The Calor Housewife of The Year

In the minds of many a thirtysomething, there is a clear distinction between the Ireland of our childhood and the Ireland of today. We can afford to chuckle indulgently at such historical faux pas as Flahavan’s Tracksuits and institutionalised homophobia, because they belong to a different time. Came the modern age, and these things were swept away. We, mere children at the time, are not implicated. It was all so unimaginably different and all so long ago.

A look at the chronology says different, however. Ireland did not enter modernity at the same time as we entered our teens. Indeed, as we approach middle age, there are many respects in which it still hasn’t entered it now. Many of the most egregious effusions of embarrassing old Ireland died a slow rather than a sudden demise, to the degree that it can often be hard to find the exact date of death.

This much I can confirm. As late as 1995, there was such a thing as The Housewife of the Year Award. It was actually on the telly. Not in the dim and distant past, but in the mid-90’s, a time when we were drinking lattes and you could buy condoms without even having to have a prescription from a doctor or anything.

The fact that the Housewife of the Year, or to give it its full, sponsored title, the Calor Kosangas Housewife of the Year, existed at all will probably be enough to blow certain under-25 minds, and to confirm the view of The Young (which has always been the view of The Young, since the dawn of time), that The Past was fucked up. Lest the Young get any ideas that they were born into a brave new world, I remind them that today, in 2012, The Angelus on TV is still a thing.

I feel sorry for the Young. There they are, with their asymmetrical haircuts and their long-term unemployment, ignorant of most of the cultural shorthand that now dominates Irish popular culture. As we once were, they are maddened by the persistence of certain patently outmoded and reactionary cultural phenomena. And yet, not only will these embarrassing relics of the past not die, but their elders (i.e. us) insist on bringing more of them back from the grave. Because there is apparently nothing, from The Riordans to Tuberculosis, that cannot become a focus of thirtysomething nostalgia. Did you know it’s been almost a dozen years since the big foot and mouth outbreak? Let’s start a facebook petition to “Bring it Back”!

I now understand why some cultural entities just won’t go away. Surely all the people who bought Ireland’s Own when I was young are dead by now. The current audience probably started reading it ironically in the mid-90’s and eventually got to like it. Suddenly, its longevity becomes less mysterious.

The Calor Housewife’s tearaway younger sister, The Rose of Tralee was saved (ironically) by Father Ted. The “Lovely Girls” episode was such a pitch-perfect parody that it seemed to breathe new life into the competition that inspired it. The single, vital ingredient, camp, has saved the Rose for generations to come. It hasn’t changed, but the way we watch it has. The Rose will run and run, because Irish people love it when we can find an easy rationalisation for not changing anything.

I am not so sure the Calor Housewife can be as easily salvaged for the delectation of the sophisticates we have now become. The makeover would need to be fairly radical. But there are still options. I suggest that the competition go one of two ways: the Etsy route, or the Domestic Goddess one. The Domestic Goddess model will appeal to advertisers after that Desperate Housewives/Sex & The City market, and it has the benefit of making explicit the assumptions of the original competition: that wifely duties are primarily focussed on sex and cooking. Admittedly, the sex part was more to do with procreation back in the Calor Housewife’s heyday, but a move towards raunch would be but a small adjustment in the interests of long-term stability. Women will still be forced into narrowly defined and impossible to fulfil roles, and that’s the important thing. You have to change if you want to stay the same.

The Etsy route may not have the same broad commercial appeal, but a niche might still be carved out by an indie-soundtracked night of competitive kookiness, wherein a dozen giggling Zooey Deschanel haircuts are interviewed by Dathaí Ó Sé about their about their quirky personal styles. I would probably watch it.

Whichever approach is chosen, a token house-husband will be required to provide liberal cover for the event. Because at the end of the day, no matter how much you rebrand, there are conceptual problems with the Housewife of the Year. It was won and lost via three rounds. The first, competitive cooking, is more popular than ever. The last, a party piece, or “turn”, can be quite easily glammed up in the style of a Simon Cowell production. But the third event is, er, problematic. It was an interview with Gay Byrne. Surprisingly, given his alleged retirement a decade ago, Gay Byrne is not the problem. He is available for work. The problem is that the interview was explicitly focused on the contestant’s wifeliness.

