'Forget the cards, the flowers and the gifts'

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

'Forget the cards, the flowers and the gifts'

Don't fuss over me: Patricia would rather not get the obligatory flowers and poorly made breakfast in bed for Mother's Day

HOLY Mother of God, but there’s an awful lot more to this Mothers’ Day craic - and the universal maternal complex - than I had ever imagined. As a result, this coming Sunday, March 26, is going to dawn with a whole new meaning for me. And here’s why.

I’d never been a great fan of Mothers’ Day in the past, partly because of all the consumerism surrounding it, but mostly because it wasn’t part of our Irish heritage. Or so I thought until it was pointed out to me recently that, symbolically, Ireland is a mother, and a virgin mother at that. Had I never heard of ‘My Dark Rosaleen’ or ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ or Mother Eire for that matter? Had it ever even crossed my mind to wonder why this island nation is a motherland and not a fatherland?

No, to be quite honest! I thought it was because the geographical features such as the curvy mountains gave rise to delusions of femininity for Fionn Mac Cumhal and his merry band. Anyway, the real reason why I never liked Mothers’ Day was because the obligatory breakfast in bed with a bunch of flowers always made me feel somewhat patronised and needy, apart altogether from the nightmarish visions of the kitchen being trashed as I lay in bed. Then, I’d usually have to spend the rest of the day trying to make up for being so ungracious.

My husband, who usually had a gun to his head as far as the flowers were concerned, and my three much loved daughters, who loved nothing better back then than making burnt toast and runny boiled eggs would now whole-heartedly concur with me. Even when she was a little girl, one of them, when asked by her friend’s mother, what she was buying her mammy for Mothers’ Day replied: “I don’t know. I’ll have to wait and see how much she gives me first.”

Really, there was no need for me ever to have felt patronised. I was the author of my own misfortunes.

Now, after a bit of psychoanalytical research, most of which was way beyond my comprehension, I’ve discovered that the Irish, long before Mothers’ Day was invented, had a maternal fixation, which turned out to be the cause of most of our woes. This prevailed, even as far back as the Formorian invasion, when the goddess Áine was found lamenting the loss of her slain son on the slopes of Knockainey. I’d never have guessed it though, seeing that we never really did very much for mothers, apart from the Children’s Allowance, and seeing that, according to a recent survey, only 31 per cent of Irish people cite their mother as their main inspiration.

This mammy fixation became particularly striking when concepts of nationalism first took root here, although at the time, the country was seen more as a sean bhean bhocht in need of protection from marauding Saxons rather than a maternal goddess, which is how I would nearly always feel myself on Mothers’ Day in years gone by. I tell you, it was all in the mind! But whether it was or not, protecting the symbolic mother defined our identity and the way we are still shaping our destiny. A United Ireland, my eye. If we had our way, we’d go back to the womb.

We’re not, of course, the only motherland on the face of the earth, although funny enough most of the others are island states, lying close to larger states, which naturally were always threatening to possess them. The trouble is that we are unique. The Welsh born psychoanalyst and friend of Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, once said that nowhere is the identification of native land to virgin mother, stronger than it is in Ireland. No wonder then that we cottoned on so readily to the whole idea of Mothers’ Day and became such a God send to the consumer industry.

They celebrated Mothers’ Day too in ancient Greece and in ancient Rome, but those celebrations were in honour of the mothers of all the gods and I don’t think our own illusions ever went that far. But in the US, the whole thing was started by a woman called Julia Ward Howe, who wrote ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ during the American Civil War. Having ‘loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword’, she became a pacifist in later life, as well as a formidable campaigner for women’s rights. She was the first to call for a special Mothers’ Day – a day in which mothers around the world would restrain their war mongering men folk and keep them away from the battlefields. ‘Let them solemnly take counsel,’ she said, ‘as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.’

So forget the cards, the flowers and the gifts then. That’s the only kind of Mothers’ Day I think I could really subscribe to.