Walk a mile in their slippers: Do ‘pyjama girls’ really merit a place in Irish society?

Walk a mile in their slippers: Do ‘pyjama girls’ really merit a place in Irish society?
Sarah Horgan walking through the English Market in Cork City in her pyjamas. Pictures: David Keane

Punks, goths and heavy metal subcultures have all been celebrated in Cork but do ‘pyjama girls’ really merit a place in Irish society? Pyjama-clad reporter Sarah Horgan hits the streets to find out

They say not all heroes wear capes, some of them wear pyjamas…and in public too!.

This reporter found herself doing just that and in Cork City of all places. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of bedtime stories but a happy “Wear Your Pyjamas to Work Day” nonetheless. Celebrations in the US take place today — April 16 — and, while the origins of the holiday remain unknown, it is believed to give working citizens a day to relax after tax day. It turns out many of their Irish counterparts never needed the excuse. The tradition-some have argued-is synonymous more with the working class than the working. A controversy was most recently sparked by hair salon owner, David Finn-of the Style Bar in Portlaoise- who outright banned pyjamas on his premises. The decision sent Joe Duffy’s phone lines into overdrive. This is likely not the first or last time we will encounter such hostility.

The naughties in Ireland saw the decline of unplanned visits, handwritten letters and telephone boxes. Notwithstanding, what modern society lacks it more than makes up for in selfies, “flossing” and the ever-incredible phenomenon of the pyjama mafia. We’re coming across such ladies more and more these days whether it’s in supermarkets, hair salons or even on Pana. Few of them take notice of the sideward glances. It makes you wonder if daylight is even real to them.

For a time they had become a dying breed. People eyed them with the bewilderment one would an extinct animal. Some looked for proof they still existed, but you didn’t have to look too far. My latest sighting was outside a funeral home. I can still picture that middle-aged lady struggling to carry wreaths in her royal blue dressing gown. Speaking of royal, I wonder what the queen would make of this trend or-failing that-her closest friend at the English Market.

Sarah chatting with fishmonger Pat O’Connell who got into the spirit of the experiment by changing into a pair of PJs himself.
Sarah chatting with fishmonger Pat O’Connell who got into the spirit of the experiment by changing into a pair of PJs himself.

With this in mind, Cork’s most famous fishmonger, Pat O’Connell, becomes my first port of call. The local entrepreneur shot to local fame after charming Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Cork back in 2011.

A kind store assistant in the nearby vintage store, Miss Daisy Blue, allows me to change in their dressing room. She sees me off as I make my way into a bustling market.

Testing the water with a slipper-clad foot is initially daunting. My heart feels like it might bore through my chest. The change is as sudden as a cliff fall. You can never be prepared for the reactions. Most are open-minded. Others look upon you like a dirty fag end they’d like to stamp on.

Snaking your way through shoppers is something of a challenge in fluffy slippers and a sleep mask. It’s especially difficult to hear yourself think above the muffled murmurings of disapproval.

The fatigued cacophony of tutting shoppers must be an all too familiar sound for Ireland’s pyjama girls. Their stares are burning “Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched? “ I ask one trader.

“Don’t think so love,” he reassured. “People are in their own world here.” I want to dive back into bed and tremble underneath the blankets. A group walks by, heads high with laughter. I’m looking more “nuclear holocaust survivor” than “giggly girl at a slumber party.” It’s a nice kind of laughter as opposed to mocking. However, little can be done to ease my aching embarrassment.

“I can’t do this” I protest, crouched in a shadowy corner. “Don’t be so paranoid,” urges my inner chatterbox. “Nobody’s taking any notice.” Almost on cue, an elderly lady points out: “You’ve left the tag on your dressing gown pet.“ Her words hang in the air. “Something tells me you’re not the kind of lady who wears pyjamas every day.” The conspiratorial wink says it all.

Sarah shopping at Miss Daisy Blue.
Sarah shopping at Miss Daisy Blue.

