The Fabric of Memory

For my grandmother, the white piqué skirts and satin hair-ribbons, and the lace pinafore worn by baby Evie, in this photo of my mother and her sisters were expressions of respectability as well as style. Money was scarce and my granny's motto was "we have to keep the best side out."

That motto was used in many an Irish family. As I say in my memoir A Woven Silence, I find it admirable and disturbing in equal measure. While the resilience it expresses is remarkable, it has certainly contributed to Ireland's unwillingness to confront its culture of gender inequality.

Evie died young but Cathleen, on the left in the photo on the cover above, and my mother, on the right, grew up with my grandmother's sense of style. Which I think must be why, as I drafted the book, I found that my own image of my aunt Cathleen expressed itself continually in images of fabric and fashion. 

She was unmarried and a career-woman, the only role-model in my childhood that offered an alternative to the accepted vision of an Irishwoman as a wife and stay at home mother. I remember her tiny Dublin flat where her favourite travel books jostled with catalogues from art exhibitions, how she could pack for a flight at ten minutes notice, and how she had a dozen different ways of twisting and tying a scarf.

And yesterday, in a shop called Britain Can Make It, in Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, she sprang vividly to my mind.

Cathleen adored the work of the designer Lucienne Day, an exponent of a visual modernism that had little or no place in post-World War Two Ireland.

I remember worn-out 1940s and 50s dresses and curtain fabric in Day's stunning colours and designs jumbled together in my mother's rag bag and recycled into smocks for me and shirts for my sisters. And the Belfast linen tray cloths and tea towels that Cathleen would produce as presents and my mother would tuck away in drawers as too good for everyday use. 


And then there they were again yesterday in Elephant and Castle. The colours and shapes and designs and that beautiful linen. All the cosmopolitan courage and flair that  Ireland lacked in my childhood and Cathleen brought into our home.




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