Anne Cunningham on Maeve Brennan: A Celebration

The clamour for tickets to “Maeve Brennan: A Celebration” on Friday, May 27th, was such that the venue was hastily changed last-minute. Smock Alley couldn’t contain the crowd and the event was held instead in Liberty Hall theatre. I hadn’t been in town for a while, and found myself picking my way through half-built tram tracks which seemed to be running the wrong way in Abbey Street; tracks we had lifted in the name of progress 70 years ago, tracks we are now laying again in the name of progress 70 years later. We’re funny like that.

The Stinging Fly Press has republished Maeve Brennan’s collection of short stories, The Springs of Affection, and Declan Meade of The Stinging Fly joined Brennan’s biographer Angela Bourke along with Sinead Gleeson, broadcaster and editor, to discuss Maeve Brennan the writer and the woman. Actress Caitriona Ni Mhurchu read passages from two stories in the collection, with a poise that matched the elegance of Brennan’s prose.

Maeve Brennan died in a New York hospital in 1993 and almost nobody knew. Almost nobody cared, either. Her mind had failed her by then, as it had done before in her lifetime. Bouts of mental illness and a fondness for the drink, a brief and chaotic marriage to a colleague in the New Yorker magazine, her extended separation from her parents and siblings in Ireland, all of these factors played into her descent from doyenne of New York’s literary scene to homeless bag lady. For further biographical details, you’ll have to read Angela Bourke’s very fine biography.

But rather than moan her loss – and subsequently ours – this “Celebration” event sought to bring her to an audience who might never have known her. People like me, for instance. And in doing so, it delighted a large throng (mainly of women, it has to be said. Plus ҫa change, eh?) who, after the event, circled the Gutter Bookshop counter in the lobby in their dozens, eager to drink in more of Maeve Brennan.

As I picked my way back up through the half-laid tram tracks in Abbey Street later that evening, I was struck by the agreement of all three speakers in the theatre that Maeve Brennan could not have been the writer she became, had she returned to live in Ireland.

“Just look at what happened to Edna O’Brien!” Sinead Gleeson reminded us. Indeed. And look at what happened to John McGahern, and to James Joyce. And to the old tram tracks in our capital city. We only see the value of what we’ve got in retrospect, long after we’ve disposed of it, or dispossessed it, or banished it entirely from the parish. By the time we get to fixing it, it’s invariably too late. We’re funny like that…

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