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Ireland is holding a referendum on March 8—International Women's Day—which, if the governing parties have their way, will mean the word “mother” is removed from Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish Constitution.

Article 41.2.2 currently says that the State shall “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” This line has been in the Constitution since its creation in 1937, but would be deleted in its entirety. Also up for deletion is the preceding article, which says, “the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” New wording has been proposed to replace it: “The State recognises that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” 

Other changes on the ballot affect definitions of marriage and the family. The words highlighted in italics would be inserted into Article 41.1.1: “The State recognises the Family, whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationships, as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society.” Article 41.3.1, meanwhile, would see the following words in italics deleted: “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.” First Things readers can remind themselves of the background to these changes here

Watching the referendum campaign and vote unfold will be fascinating. Politicians are once again presenting a constitutional referendum as the chance to hammer a new nail in the coffin of Catholic Ireland. According to Minister for Equality Roderic O’Gorman, who has described the culture of mid-century Ireland as “stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic,” the upcoming referendum will offer “another opportunity to move away from the Ireland of 1937 to continue that journey to becoming a kinder, a more inclusive society and one that acknowledges and respects the needs of all citizens.” The national broadcasting network, RTE, recently aired a documentary claiming that until the 1970s, women were “defined as chattels” in the Constitution (which is, of course, false—the program was later removed from RTE's streaming service). How many times, one wonders, can people be expected to assent to the proposition that the country their parents and grandparents created and inhabited was an utter horror show? 

And there are murmurings, too—sometimes from otherwise liberal quarters—about whether any real-world problems will be solved by all of this effort and expense, and about unintended consequences of the wording (“other durable relationships”?). But early polls suggest that the new wording will be accepted as a necessary adjustment to reflect new realities and that the referendums will pass.  

The erasure of “mothers” has particular resonance. Irish popular culture is saturated in allusions to mothers and in particular to a type known as the “Irish Mammy”: A figure of frugality, but also of bounteousness; of judgmentalism, but also of forgiveness; of care, common sense, inherited prejudices, and needless fussing. She inspires pride, affection, fear, and hilarity, all brought to an almost overbearing pitch, and is thought to be found only in Ireland.     

The Irish Mammy is the ultimate national treasure, replicated all over the island in home after home and wherever else the Irish are to be found in numbers. The Irish Mirror recently reported that New York GAA, a Gaelic football and hurling club, has its own “Irish Mammy” who helps keep newcomers close to home. There are books, YouTube channels, and social media accounts all devoted to the Irish Mammy. A crass but hugely successful sitcom called Mrs. Brown’s Boys revolves around a widowed, working-class Irish Mammy (played for laughs by a man) and her brood. (Oddly, most Irish people do not actually address their mothers as “Mammy”—“Mam” is far more common and “Mom” is just as popular—but “Mammy” seems to help with comic resonance and comes with an added dollop of homeliness.) 

Hardly any contemporary debate, crisis, or flashpoint comes and goes in which this figure cannot somehow be invoked. “The Irish Mammy is many things but she’s not a racist stereotype,” the Irish Times announced last year. In 2022, Image, a glossy lifestyle magazine, ran a piece declaring: “Irish mammies are the thing I missed most in lockdown.” The Business Post led a piece with “Taking in refugees: ‘I just did the Irish mammy thing, and gave them out a feed of sausages.’” At the turn of the year, the Irish Independent advised taking the Irish Mammy approach to making resolutions (“you’re fine as you are”). Other headlines from last year include “How an Irish Mammy Launched The Beatles” and “Paul Mescal didn’t win an Oscar but his mother should get an award for proudest Irish mammy.” You get the picture.

Growing up in Ireland in the seventies and eighties, I remember the caricature of the head-scarfed Irish mother. Armed with a wooden spoon for the enforcement of good order, but ultimately kind-hearted, she was one among the stock characters thought to form the backbone of Irish social and family life. But in recent years, the Irish Mammy has assumed new totemic significance, induced perhaps by the fearful but unspoken realization that these women are dying out: After all, they were in their classical form regular massgoers; they were educated by nuns; they knew a lot about life on farms and nothing about life on Facebook. They never contemplated divorce (murder, certainly—as the old joke ran—divorce, never). And, to adopt the threatened wording of the constitution, they never, ever neglected their duties in the home. With each generation, real-life instantiations of the archetype will recede into extinction, as the conditions that produced them disappear.

Perhaps in time a fully modernized Irish Mammy will emerge and come to command similar affection. (The Irish Times story mentioned above was accompanied by an image of T-shirts bearing the words “Mammies for trans rights.”) However, the proposed changes to the constitution seem to be inviting Ireland to advance further into an era of cognitive dissonance about motherhood. A wall of noise in the culture, but a new, echoing silence in the constitution.

John Duggan is a freelance writer based in England.

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Image by Dronepicr via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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