Obituary: Mary Lavin

Tuesday 26 March 1996 00:02

A writer sometimes compared with Chekhov, Mary Lavin will always be associated with the mid-lands of Ireland, for her fiction transformed that locale into something brimming with incipient universality, rich in nuance, at once harmonious and sharply intelligent.

Her American background (she returned from the United States while still a child) provided her with a poise which was both artistic and personal; it gave her an awareness of externality, of distant places, and this in turn informed the provincial towns and farms of her best work. Athenry, in County Galway, was her first home in Ireland, and it can be discerned in some of the early work. Discernment is perhaps a key term in approaching Lavin's writing; it provides a diplomatic idiom of negotiation between author and reader.

As a woman, eager and able to contribute to Irish literature, she found herself confronted by the distinctly male genre of the short story, a literary form so intensely worked by James Joyce that little seemed possible except through imitation or calculated disaffiliation. Among her immediate seniors in the 1940s, only Elizabeth Bowen had set an example of a woman competing successfully against the male dominance which was literary Ireland, but Bowen only occasionally wrote about her native land. The other two masters of the short story - Sean O Faolain and Frank O'Connor - had virtually established copyright on what an Irish story should be. The formula which, with whatever injustice to individual writers and stories, came to be recognised by readers never fitted Mary Lavin's work and she never succumbed to its allure.

Tradition has it that she broke through with the aid of Lord Dunsany, a minor writer whose ancestral estates included the part of County Meath in which she settled. It is certain that he wrote on her behalf, contributing the preface to her first collection, Tales from Bective Bridge (1942). But in retrospect it is hard to believe that she needed patronage, even harder to think of her as sponsored by one of the oldest families in Ireland. Hers was a middle-class milieu, solidly located below Dunsany Castle and even below Bowens Court, equally distant from and above the back-streets and townlands of O Faolain and O'Connor in their classic phase. It was a social and cultural world, which those who measured all things from the base-line of popular opposition to former British rule in Ireland, sometimes found puzzling.

Educated by the Loreto nuns on Stephen's Green in Dublin, and then round the corner in University College, Lavin was recognisably an Irish Catholic writer - but "not as we know it". She spoke publicly and with great affection about her schooldays, about hockey and class photographs, and distinguished fellow pupils. But after she went to live in County Meath, on her marriage to William Walsh in 1942, she declined to participate in the bustle of Dublin's literary life, and the urbanity of her fiction was at odds with her personal bearing upon the city. Tales from Bective Bridge established her reputation, and the place name inscribed in the title of the collection exemplifies an east- midlands world where Norman and English and Gaelic cultures have converged with less turbulence than in other parts of the country. Time in Lavin's fiction has depth, acquired by accumulated culture whether by an individual or a district or a building.

When her husband died in 1954, the theme of widowhood added a further dimension to this intensely human yet sustainedly intelligent evolving oeuvre. A story is told that, on one occasion, someone sitting with Mary Lavin at a Paris cafe was asked quietly if her companion was "the great Irish writer". The half-diffident reply was "Well, yes," and the stranger immediately begged an introduction to - Lady Gregory! The incident captures a good deal that is important about Mary Lavin, the great dignity and beauty of her appearance, but also the uncertainty of her position vis- a-vis the Great Ones of Yeats's and Gregory's generation. However, she could not be mistaken for anything but a sensitive artist.

Lavin was well served by her British publishers who produced her work in suitably elegant volumes - a three-volume collected edition appeared in 1985. The House in Clewe Street, originally published in 1945, returned in paperback form in 1987. Prizes came aplenty, including the Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1961 and two Guggenheim awards. A member of Aosdna (the Irish body which honours writers, musicians and visual artists), she was recently granted its highest distinction when she was a elected a Saoi by her fellow members. At the ensuing ceremony, President Mary Robinson delivered a eulogy to which Lavin responded in antiphonal style with reminiscences of the President's mother at school. Apart from its literary importance, those of us who watched and applauded clearly apprehended the historical nature of this occasion.

Mary Lavin, writer: born East Walpole, Massachusetts 11 June 1912; married 1942 William Walsh (died 1954; three daughters), 1969 Michael MacDonald Scott (died 1990); died Dublin 25 March 1996.

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