Inhabiting a Character

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Years ago, travelling in Sri Lanka, I gave my copy of Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge (1942), long out of print, to someone who had helped me, and immediately regretted it – where would I find another? Mary Lavin, once hugely admired and honoured, had been forgotten, as had almost all her work.

In the mid-twentieth century, two Irish writers of short stories were stars of the New Yorker. Mary Lavin and Maeve Brennan wrote from opposite sides of the Atlantic: their methods were different, and their own lives could hardly have been more dissimilar, but they shared themes of memory and home, of death and, above all, love. Now their reputations have dimmed, and their distinguished stories are to be found only second-hand and if you’re lucky.

My rash gift was Mary Lavin’s first collection of short stories, which won the James Tait Black Memorial prize. She went on to write another hundred stories and two novels, The House in Clewe Street (1945) and Mary O’Grady (1950). She was awarded many more prizes and honours, culminating in her election in old age to Saoi (literally ‘wise one’) in the Irish affiliation of artists Aosdána – one of Irish culture’s highest accolades.

She was born to Irish parents in Massachusetts in 1912. The family returned to Ireland when she was 10, living first in her mother’s home of Athenry (the Castlerampart of several stories), then in Dublin, and from 1925 in Bective, Co. Meath. Her story ‘Miss Holland’ (written on the back of a draft of her Ph.D. thesis on Virginia Woolf, we are told), appeared in the Dublin Review and was noticed by the influential Irish writer Lord Dunsany, who fostered her early career and wrote an introduction to Bective Bridge.

She soon abandoned academe, quickly established herself in a milieu largely dominated by men, and was published in many journals, notably the New Yorker. She lived with her hu

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About the contributor

Mary Sullivan is an English writer and reviewer particularly interested in the short-story form and in the contribution of Irish women writers to the genre. Her own story ‘Inishgill’, published in Encounter in the 1970s, observed a Connemara island as it was then – now as much a changed world as that of Mary Lavin.

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