My top five influential women

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Reading about International Women’s Day over the weekend got me thinking about all the amazing women, past and present, who have shaped my life. And I don’t mean public or historical figures, though there are plenty of those as well. No, what I am talking about are those women, that for one reason or another moulded my thoughts and behaviour, and made me into the woman I am today. So in this particular post, I’d like to share some of them with you.

One of the biggest influences on me, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was my Aunty Madge. She wasn’t my aunt, but my great-aunt on my mother’s side; and Aunty Madge, once you met her, was impossible to forget. She was this great ball of energy and fun, always up for a laugh, and still getting into mad escapades at the ripe auld age of 84. If anyone was Madge’s heroine, I would imagine it would be tough dames like Mae West or Barbara Stanwyck, the latter whom she physically resembled somewhat. Madge in my eyes was a bit of a legend: She left Tralee possibly in the 1930s, but definitely was involved in the war effort in London. She used to regale us with stories of working as a nurse during the Blitz, running across London with a mattress on her back to avoid being hit by bombs (though how a mattress would have protected one I’m still not quite sure to this day), and how much fun the whole war was. Whether it was or not, I’m not sure; but I have the sneaking suspicion that wherever she was, Madge’s natural inclination was to party on. My abiding memory of her was sitting in our back bedroom at home, in her bra and girdle, glass of whisky in one hand, fag in the other, holding court. Even into her eighties, she wasn’t short of male attention either; she was the very embodiment of how to grow old disgracefully. Madge never married, but one always had the feeling it was because she couldn’t be bothered with living conventionally, and even as a very shy and introverted child, I only realize what a great example of how to set your own rules in life Aunty Madge was. Her sister Joan was completely the opposite – cold, conventional, disapproving, giving the air of being disappointed in her lot; and even as a seven year old I knew which Aunty I wanted to emulate.

Though she wasn’t as gregarious as Madge, another great-aunt who fascinated me was my Aunt Celia. Celia had an amazing phrase that I still use jokingly with my friend Stephanie. My mum was talking to Celia one day about my father, and probably things weren’t going so well – certainly my mum was complaining about something he had done, or hadn’t done. Celia listened at length to what my mum was saying, and then gave her a hugely pithy piece of advice in her broad Queens’ accent: “Well, Mary, you gotta man, so you gotta PRAH-BLEM”. To this very day, that bit of advice cracks me up – it also says a multitude in a very short sentence. As much as personally women may love men, they are a completely different species in many ways, and therefore an endless source of bewilderment and sometimes frustration to us. This is not to belittle men either; I am sure the same applies the other way around. It also was my Aunt Celia’s very succinct way of telling my Mum to just get on with it. Again, Aunt Celia was a maiden aunt; she had an affair with an older man who bought her an apartment above my grandparents house in Flushing. It was the cutest, loveliest little girl-pad that one could imagine as well – very dainty and clean with lots of references to China. In fact, one of our favourite things to do as children was to run up to the landing between Cel’s apartment and my grandparents house and bang the gong on the landing for dinner. She wasn’t as funny or as harum-scarum as Madge; Celia was an elegant lady, with a perfect coiffure which she dyed jet-black to the day she died.

The other lady who influenced me hugely, but who is no longer as much a part of my life as she once was (due mainly to time passing quicker than I would like, and me being maybe not as careful about keeping in touch as I should be) is someone who I call my second mother, Marie. From the age of 7 to 17 I suffered from childhood, then adolescent acne. Not that I want to go into this in too much detail at the moment, but suffice it to say that acne made my life a complete misery. This wasn’t any old common gardener type of acne either – the top dermatologist in Cork told me at the tender age of 11 that this was the worst case of childhood acne he had every seen. My poor mum tried everything – any topical solution, any medication for acne that was available we tried, to no avail. Then, through a former student of hers, she found out about this woman who was treating people through holistic methods, and at the age of 16 I met Marie.

At this time, my confidence and sense of self-worth was at an all-time low. I had huge angry cysts all over my neck and back, blackheads on every part of my body. My dad had just died, and I had gone through two years of constant bullying at school. The main thing I remember from Marie at that initial meeting was just this aura of warmth and unconditional love. Her methods, though strange at the time (a mixture of overhauling my diet, laser, Rene Guinot skincare, and Turkish baths) actually started to work; but added to this was the encouragement I got from Marie as well. She is one of those amazing people that makes you feel as if you were the most important person in the world to her, and she had an incredible thirst to discover new ways of doing things. She had started working as a model in the 1960s; and I never tired of hearing her stories of learning about hair from Vidal Sassoon, or working with Rene Guinot, or the many exciting business projects she always had on the go. Though her marriage was not the happiest, she never seemed to let it get her down, or stop her moving forward. She was really my first big lesson in always to paddle one’s own canoe, and to always take responsibility for one’s own happiness. When I graduated from university, besides my family, she was the one person who I really wanted to see me receive my degree; and she did.

