Saturday 21 September 2019

How Mary Lavin dissected the restrictions of Irish bourgeois life

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

Mary Kenny

I began my working life as a 16-year-old waitress in a restaurant called The Country Shop then situated in Dublin's Stephen's Green. One of the regular customers, along with her three high-spirited daughters, was the author Mary Lavin, a woman then in her late forties, with a strong, smiling face and iron-grey hair.

I knew the girls because I had been in the same class as the eldest, Valdi, at Loreto, Stephen's Green, and the younger girls, Elizabeth and Caroline, were thereby known to me too. They always seemed to be a jolly party: they lived, very fashionably for the early 1960s, in a mews apartment in central Dublin. The girls' father, William Walsh, had died.

Being woefully under-educated myself, I knew nothing about Mary Lavin as a writer at the time. It was many decades later that I came to read her short stories, and to appreciate how intelligent and revealing they are about middle-class Irish family life in the mid-20th century.

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'The Will' is a stunning story, written in the 1940s, about the penalties a young woman suffers when she marries "beneath her", to the disapproval of her mother and family. Lally is omitted from her mother's will because of this offence, and her siblings show their disapproval too. She's told "it would be in the interest of the family" if she and her husband didn't keep lodgers: it looks so needy. Her sister tells her that her own children feel the stigma when "their first cousins are going to free schools in the city and mixing with the lowest of the low". Lally not only takes such reproofs with dignity, but worries about the state of her mother's soul, approaching death, and hastens to get a Mass said for her coldly snobbish parent.

'The Becker Wives' is a portrait of Irish bourgeois stuffiness: marriage is associated with security and prosperity - happiness isn't mentioned. "The unmarried state had been abhorrent to old Bartholomew. He had held it to be not only dangerous to a man's soul, but destructive to his business as well." In 'A Woman Friend', a doctor, in trouble after a professional slip-up, ruminates on why he hadn't married. He feels, disdainfully, his contemporaries had become "mediocre" through "indifferent marriages… they had almost all married their receptionist, or their secretary, or a pretty nurse".

The way in which marriage can divide women, between wives and "spinsters" is explored in 'The Long Ago', a narrative which dissects the dynamics of a friendship between three women. Two are married, one is not, but when the wives become widows, are all three now equal in their single status? Not quite. Mary Lavin had been born in America in 1912, an only child, of Irish parents. The family returned to the west of Ireland in the early years of the Free State. Her parents' unhappy marriage, the restrictions of Irish middle-class life and the puritanism of Irish Catholicism made an impact on her, and fed into her creative writing gift.

Priests are often featured in her stories (and she married a laicised Jesuit, Michael Scott, in a second union), but in a naturalistic fashion: sometimes thoughtful characters, sometimes nerve-wracked, eccentric or outspoken. In 'A Pure Accident' the canon is scathing about how "the mothers of Ireland" mollycoddle their sons into the priesthood. "When I was in Maynooth I used to see them on visiting day walking the grounds with their poor, weedy, pimply-faced sons." These guys should find their own way to manhood!

In a powerful story 'The Nun's Mother', Lavin describes how horrified a woman - and her husband - are when their only daughter chooses to enter a convent. Mrs Latimer regards the convent as "a hateful place", and is sickened by the religious gifts sent to her daughter on becoming a novice - the "holy pictures, holy water fonts, prayer books, hymn books, rosary beads, crucifixes… there was no end to the rubbish that was piling up on the hall table". If only these had been wedding gifts. Bewildered that her daughter has chosen celibacy, she thinks back on "blissful memories" of her own early married days.

Her husband is even more distressed. Chastity "floored him". "To think that a daughter of his - the child of his own delight - should choose to live a celibate life - that was utterly beyond his capacity to understand." But she has to accept that she will henceforth be subjected to treacly respect as 'The Nun's Mother'.

Mary Lavin didn't write only about family life, but it is often the subtext to choices - and tragedies. 'Sarah' is a shocking tale about a woman who meets a terrible fate at the hands of her own brothers because of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy - and betrayed by the malice of her seducer's wife. 'The Lost Child' is a highly contemporary theme told through the story of a miscarriage, and a Catholic convert's encounter with a cemetery for unbaptised babies. Is a miscarriage a life to be mourned? Weren't the babies despatched to Limbo also worthy of respect? A subtle, questioning story.

Mary Lavin died in 1996, and her daughters are also, sadly, gone. But Valdi's daughter, Kathleen MacMahon, is a successful, and best-selling author for her own generation today.

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