The daughter’s tale – An Irishwoman’s Diary on a newly published memoir about Molly Keane

It’s like a dinner dance, said a smiling Thomas McCarthy when he launched Sally Phipps’s newly published memoir about her mother, Molly Keane, recently. The circular configuration of tables all packed tight with the neighbours, friends and family at the Grainstore in Ballymaloe, Co Cork, would have appealed to her, said the poet before going on to recall his own earliest memories as a schoolboy of meeting the great Anglo-Irish writer when she was living in Belleville House in Co Waterford.

“I was reading her as MJ Farrell more than 40 years ago in Cappoquin. Mrs Bolger, the librarian, pointed her out to me,” he explained. In time they became friends and she a great mentor to him.

“She was an extraordinarily serious writer,” he added.

“Sally writes as her mother spoke,” said McCarthy. “It’s what makes it such a beautiful memoir.”


In describing the Anglo-Irish life that Molly lived, Sally has captured the “pure genuineness of its mortal soul...I salute the great writer Molly Keane and I welcome her daughter as a great writer of this parish”.

Sally’s sister, Virginia Brownlow, the younger daughter of Molly Keane, welcomed us all with great warmth as we arrived. Then there was great applause from the 300-strong crowd in attendance when Sally herself spoke to the assembled guests, explaining that she was “very nervous” sending her manuscript off to Thomas McCarthy to read. “The fact that he liked it gave me great relief and joy,” she said.

In due course a friend sent some 30 pages of this manuscript off to Caroline Dawnay, the famous literary agent in London. These pages worked their magic and it was only a matter of time before Sally's book, Molly Keane, A Life, was on its way.

The sculptor Ken Thompson, a long-time friend of Sally’s, also spoke. Being among the first to read the manuscript, he said he was “straightaway enchanted by its form and content and the truly original writing that shone a sympathetic, tender light on the very particular world which she grew up in, a world which she didn’t completely identify with and whose preoccupations she didn’t always share”.

‘Labour of love’

Lennie Goodings, the Virago publisher, was present to set the book in context, telling the packed auditorium, including those of us peering down from the minstrel’s gallery, that “this has been a labour of love for Sally”.

She added that “writing is a very hard and lonely job. I think it’s very difficult to write about your mother . . . She’s captured her (Molly Keane’s) stiletto sharpness and infinite kindness. I think she has inherited her mother’s gift.”

Not long before she died in 1996, Molly Keane spoke to her daughter Sally about the idea of writing her biography. “I trust you completely. The only think I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough,” she said.

But Sally, the third generation in her family to write, as Molly Keane’s mother was also a published and established poet writing under the pseudonym Moira O’Neill, took up the challenge to write about her.

“Make it as much like a novel as possible,” her mother told her.

When a clip from an old radio interview with John Bowman, crackled into life at the launch, the breathy, musical voice of Molly Keane filled the vaulted room and we heard her tell how she didn’t think she was educated at all, that she always wrote in longhand and that she wrote every morning in her home in Ardmore.

Listeners recalled her living quietly there in Co Waterford, rearing her two girls before shooting to international fame with Good Behaviour, her brilliantly sharp book about a mother-daughter relationship which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

There to enjoy the evening was this writer's sister, RoseAnn Foley, who directed a television documentary entitled Molly Keane: Faobhar ar a Guth, in 2009 for TG4, which I presented.

Others at the event included poet Lani O’Hanlon; cook and baker Connie Kiersey; writers Mary Leland, Alannah Hopkin, Eibhear Walshe and Donald Brady; potter Mary Lincoln; and a long-time friend and neighbour of the Keanes in Ardmore, Tony Gallagher.

Old friends

After the speeches, the book signings and the general excitement of meeting up with old friends, guests settled down to a buffet supper, served by celebrity chef Darina Allen, with members of her family on hand to help, including her brother and co-founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, Rory O’Connell.

Afterwards it was out into a wet, windy night to drive home along narrow country roads, our minds full of long-ago evenings when such parties were all the rage and part of a way of life characterised by the big house and a social class that has since all but faded away.