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Things moms said

April 14, 2010

By Staff Reporter

Books by Peter McDermott

I’ve never liked the sort of novelty book that is short on text and has little in the way of illustration.

It brings to mind for me Harpo Marx’s grandfather. Let me explain. Apparently, that gentleman who came to New York late in life and spoke no English would take to Manhattan’s streets with each heavy downpour of rain. He sold umbrellas. In more recent decades, African immigrants and others have been catering to that niche in the market.

The umbrella story was told in the comedian’s 1961 memoirs “Harpo Speaks!” but didn’t make the cut for a slight volume of extracts from a few years back called “Harpo Speaks . . . about New York.” The latter was marketed as a “gift” item. I saw it on sale in the fine bookstore of the Tenement Museum, an institution that stresses the continuity of the immigrant experience over the generations. From that perspective at least, “Harpo Speaks . . . about New York” was a pointless exercise. In any case one might reasonably ask: why not just sell the original book?

You can’t really feel cheated by “My Mother Always Used to Say” (published by Currach Press and distributed in the U.S. by Dufour Editions). For one thing, the proceeds go to charity — the Kitty Whittle Fund in Dublin’s north inner city. And, for another, though it’s a little book with not a lot of text, the idea works really well.

Editor Valerie Bowe, who is by day a community worker, managed to get more than 100 well-known people to offer up some maternal or paternal piece of wisdom, catchphrase or admonition that they recalled from their childhood.

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More than half of her contributors are Irish-based personalities – politicians, broadcasters, writers, sports people and so on, but quite a few foreigners also feature, such as Jeremy Irons, Joanna Lumley, Brigitte Bardot, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and his wife Cherie Blair. President Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth and Michael Flatley were among those who gracefully declined.

Some of the offerings might seem a little banal given that they’re so familiar, but as your mother might have said: what of it?

Less familiar perhaps is the advice that author Dermot Bolger got from his father: “Do anything you want with your life, but just don’t go to sea.” Gate Theatre Artistic Director Michael Colgan’s mother used to say: “Marry for money and you’ll earn it.” TV presenter and garden designer Diarmuid Gavin’s mother spoke for them all when she said: “Your mother is never wrong.”

The now retired Michael Parkinson, a more intelligent talk-show interviewer than America has ever had to offer, passed on this line from his father, who was a miner in the north of England: “If I ever see you at the pit gates, I’ll kick your backside all the way home.”

Mairead McGuinness, a member of the European Parliament, reports that her mother would say: “We’ll sit down when we get all the little jobs done” and “Get up and help your father” and “Get up and don’t let anyone see you in bed at this hour of the day.”

The last reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of parental advice, to which I partly credit my being a perennial early riser no matter how late the party was the night before. My late father used to say: “If you’re not up by 10 o’clock, you can throw your hat at the day.”

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