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Sunday, 11 May 2014

To Mother or to Mothering?


From now until May 11, the Irish emigrant communities in Australia, Canada and the US will run a daily gauntlet of shops and advertisements telling them to think of their mothers. And if this isn’t enough to make them feel bad, they are probably still feeling guilty about missing Mother’s Day when it was celebrated in Ireland and Britain six weeks ago. Why can’t Mother’s Day be the same date everywhere, the beleaguered exile laments.

Mothers and children queueing for smallpox vaccinations in 1962

It turns out that Mother’s Day is actually an American invention, just as the cynics have complained for years. It was declared an official holiday in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson after years of vigorous campaigning and lobbying by Anna Jarvis. It was Jarvis who chose the second Sunday in May as the date for the celebration, and she even specified that it should be the singular possessive of “Mother’s Day”, so that each family or person would honour their own mother.

Mrs Luke Casey celebrating winning a new home for her new family with 5-month-old Leslie
after the houses for newly-weds draw in 1962

The day was a big success, and its influence soon spread outside the US, including in Ireland and Britain. Although it was decided to adopt the concept there, the date was altered to coincide with the old Christian festival of Mothering Sunday, where servants were given a Sunday off to attend their ‘mother church’ – their nearest cathedral or large church. It also became a day when child labourers were allowed return home to visit their mother. This tradition was on the wane at the same time as Mother’s Day was introduced, and people hoped adopting Mother’s Day would stop the slide. However, the two events became confused with each other and the religious aspects of Mothering Sunday soon fell by the wayside.

Fr Donal O'Sullivan from Ballinacurra, Co. Limerick, giving his first blessing to his mother after his ordination at Clonliffe College in 1964

It’s thanks to American soldiers based in England during World War II that flowers became the standard gift for mothers. They started giving bunches of wildflowers to the English women that fed and took care of them. After the war, the flowers remained a tradition, though the day was changed back to the old Mothering Sunday date; the fourth Sunday in Lent.