On today’s (March 18) edition of the New Yorker online, there is talk of a revival of interest in Irish writer Maeve Brennan. With two plays about her in last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, our own revival is well underway. In fact, for some of us, she never went out of fashion in the first place…
Cherryfield Avenue in Ranelagh is not the sort of place you fall in love with. It doesn’t have that red-brick charm the rest of the village has. It’s the sort of place you end up rather than set out to arrive at.
The houses are tall, and have rugged granite-style facing. There is a faux grandeur about them, and they appear to be looking down on passers-by.
No 48 is one of the first houses on the left. It is painted white, with a tall evergreen tree in the small front garden. It doesn’t make a show of itself, yet we know a remarkable amount of what went on behind its doors.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Cherryfield Avenue was a place where very little happened, and if it did, you could be sure the neighbours knew all about it.
Back then, it was surrounded by green space: there was a tennis club behind the houses on the left, and the grounds of Milltown seminary were over the back walls of others.
Mostly, the street was home to members of the Anglican, Methodist or Presbyterians faith, many of whom kept servants who were Roman Catholic. But even in that respect, No 48 was different.
There lived Robert Brennan, his wife Una and his family. Brennan was an ex-IRA gunman, a leader of 1916 Rising in Wexford and a close associate of Eamon de Valera.
His wife was no less formidable. She was reportedly the first female member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. She and two other women volunteers climbed the Athenaeum in Enniscorthy to raise the tricolour in 1916.
By the early 1930s, Brennan had become respectable, and fitted in more comfortably with the other residents of Cherryfield Avenue. By then, he was a director of de Valera’s Irish Press newspaper, and dressed and behaved accordingly.
In 1934, de Valera sent Brennan to Washington as the Irish ambassador to the US. His family went with him, but several of the children never came back to live in Ireland.
The reason we know so much about the goings-on at No 48 is because Maeve Brennan, the youngest in the family, became a celebrated writer in the US and set many of her short stories in her old Ranelagh home.
Maeve Brennan died in New York in 1993, and had been forgotten for over two decades before that. In the last few years, there has been a renewal of interest in her writing, and she was the subject of two plays at the Dublin Theatre Festival.
Her portrait of life in No 48 is not a happy one. The marriage between Robert and Una Brennan turned into one of those silent battlefields. What was not said between them was as cruel as anything that was.
Daily life became a litany of sighs and meaningful door-closings. The affections of the youngest child were used as weapons, deployed in the service of one side or the other.
No wonder that Maeve Brennan never lived in Ireland again. Yet she owed much of her success as a writer to that bleak house. She mined that seam of memory and misery until – as she says in Emma O’Donoghue’s play Talk of the Town – it was exhausted.
No 48, with its front parlour, dining room and back kitchen, and its small back garden, stood, of course, through all this. A new family came to live there, the Morrisseys, who were, in many respects, very like the Brennans.
Mr Morrissey was a Republican, a 1916 man, a Dev man. He even named his son after Dev. And young Eamon Morrissey sat where Maeve Brennan had sat, and listened to the stories of the War of Independence and the Civil War, just as she had done.
Eamon Morrissey became an actor and read Maeve Brennan’s stories about Ranelagh and became smitten by the simple, restrained prose beneath which such strong emotion coursed.
On a theatre tour to New York in the 1960s, he wrote to her at the New Yorker magazine and they met, at the Russian Tea Rooms on West 57th street in 1966.
She was still attractive. The elegance that had made her the toast of literary New York in the 1950s was still there at 49. They talked about writing and the stage, and she gave him a collection of Russian short stories, saying as they parted that everything one needed to know about writing was within. “It’s all in there,” she said.
This week, as I walked past Cherryfield Avenue in the drizzle, and saw the darkened stone of the facades, I couldn’t help think of No 48 and all it had witnessed. Maeve Brennan might have been speaking about her home that day in New York. “It’s all in there.”