Rural Ireland

Mary Strong: Do you know why?

Outward Appearance

I grew up in 1980’s rural Ireland. A tranquil, scenic lane was my place of residence. Full and vibrant pink blossom trees lined the driveway. The perpetual hum of the machines making hay filled the air during hot summer days. In addition, the sight of an entire family sitting in the rear tractor box was the norm. They were bobbing up and down to the rhythm of the tractor’s motion.

Dogs barked quietly as the children were playing.  Huddled together at the boundary hedge, mothers shared their woes and, more importantly, swapped advice. Often,  the moms would chat as they soothed a crying baby in one arm and serve as a refuge for a timid toddler in the other arm. They were simultaneously remaining oblivious to the many other children running in circles playing chase within proximity. Conversely, the scene portrayed outdoors gave the impression of communal harmony. However, behind closed doors, it was a different story.

The Family

I was the youngest in the family. Three older brothers had arrived before me as the only girl. My Dad was a hard-working man on the motors and farm. Although working many hours, he portrayed a chirpy demeanor, for the most part. I recall hearing him humming or singing a tune as he went about his business.

We had a small farm with chickens, some cows, and at times a baby lamb. I recall dogs had a permanent presence on the farm. The income from the farm alone was insufficient to maintain the growing family, so Dad also drove a lorry. He appeared to work all hours of the day and night. I recall only seeing him for quick ten-minute meals three times daily throughout my young years. I longed to see him more as he represented the strong, funny, handsome figure in my young female mind. However, that was not to be, and I accepted things readily from the adults around me as children do.

My mother was and had always been the homemaker.  She would tell me tales of her childhood experience of tending to every need of her eight older brothers from a very early age. She recounted cooking, cleaning, and serving the male occupants of her small two-bedroom terrace home growing up.

Retrospectively, Mary recalls Mom living a mundane existence in the very early years where the weekly trip to the supermarket and mass were her only escape from the confines of domestic chores.

In her heart, it appeared that Mom resented her mundane existence and had aspirations of grandeur.  I recall the many times my mom would stare endlessly out the kitchen window as she relayed fantasies of resembling Doris Day, Judy Garland, or some other iconic figure at that time. As a young child, that is how I saw her, believing in admiration the words from my mother’s lips. She would predict that she would be famous someday as a wonderfully talented actress and singer. Furthermore, as far as Mom was concerned,  the world had just not yet discovered her talents.


As we small children grew older, Mom became an active participant in the local musical society and church choir to display her talents. Unfortunately, other members and leaders were oblivious to Mom’s outstanding talents. I recall on several occasions. Mom returned from practices and commenced a full-blown outburst. The details of her ranting words were along the lines of ‘how could I not be the chosen lead part? Mary, so and so, couldn’t sing if her life depended on it.’  It appears Mom was the only one who believed in her exceeding acting and singing abilities. I recall feeling scared during those times of Mom’s anger but also heartbroken for her not receiving her preferred role. Confusion filled my young mind at times.

I was close to my three older brothers. Moreover,  looking to them for guidance. For the most part, I was accepted among their friends and even seen as ‘one of the boys.’ That acceptance gave me a sense of belonging and inclusion in my early years. I recall special moments such as climbing the trees or making mobile gigs ( a homemade go-cart type vehicle), building houses from bales of hay, or running up the side of the haycock with them and sitting by the fire playing farm or train sets with them on a cold winter’s day. The rare but special occasion when I would sneak into their bedroom for a late-night chat.  Those times are my memories to treasure.

Neighborhood Joy

To feed my female intuitions, I loved spending time playing house with my dolls. Suppose there was a dog or a cat around willing to participate, even better. I recall summer days taking my kitten (lucky) for a walk. Shaded by the large trees on our lane, I would parade my baby around in the pram for all the neighbors to see and admire as I passed them. I wallowed with pride as I received glances of admiration at my new ‘baby.’ Retrospectively how kind it was of the adults to engage me in my fantasy world of innocent make-believe during my childhood.

