‘Val Mulkerns wrote like a fighter’: Irish authors pay tribute

Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Connor, Mary O’Donnell, Carlo Gébler, Helena Mulkerns, Ita Daly and Dermot Bolger pay tribute to the leading author, who has died, aged 93


Sebastian Barry
Val Mulkerns was born, according to the data, in 1925, but in truth she was perpetually stocked with youthfulness. Like all true writers, she was always starting out. In her recent memoir Friends with the Enemy, she is crystal clear in her contempt for the rigid Catholicity of Eamon De Valera, a note not so often struck in these revisionist times, but an essential one for all that. She put her head above the parapet I suspect in a thousand conversations when it was literally perilous to do so, and worked on the famous contrarian magazine The Bell in the Fifties when Sean O’Faoilean, that other mighty rebel, was editor. She was one of those writers who wanted to take Ireland by the scruff of the neck and demand maturity of it, a maturity we are even now still just inching towards. But what maturity we do have is down to souls like hers.

When I was 34 and on the cusp of marrying and thinking of having babies, she and her wondrous friend Benedict Kiely got me into Aosdána, the Irish Academy, thereby ensuring there would at least be funds for rent and nappies. I was not even sure why she did it, she just seemed to make it her business. My father, a poet of her generation, who admired only Joyce, Beckett and maybe at a stretch Kavanagh, admired her immensely, and I so knew of her before I ever wrote a word myself. I think of that generation as rather harsh and even half-ruined by existentialism and a sort of national despair. It must have been a horror to find yourself an intellectual in that Ireland. Yet she was absolutely an exception to that. She was the least despairing person I knew. There was something so resolute, so steely-kind, and steady-keeled about her.

In the Eighties she published an extraordinary novel called The Summerhouse, which I reviewed in the Irish Times, very enthusiastically. She wrote me a note and said she was glad my parents had gone to the trouble of conceiving me.

Sometimes a writer can live a long time and seem therefore to outlive their allotment of fame. It is a great pity really that we are not better able to celebrate and revere writers when they are that bit older. But I am not sure it bothered her very much. Last time I drove her home to Dalkey, we were talking about writing, and she said she was anxious to get going at something, she felt there had been too great a gap. I offered the suggestion that she might justifiably rest another little while on her perpetual laurels. She was definitely not keen on that. On going into the house, in the confidence of her 90 beautifully lived years, she offered the observation that, as long as you didn’t come down with a very serious illness, why, you could live forever.

She will.
Sebastian Barry is the Laureate for Irish Fiction. His latest novel is Days Without End

Anne Enright
Val Mulkerns survived an Ireland that many found claustrophobic – she had an agile mind, and the confidence that came with it. Perhaps it was down to Eccles St in the 1930s, where the Dominicans produced a crop of funny and feisty women – not many of them as well known as she became.

Mulkerns published in the fifties and the late seventies, taking a break in between to rear her family, during which she kept a weather eye on Irish life. Writing for The Bell under Seán O’Faoláin set a tone and kept her in the loop. It was not easy being a liberalising voice in the Ireland of the day, but Mulkerns wrote like a fighter. Her short stories looked for the angle, and took the shot. She was interested in public as well as private life, was good on hypocrisy and ambition as well as on the hidden reaches of the heart.

Mulkerns wrote as one of a fluid, arty, not-quite-middle class, and was dismissive of categories, including that of women writer. She was no more interested in speaking at a seminar for women writers, she said, “than I’d speak at a seminar for jug-eared writers or whatever”; despite which, she welcomed the company in Poolbeg Press of fellow writers like Kate O’Brien and Maura Treacy.

She is mentioned in dispatches as one of the occupants of the archaeological site at Wood Quay, where Dublin Corporation was building office blocks, in June 1979. She arrived in the morning with Mary Lavin and Ben Kiely, according to the report in this newspaper. On the site, “Ms Phil Moore, of the Women’s Political Association and the poet Tom Kinsella manned the diggers, the writer James Plunkett had control of a dumper.” Outside, her fellow writer, Ita Daly, had brought her English class from St Louis to march in uniform, myself among them. Val Mulkerns was a vital, engaged member of the thinking classes. Her thoughtful, sharp prose remains as clear and unafraid today, as when it first hit the page.
Anne Enright was the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction. Her latest novel is The Green Road

Colm Tóibín
She is the last of that generation who had worked on the magazine The Bell. She published two novels in the 1950s – A Time Outworn and A Peacock Cry – and then nothing until a flowering in the late 1970s and early 1980s with two collections of stories – Antiquities (1978), An Idle Woman (1980) – and two novels – The Summerhouse (1984) and Very Like a Whale (1986).

In the early 1980s she was a regular visitor to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, where she took a great interest in the locality and added enormously to the life of the house. There was even a walk, which took about three-quarters of an hour, leaving by one gate and returning by another, known as Val Mulkerns’s Walk.

