Ballyfermot, Ireland—I patiently follow Dennis’ shiny black leather shoes as they shuffle up the driveway, up to the small, white two-story house. Dennis gets the door for me, and we step into the muck room.
A thick, old TV plays a black and white movie in the adjacent living room; the light of the screen darts across the empty green sofa and matching lazy-boy. Beside the entryway is a small painting of Jesus dying at the cross. It’s how I imagined an Irish household: homey, traditional, and Catholic.
“Sacred heart of God, there you are!” shouts Dennis’s wife, Annie, as the door opens.
I hear her before I see her, her Irish accent echoing from the kitchen. She’s wearing a bright fuchsia sweater, has reddish orange short hair, and a doting smile, standing a total of five foot two with low black heels on. Her eyes meet mine and light up. She pulls me down to her short frame for a tight hug—as if I were her own grandchild. I give out an awkward chuckle. Dennis leaves us, and settles in front of the TV. “Should I put on a pot of tea?” Annie asks me. It’s not really a question, as she’s already begun walking back into the kitchen. I follow her in.
The kitchen is bright with the late afternoon sun, and warm with the heat of an oven that’s been on for hours. One of the walls is covered in taped-on photos of family members; photos of babies and weddings, black and white portraits of old relatives.
“I’ve just ‘bout finished with supper,” Annie’s says as she sets the kettle on the stove, and then pulls a glass pan of potatoes from the oven.
She’s probably seventy, but she whips around the kitchen with familiarity and roller-coaster speed. She’s the quintessential Irish grandmother: the tireless woman, always looking after others and keeping the house in order—what Annie seems to have done her whole life. And she’s good at it.
“I meant to make up an apple tart, but time’s run out,” she sighs.
Annie carries the steaming potatoes over to the yellow table-clothed dining table, which is already piled high with food. She’s made roast beef, mashed and baked potatoes, peas, boiled carrots and cauliflower, two gravy boats filled to the brim, and a bowl of what looks to be fresh popovers. It’s a feast. The tea kettle begins to steam. She fills a red mug with tea, hands it to me, and urges me to sit.
“Dennis, supper!” she calls into the other room.
Annie begins making Dennis a plate. She tells me they are trying to eat healthier.
“We’re getting older, you know. Best be careful with our diet,” she says matter-of-factly, piling his plate high with mashed potatoes.
Dennis trudges into the room, taking a seat at the head of the table. Annie refuses to sit until we are both served and have begun eating—she flutters about us like a chicken, checking on her chicks. Finally, she sits and eats, although she keeps getting up to rotate the plates in and out of the oven, keeping everything warm. I eat a full plate, and then get seconds.
I’m mid-bite when suddenly Dennis breaks the quiet and asks me, “So what do you think about President Trump?” as he chews. I let out a surprised choke. What a conversation starter. “He’s nothing like the Kennedys, is he?” he chuckles.
“We love the Kennedys—those were some classy folks,” Annie nods.
Dennis returns to his potatoes. I change the conversation.
“So what do you do for fun, Dennis?” I ask.
Annie answers for him: “We stay ‘round the house most days.”
“Got ‘nuff to do ‘round here,” Dennis says, chewing.
“And Dennis gardens. He loves his hydrangeas,” Annie coos, gathering empty plates.
Dennis wipes his mouth with his napkin. He looks like he may fall asleep at the table. Annie starts bustling again, bringing the remaining dishes to the sink.
As Dennis slips into his post-meal coma, I ask Annie, “What about you Annie, what do you like to do?”
She scoops the leftovers into plastic Tupperware, chiming,
“Well, I go line dancing—started going every Tuesday. I love the dancing.”
Dennis awakens from his stupor and gets up from the table, returning to the lazy-boy.
“Should I put on a pot of tea? I’ll get out the biscuits and cake,” quips Annie. Before I respond, she’s already put the kettle back on the stove.
“So how did you and Dennis meet?” I ask her.
“Well, Dennis lived four doors down this street. We went to school together—known each other our whole lives, more or less.”
“We got married at 19, and been here ever since. See, I’ve lived in this house for more than 60 years. And that picture has been here the whole time.”
