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I Was Always Ashamed Of My Mother, But Not Now

Sunday Independent 22 March 2009

As a child, Florence Horsman Hogan was embarrassed by her mother's erratic behaviour and dirty clothing. Now, on Mother's Day, she explains why those feelings have turned to pride

I'VE always been ashamed of my mother. Having had a serious mental illness, she was known as the "madwoman" of the village.

In fact, she became a mother for the first and only time, with me, when she was in her late 40s, and her initial attempts at motherhood were thwarted by the fact that I simply refused to survive on the bottles of tea and sugar she blissfully fed me. My trip to the hospital as a six-week-old infant to be treated for starvation was followed by five years in the local Industrial School in Ballinasloe, to be reared by another wonderful "mother", Sr John Scully. I was then returned to my parents when the school closed down.

But Mammy was beautiful, proud, and had a heart of gold. Born Dympna Conway in the remote village of Ballinagrieve near Loughrea, Co Galway, the youngest child of a relatively well-off farming family of four; adored by her father, she was spoilt rotten.

Having opted not to follow her more academic sisters to secondary school, she was able to pursue her preferred role, I'm told, of ceili dancing, fellas, and dressing up in "fancy" clothes.

Looking back at old sepia photographs of the beautiful woman in a flowery summer dress, pulled in stylishly at the waist by a thick black belt, and a large brimmed sun hat rakishly framing her face, I feel a deep sadness for the woman she was to become, the woman who I knew as my mother.

The Forties and Fifties saw her working in London as a bus conductor, and then as a hairdresser in Galway city. My aunts tell me she was very outgoing, made friends easily, and enjoyed life to the full. Responsibilities were for "eejits" and life was sweet. Sweet, that is, until she started developing signs of the schizophrenia that was to take over her life, and eventually see her die when I was 19.

My father, Jack Horsman, met her when she used to stay with her relations in Eyrecourt. A well-off Catholic family, they lived in a large beautiful house, fronted by two pillars seating two silver eagles, and there was an actual garden with trees, walkways and flowerbeds situated on the roof. Two of the family became priests, and the house was left to the church -- wonderful irony for my mother, who was to spend her life in poverty across the road from it.

Besotted by her looks and vivacious personality, Daddy went against his family's wishes and married her. For both parents, marriage was to change their lives dramatically.

My father, spurned by his Church of Ireland land-owning father, could only get an upstairs portion of a run-down house in the village square for them to live in. With his Bord na Mona income, they should have been comfortably off, but Daddy had two rather expensive friends he liked to play with a lot -- Mr Jameson and Arthur Guinness. This didn't seem to faze my mother.

She often took me with her, house-visiting. Where she went, I went. In those days, she and I were one. Sometimes we'd be greeted with closed doors. At others we were allowed in. Her happiness in the company of others was wonderful to see. I can still remember her infectious peals of laughter either at her own jokes, or at what someone else had said. It was difficult to know, when others laughed, whether they were laughing at her or with her, but she didn't seem to mind. I did.

Many times I'd come home from school as a child to find some homeless beggar ensconced by our fire, Mammy in her element serving up a heel of bread, jam and tea. They would sit there for hours chatting about God only knows what. The only interruption was either my whingeing for food, clambering up on to her lap to guard my territory, or sometimes the mewling of the 14-odd cats. Eau de cat fought with the thick smell of burning turf from the fire for supremacy. Both won. Other times were to witness her doing a ceili dance around the kitchen, humming the music happily to herself.

My shame came from her flamboyance, her moth-eaten fur coat and hat thrown over torn and filthy clothes, her feet and neck black from never being washed. My shame came from the fact that she still saw herself as the bountiful well-bred lady of the manor, when her poverty and the squalor of her surroundings were painfully obvious for all to see.

Mam hadn't a bad bone in her body, and she didn't let the fact that my clothes were usually worn out and filthy deter her from distributing them bountifully on other families in the village. To their credit, they never refused them, but accepted them thankfully -- and then threw them out.

My shame came from the times I'd witnessed her being dragged into a squad car by big burly gardai to be brought to the local psychiatric hospital. Some of the villagers loved to gather at a safe distance to watch the chaotic screaming scene and cheer as she walloped the hell out of whatever officer had the bad luck to let go of her arms.

From what I could see of her personality, she was a quiet, gentle woman, but when the voices in her head were getting too loud, or her own behaviour too erratic, the guards would come, and her personal shame became public property for various neighbours, some concerned and kind, others cruel and jeering.

