Why Brendan O’Carroll’s “Mammy” Brown Became “Mummy” Brown

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Analysis: Irish comedian’s appearance in Tyler Perry’s new film suggests just how much Ireland and black America have in common

By Mary Burke, University of Connecticut

At Brendan O’Carroll’s character Agnes “Mammy” Brown, the heart of the long-running RTÉ-BBC series, Mrs. Brown’s Boysnow characteristics in A Homecoming Madea. This is the new film from the powerful African-American comedian, writer, producer and director, Tyler Perrywhich is currently broadcasting worldwide on netflix.

The title character of the hit comedy franchise Madea is a resilient, sharp-tongued African-American matriarch played – not always without controversy – by the male Perry. His name might not be familiar to most Irish people, but Perry is – and there’s no better way to put it – America’s Brendan O’Carroll.

Although the Madea franchise is regularly dismissed as unintellectual (a criticism its fans, like those of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, ignore), it mixes its sensational family comedy-drama with topical socio-political intrigue. In the last film, in which the Black Lives Matter movement is addressed, another plotline is that Madea’s great-grandson, Tim, comes out of the closet, making him the franchise’s first openly gay character. For all the retrograde aspects of a brand of humor that relies on crude references to an elderly woman’s bodily functions, O’Carroll has also turned to progressive issues. lending her creation Mrs Brown campaigning to legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland, for example.

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Trailer for Tyler Perry’s A Madea Homecoming

Agnes’ pronunciation of “panties” is first heard as a racial slur by Madea’s shocked clan, suggesting how the film’s brutal humor draws from the far-from-funny history of racism. America. But Irish criticism of O’Carroll’s star turn seems, at least initially, to have nothing to do with hard-hitting issues. Instead, it’s a complaint that Netflix’s English subtitles rendered Agnes’ daughter’s pronunciation of “mammy” as “mommy.” (In fact, we don’t always know which word Jennifer Gabney uses in her role as Cathy Brown.)

To an Irish commentator, this replacement may seem simply irritating, but America’s racial history underpins any deliberate decision to make a replacement. ‘Granny’ is a historical stereotype of black women who cared for white children who emerged from pro-slavery literature in the early 19th century. The unwaveringly loyal “mammy” was portrayed as a sunny, overweight, motherly woman, content to be enslaved or in her role as a servant.

Mammy’s portrait by Hattie McDaniel in carried away by the wind (1939), adapted from the Irish-American author by Margaret Mitchell novel of this title, is the most familiar example of the stereotype for Irish audiences. Although it focuses on her daughter Scarlett O’Hara, Mitchell’s 1936 novel begins with Scarlett’s father, an Irish-born slave plantation owner, Gerald, who sees no connection between the oppression in Ireland that he had fled and the slave system of the South.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Liveline in October 2021, Brendan O’Carroll talks about 10 years of Mrs Brown’s Boys

Gerald’s Catholic landowning ancestors had been defeated by Cromwell, and he swore that “the fortunes of the O’Haras would rise again.” However, the black bodies pay for Cromwell’s sins and Gerald rids himself of any instinctive empathy he might have felt for those he enslaves. Mitchell’s genealogy also reflects the fact that oppressed Irish people could become oppressors when the opportunity arose: his Tipperary-born great-grandfather, whose family fled the 1798 uprisingowned a slave plantation in Georgia.

Even if the change from “mammy” to “mummy” was just the unintended result of a captioning algorithm, that doesn’t take away from the laudable fact that the Perry-O’Carroll crossover generated a storyline that takes black Irish identity. Much noise is being made about Tim’s exit, but a quietly groundbreaking plot point has gone unnoticed.

Tim brings his roommate to the family reunion to celebrate his college graduation, and that friend, half-breed Davi O’Malley (played by Isha Blaaker), is the son of an Irish mother and had lived with his great-aunt in Ireland. This is Brendan O’Carroll’s excuse to join the action as Davi’s great-aunt shows up for the graduation party and turns out to be Agnes Brown.

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From RTÉ Podcasts, first episode of The Black & Irish podcast with Leon Diop, Femi Bankole, Amanda Ade and Boni Odoemene

“I’m Irish,” Davi announces to Madea’s clan, and no one bats an eyelid. The impossibility of the category of Black Irish in the strictly segregated universe of carried away by the wind is mocked in Alice Randall’s 2001 parody novel, the wind is gone, in which nearly everyone, including Scarlett, turns out to be mixed race. (This last novel is more historically accurate in this regard.)

The 2009 election of a black president descended of a famine-era emigrant Co Offaly challenged the belief that to be Irish American is invariably to be white, though that comes back when Madea’s African-American family tie, Mr Brown, laughs loudly jokingly that he and Mrs. Brown must be in a relationship. However, Perry’s creation of Davi ultimately implies that Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brown might be related. Agnes invites Madea to Ireland at the end of the film, so we might find out eventually.

A Homecoming Madea suggests how much Ireland and black America share – notably the love of middle-aged straight comedians dressed in women’s clothing

The theme of the returning emigrant in search of roots in the “old turf” – illustrated by The quiet man – was knowingly knocked down by by Roddy Doyle short story Welcome to Harlem in The deportees and other stories. This 2007 story is about a mixed-race Irish student who travels to New York to find his African-American GI grandfather.

This underscores how recognition of the complex history of Black-Irish relations in America is also emerging in Irish culture. As Mitchell’s genealogy and romance are intimate, it’s not always a great story, but it’s nonetheless one that’s gaining recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. Absolutely, A Homecoming Madea suggests how much Ireland and black America share – notably their love of straight, middle-aged male comedians dressed in women’s clothing.

Professor Mary Burke directs the Irish Literature Concentration at University of Connecticut. She is the author of Race, politics and Irish America (OUP) and the afterword to the reissue of Tramp by Juanita Casey Selene Horseboth to come.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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