Another very early mentor was the woman who gave me my first acting job: Musetta Joyce. From the age of 7, maybe because of my skin problems, I would lock myself away in a world of make-believe – which sometimes felt more real and preferable to my life as it actually was. Funnily enough, the one area of my life that I felt in control of was my ability to perform, and I used to delight in putting on little shows for the neighbourhood: a “circus” one year, a variety show the next – I even directed a version of The Sound of Music (I played Maria of course) where all the nuns wore veils made out of bin liners and where we forgot what happened at the end of the movie, so Rolf ended up running away from the Nazis with the Von Trapps. Musetta is the mother of my oldest friend, Zelda; and it was through her that I found out, contrary to received wisdom at the time, that one could make a living out of this performing lark. She had been an actress for RTE radio, and at the Gate Theatre Dublin in the 1960s; but then abandoned it to go live in Sicily and pursue family life. However, around 10 years after I met Zelda and consequently Musetta, she started putting on shows in Cork, and gave me a part in “An Inspector Calls” (I played the small but very vital one-line role of Edna the maid). After that, she gave me bigger roles in subsequent productions, which, besides the obvious confidence this engendered, gave me a lot of practical experience as well. Not only that, her door has always been open to me in many other ways – advice about both my career and personal life – and again, from this remarkably optimistic and go-getting woman, I learnt those lessons that no amount of schooling can offer you.

So, I may have saved the best for last, because the final woman who has been an influence on me (perhaps the biggest) is my Mum. My Mum and myself have a relationship that has been forged over many years, many differences, and many similarities. Maybe every daughter feels like this, but it is similar to that line from “A Tale of Two Cities” – “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”. My Mum was the person who, when I expressed a real interest in learning the piano at age 6, fought tooth and nail to get me the best she could afford. This wasn’t easy; we had huge financial problems, and my dad was a house-husband at that time. But she made sure I got my piano, which is still in her house to this day, and lessons to boot. She played opera at home: the likes of Renata Tebaldi in Aida, Joan Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor. She brought me to the theatre at an early age, to any musical that was going on in Cork, and some straight plays; in fact the first Shakespeare I remember seeing was Macbeth in the Everyman Palace (a performance for students; and I do remember, as a 13 year old, wondering why all the students sniggered at the line about suckling a baby to the breast…). However after my dad died of cancer, all the differences between myself and my Mum seemed to be highlighted and grow bigger, and admittedly, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see why. My father’s death was the final straw in a childhood and young adulthood that had included an overwhelming amount of abandonment in different forms, and with nowhere else to turn, my mother threw herself into her teaching work which she adored. In the meantime, I was out drinking and nightclubbing from the age of 16, living by day as a serious straight A student, and by night as a rebellious teenager. There were other factors in the interim, that lead me to accept that though I loved my Mum, I didn’t want to be like her; and then about two years ago, after she became seriously ill, the warring finally stopped. What has emerged since then has been the realization that subconsciously she has been the biggest contributor to my development as a human being, and by recognizing her frailties and foibles, I have also come to embrace and accept my own. She is an amazing woman in many ways: there are not many women from a staunchly Roman Catholic background that would consciously “live in sin” for the last 19 years (her boyfriend would like them to get married, but my Mum doesn’t set any store by marriage after trying it once), or be able to accept that one son is gay, the other Muslim; but she does, and despite some family feuding, seems to balance it admirably. Among her friends is an older transsexual, and again, despite some curiosity, she totally accepts her for who she is. She also is passionate about her vocation, teaching special needs teenagers; and though she officially “retired” 3 years ago, she has had more comebacks than Sinatra. She also has a latent interest in just causes; and though she won’t get involved in politics on a more active basis, she always votes, and for example flexes her democratic muscles in different ways: for example, like many other Irish people she boycotted South African goods in the 1980s, and now she boycotts Israeli goods as a matter of principle. In addition to this, she retains her individuality within her relationship by making sure she spends time by herself and looking after her own needs, and also has become more adventurous the older she has gotten (taking holidays abroad, learning Spanish and step-dancing). There is nothing that my Mum has set her mind on that she hasn’t achieved for herself, and that in itself is a magnificent role-model. She is my very own living, breathing Mother Courage in her own way.

The women I’ve talked about above aren’t record breakers. They will probably never be on any lists of the top 100 women. But they are women who by their example have shown me that we can all help each other, little by little, break through that glass ceiling to equality. The road may be long; it may be arduous, and frustrating, because whether it is acknowledged or not, sexism does still exist, and it may be centuries before it disappears altogether. We do what we can in this life; and hope that when we go, we may have been instrumental in passing the sisterhood baton on to other prospective women. If you do one thing on International Women’s Day, maybe remember one woman who has contributed positively to your life, and then thank them silently. I’m going to leave this post with a little saying that hangs on my Mum’s kitchen wall, and maybe is the way forward for feminism:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference.

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