Chronicles Insight - The Irish Mammy

Friday, 20 March, 2020
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The trope of the Irish Mammy has been a consistent fixture in the film, television, and literature of our country. From stern matriarch yielding the feared wooden spoon, to stoic and long-suffering carer, Irish maternal figures are certainly not in short supply in popular culture. Brendan O’Carroll’s book, ‘The Mammy’, showcases our beloved matriarchs wonderfully, as does Brenda Fricker’s portrayal of Christy Brown’s mother in the critically acclaimed film, ‘My Left Foot’. 

Chronicles Insight - The Irish Mammy

Though the everyday actions of our Irish Mammies have undoubtedly shaped the Irish nation by helping generations of Irish people, at home and abroad, they sadly have largely gone unremarked by history. 

As Mother’s Day approaches in Ireland, let’s take a moment to remember one Irish woman in particular who was a mother to many and earned the monikers, ‘The Angel of the Delta’ and ‘The Mother of Orphans’. 

Margaret Haughery 

Margaret Haughery was born Margaret Gaffney in Tully, County Leitrim on Christmas Day 1813. Her parents were William and Margaret Gaffney. Like many people at the time in rural Ireland, she was born into terrible poverty. When she was five years old, Margaret’s family left Ireland in search of a better life, although her three older siblings remained in Ireland in the care of their Uncle. The ones who undertook the voyage were her parents, her older brother Kevin, and her baby sister Kathleen. Although the trans-Atlantic voyage was never an easy one, Margaret’s family underwent a particularly trying ordeal. The ship was troubled by severe storms, which saw them being blown 400 miles off course. The journey ended up taking an arduous six months to complete. As provisions ran short, many of the passengers suffered terrible starvation, and Margaret’s infant sister sadly passed away shortly before the ship finally docked in Baltimore. 

The family settled into life in Baltimore where Margaret’s father found work on the docks. Things were going well for the family, and they were saving up to pay for the elder siblings to join them. Unfortunately, tragedy was not far away. A yellow fever epidemic took the lives of both of Margaret’s parents in close succession. Shortly thereafter, her brother Kevin mysteriously vanished and was never heard from again. The then nine-year-old Margaret was alone in the world, orphaned and homeless. She was taken in by a kind woman whom the family had befriended on their journey from Ireland. She now had a roof over her head. Margaret worked for her keep, but did not receive any formal education and therefore was unable to read or write. 

Margaret married in 1835, but her husband Charles was in poor health, so the couple relocated to New Orleans where the climate suited him better. Sadly the change of scenery was not enough and Margaret’s husband died, followed closely by their only daughter. For the second time in her life, Margaret had lost her family. 

Margaret’s intense loss did not diminish her charitable spirit. She began to volunteer at a New Orleans orphanage. As well as giving her time, Margaret also donated clothes and money. She had been working at a hotel, but she eventually left this position so that she could devote all of her time to the orphans of New Orleans. She dedicated herself to raising funds for the orphanage and succeeded in this effort to the extent that more facilities were able to open. She was put into an administrative role overseeing the running of the orphanages. She used her own savings to purchase cows so that the orphanages would have a steady source of milk. By selling the surplus she was able to grow the herd and eventually had enough money to open a second business when she bought a bakery which then supplied the orphanages with incredibly cheap bread. 

Margaret herself passed away on the 9th of February 1882 after contracting an incurable disease. She was 69 years old. Margaret knew what it was to be orphaned. She knew the pain of losing her entire family, having suffered through such tragedy not once, but twice. Although she lost her own child, she dedicated her life to providing for the orphaned children of New Orleans, and thereby became a mother to countless children. Her efforts did not go unnoticed. She was honoured with a large funeral, and the notice of her death was printed on the front page of a New Orleans newspaper. Two years after her death, a monument dedicated to her memory was erected in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. 

Our Mammies Today

Though most of the Irish Mammies from our history don’t have their own monuments, let’s take this Sunday to fondly remember all the acts of kindness that our mothers and grandmothers have done for us, whether they are still with us today or long passed on. For every lovingly prepared meal, the darned school uniforms, and the flat lemonade administered as a cure for all ailments. The Irish Mammy is more than just a character in our books and films, she is an institution that is absolutely here to stay. 


Margaret Haughery

margaret haughery


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