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Mother's Day: What my mum means to me

Published 04/03/2016

Family ties: Una Brankin’s mother Sheila
Family ties: Una Brankin’s mother Sheila
Parental role: Malachi O’Doherty’s mother Maureen O’Halloran
Kept busy: Una Brankin's mum always kept her daughter occupied
Smart aleck: Malachi O’Doherty tried to get the better of his mother over grammar
Reader's Digest

Ahead of Mother's Day on Sunday, two writers explain how much their mums have shaped their lives and continue to be an inspiration for them.

Una Brankin

Back in my younger days near Sandy Bay, Co Antrim, one of the neighbours was a wise and genial old lady, Mary-Agnes McGarry, who had never been married or had children.

She used to watch out for me on the way to and from the nearby primary school, my blonde bowl-cut just visible above her hedge.

"Then you got taller and two other wee heads would be following you up the road," she once remarked, a few years before she died. "Your mother got you all out to school, and then she'd get up early every day to drive you to the bus when you started the big school in Belfast, and then drive to collect you in the afternoon.

"That's love."

Her words stopped me in my tracks. They made me think about how much I'd taken for granted - all that effort on mum's part - over the years. I was too busy arguing with her to see the sacrifices she had made and the annoyance she had to put up with. My mum Sheila, who is now 82, was a book-keeper and still an active member of St Joseph's Parish in Glenavy while my dad, Hugh (85) is a farmer. There are five of us, of whom I am the eldest.

When it comes to mum and I, we are complete opposites. She's a social butterfly; I prefer to hibernate after dark. She loves shopping for clothes; I don't care very much about fashion. She's messy; I'm tidy. She'll talk to the cows come home; I'm quite taciturn. We can drive each other to distraction.

I'm not into astrology but she's a typical Gemini - a 'people person' - and I'm a more guarded Taurean. In fact, she would have made a better reporter than me. I like observing and I love writing, but she's more curious and enquiring.

I've brought her along to a few interviews and events I've had to cover recently, and my articles have been enriched from questions she threw into the mix.

Of course, we've nearly killed each other on the way home a few times, with her getting the directions mixed up and sending us the wrong way, and me panicking over the deadline. But that's just how we are.

I got my love of reading from mum. I used to devour the short stories in her women's magazines and People's Friend, and Reader's Digest, at a later stage. I also got a political awareness from her, which led to my studying the subject at Queen's. She'd always watch the news and encourage me to, and when she got together with her brothers and sisters at granny's, there would often be a colourful political debate.

I realised early on that mum was very intelligent and would have made a brilliant lawyer, detective or accountant, in another life. She has done the VAT returns for our family farm from as far back as I can remember, counting in her head, and has helped guide my dad and brother to success, with her good business decisions.

I was always terrible at maths, and when I had to skip primary four, mum taught me the times-tables over one long summer, drilling the numbers into my head every day, twice a day. She also taught me tenacity.

Every summer, she'd have me and my younger sisters out in the fields, picking peas, pulling beans, pre-packing scallions or 'stooking' (stacking) bails of hay into wig-wam shapes.

We used to grumble constantly about these duties - shelling the peas and beans would dye our fingernails green and the straw would leave pink welts and itch our arms. And on a rainy summer's day, our eyes would run and burn from the wet scallion bulbs.

I'd be raging to have missed going to the swimming pool in Lisburn or into town with my friends, so, as my teens progressed, I was allowed to go and make the lunch (jam sandwiches and tea) and bring it back to the field.

Looking back on those summer holidays, I can see I was learning the value of hard work and discipline. When all the fields were cleared of the crops and the grass and hay, my sisters and I would be paid pocket money to spend on the family holiday, which was always in Donegal.

We used to rent an apartment in the same hotel every year, and poor mum would still have to cook at some stage every day.

All these years on, we like to take her out for lunch or dinner as often as we can - although she always insists on paying. This Sunday, we'll be making the dinner for her at home, while she has a well-deserved rest.

No doubt she'll be giving off about my clothes or hair, but I think I'll let her off with it, this once…

Malachi O’Doherty

My mother was born in 1916, so would be 100 years old this year if she had lived. I am 65, so we both hit key birthdays in the same year. When she was the age I am now, in 1981, she seemed old to me and burnt-out. The early Troubles, among other things, had exhausted and depressed her.

So we never had many adult conversations. I asked her once about her earliest memories and she described herself sitting at a kitchen table with her own mother when the news came through that Michael Collins was dead, and how her mother cried.

The Troubles broke her. Not that she was shot, or had lost any of her close family, but she was depleted by the tension and the horror, though she had known the Blitz in London before I was born. She had been a nurse there.

When I was a child, my mother was simply mummy, the one who got your dinner ready, sent you out to play, to get out from under her feet, and gave you a big penny if you ran to the shops for her.

Some of the images that come back when I cast for them are happy and tender, some are turbulent and worrying.

She smoked a lot. She said her doctor put her on Kensitas filter tips. He also gave her a brush which she was to scrub her gullet with.

From the bathroom door I heard her struggles with it, but when I asked her about it, she dismissed it as nothing.

She enjoyed drinking, too. She and my dad would come back from the pub on Wednesdays and shower our beds with packets of crisps if they had a good night.

Once, over breakfast on holiday in Donegal, she mocked my father for how clumsily he had put her to bed the night before. "A gentleman will always open a lady's bra when she passes out."

That sounds to me like an echo of her London days.

And she was a little posh, or thought of herself as something of a lady. She would correct bad grammar.

I got my own back on her once when she was at the kitchen sink, discussing some misfortune and quoting Omar Khayyam, "The moving finger writes and having writ moves on."

"That should be 'written'." I was ever the smart aleck.

"It's a poem," she said. "In a poem, you can say 'writ'."

I get my literary bent from her, though she didn't much exercise her inclination to write.

When I was 12, I spent a July in the Gaeltacht and she sent me a 10 bob note every week with a letter and her humour cheered me as much as the money.

Once, I stupidly asked a teacher for help to unweave her handwriting and he discovered, what no teacher should have been allowed to know, that my mother was a cynic and a wit.

But I don't have those letters now.

I have seen an article she wrote for a school magazine.

She had scraps of Gilbert and Sullivan in her head. She had little patience for a boy of 15 falling in love, but once when I was stricken with anxiety and wept in her lap she was all consolation and comfort.

She was old-fashioned in her morality. Once, I walked into her bedroom while she was getting dressed and she shrieked as if I had come with a bloodied knife in my hand.

During the early Troubles, she would walk to work past gunfire when the buses were off. Soldiers one night advised her to go back for her safety and she refused.

She lived every day with the expectation that one of her sons would be killed.

One morning, after I had stayed out all night, my father got me to phone her at work to let her know that the body found dumped in an alley wasn't mine.

I felt guilty, not having thought about the anxiety I was causing, and I expected her to be angry, or near gasping with relief, but she was frankly grateful and calm, like someone who, perhaps in the Forties in London, had managed the skill of receiving such news.

A lot of people knew my mother better than I did and she had many stories I didn't get to hear.

But I remember that, on the one year my father forgot her birthday, she cried, so if she was alive today, I would be getting her a card for Mother's Day.

And I would keep the message simple in case she thought I was being a smart aleck again.

Belfast Telegraph

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