She points a wrinkled finger at one of the black and white photos on the wall and says, “That’s of my mother. She died young, died in this house you know, at just 45. Her portrait’s got a new frame on it now, but she’s always been right there.”
She pours us tea, then sits. I look up at her mother’s portrait—they have the same reddish hair. What a tiny world—two women, living in and cleaning this same house, for their whole lifetimes. The room feels cold.
Annie continues where she left off, stating, “I also spend time watching the grandkids. They come over a lot—they live right down the road. Their parents work a lot, you see. So I take ‘em—I don’t mind.”
Her life as a homemaker and child-raiser continues on into her old age; a simple, predictable, and characteristic life of the Irish female. In Irish culture, the young women get married, raise their children, and then when their children have grown, they mother their grandchildren and their aging husbands. According to the Irish Examiner, 61 percent of grandmothers polled believe their daughters to be more dependent on them than they were on their mothers, explaining why they themselves take on child rearing in their old age—as their daughters will do when they have their own grandchildren. My eyes scan all the fading portraits of women on the wall—the cycling generations of motherhood, watching down on this kitchen, year after year.
Yet Annie doesn’t see her life as bleak; rather, she’s optimistic about the future. “Times have changed, really,” she tells me. “Like me, I never used to speak up for myself. But lately,” she says, turning to face me. “Lately, in the church it’d be night mass, you know. There’d be ‘bout ten of us there, we’d do the gospel, and then the priest would say to us, ‘What did you think?’” Annie sets her cup down. “Well, first couple of weeks, nobody said anything. Well just this particular night, I just didn’t get the gospel—I didn’t get a taint of it. So I said so. The funny thing about it is once I said it, all the others start saying ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ Opened it right up.” She’s proud of herself.
“It was just—growing up, we were held back a lot. That’s why I like the young people today. They don’t hold back.”
She takes a long slow sip of her tea, looking up at her mother’s photo. “I’d do so much if I was your age,” she says, wiping her hands on her apron.
Within the last 50 years, things have changed as much as they have remained the same for Irish women. According to The Irish Times, in 2017, the number of women looking after a family shrank by 36 percent to 417,300, and the number of men minding the home soared to 10,400. Yet with these numbers, while they do show increasing male participation in the household, women still greatly outnumber men. Additionally, more women have started to join the work force—but only 64 percent of Irish women in total are working, compared with more than 70 percent of men. And for women who are working, they are often still doing the housework and raising the children, on top of their full-time jobs. So Irish women are working harder than ever—in the workforce, and still, in their homes. Yet these women are now not without opportunity. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), in 2017 Ireland placed near the top for educational attainment for men and women, indicating that women have equal access to education. Yet, regardless of their opportunities, Irish women still they find themselves trapped in the household. The handcuffs of Irish culture and its gender roles—both traditional and strong—bind them tight.
The following morning, I walk downstairs. Annie’s already made breakfast—she’s been up for hours. Huge plates of sausage, potatoes, beans, fried eggs, and toast crowd the table.
“Morning, dear!” Annie cheers.
She’s back in the same fuchsia sweater, the same floral apron. I hear the TV in the other room. The radio is back on—I’m falling into the pattern of their lives.
“Dennis, breakfast!” Annie calls.
When we’ve finished eating, it’s time for me to head back to the airport.
“We’ve enjoyed having you, dear,” she says with a full-teeth smile. “Sure I can’t make you a sandwich?” she asks. Before I can answer, she cuts me off: “I’ll give you some crisps. Cost a dear price in the airport,” she nods to herself. Then, turning back to me, she says: “You have a nice future. It might be too late for me, but it’s not too late for you, dear.” Her eyes shine up at me. I have a feeling she’s not really talking to me in particular, but to all young women, urging us to fly—while we still can. I smile back, thanking her.
Dennis shuffles towards the front door, car keys jingling in his hand. After a quiet moment—I’m not sure how to say goodbye to her—Annie sighs and leans in to hug me, standing on her toes to kiss my cheek. Clutching my hand, she squeezes it tight before letting me go out the front door; and as I do, I think of all the women this door has closed on—all the women left watching as others walk through.