Molly and Lucy were prime examples. They were two elderly ladies who lived three doors down.  Chatting with them became one of my favorite pastimes. Molly and Lucy appeared to have an endless supply of little bags of boiled sweets from the local confectioner. They would share those sweets with us, which, at that time, were a rare treat. Sweets and charms were not prevalent at that time in our lives.  I believed as a child that Marietta was the only biscuit in existence until I moved out into the broader world of reality.

Exploration was part of my childhood. I recall enjoying rooting through unforbidden territory within our small home at any given opportunity. The weeks preceding Christmas, of course, were fascinating. Looking back, I recall many years when I found presents that would later appear from Santa. I can honestly say for several years, my young mind would somehow subconsciously convince myself that I had not seen the presents previously. I believed the adult’s explanation that Father Christmas was a kind stranger who came down our chimney each year, leaving us gifts. However, I remained a curious child.

One year I found an actual small box of quality street sweets in my mom’s wardrobe. I can not put into words the sheer amount of joy I felt. Particularly true when I discover my small finger could slide into the side of the box. The fact that my small finger fit in meant that I could retrieve and taste a sample with careful execution. I was approximately eight years old. In my memory, this was my first experience of what was, to me, expensive chocolate. I slowly unwrapped it; the smell alone was overwhelming, beautiful. But the taste of the flavors as they melted in my mouth, I  still recall today.

If only I had been satisfied with that chocolate. But no, I found myself creeping into Mom’s wardrobe daily for many days after that, until the box was empty. Now I’m aware it may appear that a (tiny) Quality street box would be insignificant to disturb, but not in my world.

Two days before Christmas, Mom was amid preparations when all hell broke loose. She went into the kitchen screaming, kicking furniture, and lunging at me. She was shouting all sorts of obscenities at me.  Words such as how disgusting, ugly, horrible, horrendous a child I was. It became the norm for me to hear those words throughout my childhood years. Degradation was the general theme each time.

Inherent Joy

As children do, I learned to accept and expect those adjectives from my Mom describing me regularly; in my early childhood, inherent optimism filled with aspirations of unlimited success, optimism, and joy. I excelled at creative activities and singing. I was rewarded and admired for my talents by the school and community. Success for me appeared to ignite fury within Mom. She would then direct it back at me. I recall many occasions of retribution for my acts of conquest. The first and most significant being on my first holy communion day.

On the day of the celebration, I completed a solo hymn for the congregation within my hometown. I was congratulated and praised by many. I loved to sing and was happy that others had enjoyed it also. It was an extraordinary moment for me. However, like many of my future joyous moments, Mom would somehow manage to end my joy abruptly.

On the occasion of my first holy communion, for example, I recall Mom taking me to the back of the church, where we were alone and shaking my body, hitting me up against the old stone wall. As she did so, she screamed directly into my face, telling me how ugly, stupid, disgusting a child I was. Unsurprisingly, I recall feeling shocked, and my head was sore from the spiky stones protruding from the wall. However, I was puzzled as to why  Mom was angry. I had hoped to please her. I later discovered the reason.  According to Mom, I had sung the wrong word in the song and had embarrassed her.

As the years passed and I listened to the messages of disapproval within my home, my opinions of myself changed. I felt worthless, ugly, and useless. I also experienced dark times of depression and anxiety.

Changed Beliefs

There were many turbulent times,  particularly in my teenage years. The low self-esteem and anxiety I felt resulted in self-destructive behavior patterns. In a bid to escape the control of my family home, I married at the age of thirty. My husband was coercively controlling.  Retrospectively, I realized abuse was the only form of love I had known all my life.

During my marriage, I had three children and new love from deep within me.  I survived daily in my unhappy relationship due to that deep love. Determined to instill support, love, and confidence within each of my children, I learned and implemented strategies daily to support them. Admittedly,  I did not always get it right.

When my daughter came of age and refused to accept ill-treatment, my marriage began to crumble. She instigated the end of any mistreatment by my ex-husband. Although I was highly hesitant (through fear) to leave my controlling marriage, my strength came from my children.

I am so grateful to have rebuilt a happy, successful life. I can now be an example to my three children as we advance. They have the strength within them to overcome any challenge that life may throw at them.

Victor Franklin’s famous quote insinuates. If we can find our ‘why’ in any given situation, we will always find our ‘how’.!

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