Contributor Patricia Kileen explore the timeless bond between Irish poets and their beloved 'Irish Mammy' muse in literary tradition.

Thomas MacDonagh and James Connolly both wrote about their sons; ‘Wishes For My Son, Born on St Cecilia’s Day, 1912 by Thomas MacDonagh and ‘The Legacy: A Dying Socialist to His Son’ by James Connolly. Irish patriot and World War I war poet Tom Kettle wrote ‘To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God’. However, among the family members that Irish poets picked up their pen to write about, the ‘Irish Mammy’ wins hands down.

For the Irish diaspora, Christmas and the holiday season is the time of the year when they’ll ‘Climb every Mountain’ to get home to their Mammies and the image of the Christma spread, with their smiling mammy at the head of the table, will get them through many a cold winter’s day.

However, the image of the ‘Irish Mammy’ often got people through tougher situations than everyday hardships. It is recurrent in Padraig Pearse’s poetry and is a shifting image, sometimes pertaining to his own mother, and at other times to Mary the mother of Christ, or to Ireland being personified as the ‘mother’ of the Irish people. In the ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’, (believed to have been written in the main part by Pearse), ‘Ireland’ was personified as a mother who through the intercession of the rebels called out to ‘her children’, the people of Ireland.

In a poem written in 1912 in Irish, ‘Mise Eire’, and translated into English with the title ‘I am Ireland’, Pearse as the speaker linked himself with the personification of Ireland, the old woman who had been shamed by children who had ‘sold’ her. She, who had previously known glory through giving birth to the mythical hero Cuchulainn. Pearse also wrote two poems to his own mother from prison just before he was executed:

‘A Mother Speaks’

Dear Mary, that didst see thy first-born Son

Go forth to die amid the scorn of men

For whom He died,

Receive my first-born son into thy arms,

Who also hath gone out to die for men,

And keep him by thee till I come to him.

Dear Mary, I have shared thy sorrow,

And soon shall share thy joy.

In this short poem, Pearse imagined his mother speaking to the Virgin Mary, comparing her own sorrow with the Virgin Mary’s sorrow and asking for her empathy for another mother who was about to lose a son. The ‘mother’ draws a comparison between how her own son Padraig Pearse, like Christ, died for his fellow man. Perhaps comparing the Virgin Mary’s loss of her son Jesus Christ through his death on the cross with Pearse’s own forthcoming death might have seemed overly presumptuous to some and others may have found it bordering on blasphemy.

The second poem below, entitled ‘The Mother’, is better known and actually is one of his best-known poems. In this poem, he speaks of his mother’s sorrow on the deaths of her two sons in the Easter Rising. In the opening lines, he expressed how he imagined that although his mother felt such sorrow she did not ‘grudge’ her sons’ sacrifice and she knew they would be remembered as ‘blessed’. The poem is prophetic as at times Pearse wrote it he did not realize that his younger brother Willie would also be executed for his part in the rising although he suspected that he might be. The overriding grief in the poem is somewhat moderated by the heroism of her two sons:

‘The Mother’

I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge

My two strong sons that I have seen go out

To break their strength and die, they and a few,

In bloody protest for a glorious thing,

They shall be spoken of among their people,

The generations shall remember them,

And call them blessed.

Dr. Lucy Collins, University College Dublin, points out how the poem ‘The Mother’ interlaces opposites: ‘strength and brokenness; failure and triumph; sorrow and joy’[1]. She also states that ‘the voice is both personal and universal – it is the voice of Pearse’s own mother yet it speaks too for all those thorn between grief and exultation’. Dr. Lucy Collins also pointed out that Pearse’s poem, ‘The Mother’ portrayed the ‘complex emotions aroused by the Easter Rising[2] in Ireland.

There are so many memorable poems about the ‘Irish Mammy’; ‘A Mother's Love Is A Blessing’ by Thomas P Keenan, ‘A Cradle Song’ by Padraic Colum, ‘Song Of The Old Mother’ by William Butler Yeats, ‘The Little Irish Mother’ by John O’Brien,’ Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby),’ by James Royce Shannon, ‘In Memory Of My Mother’, by Patrick Kavanagh, to name just a few...

In 2015 the poem ‘When All The Others Were Away at Mass’ by Seamus Heaney was proclaimed as Ireland’s favorite poem of the last 100 years, proving through Heaney’s beautiful, poignant words that the ‘Irish Mammy’ and Irish poetry will remain perpetually linked in the Irish psyche.

‘When All The Others Were Away at Mass’[3]

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

My own Mammy passed away many years ago, however, I’m sure many of my Irish Paris-based friends who braved train and air traffic controller strikes to get home this Xmas, might have had a similar one-to-one moment with their Mammy, which like Seamus Heaney’s peeling potatoes moment, will remain with them forever.


[1] Collins Lucy, Rising Poems: 'The Mother' by Patrick Pearse, The Irish Independent, 7 April 2018

[2] Ibid

[3] “When all the others were away at Mass” from “Clearances” from Selected Poems 1966-1987 by Seamus Heaney. 2014 paperback edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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