Monday 12 November 2018

The Mammy of Irish cookery

True foodie: Maura Laverty in her
kitchen. The Rathangan-born
writer's works were full of food
references, while her cookery
books were full of stories about
True foodie: Maura Laverty in her kitchen. The Rathangan-born writer's works were full of food references, while her cookery books were full of stories about people

Ailin Quinlan

Novelist, journalist, playwright and agony aunt, this former convent schoolgirl worked as a governess in Spain, became secretary to a Spanish prince, penned RTE's first soap and published a string of successful novels and cookbooks.

Yet, though outwardly glamourous and high profile, life for Maura Laverty was sometimes controversial and always a struggle.

"Cooking is the poetry of housework," says Laverty in the introduction to 'Full and Plenty', one of the cookbooks which made her a household legend in kitchens throughout Ireland.

However, a homebody she wasn't.

Born Maura Kelly in 1907, in Rathangan, Co Kildare, she went to Spain at the age of 17 as a governess, became private secretary to Prince Bibesco, husband of Princess Bibesco, wrote for a Madrid newspaper and later became an agony aunt on RTE as well as writer of the station's first soap, 'Tolka Row', which was based on one of her own plays.

A whirlwind romance with an Irish journalist led to marriage and three children.

While many will know Laverty through her cookery books, her novels were often controversial.

It's believed that copies of her first book, 'Never No More', were burned in her home village of Rathangan because some residents believed characters were based on them, while two of her books were banned, including her second, 'No More than Human', which apparently offended the censor because of its frankness about the female body.

All of this was still a long way off for the young schoolgirl growing up in a traditional household in the first decades of the 1900s; her father Michael was a farmer and her mother Mary Ann was a dressmaker with her own shop.

Laverty attended Brigidine Convent, a boarding school in Tullow, Co Carlow and, in the 1920s she went to Spain as a governess.

"She discovered that, as a governess, her life was very strictly regulated," says Sarah Binchy, producer of a new documentary on Laverty's career, and niece of bestselling author Maeve Binchy.

It was also a lonely life because, explains Binchy, as a governess the adolescent Maura was neither fish nor fowl.

"It was a life where you weren't a member of the family but you were also well above the level of servant in the social hierarchy of the day -- so, strictly speaking, as a governess Maura didn't fit comfortably anywhere."

Somehow, Laverty gravitated towards the kitchens, getting to know the cooks and the servers and picking up recipes and tips, developing a deep interest in food and cooking, which was to stand her in good stead throughout her life.

Feisty and full of fun, Laverty did her best to enjoy life. Her novel 'No More than Human', says Binchy, is deeply autobiographical and may, she speculates, reflect some of Laverty's teenage experiences in Spain.

"In this book, the governess is minding the children on the beach one day and meets a Scottish man. She plays beach ball, smokes a cigarette that he gives her and wears a scarlet bikini. Then she gets the sack for her behaviour," says Binchy.

"I feel this could very well be something that had happened to her. The heroine is not necessarily a carbon copy of her but we don't know for sure. We do know that she only lasted for a few months as a governess in Madrid, though."

Laverty's love of cookery shines through the novel which, Binchy points out, is full of mouth-watering recipes.

"I don't know another writer whose fiction is so full of food. Her cookery books are also full of stories about people. She was just so obsessed with food! Her descriptions of the Spanish food would make you want to fly to Spain."

Laverty taught herself shorthand and typing and later became private secretary to the aristocratic Bibesco family for a time. She also worked for Banco de Bilbao.

Meanwhile, she worked as a foreign correspondent, filing a stream of folklore, fictional stories and articles about the country as well as a number of religious poems back to Irish newspapers and journals.

"She was quite prolific. She then began to write for 'El Debate' newspaper in Madrid and became fluent in Spanish. We believe she also taught English. She basically carved out an independent life for herself in Madrid," says Binchy, who points out, however, that this flurry of activity was in no sense lucrative:

"Laverty was barely making ends meet and was constantly hungry. This sense of hunger and living on the edge comes through 'No More than Human' and that's why I think food is described in such loving detail."

While she was in Madrid, an Irish journalist, James Laverty, started writing to her.

When Maura returned home she met James, fell in love and, incredibly, within two days, says Binchy, the couple had decided to get married.

