Monday 19 August 2019

Maura Laverty - banned by the censorship board despite being as 'wholesome as brown bread'

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

When she died in 1966, Maura Laverty was a highly acclaimed Irish novelist, playwright (she wrote for the popular TV series Tolka Row), renowned cook and radio agony aunt.

She had been greatly esteemed by Sean O'Faolain, and much admired by Brendan Behan, who read her first book while in prison. She also achieved that ultimate accolade for an Irish author - being banned by the censorship board, even though an American Catholic magazine had called her writing "as wholesome as homemade bread".

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Maura Laverty was quite the celebrity then - and she was only 58 when she died from a heart attack. But her writing would probably be little known to a younger generation of readers today.

Yet that first novel, Never No More, published in 1940, is a minor classic not only as the story of a young girl's growing up near the Bog of Allen, in Co Kildare, but as an insight into the Ireland of the 1920s, at the start of the Irish Free State.

This was an Ireland where old superstitions still prevailed and women washed the household laundry in the nearby river; an Ireland where there were long courtships and much hesitation before embarking on marriage, lest it risk the farm; an Ireland where "matchmaking" was sometimes organised on the most blatantly materialistic lines and the contract could be cancelled for the want of a cow.

An Ireland where death in childbirth was a common risk for women, and almost every household had lost at least one child to a fatal illness. Tuberculosis carried children away frequently enough, but so did a strange disease based on calcium deficiency, which Maura Laverty calls "the minearach": the condition prompts an overwhelming craving for lime, and one little victim, who duly died, "ate the whole side wall out of our house".

And yet, this Irish village full of quirky characters, and human stories, wasn't lacking in kindness or compassion. An intellectually disabled youth might be called a "simpleton", but he'd be part of the community, and mourned respectfully in death. A family whose twins are paralysed from birth care for them devotedly. The onset of menstruation is described with old-fashioned delicacy, and yet given a positive spin, as part of the gift of life.

There's a woman in the village, Sarah, who plies "the oldest profession", but is treated quite tolerantly. When Sarah's eldest child dies, there is much sympathy and all efforts are made to ensure a decent funeral.

The narrative is revealing on the subject of out-of-wedlock births. Delia lives with her adored grandmother - her widowed mother having moved away to Kilkenny to start a drapery business - and their servant-girl, Judy Ryan, is a "love child". Delia's grandmother described Judy as having "dropped from Heaven". Actually, her natural father had abandoned her mother, who had gone to England, never to return, consigning the child to a Kildare grandmother. Judy has a sunny temperament and a local man is mad about her; their courtship will eventually make for a love-match.

A scandal erupts when a 14-year-old girl, Nellie Mack, is found to be pregnant. The horror "turned to fury" when it emerges that a 73-year-old retired customs officer was responsible: he had promised the child a bicycle when he seduced her. He might have been lynched, but decided to go mad instead, and was carted off to Carlow Asylum, foaming at the mouth. Poor Nellie is horribly treated by her aunt, and her baby is born dead. After that, she is "sent away to some convent for fallen women in Dublin" - presumably a Magdalene Home. However, at 18, she was allowed to leave the institution, went into service in Belfast and then married a kindly milkman.

The priest in the village only seems to have two themes to his sermons: the remitting of dues, and the wickedness of Republicans. There's a local family of Republicans who never accept the Free State and, not coincidentally, they're rabidly anti-clerical.

In her second novel, No More Than Human, Maura Laverty charts Delia's experiences as a governess in Spain in the mid-1920s and, again, the lives of women are recorded with insight and humanity. Irish governesses were much in demand, as "gentlewomen", but their lives were often lonely. Class differences and decorum were rigidly maintained. Spanish men were regarded as "fiends", with only one thought in their heads - to seduce and ruin an Irish girl. But Delia, interestingly, quite likes the way workmen call out compliments to her in the street. She deals robustly with what might, today, be called harassment.

A trademark of Maura Laverty's writing is that she always interweaves delicious descriptions of food, complete with recipes and recommendations. She produced Maura Laverty's Cookery Book in 1946, which is today a collector's item. Her focus on natural, organic and home-produced foodstuffs is altogether contemporary.

In Spain, she was engaged to a Hungarian, but came home and married James Laverty, and they had three children. Like her mother before her - who was indeed a successful draper - Maura was the breadwinner. She wrote, with great enchantment, about the world she knew and it is preserved for us, still, in her novels.

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