Irish mammies have been portrayed on screens as domestic masters or martyrs for too long. Times have changed, writes Ed Power.
No two Irish mothers are the same. And yet, to judge by the depiction of motherhood in Ireland on the screen, you might be forgiven for concluding otherwise. The cult of the Irish mammy — unflappable, resourceful and long-suffering — is deeply embedded in film and TV. Brenda Fricker in My Left Foot won an Oscar for her portrayal of an indefatigable Irish mother, though as we shall see opinions differ as to whether she was embellishing or subverting a stereotype.
Brendan O’Carroll’s Agnes Brown is a potty-mouthed updating of that same caricature. And perhaps the most iconic evocation of cliched Irish motherhood — the semi-invisible martyr bearing tea and biscuits — came from a character whom, to the best of our understanding, wasn’t even a mother: Mrs Doyle in Father Ted.
“It’s easy to write of the depiction of Irish motherhood on screen through the years as the Irish ‘mammy’,” says Cork-based screenwriter Jonathan Hughes, who deconstructed these archetypes with his 2018 short film, Mother.
“Master of the domestic domain, put upon, the ultimate martyr,” is how he summarises the Irish mammy. Giving their long-suffering children a hard time. Harder on the daughters than the lout of a son. Technophobe, can barely send a text, and don’t get her started on ‘the Skype’. But under it all beats the heart of gold, someone who would do anything for her family — but don’t you dare try to cross her.
“The social construction of motherhood in Irish society is very likely also reflected [in cinema and television],” adds Dr Anna Kingston, co-ordinator of UCC’s Community-Academic Research Links initiate and a member of the university’s MA in Women’s Studies teaching board. “‘Good’ mothers are self-sacrificing, always putting their children first. They are married and heterosexual and, not too young, not too old, primary caregivers etc.”
She feels, however, that Brenda Fricker’s take on suffering motherhood in My Left Foot confronted long-established perceptions of the maternal Irish woman.
“[Fricker’s character] is an example of a mother who despite patriarchal oppression — giving birth to 23 children — refuses to give up on her son. A good example of maternal agency where the mother is an ‘active subject’, challenging so-called experts. This as opposed to the passive objectification of mothers who should be ‘fulfilling their duties in the home’.”
Irish film and television are hardly unique in their condescending portrayal of motherhood. Globally mothers have historically been caricatured on screen as either quietly suffering or a disgrace to their vocation.
That mothers might — just like fathers — be well-intentioned but flawed is not a possibility that has traditionally been allowed for. Yet that reflex has lately come under attack. Promoting her recent film Birdbox, in which she plays a mother leading two children to safety in a post-apocalyptic world, Sandra Bullock was in little doubt that perceptions needed to progress. “The way motherhood has been represented on film needed to not just change,” she said. “It needed to expand because the complexities of being a mum, I don’t think, have not been fully represented cinematically. I learned that we need to start showing women in a more complex fashion when it comes to motherhood, “ she said in another interview promoting the same project.
“The same we need to show men in a more complex fashion when it comes to those who are incredibly maternal and who are very demonstrative and loving and hopeful with their kids. It’s happening all over the world but we are just not seeing enough of it on film.”
Filmmakers’ responsibility to render motherhood in shades of grey rather than black and white is also underlined by the success of the 2016 movie Bad Moms about mothers who reject the pressure to be perfect.
And there are glimmerings of a more nuanced portrait of motherhood in the recent Irish horror film, The Hole In The Ground about a young mother (Seana Kerslake) who begins to suspect her son is a demonic changeling.
“I can’t think of a more realistic depiction of moms than this movie, and that’s a little sad,” said Bad Moms star Kristen Bell. “When you put the word ‘mom’ in there, this certain set of characteristics subconsciously infiltrates your mind. You enter this realm of martyrdom. People are scared to write mothers who take time for themselves.” That was likewise the theme of director Sian Heder explored in 2016’s Tallulah, about a young woman who steals a baby from an “irresponsible” woman and passes it off as her own.
“After the premiere, I became this weird priest hearing these bad-mommy confessions, and I realised all moms feel like failures,” said Heder, a mother of two. “There’s a disconnect between the role of the mother as it’s presented in the movies and what it actually feels like to be a mom, the amount of guilt and shame you put on yourself.”
In Mother, writer Hughes and director Natasha Waugh, likewise offer a fresh perspective on the Irish mammy. To her shock, the eponymous mother, portrayed by Young Offenders actor Hilary Rose, is replaced by a fridge. This is a commentary on how mothers can often come to be regarded — or at least portrayed on screen — as a glorified domestic appliance.
“It’s bonkers but I think reflective of how many mothers must feel, reduced to nothing more than an appliance or something to wait on you hand and foot,” says Waugh. The fridge embodies a lot of ideas about women in the home, and the lead character is a working parent. I think it’s interesting, in the context of our archaic legislation that states that a women’s is in the home. Irish mothers are this bastion of hearth and home, and old national values so the film takes that idea and turns into satire by replacing the mother with an appliance. The idea of a mother is reduced to something functional and something that provides bare essentials for the family.
“I think mums are badass and we’re seeing that more and more, like in The Hole In The Ground. That’s a great example because Seana Kerslake’s character is resolute, and takes matters into her own hands to rescue her son. I think whats interesting is seeing more depictions of single motherhood in this way. Hilary Rose who plays Grace in Mother has something similar with her role as Mairead MacSweeney in Young Offenders. She’s assertive, she’s tough, she provides, while she faces the trials of raising a troublesome son. We’re definitely moving on from the image of the Irish mammy.”