Anne Enright: In search of the real Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan didn’t have to be a woman for her work to be forgotten, though it surely helped. She did not have to become a bag lady for her work to be revived, though that possibly helped too. The story of her mental decline is terrifying for anyone who works with words, who searches her clean, sour sentences for some hint or indication of future madness, and then turns to check their own. 

Brennan is, for a new generation of female Irish writers, a casualty of old wars not yet won. The prose holds her revived reputation very well, especially the Irish stories. These feel transparently modern, the way that Dubliners by Joyce feels modern. It is partly a question of restraint. Benedict Kiely, Walter Macken, perhaps even Mary Lavin, ran the risk of being “Irish” on the pages of the New Yorker, which is to say endearing. Frank O’Connor was the cutest of the lot, perhaps, as well as the most successful. Brennan remains precise, unyielding: something lovely and unbearable is happening on the page.

Despite the lack of surface charm, Brennan was very Irish indeed. Her mother, Una, took part in the fighting during Easter 1916, alongside her father, Bob, who was arrested and sent to prison for it. Maeve was born 37 weeks later: conceived along with the Irish state you might say, she was a true daughter of the Rising. A few years later, Bob Brennan left his young family to take part in the war of independence and in the Irish civil war. He spent months in hiding and on the run and Maeve’s childhood home was raided several times by men carrying guns. After the state was founded, he set up the Irish Press for Éamon de Valera, and in 1933, when Maeve was 17, her father was appointed to Washington as Ireland’s first envoy to America. The Brennans could not have seen this remarkable future when they fell in love in the Gaelic League in Wexford, but they both saw some great ideal. Their three girls were named after ancient Irish queens: Emer, Deirdre and Maeve.

She was a “Gaelic princess”. Her hair was chestnut, her eyes were green. A pixie, a changeling, she was admired for the sharpness of her wit. It is hard to find a description of Brennan that is not code for her ethnicity. In 1941 she moved to New York and found a job at Harper’s Bazaar and when her family returned to Ireland, she stayed behind. Already reclusive, she moved from one rented room to another and rarely had a kitchen to call her own. Still, she seemed to miss some idea of Ireland, or of domesticity. Her biographer Angela Bourke wrote that: “Throughout her adult life, to the point of eccentricity, Maeve drank tea and sought out open fires.”

In 1949, at the age of 32, she secured a staff job at the New Yorker where she had the great good fortune to be edited by William Maxwell, who became a loyal friend. “To be around her,” he wrote, “was to see style being reinvented.” Brennan was a beautiful, unmarried woman in a dingy office full of men. She wore a fresh flower in her lapel and smelled of Cuir de Russie, a perfume designed by Chanel for women who dared to smoke in public. She worked all the time, produced very little, and ate boiled eggs to keep her figure neat.

By the early 1950s the descriptions of her Irishness had tipped from fey to fierce. Her tongue “could clip a hedge” she had “a longshoreman’s mouth”, she said “fuck” in company and drank in Costello’s on Third Avenue. Once, when nobody came to take her order as she sat in a booth there, she lifted a heavy, full sugar bowl and dropped it on the floor. There was no sense, when she married her New Yorker colleague, St Clair McKelway, fellow drinker – fellow madman, indeed – that he was taking a virgin Irish bride. Brennan was 36. They were, a friend said, “like two children out on a dangerous walk: both so dangerous and charming”.

It is worth saying that no middle-class Irish woman at the time would set foot in a Dublin pub. Irish drinking culture, for all its famous good fun, was deeply shame-bound. Maeve’s thirst had its origins in a terrific social uncertainty, but also in a great want. As her posthumous editor Christopher Carduff said, her work showed “a ravenous grudge, a ravenous nostalgia and a ravenous need for love”.

Brennan’s progress as a fiction writer was far from steady. She wrote a column of city observations as “The Long-Winded Lady”, and short pieces of memoir, in the sad, bright tone the New Yorker did so well. Her first published stories were lightly satirical and set in America. These were published between 1952 and 1956, after which came silence. The Irish stories, on which her reputation was revived, did not start to appear until 1959, a year after her mother’s death, when her marriage had fallen apart. There was a second rush, of more hopeful fictions, after the death of her father in 1964.

The stories involve two couples, the Bagots and the Derdons, who live in Ranelagh, where Brennan grew up. The Bagots are happier than the Derdons, but it can be hard to distinguish the memoir pieces from the fiction and one couple from another – they are all so lonely and their compass so small. They live, interchangeably, in Brennan’s childhood home at 48 Cherryfield Avenue, they climb the same little stairs and look out on the same laburnum tree. The stories are painful acts of reclamation. Brennan circles around the few events of these people’s lives. A new sofa arrives at the house, to great excitement. A man selling apples knocks at the door. People get married, they walk in the park, go to work and die. There are visits, disappointments and interminable, small cruelties – especially between the Derdons, whose only son John becomes a priest, leaving his mother bereft. Some of the most affecting stories are almost entirely without incident. A man goes into his dead wife’s bedroom and finds nothing there. A woman sees her own shadow on the wall of her children’s room, and is comforted by it.

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