Under her roof – The Irish mammy


Text by Cole Delaney

Illustration by Sue Gent

Illustration by Sue Gent

Held as a sacred symbol, the figure of the mother in Irish culture has transcended to represent the sovereignty of the land. This feminisation of my country has a deep root in Celtic Folklore, with figures such as the Speirbhaen or the Morrigan: the latter associated with sovereignty, war and fate.

Casted as a symbol of protection in the fight for independence, and written in the 1916 Proclamation, the figure of a mother conjures a powerful symbol in the Irish psyche. More recently, the “Mammy” is centred in the home and provides a strong connection to an ever-growing generation of young emigrants. She represents a constant, a bubble of comfort and emotion in a constantly changing world.

Although many live action examples of the Mammy as a family anchor are available (Bridget Brown in My Left Foot, Mrs. Brown in Mrs Brown’s Boys), this “mythical figure” has also been interpreted in animation. 

Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea features two mother figures: the vanished mother Bronagh, and the intrusive Granny. While the former, very much a Speirbhaen, is a source of happiness with a mystical allure, she remains absent for most of the film, leaving room for the latter to develop. “Granny”, representing the idea of a solid and safe home, is the antithesis of Bronagh’s character. She welcomes Ben into her life, displaying all the comforts of a typical Irish home: a cup of tea and a warm fire, and shows how her power resides in her domestic fortress.

Beyond that mythological reading, Alan Shannon’s Badly Drawn Roy, displays a true manifestation of the Irish Mammy. Despite featuring live-action elements, Badly Drawn Roy is a unique development in Irish animation. An unfinished character, Roy struggles to find any meaning and can’t afford to go through the clean-up process. Living at home, his mammy, Maura, exemplifies the contemporary Irish mother. Showing concern for Roy, she is the only one to have a true influence and helps him shape his life, which, in turn, leads him to respect her more than the rest of his family.

While also featuring a Mammy, Nicky Phelan’s Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty subverts the rules by having the character’s presence cause the upheaval. Granny rewrites bedtime stories, derailing and infusing them with a jealous commentary taken from her own experiences. While this terrifies her granddaughter, it also a less talked about side of many Irish Mammies: their impish side. Although they can represent a caring, considerate haven, their sweetness is easily whipped away and replaced with a wry comment. Powerful figures, they can provide or remove safety by a single remark.

There are multiple interpretations of the mother figure in Irish  animation. From the culturally rooted mythical figures in Moore’s work, to the more traditional figure in Badly Drawn Roy and the impish character of Granny O’Grimm, it would begreat to see a more contemporary exploration of the Irish Mammy and her cultural roots, very much like Chomet’s Les Triplettes de Belleville.

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