Reading Mary Lavin’s story ‘In the Middle of the Fields’ in the recent anthology of Irish Women Writers The Long Gaze Back, I was reminded of a visit to East Walpole on the outskirts of Boston several years ago. I had travelled along Washington Street which seemed to extend forever in straight lines south-east of the city. I remember the harsh-sweet smell of hot asphalt when I reached the sleepy town.
It was here that Mary Lavin, the only child of Irish parents, was born in 1912 and passed the first nine years of her life. At the brow of a hill on the town’s edge, I entered the Francis William Bird Park which slopes down to the Neponsett River across which was the mill where Tom Lavin worked. Here the the small black-haired child was thrilled by parkland, flowers and water, imaging that she flew over the place like a bird. In October 1921, Mary Lavin left East Walpole and crossed the Atlantic to Ireland with her mother for a new life.
The shadows were lengthening when I departed William Bird Park to a chorus of bird song, soon facing the long stretch of Washington Street back to Boston. Next day I crossed the Atlantic through turbulent skies.
In a nice piece of symmetry Kathleen MacMahon’s novel, So This Is How It Ends, recently signed by Little Brown (UK) and Grand Central (US), will be published in 2012, the centenary of the birth of Mary Lavin, the author’s grandmother.
‘My memory of grandmother as a writer,’ Kathleen MacMahon said, ‘is of her in bed with a wooden tray writing, with endless pots of tea. That must have lodged in my brain at some point as being quite a nice job.’
So This Is How It Ends is a love story about a man who crosses the Atlantic to Ireland, as the Celtic Tiger collapses, and falls in love with a distant cousin. It is 90 years since the nine-year old Mary Lavin left the place of her birth in East Walpole, outside Boston, and sailed the Atlantic to Ireland on the SS Winefriedian with her mother. Mary Lavin’s transition from America to Athenry, her mother’s birth-place, is wonderfully captured in her short story ‘Lemonade’.
I visited East Walpole last summer, travelling along Boston’s Washington Street that seemed to go on forever. I walked in the Francis William Bird Park, where Mary Lavin played as a child when her father was employed on the Bird estate.
Mary Lavin would, I imagine, have been thrilled by the writing success of her grand-daughter. The publication of So This Is How It Ends will be an appropriate event to mark the centenary of Kathleen MacMahon’s grandmother’s birth.
It was one of my books for Christmas. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. And it was my recommended read for our book club this month.
But they’re a stubborn crowd, my book club lot. They know their own minds. What did they think of the book?
Took a long while to get into.
Some of the stories were lousy.
There are writers here I like, but they have better stories than what we got in this collection.
Some of the stories had no beginning or middle or end.
These can’t be the best Irish short stories of the last century!
It was time to turn the discussion around, get it working on a more positive vein.
Well, can we talk about the stories we DID like. Let’s see if we can select a half-dozen.
This did the trick. Lots of stories were enjoyed. We got a consensus on the top half-dozen Irish short stories from the Granta selection:
Claire Keegan’s ‘Men and Women’
From the 1999 collection Antartica, this story gets going with the great opening lines, ‘My father took me places. He had artificial hips, so he needs me to open gates.’ For our discerning lot, Claire Keegan’s stories, set in her rural mythic landscapes, are a triumph of writing.
Colm Tobin’s ‘A Priest in the Family’
We admired the grit, the dignity, the self-possession of Molly, mother of the child-abuser priest. After informing her of the devastating news, Father Greenwood adds, ‘I’d say people will be very kind.’ Molly replies knowingly: ‘Well, you don’t know them, then.’
Edna O’Brien’s, Sister Imelda
It’s almost 30 years since this story first appeared and it captures the boarding school world of bacon and cabbage, tapioca pudding, ‘fairly green rhubarb jam’ and the nuns’ ‘monotonous Latin chanting, long before the birds began’.
Eugene McCabe’s ‘Music at Annahullion’
Three siblings share a home on ‘thirty wet sour acres’ and their wretched lives are captured in words spoken in Annie’s dream: ‘I wish to God we were never born.’
Mary Lavin’s ‘Lilacs’
This piece goes back almost six decades to Mary Lavin’s collection Tales from Bective Bridge. The images of dung and lilac counterpoint the worlds of gritty reality and class aspiration with astute precision.
William Trevor’s ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’
The last story in the Granta selection and the master does not disappoint with this world of the greasy garage, the wayside weeping statue and the strange dressmaker.
We all agreed there were enough good stories in this collection to be getting along with – even if each of us had our hate list.