Writer and a feminist before her time

Obituary: Val Mulkerns gave up her job in the civil service to move to London in the 1950s and pursue a career as a writer

Author Val Mulkerns in 1984: she retained her passion for reading up to the end. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Author Val Mulkerns in 1984: she retained her passion for reading up to the end. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

 

Born: February 14th, 1925 Died: March 10th, 2018

The celebrated novelist and short-story writer Val Mulkerns has died aged 93, just months after publishing her memoir.

Named after St Valentine because she entered the world on the saint’s feast day in 1925, she was the eldest of three children born to Esther O’Neill and JJ Mulkerns in Fairview, Dublin.

Ink was in her blood. Her maternal grandfather, Frank O’Neill, wrote for the New York Herald Tribune after emigrating from Ireland, and with the Freeman’s Journal when he returned home. In her memoir Friends with the Enemy, published in December 2017, she recalled her father’s love of the stage and how he was chosen by WB Yeats to play the part of Michael in an early production of The Land of Heart’s Desire.

Her father, JJ Mulkerns, was a satirical ballad writer and a passionate nationalist who fought at the Four Courts during the Easter Rising of 1916. He spent time in Knutsford jail and the notorious Frongoch prison camp as a result, and was known as the Rajah of Frongoch because of the flamboyant nightly entertainment he organised for the prisoners.

Slapping

The young Val spent an unhappy few years at Fairview National School under the tutelage of the redoubtable Miss Batty. Her mother removed her when she was eight, after a prolonged slapping incident that left her hand looking like “a piece of tenderised steak”.

She had a much happier experience in the lavender-waxed halls of the Dominican College on Eccles Street. She fostered her love of reading in its junior library, encountering books such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for the first time. Val revelled in having access to places such as the Municipal Gallery, the Mansion House (for music lessons with Captain Michael Bowles) and the Abbey and the Gate theatres. If it was a quiet day at the Gate, Lord Longford would beckon the school girls to the best seats, even though they had only paid a shilling. “Art was for everybody, not just the highest bidder,” she wrote in her memoir.

Her happy family life changed irrevocably in March 1943, when her vivacious mother died of cancer. She and her brothers, Jim and Cyril, believed their mother was recovering from the illness and they were bereft. The songs and stories stopped, her father retreated to his bedroom, and she buried herself in preparation for the Leaving Cert.

Her first job was as temporary clerical assistant in the Department of Social Welfare’s widows and orphans branch. She soon realised that putting pink files into dusty cubbyholes would never fulfil her and she took the mail-boat to England for a teaching job, with a half-written novel in her suitcase. That novel, A Time Outworn, would be published in 1951 to critical acclaim, and would be followed by three more novels, three collections of short stories, two children’s books and her memoir. She worked as associate editor and theatre critic with The Bell, the influential literary magazine founded by Seán Ó Faoláin, wrote columns for the Evening Press and contributed to The Irish Times.

Kindly mentor

She took a hiatus from her literary endeavours to rear the three children she had with her husband, Maurice Kennedy. Val met the promising young writer and civil servant through Irish Press literary editor MJ McManus who changed her life in more ways than one. A kindly mentor, he also recommended her work to the agent John Green who shepherded her first book to publication.

Val Mulkerns and Maurice Kennedy got married in 1953 and settled in Garville Avenue, Rathgar. They had three children, Maev, a Guardian journalist who previously worked with The Irish Times ; Conor, director of the Javelin advertising agency, and Myles, a writer and care-worker.

Maurice died after years battling depression and respiratory disease in 1992, aged 67 years. Val edited a posthumous collection of his work, The Way to Vladivostok, which was published in 2000.

Listeners to RTÉ Radio’s Sunday Miscellany show will remember her fondly as a regular contributor. She was one of the earliest members of the association of artists, Aosdána, after its establishment in 1981 and was joint winner of the AIB Prize for Literature in 1984.

She had a special affinity with the west of Ireland and treasured her time working as Co Mayo’s first writer-in-residence in 1987 and 1988.

After her husband died, she moved to Dalkey and became a familiar figure with her beloved dog on their energetic pre-breakfast walks. All visitors to her home were expected to scale Killiney Hill and her daughter Maev recalled this week how her mother had done this on St Stephen’s Day, not long before her 93rd birthday.

Literary fiction

She retained her passion for reading up to the end but had no patience for popular fiction or celebrity journalism, preferring the craft involved in literary fiction. She was a key figure in the wave of literary innovation that came after the formation of the Irish Republic and, because of her work on The Bell, she got to know the promising new writers before many others. She was interviewed by many US, British and Irish academics in her later years, who were keen to get first-hand accounts of that period.

A private person, she was reluctant to name-drop in her memoir and refused to include a Brendan Behan anecdote on the grounds that she didn’t know him very well. He had no such qualms when he called to her home looking for a quick loan. Val and Maurice were almost as impoverished as he was, but he left with half a crown, and tossed sixpence of it to baby Maev who was sitting in her pram in the garden. The hoopla surrounding the publication of her first book amused her, particularly when the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson came to photograph her for Harper’s Bazaar. She took great delight in recounting how he took her for lunch in Jammet’s and sent back the wine because it wasn’t to his liking.

Val Mulkerns was a feminist before her time, retaining her name on marriage and continuing to work when pregnant with her first child. She had strong Christian faith but had no difficulty in criticising the Catholic Church when she felt it was necessary. A weekly Massgoer up to the end, she would make a point of walking out of the church when she felt a papal encyclical or bishop’s letter was not in keeping with Christian tenets.

Val Mulkerns is survived by her children Maev, Conor and Myles Kennedy and her four grandchildren.