Sunday 4 December 2016

Mum of 10 was still a novelist in her eighties

Carissa Casey

Published 09/07/2011 | 05:00

Writer Lilian Roberts Finlay, who has died aged 96, was in her 70s when she published her first novel Always in My Mind.

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The mother of 10 -- her son Fergus is chief executive of Barnardos -- had written all her life, but it was only after her youngest child went to college that she had time to devote to a novel.

She went on to write several other books; her last novel Cassa was published when she was 83.

Her writing was a mixture of romance and gritty social commentary on life in Catholic Ireland of years gone by. Her characters suffered the trauma of child sex abuse, poverty and alcoholic marriages. They had lesbian relationships and fell in love with priests.

Finlay always described her work as autobiographical but those close to her suggest that there was also a strong element of artistic licence.

Among her fans is broadcaster Gay Byrne who was entranced by her depiction of Dublin in the 1950s.

She once said that writing removed many burdens from her mind. The events of Finlay's life imposed many burdens. Her father died when she still a baby, her mother when she was just 19 and five of her seven sons were to pre-decease her.

She was always something of a mystery -- even to people to whom she was close. A fiercely determined and independent woman all her life, she was ambitious both for her children and latterly for her writing.

She had a commanding presence, was charming and gracious in company but was also remarkably self-contained.

Finlay was born in 1915, one of twins but the other twin did not survive. She claimed that throughout her childhood she felt like half a person.

Her father, a soldier with a Welsh regiment died on his way back from the Battle of Ypres in the First World War. Finlay -- who was christened Lily -- was still a small child and was given the middle name Ypres in memory of her father.

She was raised jointly by her mother and her beloved grandmother, Bedelia Brabazon. According to family folklore, the Roberts were distant relations of the Earl of Meath, whose family name is Brabazon. Finlay later gave her son Fergus the second name of Brabazon.

Her mother remarried when she was nine. She described her stepfather as a "big handsome man" but the relationship was fraught. She told an interviewer in 1998 that he was "interested in little girls".

There was a rift with her mother. When Finlay attended Mount Sackville boarding school in Dublin, she said her only visitor was her grandmother.

Finlay's first ambition was to act and she joined the Abbey School of Acting after school. She described this period as a "golden age" and for many years later she wanted to write for the stage.

She took a job at the Land Commission, leaving when she married her husband Hugh. She went on to give birth to 10 children but two of her sons -- Rollo and Paul -- died when they were still babies. She lost three more sons -- Max, Derek and Jeff -- in the decade before she died.

For most of their married life Hugh worked for Aer Lingus and had a good income. But with so many children, extra money was always welcome. Finlay wrote short romantic stories for English magazines, earning IR£5 for each one.

There was a period of financial hardship when Hugh left a managerial position at Aer Lingus to join Shanahans Stamp Auctions in Dun Laoghaire. In the 1950s, Shanahans was offering Irish people the opportunity to invest in stamps for amazing returns -- 20pc or more within a short period. It was exposed as little more than a Ponzi scheme; its promoter Paul Singer was accused of repaying investors with other investors' money. There was a huge court case and Hugh Finlay -- who was entirely unaware of the scam -- was called to give evidence.

With the collapse of Shanahans, Hugh found himself out of work. After a series of odd-jobs he rejoined Aer Lingus but at a much more junior level.

His wife took the unusual step for a married woman at the time of taking a job outside the home, as a cleaning superviser. The experience, although short-lived, was a revelation. She had never mixed with people working on low wages before. While financial considerations were the main motive, the job inspired Finlay to try her hand at a TV script. She sent it to RTÉ but it was never made.

When she finally had time to devote to her writing she met with more success. She won a short-story writing competition and her story Adultery gave the subsequent published collection of winning stories its title.

She was 69 when her husband died and she decided to take another job.

She answered an advertisement in the Irish Times for a nanny to a couple living in Philadelphia. She spent a year there, and on her return claimed to have met a drug dealer during that time.

Whether this was true or the result of her writerly imagination, Finlay based her novel Stella on the experience. She also wrote the novel Forever in the Past and a collection of short stories A Bona Fide Husband.

Finlay passed away peacefully at Beechfield Manor Nursing Home in Shankill, where she had been living for a year. She was 96 and is survived by her children Felicity, Finola, Fergus, Hugo and Aoibhinn, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

She was buried at Dunsany Cemetery after funeral mass at the Chapel at Mount Saint Mary's.

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