The contestant would be asked how she met her husband, how many kids she had with him, and how she managed to look so glamorous whilst still looking after them all. Admittedly, Gay Byrne was never known for his progressive attitudes towards the role of women. But there is something about a competition for housewives that has a cooker as its star prize that resists attempts at modernisation. Witness this 1995 attempt (which, by the way, appeared on the same page as a profile of Martin Amis) to salvage the competition for right-thinking Irish Times readers:

“These were no bimbos…since the phrase ‘housewife’ and phrases like ‘I’m only a housewife’ are rapidly disappearing from the vocabulary, I’m told by a spokeswoman for the organisers that they will be reconsidering the title of this event”

Alas, it never happened. In fact, the competition never took place again. Because here was the problem: It was the Housewife of the Year Award. You had to be a wife, and you had to be in the house. And, though it was never explicitly stated, you had to be a mammy. Ideally, you wouldn’t be anything else. As Ireland changed, there were complaints, in the event’s dying years, that too many women working outside the home were taking part. And, in a surprising denouement, competitive housewifery became perhaps the only professional sport to be ruined by the rise of amateurism. It lost its soul. It’s never coming back.

(by Fergal Crehan)

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12 thoughts on “The Calor Housewife of The Year

  1. europhile says:

    The end was on the wall for the Calor Kosangas Housewife when they allowed MEN to enter the competititon. Things were never the same again. Is nothing sacred?

  2. fústar says:

    Nobody ever gave you a free gift for becoming a feminist. This was the evil genius of Calor Kosangas. The giddy thrill of first encountering “The Female Eunuch” clearly couldn’t match up to being infantilised by Gay Byrne, as he patted your hand and said “Good girl. Good girl. Lovely. Marvellous. Here’s your cooker”.

  3. Oliver Farry says:

    I think it did actually take place after 1995 with a ‘reconsidered’ title – the American-style ‘Homemaker of the Year’. I was sharing a flat in 1997 with an American student who entered herself for it, obviously confident that homemaking proficiency need not be confined to those with a family to cater to. It may not have been the same competition but at the time I assumed it was simply rebranding.

    • Fergal Crehan says:

      Unfortunately, the internet shows no trace of of the competition after 1995, nor does the Irish Times archive. Those years, the immediate run-up to the internet becoming a thing, are a sort of a research twilight zone.

      Actually, the closest current analogue to the ideal embodied by the Calor Housewife is to be found in the American “Mom” culture, which demands the sort of attractive but unsexual and utterly personality-free perfection that Gaybo would have loved.

  4. I bought Ireland’s Own, weekly, from about 12 to 14. I was hooked on the ghost stories and the Flash Gordon reprints. Really, they did a great service to classic comics with those.
    OH, POST!

  5. Jo says:

    The Martin Amis comment was golden. I love this.

  6. Jo says:

    In fact, I think you should devise a Junior Cert social history course built around it.

  7. Fergal Crehan says:

    The Martin Amis thing was perfect. Published just as he stopped being any good, too.

    Here’s the page from the Times archive:

  8. Nam Citsale says:

    Excellent stuff. The post i mean, not the mammy pageant. Even as a child i struggled to understand its purpose or why, like the John Player Tops and the Castlebar Song Contest it merited transmission. Not sure if it’s beyond the postmodern pale though.’ICA Bootcamp’ seems to trade on an ironic revision of a once shared ethos. I propose another alternative. An Austerity Age reboot with a post-apocalyptic survivalist theme. Abandon the contestants amid the ostentatious ruins of an isolated ghost estate with just a head of cabbage, a half a pound of rashers, a quarter of clove rock, a copy of the ‘Ireland’s Own Annual 1979’, a headscarf and a scapular to see them through it. Retreat then and await the new matriarchy.

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