As I got older, her shame became mine. One day, when I was about 10, I was returning from school. As I rounded the corner, my heart nearly burst out of my chest at the sight of my mother being dragged, screaming, into a car by three guards. She put up a good fight, but they eventually got the better of her. I stood there, alone and shocked. I knew Mammy had to go to hospital to get better as her antics had been getting very strange again. Shouting and hitting the walls, yelling at some unseen entity, a rapid-fire monologue of her family names and address over and over. But no-one had told me she was going in that day.

It was my first and most vivid memory of her being hospitalised, and also the first time I saw a sneering, jeering village man hiding behind the wall of a nearby house to watch the goings-on. How I wish now that I could have challenged him, or come to her defence, or in some way have helped her. But I didn't. Because, you see, I was always ashamed of my mother.

Again, my shame comes from my own reaction to her, and her behaviour. Challenging a woman who forced her to step off a narrow path on to the road one day, she just muttered, "The pup for the path, the ould dog for the hard road," and walked haughtily onwards, her head held high. At the time I was embarrassed by her, now I'm proud of her.

Another day, the hunt master, while sitting literally on his high horse, impeccably dressed in his hunting gear, could only listen helplessly as she informed him loudly in front of the large crowd of riders and onlookers what she thought of his pedigree. Apparently his father had worked for hers years earlier. The local priest didn't fare much better as she frequently vied with him at Mass, her monologue getting louder and louder as he valiantly tried to drown her out with his praying.

Above all, my shame comes from my own treatment of her as a teenager. When I was 12, I had moved out to live with Mammy's sister, Aunt Francis, who also resided in Eyrecourt. She sent me to boarding school, and so began the "taming of the shrew". By my return for the summer holidays, I had homed in on the natural family pride of the "well-bred", as my mother used to say.

My own hygiene, dress sense, and feeling of self-worth were carefully cultivated until I actually saw no reason not to believe that I was as good as most people, and maybe better than some. Imagine my teenage outrage when, on attending a gymkhana at my father's home place with some hunting friends, I saw my mother bear down on me, fur coat flying, fur hat adorning her head, and a red slash of lipstick on her lips.

I hadn't bothered to go see her since I'd returned for the holidays, and her exultation and pride when she saw me was obvious. As she excitedly shouted, "Florrie!" and waved across the field to me, I spun on my heels and headed rapidly in the other direction. On being asked if I knew "that woman", I replied, "No," my face red with embarrassment.

I didn't see Mam's expression, and to this day I'm glad I didn't. My shame of her has turned into my shame of myself, as I turned my back on this beautiful, intelligent and proud woman, her blame for the effect her illness had on my life, being no greater than her blame for the effect it had on her own.

Now, as a mother myself, I see some of her characteristics in myself. My love of flamboyant coats and hats is an on-going family joke, as is my trove of handbags and shoes that threatens to overwhelm my wardrobe. I find talking with people no problem, and my empathic ability a very useful tool in my own career as a nurse.

Being totally tone deaf, I will happily crow my heart out when in the house on my own, and find again and again the old Irish melodies, including those Mam used to sing, come to mind with increasing regularity.

I won't claim to be as beautiful as my mother, but am told by many that I have her smile, her well-defined features, and a certain turn of the head that is reminiscent of her. I hate to see someone being made fun of, and can be driven to an almost uncontrollable rage when I see vulnerable people, either the elderly or children, being badly treated. Our family has always had a menagerie of cats, dogs and rabbits. Now I look at my 10-year-old daughter, Katie, and see elements of myself in her.

She'll talk for Ireland, will stand up for children being attacked or bullied in the schoolyard, and will come to the help of anyone in need, like myself, having no regard for whether they actually want to be helped or not.

And I wonder if at times I bring her shame. Does my behaviour embarrass her? Although our family is unquestionably better off financially because both my husband and I are professionals, it doesn't confer on me any immunity regarding my own behaviour and my daughter's reactions.

Take, for example, my habit of "facing down" anyone in public if they're cursing in front of my child. Katie will beg me to say nothing before we get on the bus -- or, on actually hearing the first swear word from some tosser, her eyes will widen and fill with apprehension at the onslaught she knows is going to be unleashed. Does my seeming inability to concentrate on the mundane things of life, like cooking, irritate her?

Countless times the Sunday roast has gone into the top oven, only for me to to discover hours later that I'd turned on the bottom oven. Occasionally I feel overwhelmed by an inexplicable sadness. and in those times I need to be alone. Does this eccentricity upset her, or does she understand?

I think what matters is that, like my mother and me, you love your child unconditionally. No matter how imperfect you may be, only you can give what every child craves -- their mother's love.