Maeve Brennan – The greatest Irish writer you never knew about

Last week at EPIC The Irish Emigraton Museum, we had the pleasure of welcoming renowned author Roddy Doyle, along with his mother Ita. They were delighted to see their relative, the writer Maeve Brennan, featured among the writers in the museum, and this inspired us to take the opportunity to highlight the work of this fantastic Irish writer.

Maeve Brennan was born in 1917 and grew up on Cherryfield Avenue in Ranelagh, the daughter of parents Robert and Una, both of whom had fought in the Easter Rising. Robert founded the Irish Press and was sent to Washington with his family in 1934 as the Free State’s first minister to the United States. When the family returned to Ireland in 1944, Maeve stayed behind, working first for Harper’s Bazaar, and then for the New Yorker. She worked successfully as a columnist and short story writer until her mental health began to deteriorate in the 1970s and she became homeless.

Maeve Brennan has long been a peripheral figure in Irish writing, but her singular and influential body of work is slowly gaining the recognition it deserves. Plays such as Talk of the Town by Emma Donoghue, another emigrant writer, and Maeve’s House by Eamon Morrissey (who lived in the house in which Maeve grew up) have put Maeve’s work back in the spotlight. Roddy Doyle’s reminiscences of her visits to the Doyle household when he was a child shed a poignant light on her later years. More recently, the Stinging Fly have reissued her book The Springs of Affection and her New Yorker columns under the title of The Long-Winded Lady, and her short fiction has been featured in The Glass Shore, edited by Sinéad Gleeson – an anthology which reasserts the place of women’s writing at the heart of the Irish canon. Historian, biographer and author Angela Bourke’s long dedication to Brennan’s work and the contribution her 2004 biography Homesick at the New Yorker made to the renewed interest in her work should not be overlooked.

Brennan can seem a romantic figure, and the image most are familiar with is her sitting in front of the fireplace in her beautiful office at the New Yorker, hair swept back, her expression balancing bravado and wistfulness. She is elegant, undoubtedly self-sufficient – but alone. Eileen Battersby, in her Irish Times review of The Long-Winded Lady dated January 6th of this year, ponders Brennan’s isolation and how it influences her work – leading to observational columns which can seem a little cool in comparison to the work of some of her peers, like Dorothy Parker, and yet show real flashes of insight:

“Many of the pieces in The Long-Winded Lady evoke an image of Brennan wandering through New York, particularly Manhattan, alone and often on her way back to whatever hotel she was then living in. On a human level it is very upsetting, particularly as the facts of her life are known. She barely touches food, smokes, drinks, and seldom speaks to anyone. There is minimal reported speech. Her view of the world is seen through the windows of hotel rooms, restaurants and bars.”

Brennan’s short fiction has been widely praised and compared to the work of Elizabeth Bowen and James Joyce. Edwin Higel of New Island, who reissued Brennan’s novella The Visitor in 2001 and more recently published Sinéad Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore short story anthologies, lamented in a recent Irish Times article the reluctance of readers to pick up short story collections, but also pointed out the success of the aforementioned publications, and how well readers have reacted to Brennan’s poignant stories. Anne Enright, writing in the Guardian, focuses on the uniqueness of Maeve’s voice as a short fiction writer; writing low-key stories about middle class couples living in Dublin, recording the small desperations of their day-to-day lives:

“She was a Dublin writer, there are no rural cadences rolling through Brennan’s prose. She was, besides, impatient of “the bog and thunder variety of stuff that has been foisted abroad in the name of Ireland”. The Irish oral tradition has a performative aspect that can tip a writer’s persona into “personality”, but Brennan’s characters had very little “character” to speak of. Even the word “voice” caused her anxiety.”

Enright rejects the narrative of Brennan as tragic, lost and waiflike, maintaining that despite the troubles of Brennan’s later years, where alcoholism and eventual homelessness took their toll, her writing demonstrates a clear-eyed and unsentimental look at the birth of the Irish nation as seen through the eyes of the emerging Dublin middle classes of the new state.

At EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, we are delighted to feature Maeve Brennan in our ‘Storytelling’ Gallery and to place her alongside other key Irish writers of the 20th century.