Pat O’Connell’s face is etched with understanding as I regale him with the rationale behind my social experiment. My relief turns to fear as he proceeds to go “fetch something in the back.” I tell myself the game is up. He’s calling on security to kick me out. Then the most incredible thing happens. I’m not sure I’ll ever know how he got his hands on a pair of pyjamas but that he did in spectacular Pat O’Connell fashion.

Mouths are now more agape than his famous “mother in law” fish- known for being the butt of a joke between the renowned trader and her majesty. If only she could see us now. All proud and pyjama-clad, like two underdressed partners in crime.

“You’ve been walking the streets of Cork in your pyjamas all day so I said, do you know what “why not just go for it?” I’ll even send the queen on a photograph,” he declares. At that moment something in the air changes. The selfless act of solidarity would make even a cynic misty-eyed.

That’s not to say everyone is converted. Market trader, Daphne Roche has a firm stance on employees in pyjamas. “If someone handed me a CV in their pyjamas I wouldn’t think too highly of them,” she says. “For the sake of two minutes to get dressed in the morning isn’t a big ask. You couldn’t even call it making an effort. It’s just a case of putting on some clothes. I wouldn’t allow my children to spend all day in their pyjamas and they’re 10 and eight. For me pyjamas during the day suggests you’re still “in bed mode” English Market customer, Eric Ryan from Whitechurch agreed. “Pyjamas are for home and possibly when you’re relaxing in the evening. Unless you are calling into the next door neighbour for sugar there’s really no other excuse.”

Ethal Crowley from the Lough had a more laid back approach.

Sarah with Marc O’Mahony of The Good Food Shop
Sarah with Marc O’Mahony of The Good Food Shop

“Whatever anyone wants to wear is entirely up to them,” she said. “In Dublin, you see a lot of girls in pyjamas, more so than in Cork. I really wouldn’t care as long as they’re clean.” The show must go on so I continue my tour- this time down Oliver Plunkett Street-albeit with the awkwardness of a prototype robot. Out on the streets taxi driver, William Griffin had a different take on the subject. He started off by praising Pat O’Connell’s bold statement.

“That’s why the queen loves him, because he’s down to Earth,” he beamed.

“It’s a class distinction thing,” he insisted. “That’s the issue we’re looking at here. I find it normal. Sometimes you might get a call at 9.30pm from someone who got into their PJs but remembered they’ve no cans to relax with. I’ve no problem dropping anyone to the off-license in their pyjamas. They’re not the ones who are going to be getting sick or causing trouble in my taxi. It’s not like there’s anything indecent about pyjamas. There are women scantily clad in Cork city on a Saturday night and you don’t hear anyone complaining about them.” His attitude may have rubbed off on daughter Sinead Pumphrey— a self-confessed pyjama girl.

“I’ve always gone to the local shop in my pyjamas,” she stated. “I’d go anywhere in them, it’s completely normal to me. It’s not even anything I’ve ever stopped to think about.” Discrimination against the pyjama clan isn’t as obvious out here. What you do encounter is a kind of reverse snobbery. Statements such as “I’ve got nothing against foreigners or girls in pyjamas but I hate accountants” are all too common. In some ways we’re probably not so different after all.

Walk a mile in their slippers: Do ‘pyjama girls’ really merit a place in Irish society?

My last pit stop on the pyjama tour of Cork is Ali’s Kitchen on Paul Street. Whether you’re a so-called “high collared prude” or “pyjama hun” really doesn’t matter here. Everyone is treated the same.

“Every paying customer is the same to me,” says co-owner Luca Issacchi, gesticulating wildly in that lovely Italian way. “Some homeless guy came in here drunk and sat down to eat lunch. He wasn’t behaving badly so why shouldn’t I treat him like any other paying customer. If a girl arrived to eat in her pyjamas I wouldn’t kick her out but I would ask her why she’s come dressed like this.” It’s been a bizarre day and my encounters have left me with much to write about. After losing myself in endless banter and cups of coffee I remember there is still an article to be penned. In reality, my working day has just begun. I might be dressed for bed, but I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep tonight.

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