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Dublin: 16 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Is this woman the best Irish writer you’ve never heard of?

Maeve Brennan wrote incredible short stories and essays. A new play explores her work and legacy.

cherryfield ave

Cherryfield Avenue

Source: Aoife Barry/TheJournal.ie

IN 1966, ACTOR Eamon Morrissey was 23, starring in Philadelphia Here I Come in New York, and about to read a story in the New Yorker on the big apple’s subway.

It was written by one Maeve Brennan, and as he read it the hairs on his neck started to stand up.

“Because,” he recalled,  “it was about 48 Cherryfield Avenue, which was the house I was brought up in, and which was the house Maeve was brought up in.”

Eamon Morrissey outside 48 Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh (2013) Pic  Ros Kavanagh

Eamon Morrissey outside 48 Cherryfield Avenue.

Rumbling beneath the streets, thousands of miles across the Atlantic ocean from his childhood home, he was reading about that very place, in the story of a woman who also once called it her home.

Now, five decades on, actor Eamon Morrissey has taken this experience and written it into his new one-man play, Maeve’s House.

Who was Maeve Brennan?

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Source: Amazon

But who was Maeve Brennan, why is she so adored by some, and why hasn’t she yet made it into the Irish literary canon?

Born in 1917, Brennan was the daughter of two fiercely committed Republicans. Her father, Robert Brennan, was sentenced to death for his role in the Easter Rising in 1916, but his sentence was commuted to penal servitude.

The Brennan’s home was often raided by Free State forces when Robert was on the run. But by 1934, Brennan was appointed first minister to the United States for the Irish Free State.

Moving to America

The family moved to Washington DC, where Maeve and her sisters and brother attended school. She went onto study English at university, and remained in the US with two of her sisters when the rest of her family returned to Ireland in 1944.

She became a fashion copywriter and then a journalist, working at Harper’s Bazaar before getting a coveted staff job at the prestigious New Yorker. Under the pseudonym The Long-Winded Lady, she wrote about life in New York City for the Talk of the Town section of the publication.

She also wrote short stories, which can today be found in a number of collections, such as The Springs of Affection. Her novella, The Visitor, was found and published after her death.

A glamorous and impeccably-dressed woman, she was rumoured to have been the inspiration for Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Eamon Morrissey in his one-man-show Maeve's House produced by the Abbey Theatre Pic  Ros Kavanagh

Eamon Morrissey on stage.

Maeve Brennan may have spent the bulk of her adulthood in America, but her time in Ireland informed most of her work. The families she wrote about lived in a house from her memory, her home at Cherryfield Avenue.

Within her childhood home, she situated characters living in a new, free, Ireland. An Ireland her parents and their compatriots fought for – but a country that was still, in so many ways, repressed. This repression seeped into the familial relationships, and Brennan laid bare the consequences of this within her stories of brittle marriages and pent-up frustration.

When Eamon met Maeve

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Source: Vincent via Flickr

After reading the eerie story on the subway, Morrissey contacted the New Yorker, who put him in touch with Brennan. They met at the Russian Tea Rooms. She gave him a book of short stories and they spoke about Ireland and writing.

“She was wonderful,” recalled Morrissey.

She had such a massive reputation but she wasn’t all that well known here. She really is something of a writer who had disappeared off the screen – it’s a shame because her writing was so good.

Brennan was not an overtly political writer, said Morrissey: “But to me she looks at Ireland after Independence, after the excitement of rebellion and independence which her parents were very much involved in…. then it seemed Ireland settled back into some Edwardian masquerade, which was a shame. And we looked more inward.”

It is no coincidence, he said, that so many of Brennan’s stories were set in the beautiful Cherryfield Avenue, which was a cul de sac.

“She was writing about people whose dreams had died; whose hope had died. I think it’s a very general comment on Ireland,” ventured Morrissey.

“She would spend a week on one sentence.”

Brennan kept in close touch with Ireland, particularly with Irish women writers, and so was up to date on what was going in the country. They were “warning her not to come home”, said Morrissey.

What is it that draws him to Maeve Brennan’s work?

It’s just the standard of her writing and her exploration of the depths of human loneliness and despair that she is so good at.

His parents bought the Cherryfield Avenue house from the Brennans when they moved to Washington, and his mother kept up with Maeve’s written work, often sitting in the very room she was reading about.

Morrissey describes his one-man show as a very reflective piece. “It is looking back and it is looking back at my mother and those whole times, but trying as much as possible seeing it through her eyes.”

A national treasure?

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Source: Aoife Barry/TheJournal.ie

By writing this show, Morrissey hopes that he is contributing to the revival of Brennan’s work.

Of the fact she hasn’t been nationally acknowledged for the talent she is, he said:

I really am sad that she hasn’t moved into the main ranks because she is one of our great writers and probably our best short story writer – certainly in line with equal to the best.

Morrissey has gone back to the old house off Sandford Road (in which the new resident is also named Maeve, as was his own mother), but says that Ranelagh “has changed beyond all recognition”.

“When I was growing up, it was its own village and its own place and it prided itself with the fact it wasn’t connected with the community. All the shops were there. There was even a hardware shop that had a big sign on the gable walls saying ‘goods at city prices”, so you didn’t have to go to the city.”

What happened to Maeve?

Sadly, Maeve Brennan’s own story had a tragic end. A marriage to a colleague, St Clair McKelway, who had alcohol problems and was known as a womaniser, ended in divorce.

Brennan, who moved around at a lot as it was, began to unravel as she aged. She even moved into a small room behind the women’s bathrooms in the New Yorker for a time. She died at the age of 76 after years of mental health issues.

Maeve Brennan’s work was never appreciated in her home country as it should have been, but she left quite a legacy behind her.

Maeve’s House will be shown at Abbey Theatre’s Peacock stage from 26 August – 6 September at 8pm; and  Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire for the Mountains to the Sea Festival on 10 and 11 September at 8pm.

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