She was a person of great principle, resigning from her column in the Evening Press, for example, during the 1983 Abortion Referendum when the editor suggested she not write about the referendum.

Of all her stories, there is one that seems to me an enduring masterpiece. It is called Memory and Desire, is about the making of a television documentary about a designer, and has one of the great first sentences: “The television people seemed to like him and that was a new feeling he found exciting.”
Colm Tóibín’s latest novel is House of Names

Helena Mulkerns
My aunt had a secret identity known only to children. She was Fairy Book Mother to a generation of adoring small readers whose lives she transformed by the gift of wonderful, perfectly chosen books. Christmas and birthdays were not quite complete until the opening of a little parcel from Auntie Val, beautifully wrapped, with a meticulously-written dedication.

They were always full of new worlds. I don’t think I ever got a toy or a scarf from Val as a child, instead I got Edwardian nursery carpets that granted children wishes; polite talking bears who liked marmalade sandwiches, a melancholy girl who met a ghostly summer friend on a marshland, or a Victorian tale where a boy called Sebastian saved a girl in a mirror called Melissa. I wanted to be called Melissa. There were Snow Queens and silver chairs and children that could talk to lions. I read the usual children’s books, too, but the ones she gave me were special. Now, I can see how carefully she must have chosen them so that year by year they developed in complexity, but still delivered that charm.

There would be a knowing smile when you opened your parcel. What larks! I remember the moment I actually thrilled to an opening paragraph that contained no less than 60 words, beginning: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day …” With that sentence, I was introduced to Jane Eyre and changed from child to young adult reader, embracing a new era of many more great books until I read her own. There, I found a familiar world that I think, for its time, was rarely depicted, and certainly never so well.

In her last book, a lovely memoir, I learned that Jane Eyre was her favourite too. For the gift of all those books and then her own, and apart from the wonder of having a strong, inspiring role model in my nascent years, it was indeed a magical thing to have an aunt like Val.
Helena Mulkerns is the author of Ferenji (Doire Press)

Joseph O’Connor
All writers have a place in the heart for the authors they read in childhood or youth. Val Mulkerns was one of mine. I recall the special joy of discovering the paperbacks of her novels A Time Outworn, and A Peacock Cry and her short story collection An Idle Woman on my mother’s bookshelves, the carefulness and yet the subtle lyricism of Val Mulkerns’s prose.

As well, she wrote in the Evening Press at that time and I remember trying to connect her engaging columnist’s voice with the coolly detached and yet involving register of the novels. Her short stories are powerful and lucid and have been deservedly praised by leading Irish writers of the subsequent generations, including Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright, and her memoir Friends With the Enemy is wonderful. Her many contributions to Sunday Miscellany over the years will have given pleasure to thousands of listeners.
Joseph O’Connor is Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. His latest novel is The Thrill of it All

Mary O’Donnell
“Every generation of writers needs more established, sometimes older writers, who will behave in an unthreatened and welcoming way as new writers make their way forward. Such a writer was Val Mulkerns. As a younger writer I used to bump into her at the gay and celebratory early Hennessy Literary Awards, when she often accompanied David Marcus and Ita Daly.

Val was that writer who always, always, enquired kindly about one’s progress, or offered bright and genuine congratulations if she had heard about any recent shortlistings or awards. She displayed the kind of classical generosity I imagined all writers should display as they aged, and an ability to make one feel part of a precious calling.

I was familiar with her work and reputation, and she was part of an artistic milieu which was unashamedly literary, which believed (it seemed to me) in high minds, high language but the best of revelatory story-telling. Gentler times, I suspect, with no flash or brouhaha, just the occasional or regular appearance of work that offered its chaste existence, it’s carefully rendered sentences, to the reader.

Writing such as hers held the world in place, reinforced my sense that yes, we did have established women artists, and encountering her from time to time with her auburn hair and openly curious interest, held me in place too as I found my feet and my space. I hope her work is not ignored, or forgotten or erased from the literary canon. She was here. She had a voice. She contributed.”
Mary O’Donnell’s novel The Light Makers was reissued last year

Carlo Gébler
She was a story teller and she was interested primarily in character and place. Yes, she could be shrewd, analytical and occasionally coruscating but narrative rather than politics was the primary object of her fidelity. She was a writer who wanted to engage and move rather than hector or improve her readers. Her prose was always lucid, unpretentious, unshowy and forthright. It had energy and swing and clarity. And her language, always so simple and so clean, was what kept your attention as a reader. She was also, outside her fiction, a formidable critic and essayist. She was an important writer and a valuable writer and we are the poorer for her passing.
Carlo Gébler’s latest work is The Innocent of Falkland Road

Dermot Bolger
I first met Val Mulkerns in 1979 when, with enormous kindness, she accepted an invitation to come out to Finglas to spend an evening talking to a small group of young local writers there who were mesmerised by her work when she read, by the wisdom in carefully chosen words of advice when she talked to us, and by the way in which she took our dreams seriously when we mentioned our plans to set up what became the Raven Arts Press. I had invited Val to Finglas because I had read with great excitement, and a shock of recognition, the truly fine stories in her collection of linked short stories, Antiquities, published the previous year (after two decades of relative silence) which explores the lives and tensions of three generations of a Dublin family, where the grandfather was a veteran of the Irish War of Independence.

