Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1974 – Christmas Eve, by Maeve Brennan

The Dublin-born writer found fame in New York, but her best stories are set in Ireland

 

In the opening paragraph of the title story of her collection Christmas Eve Maeve Brennan evokes the hallway of a middle-class house in Dublin, home to the Bagot family: “The hall was narrow and it served its purpose well. It was a passageway to the common practices of family life. Such practices form memories which are a matter of love, and whether it is expressed or unexpressed, as with the Bagots, it is the solid existence of love that gives life and strength to memories.” The lines are immensely poignant: the solid existence of love is located, for Brennan, in memory. In the present, on the other hand, love seems anything but solid. Brennan’s characters, whether in unfashionable Dublin or New York, have their private rituals and secret understandings, but they can never be sure how much of them is shared, even with those they love.

The 13 stories in Christmas Eve all appeared in the New Yorker magazine – an unlikely home for a daughter of the Irish revolution – between 1953 and 1973. Maeve’s father, Robert, fought in the 1916 Rising, became the chief propagandist for Sinn Féin and for Éamon de Valera and was appointed Ireland’s legate to Washington, DC, in 1933. Maeve stayed on in New York and established herself as what might now be called a lifestyle journalist. Life magazine profiled her in 1945 as the “shopping sleuth” for Harper’s Bazaar: “pretty, 5ft Maeve Brennan . . . has blue eyes, a soft Irish brogue and an instinct for finding the novelties on which magazines place great emphasis.”

She joined the New Yorker to write about fashion but instead wrote a brilliant observational column under the pseudonym the Long-Winded Lady, conjuring New York, as she put it in the 1969 introduction to a collection of these essays, “as the capsized city. Half-capsized, anyway, with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.”

Even from within the most prestigious sanctum of literary New York Brennan wrote as an outsider: she is always alone, always the observer, never the participant. And in the short stories that she also began to write for the magazine there is that outsider’s search, often through the byways of memory, for what she called “moments of kindness, moments of recognition”. Typically, those moments are found in a remembered version of her childhood home in Ranelagh and a reimagined version of her own family, transformed into the Bagots.

While the earlier stories collected in Christmas Eve deal wittily and elegantly with people in a fashionable New York riverside community, it is the Dublin stories that have an enduring power. As the great editor William Maxwell, Brennan’s mentor, put it: “Her best stories are always set in Ireland and have no characters that are not Irish.”

For the exiled Brennan, whose childless marriage to a New Yorker managing editor had broken down, these stories are “passageways to the common practices of family life”, furnished with a deep yearning and a sharp emotional realism. They draw out both the centrality of love and the inability of her characters to give it expression. In her last New Yorker essay before her mental health deteriorated she wrote of a shadow on a New York street: “It was exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, more than 55 years ago.”

By the time of her death she had become an obscure figure, scarcely known either in New York or in Dublin. After her death her stories were rediscovered and republished in two volumes, The Springs of Affection (which contains most of her Dublin stories) and The Rose Garden. She is also the subject of a fine biography by Angela Bourke, Homesick at the New Yorker, and of plays by Emma Donoghue and Eamon Morrissey. In 2014 the New Yorker published a long essay under the title “A Maeve Brennan Revival?” The question mark seems superfluous.

You can read more about Maeve Brennan in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie

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