Requiem for an Irish mother

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One night last week, I tried to figure out how many matches my mother saw me play as a child. I know it was less than ten. It may even have been fewer than five. There were a couple of street league finals I forced her to turn up to. There was definitely a county juvenile hurling final with St. Finbarr’s where I was, rather embarrassingly, called ashore 20 minutes into the first half (“It just wasn’t your day, love”). There was also an FAI Youths Cup semi-final defeat with Casement Celtic at a drenched Turners Cross (“How did they expect ye to play in that?”)

Beyond those, I struggled to recall any other appearances by her on the sidelines. As might anybody of mine or older generations. Those were different times in the Cork where I grew up. A lot of parents didn’t attend the games their kids played. Most who did were fathers. That was the way of it. Nobody thought it odd. Nobody complained. It only seems strange now that we live in a more involved era, where moms and dads seem to be present for every training session and scrimmage.

Of course, that’s not to say the mothers we had were not supportive of our putative careers. Oh they were.

I don’t think I ever once opened a gear bag in a dressing-room, be it hurling, Gaelic football or soccer, that didn’t have everything I needed perfectly packed inside. I don’t mean that the required socks and shorts and shirt were tucked in there. I mean every item of clothing had not only been washed but ironed and folded and made ready with great care. Not by me. For me. By my mother.

Team-mates might unfurl jerseys that reeked of battle and unleashed sweat clouds of toxic ammonia. My mam’s devotion ensured I never took the field appearing anything less than pristine and smelling fresh. Indeed, if looking the part had been any measure of true athletic ability, I would have hurled for Cork and played soccer for Ireland. The problem was I could never play as well as I togged out.

In Heathrow Airport last month, I ate porridge for the first time in decades. The texture, the taste, the burning on my tongue, it transported me back to my childhood, to my mother shoveling steaming bowls of Flahavan’s Progress Oatlets into me on weekend mornings before sending me out the gate with a gear bag in my hand, and sporting dreams in my head. A smile on her face as she waved me off, a smile and a comforting word if we lost when I came back.

Everybody tells you that you only appreciate your parents, the work they did, the sacrifices they made, when you become a parent yourself. So, so true. We buried my mother in Cork last week and on the soul-destroying plane journeys over and back (a trip you make in a kind of slow-motion that truly is the emigrant’s curse), there was a lot of time to recall all she did for me. Again and again, it hit home how much of her work was unseen and often, to my shame, under-appreciated.

See, my father brought me to nearly every game I ever played. My mother was scarcely present in those fields at all. Yet, when I look back I see now she contributed just as much. If not more. She emptied every gear bag the moment it came in the door (Yes I was as spoiled as the youngest child always is!), placing the mucky boots on the back step – those were a bridge too far even for her.

In the admittedly unreliable highlight reel of my memory, we seemed to be constantly playing matches in driving rain. Each one of those savage Saturday mornings culminated in me returning to a toasty kitchen where scalding oxtail soup and ramparts of buttered Cuthbert’s bread were waiting to, as she described it, “get a bit of heat back into you”.

If the timing of a game meant I missed Sunday dinner with the family, an overburdened plate was heated up and handed to me, to be eaten on my lap. In front of the telly. In front of a coal fire blazing. A flagrant relaxation of the dining rules. A special treat. It says much about the quality of my athletic exploits that some of my fondest memories revolve around watching matches on the television while belatedly wolfing down a roast and wondering whether mam had kept some of the trifle for me too. She did. Of course she did.

My mother was part of a resourceful generation of working-class women who grew up with so little that they were magnificent at making something out of nothing. The older I get, the older my kids get, the more I marvel at how she kept the show on the road. Despite rearing four children on a bank porter’s wage, she always found money for new soccer boots when they were needed. Not just any boots either but the ones you wanted. Hansi Muller’s. Beckenbauer’s. Littbarski’s. Even once, a Patrick pair endorsed by Kevin Keegan during his sojourn at Southampton.

My mother was not unique. She was, like tens of thousands of other remarkable Irish mothers of that time, simply doing what she perceived to be her job. And she was magnificent at it. Raising kids. Fostering their dreams. Filling their bellies. Our fathers may have basked in whatever slivers of reflected glory were available on the sidelines when things went well. It was our unsung mothers who underpinned the whole operation by keeping the home fires burning regardless of the results.

For my mam, there was no sulking in defeat and, even more adamantly, no boasting in victory. Always, there was a simple post-match interrogation to remind you of what sport was supposed to be about.

“Did you try your best and did you enjoy it?” she asked every time.

“I did,” I replied.

“And that’s all that matters really.”

If I close my eyes, I can see her standing in the hallway of a house in Togher saying those words.

Still.