There was a natural and unforced urbane intelligence at work, and indeed at play, in her stories: an all too recognisable Dublin (even on those occasions when she was depicting a Dublin before my time), with great insights into the human condition that were all the more forceful for being so subtly revealed as quiet epiphanies. This deceptively light touch with profound depth and a quiet, sure-footedly ability to dissect the public and private fault lines within Irish society, came to the fore even more in her subsequent collections, An Idle Woman and A Friend of Don Juan.

In this latter book, and her subsequent two novels, she was well-served by one of these islands’ oldest publishers, in John Murray. In more recent years she has been well served by one of the newest publishers on these islands, 451 Editions (run by her niece, Helena Mulkerns, also a fine short story writer in her own right) who, in 2016, brought out a superb edition of Val’s selected short stories, Memory and Desire, which is a masterclass in that genre, and in recent months has published Val’s long awaited memory, Friends with the Enemy, which I was actually reading with great interest when the sad news of Val’s passing reached me. It was always a pleasure to meet Val – who was wonderful company – in any occasion, but no occasion was more special for me than the evening in 1979 when she took the time to venture out to Finglas to meet a small group of unknown young writers and she lifted us up and inspired us in that night with her presence, her warmth and enthusiasm  and her remarkably subtle and astute stories.
Dermot Bolger’s latest novel is The Lonely Sea and Sky 

Ita Daly
Dear Val is dead and the world is a duller place.

The last time we got together was at the launch of her Memoir – Friends With The Enemy – in Dalkey in December.

She read from this book and her voice was still the voice of a young girl, as indeed was her outfit –blue jeans and a shirt, her habitual uniform. Listening to her I realized again what a good writer she was, how she could so clearly evoke a summer’s bicycle ride, the excitement of going abroad for the first time. And she describes Florence as if it had never been described before.

She brought joy and brightness and pleasure and knowledge into my life. She was a generous friend – with her time and her possessions  - lending books, issuing dinner invitations, inviting me to the theatre. She was David’s friend before she was mine and she used to tell me of a husband I never knew with black, curly hair who paid her five guineas for a short story.

She was a celebrant of life, intoxicated by its wonders so that for all her sophistication she was never blasé.

She stood up to bullies and was fearless when confronting authorities who might be overstepping the mark.  She played an important role in Aosdana, often supporting an unpopular cause because she knew it to be right.

As I saw her last week, depleted but still smiling I was reminded of As I Lay Dying, a book that she gave me a copy of 40 years ago. I found the copy when I got home.

She was 93 on St Valentine’s Day and she lived those 93 years with humour and with grace.
Ita Daly's works include Unholy Ghosts and All Fall Down


Val Mulkerns – a biography
Val Mulkerns was born in Dublin in 1925. Growing up in an artistic family, her father was JJ Mulkerns, a Dublin actor and writer of satirical verse. After a stint in the Irish Civil Service, she moved to England, where she worked as a teacher. During the fifties, after moving back to Ireland, she began to write, and worked as an associate editor and theatre critic of The Bell, a famed Irish literary review founded by Sean O’Faolain.

Her two early novels were A Time Outworn (1951), and A Peacock Cry (1954). While raising a family in the decade that followed, she became a regular columnist with The Evening Press, wrote a number of short stories – for which she has received particular renown – and two children’s books, which were translated into German and published by Benziger of Zurich.

In 1978 she wrote Antiquities (André Deutsch), the first of three acclaimed collections of short stories. The others were An Idle Woman (Poolbeg, 1980), and A Friend of Don Juan (John Murray, 1988). Two novels followed, The Summerhouse (John Murray, 1984) and Very Like A Whale (John Murray 1986).

She was joint winner of the AIB Prize for Literature in 1984, and became the Mayo County Library’s first writer-in-residence in 1987-1988. During this time, she edited an anthology entitled New Writings from the West. She is included in several key Irish literature anthologies, including The Field Day Anthology (Edited by Seamus Deane), and The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (edited by Colm Tóibín).

Married to the writer Maurice Kennedy, she edited a posthumous collection of his work, The Way to Vladivostok, in 2000. She lived in Dalkey, and broadcast frequently on Sunday Miscellany, a programme of writers’ original reflections on RTÉ. She was most recently included in The Granta Book of The Irish Short Story edited by Anne Enright. She was a member of Aosdána.

In 2014, a third edition of The Summerhouse was published by Tara Press. A new collection of her short fiction, entitled Memory and Desire, was published in May 2016 by 451 Editions, and features 12 stories from An Idle Woman, Antiquities and A Friend of Don Juan. Her memoir, Friends With The Enemy, was launched last December in The Gutter Bookshop in Dalkey.

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