The wedding took place after she returned to Ireland in 1928 at the age of 21.The couple had two daughters, Maeve and Barry, and a son, Jimmy.

However, although James was a journalist and worked in the newspaper industry in Dublin and Belfast, money was often short.

"It fell to Maura to keep the family going and to support it through her writing," says Binchy.

Alas, she says, the marriage was not always an altogether happy one by many accounts and Maura and James were living separate lives by the time she died in 1966.

After returning from Spain, Maura, however, soon found work with the national radio station, now RTE.

"It was very well paid and it was a glamourous thing to do. Her broadcasting centred on the female issues of the time -- cooking and domestic economy, and she would later give advice and household tips.

"At one stage in the 1960s she played the role of radio agony aunt."

Her first novel 'Never No More', a nostalgic look at country life in the early 1920s, was published in 1942 to widespread acclaim.

"She got very a complimentary letter from Brendan Behan, who was in prison at the time," says Binchy.

"It was rumoured that copies of the book were burned in Rathangan, but it got a fantastic response not only around Ireland but around the world. It was an idyllic book about Irish country life.

"There was a lot in the book that really spoke to and attracted readers all around the world. The National Library files relating to her contain letters from all over the world describing their love of this book and subsequent books," says Binchy, whose aunt Maeve later wrote introductions to both Laverty's first and second novels.

"The 1940s was an incredibly prolific time for her."

During this period Laverty published several novels including 'Alone We Embark' (1943) and 'No More Than Human' (1944), which were banned, as was 'Lift Up Your Gates' (1946), a realistic portrayal of the appalling living conditions in the Dublin tenements of the time.

Laverty, it's said, believed it was banned because it exposed these dreadful conditions for poor families at the time.

Her first cookbook, 'Flour Economy' was published in 1941 after she was commissioned by the Government to show housewives how to make the most of scarce goods.

"She was a very well-known figure and her knowledge of cooking was well known," adds Binchy. Other cookbooks came in the decades that followed: 'Kind Cooking' and 'Full & Plenty' were very well received -- copies of 'Full & Plenty', first published in 1960, are on the shelves of many households to this day.

"My aunt Joan remembers that until 'Full & Plenty' came, the only cookery books in Irish households were the ones that came with a new cooker! But when the Maura Laverty books came out, everyone bought them.

"My aunt Maeve says she never thought there was another way to write a cookbook except where every recipe came with its own little story -- that was because she grew up with Maura Laverty's cookbook."

Laverty was also writing for American and British magazines and had acquired a London agent who also represented Graham Greene's agent.

"On the surface she would have appeared to be hugely successful but it did not translate into a stable financial lifestyle," says Binchy.

One of Laverty's novels, dramatised as 'Liffey Lane', was produced by Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLaimmoir. 'Tolka Row' became a very popular television series on RTE between 1964 and 1968.

"It was really popular and Maura was the only writer on it. 'Fair City' or 'Coronation Street' have several writers, but Maura was doing this herself and coming up with a half-hour of prime-time TV drama a week. It was a huge job," says Binchy.

The soap, the station's flagship drama, was a sensation and, says Binchy, she was paid 30 guineas a week, which helped her buy a house.

Laverty was working on 'Tolka Row' right up to the time she died in 1966 -- she told friends and family that she needed some space and time to get ahead of her writing projects, and asked not to be bothered.

"Because they had been asked not to ring, nobody contacted her for about a week. Then Peggy, her sister, got worried and rang the house. She got no answer and went to the house, broke in and found her dead from a heart attack. I think she was struggling at this point to stay on top of her work because she was so much in demand.

"There were a lot of difficulties in her life as well as triumphs. She comes across as a great survivor who had enormous powers of adaptability and I think she should be better remembered for her novels and her contribution to cooking," Binchy adds.

"Those cookery books certainly contributed to the survival of dishes like soda bread and boxty, and to the fact that they are often quite celebrated today.

"Laverty was celebrating Irish cookery traditions at a time when many people were dismissing them. She played an important role in our national identity."

'Full and Plenty in a Hungry Country -- Maura Laverty Remembered', will be broadcast on the Documentary on One, RTE One at 2pm on Saturday, June 18

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