Belfast miniaturist influenced by Henry James

Mary Beckett: January 28th, 1926-November 10th, 2013


Mary Beckett’s reputation as one of contemporary Ireland’s finest writers rests on two collections of short stories, A Belfast Woman and A Literary Woman, and her novel Give Them Stones.

She wrote about ordinary people living mundane lives, and her writing is spare and often disconcerting.

Her fellow Belfast writer Brian Moore described her as an “extraordinary miniaturist of ordinary lives, lives of quiet despair sometimes relieved by quixotic gestures of defiance”.

The critic and novelist Miranda Seymour was particularly struck by one aspect of Beckett’s writing: “Nothing is stated directly; everything is suggested by artful juxtaposition of images or the unexpected twists of a sentence.”

Born in Belfast in 1926, she was the daughter of Seán and Catherine Beckett. She grew up as a Catholic, but with a Protestant grandfather, and her family lived in a Protestant area.

Educated at St Columban’s national school and St Dominic’s high school, she later studied at St Mary’s teacher training college.

She then worked as a primary teacher in Holy Cross, Ardoyne, for 11 years.

Her first short story “The Excursion” was broadcast by BBC Northern Ireland in 1949. With writers such as Val Mulkerns and James Plunkett in the early 1950s she contributed stories to The Bell, and also wrote a nonfiction piece about her experience as a young writer.

Peadar O’Donnell, then editor of The Bell, championed her writing, and David Marcus selected her story “Three Dreams Cross” for a special issue of Irish Writing devoted to women writers.

She also was encouraged to write by her parents, especially her father, who was a teacher.

In 1956 she married Peter Gaffey, whom she had met in the Aran Islands, and they settled in Dublin. They had six children, the first of whom died at birth.

Stopped writing
For a variety of reasons – the demise of both The Bell and Irish Writing and the demands of rearing five small children – she stopped writing for many years.

She re-emerged in the 1970s when David Marcus published her story “A Belfast Woman” in the Irish Press. There followed her collection of the same name in 1980. It anticipates her later works in its recurrent theme of women learning to adapt to disappointing lives.

One woman makes a telling comment about her place in the world: “I’m a woman. I’m supposed to be passive. I’ve got three small children. I’m expecting another.”

Her novel Give Them Stones (1987) is set in Belfast in the years between the 1940s and 1970s. Hopes for a united Ireland coupled with the rejection of political violence form the backdrop to a woman’s quest for independence.

While violence is rejected there is no trace of polemics in the writing.

A Literary Woman (1990) has been described as her most accomplished work. The collection of 10 stories set in Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s reflects a generalised sense of danger and reflects the influence of Henry James.

Other influences include Rosamund Lehman, Elizabeth Taylor and Muriel Spark, and she shares their mastery of the detail of private, interior lives.

Mary Beckett’s Ireland is dilapidated and beset by divisions. But life must go on, often at a great price, and the nation’s traumas are replayed in the family again and again, between the generations and between men and women.

Her women, living precariously between middle-class respectability and lower-class suffering, survive by desperation rather than courage. Their gestures of rebellion, marked not so much by bravery as by recklessness, are for the benefit of others – husband, children or parents.

Sharp wit
Her writing, however, displays a sharp wit that acts to counteract the bleakness of the lives portrayed and infuses her stories with a calmness which sometimes seems possible in the midst of a crisis.

Stories by Beckett are included in a number of anthologies, and were broadcast by RTÉ radio as well as the BBC.

Her books for children include Orla at School (1991) and Hannah or Pink Balloons (1995), described in this newspaper as a “masterpiece of quiet, controlled writing”.

She received a Sunday Tribune arts award in 1987, and was shortlisted for the Hughes fiction award in 1988.

She is survived by her husband, sons Michael, Gerard and John, and daughters, Anne and Veronica.