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.