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48 thoughts on “Requiem for an Irish mother

  1. Diarmuid O'Donovan

    A lovely piece. You paint a scene that thousands of Cork boys can empathise with. More importantly, it reminds us all of a time in our lives when, no matter how the battles and trivia of the day unfolded, there was guiding light, and a steady hand at home; where sympathy and correction were measured out in the appropriate proportion; where the heat was taken out of every situation or, as you said yourself, put back in to us, so that we knew going to bed that night, when we would wake the next morning we were ready to wreak across our worlds once more.
    Remember the world is changed, not ended. Our kids look on us the same way we looked on our mothers and fathers. That’s the real scary part.
    Keep your head up and I’ll talk to you soon.
    Diarmuid

  2. Declan Mc Carthy

    Fantastic piece Dave that bought a tear to my eye. An era where home really was home, a safe haven of both support & discipline. Let’s hope we do as good a job for our kids.

  3. I’m sorry for your loss. My flight back to Cork for the same reason was 9 months ago. Still hurts like hell. It does get a little easier, though. Until you forget and want to give her a call.

  4. “We only miss the sun when it starts to snow”
    I was 15 when I left home for further studies .it’s been five years since then. I remember her when I have to do all those chores of cooking,laundering, cleaning.those things you never think because all mother have already done them.she make it all look so effortless that we don’t appreciate it ,take it for granted.
    I miss her most when I am sick.the feeling of loneliness and nobody to fend for you but yourself,nobody to look after you,nobody to ask you how you are.
    In this world only our parents are our own rest all don’t matter.

  5. Wow, what a wonderful post to read this evening. Thank you. It was the first post to appear when I opened my Reader on my phone. I absorbed every word of it delicately, afraid to miss any of the colours of the image your words were painting for me. Read some lines twice they were so vivid.
    My condolences on the loss of your Mam. I will ask my angelic mom to invite her to share in a bowl of porridge. I think they will get along fabulously. Marianne

  6. Fantastic piece Dave that bought a tear to my eye. An era where home really was home, a safe haven of both support & discipline. Let’s hope we do as good a job for our kids.

  7. i am staying away from my mum and i get to talk to her once a day, for 5 mins. I really miss her when i don’t find anybody opening the door for me, with a smile, when i get back from work, or when i don’t find my clothes or any other stuffs when i am getting late, or when i don’t find anybody asking if i am hungry. There are so many little things she does that we don’t even care to notice but now i understand the meaning of these moments. A very heart warming blog.

  8. I just started with wordpress today and on my timeline yours was the first blog so i decided to read it and as i have read it now so i can say that my time with wordpress is gonna be perfect and your blog reminds me the little but important tasks by my mom. And condolences on your loss.

  9. Stars Of Life

    Wow, what a wonderful post to read this evening. Thank you. It was the first post to appear when I opened my Reader on my phone. I absorbed every word of it delicately, afraid to miss any of the colours of the image your words were painting for me. Read some lines twice they were so vivid.
    My condolences on the loss of your Mam. I will ask my angelic mom to invite her to share in a bowl of porridge. I think they will get along fabulously.

  10. First of all, my condolences for the loss of your “mam”. Your piece makes me want an Irish mother. The comments of all your Irish countrymen and women added enjoyment to my reading. I cherished every word. Thanks everyone!

  11. emotionalghosts

    Beautiful…simply beautiful. Such a lovely tribute from a son to his mother. I’m sorry for your loss. I lost both of my parents three years ago, four months apart. No doubt your mam was smiling upon you as you were writing your post.

  12. Sorry for your loss.

    I enjoyed reading your piece. Simple but yet touching a chord. I am from India and our Indian moms are also similar to yours. Always around to anticipate every need of the child (even if the ‘chid’is 50 years old 🙂 )

  13. Beautiful piece. My dad’s been gone eight years. Because he was much older than my mom, he was retired when I was still small. He went to the PTA meetings, ran the school store so he could be in my junior high to keep an eye on me. When I came home from grade school, he always had a snack ready (and I mean scrambled eggs, toast, or grilled cheese sandwich) as soon as I stepped through the door. He was always the oldest father in any grade I was in. Didn’t think much of these things until I got older. Not a parent but I started to really appreciate him and what he did. Mom is still here and we talk about him all the time. Good times. Cheers on this post and my condolences.

  14. Oh my! This is one of the first blogs I’ve read – Enjoyed this so much; so lovely, written beautifully. The way you write creates phenomenal imagery! I’m so sorry about your loss. I also have an Irish mother… Thank you for having a great blog as this was my first read!!!

  15. So true you don’t realise what Mammy did until you have kids yourself. I know know that as I have young kids but sadly it’s too late to tell her. But when i get angry at my kids etc I just stop and think ‘what would Mam have done in a situation like this?’ I feel she’s always with me now and guiding me

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