate them in my mind and remember to return similar affirmative words, so he can feel loved too.

One of the traits of an ‘Acts of Service’ person is that even when a loved one does do something for that person, maybe by helping around the house, they often criticise them on how they do it. They can’t win. Even when they try to do something, they get told they are doing it wrong and to “Just leave it, let me do it instead”. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

In many Irish households, I have witnessed some poor child or well-meaning husband ‘helping out’ and being brusquely told not to bother, as they wouldn’t know what they are doing anyway. The mother, on the other hand, is caught in an unrelenting cycle of self-sacrifice as she seeks to shower her love on all her family by making lunches, doing laundry, ferrying people back and forth and generally being the stereotypical ‘Irish Mammy’.

This all came to mind in a conversation I recently had with a close female friend. We both grew up in Ireland, went to the same school and there is only a year in age between us. Yet, we both identified how our love languages are different because of how our culturally different parents showed us love as children. My parents were, as my friend put it, ‘very Irish’; they were self-sacrificing, constantly putting needs of others before their own and showing their love in their actions. My friend’s mother was very tactile —‘very French’—constantly showering her in physical affection but didn’t ‘put herself out’ in the same way my parents routinely did. As a result, my friend said that now, as an adult, it’s that physical touch and affection she craves in her relationships. So this made me wonder, can growing up Irish influence how we love and the way we want to be loved as adults?

Research suggests that the relationships we have with our parents “provide a blueprint” for our future relationships [i]. However, most of the research on parenting styles in Ireland has focused on whether parents show authoritative parenting (i.e. warmth and reasoning) or authoritarian parenting (i.e. controlling)[ii], which is not so helpful in answering my question of how do Irish parents show love or how do Irish children experience their parents love? Yet, a closer look at some of the interviews completed with nine-year olds as part of the longitudinal ‘Growing up in Ireland’ study, is pretty revealing. In one of the reports, a nine-year old girl is noted to say; “I get on great with mummy ‘cause she is really nice to me and she does everything for me…”. While a nine-year old boy describes how his grandparents “…would go to the ends of the earth to get us, if we asked for anything they would go to the ends of the earth to get it” i. Both of these quotes suggest that these two children experience their families love through their actions. They know they are loved because ‘everything is done for them’; love is shown through ‘Acts of Service’.

 Over a quarter of Irish people have never told their parents they love them[iii]. I am one of those people. Many would say this is just another illustration of the Irish embarrassment with ‘love’ ‘sex’ and ‘relationships’ and our inability to face these subjects head on. I don’t see it that way. I don’t tell my parents I love them, because I don’t need to. I show them I do in my actions. They don’t tell me they love me either, but I have felt so loved all my life because they showed it in every action they took. I think for most of us ‘raised Irish’, we’d rather take our parents out for a nice meal on their birthday, send them a thoughtful gift or help them with some chores around the house, than say ‘I love you’. That is who we are, that is how we are raised, and I tentatively suggest that for many an Irish person, an act of love is probably more powerful than ever being told they are loved.


[i] Growing up in Ireland, 2011. Growing Up in Ireland: Qualitative Key Findings. https://www.growingup.ie/growing-up-in-ireland-publications/

[ii] Halpenny, A.M., Nixon, E., Watson, D., 2010. Parents’ Perspectives on Parenting Styles and Disciplining Children. https://doi.org/10.1037/e530922013-001

[iii] https://www.image.ie/life/survey-quarter-irish-never-parents-love-132579

The stereotypes of Irish Women

Being married to an English man has really brought home to me how my ‘Irishness’ makes me different, both in my own eyes and in the eyes of others.

Not long after we got engaged, when my husband was still serving in the Army, a fellow soldier, who was married to a woman from Kerry, jokingly warned him to “Watch out, as they [Irish women] have a strong right hook!”. More recently, on a particularly dismal winters day a male Irish work colleague of my husband’s commented, “Well, at least there is one good thing about being married to an Irish woman, you can be sure of a nice hot cup of tea when you get home”.

Apart from the obvious gender stereotypes you could associate with the above two remarks, none of which bother or offend me, I think they nicely allude to some of the stereotypes of the Irish woman (or in this case the Irish wife), as tough, unrelenting and strict but also as being kind-hearted, caring and dutiful. I must admit, these are constructs I have bandied about in the past to differentiate myself from my British female counterparts, who I often unfairly stereotype as being high maintenance, impractical and inconstant. In contrast, I like to assert that my ‘Irishness’ means I am determined and commanding; a force to be reckoned with, but also a self-sacrificing, loyal and down-to-earth life partner, who shows their love through practical acts of nurturance and steadfastness.

In many ways, I feel that these stereotypes are very unique to the Irish construct of women and women’s role in society. While Ireland has certainly been no different to most other cultures in the world in viewing women as the ‘weaker’, ‘meeker’ sex, it paradoxically sees women as being imbued with great strength and resilience and often depicts women as having assertive and enterprising roles in society (particularly within the home or other spheres of her domain, such as a family business). In many ways, Irish women are thus bestowed traits which other societies more often associate with men, such as dominance, leadership, achievement and autonomy[i]. How many of us have grown up with our mothers being referred to as the ‘boss’ by our fathers, or noticed the autocratic female power running the local shop or pub, despite it being ‘the husband’s’ family name over the door? It seems to me that throughout the past, Irish women have maintained and consolidated a unique position of referent, albeit inconspicuous, power, despite attempts of external forces and institutions (e.g. the church and state) to disempower them and extoll their position as the legitimate power in society.

 The anthropologist, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, years later reflected on her time spent living in rural An Clochán in Kerry during the 1970’s, with the following:

“Despite the general rule of farm family patriarchy, girls were reared to be high achievers, women did not have to marry, and single women could raise sheep, drive cows, manage a village pub, run a primary or secondary-school, scold the local gombeen man, or boss the local curate till he “cried uncle” and gave in on a particular theological or political point. Rural women could choose to marry young or they could wait and marry late in life and then marry men much younger than themselves. Alternatively, especially in a family of daughters, they could refuse several marriage proposals in order to remain at home and inherit their father’s fields and their favourite pipe or her father’s pub and celebrated goatskin drum. Moreover, married women kept their maiden names and their premarital social and self-identities……. And nowhere else where bachelors and spinsters accepted as normal and unremarkable members of society, able to lead autonomous, if lonely, lives. No eyebrows were raised at the bachelor who not only planted and harvested but also cooked his own spuds, who not only raised his own sheep but also was quite capable of knitting his own socks and sweaters[ii]”.

What Scheper-Hughes alludes to here is that standard gender stereotypes, of man or woman, just don’t seem to suit the Irish context. Which leaves me with the question of what are the archetypes (perhaps, rather than stereotypes) of the women of Ireland, where do they come from and how do they affect us now?


[i] Williams, J.E., Giles, H., Edwards, J.R., Best, D.L., Daws, J.T. (1977). Sex‐trait stereotypes in England, Ireland and the United States. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 16, 303–309.

[ii] Scheper-Hughes, N. (2001). Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. University of California Press, Berkley, California, USA.