Exiled by Choice

Her father was an IRA gunman dedicated to an independent Ireland. This meant that Maeve Brennan (1917-1993) was subjected to a rather unstable and tense childhood as her father was often arrested and jailed for his political activities. In fact, Maeve was born while her father was in prison. Imagine the mood swings Maeve’s mother must have gone through and the imprinting it left on Maeve.

Negotiating your identity in a hostile environment is not the easiest thing to do.

After Ireland gained independence from Great Britain, Maeve’s father was appointed first minister to the U.S. Thus, in 1934, the Brennan family moved to Washington D.C. but, in 1947, when it was time to go back to Ireland, Maeve said “No way!”. Instead, she moved to NYC and got a job at Harper’s Bazaar where another Dubliner, Carmel Snow, was editor-in-chief. In the role of The Long-Winded Lady, Maeve kept a social column and later published her short stories with Harper’s as well.

Maeve was described as a “small, charming, effortlessly witty, generous woman with green eyes, hugely oversized horn-rimmed glasses, and chestnut hair worn in a vast beehive.” * To be around Maeve and “the quick sound of her heels and her beautiful Dublin accent” was “to see style being invented” leading to the speculation that Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly was based on Maeve.

In the 1960s, Maeve was at her apex. But then things began to deteriorate as if something inside of her had snapped. Or, more likely, after years of slow erosion, suddenly everything began to crumble. Her dam of self-containment broke and Maeve was swept away. To keep herself afloat, she drank.

Once known for her style and wit, Maeve was now unkempt and incoherent. By the 1970s, she was a low functioning alcoholic forced to live on the streets and wash herself in public restrooms. One day Maeve just disappeared and wasn’t heard of again until her obituary several years later. Destitute and sick, Maeve had been living in a nursing home where she died in 1993 at the age of 76.

Many of Maeve’s short stories are based in Ireland. It was as if Mauve could not get Dublin out of her mind despite the Atlantic that separated her from her hometown. James Joyce (1882-1941) faced a similar problem. In 1904, Joyce, in his early 20s, left Ireland for continental Europe. But the distance could not keep him from focusing on Dublin. Says Joyce: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

Joyce, educated by Jesuits, in 1914 published “Dubliners”, a collection of 15 short stories all depicting Irish middle class life.  The characters in Dubliners experience epiphanies that change them within. Because, like an explosion out of darkness, an epiphany is a moment of sudden realization, a moment so long it can last forever.

In The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, Maeve also wrote about Dubliners. In particular, she wrote about three families and their daily life. They are stories of those “ordinary customs that are the only true realities most of us ever know.”

Maeve’s stories are for women, women like me who can relate to all those nuances that go into creating a homey environment for one’s family. Take, for example, the story “The Sofa”.

It was Tuesday and Mrs. Bagot was waiting for her new sofa to be delivered. No given time had been set for the delivery other than “sometime during the day” meaning that Mrs. Bagot’s day would not belong to her until the sofa arrived.

Space had been made for the sofa leaving the living room looking naked save for the big rug in front of the fireplace. “The room looked very carefree with no furniture in it” and her daughters pranced around the living room until they were so tired, they laid down on the carpet. Mrs. Bagot should have sent them off to school but, thinking that when the sofa arrived, the girls would no longer be able to roll around on the carpet, she continued to let them play. Why tell them to stop and deprive them of the sensation of freedom, a sensation so rarely experienced.

At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the sofa still hadn’t arrived and the anxiety of waiting kept Mrs. Bagot focusing on anything else.

Finally, the moment she had waited for all day–Mrs. Bagot watched as “the sofa began to emerge timidly from the van” and her daughters, seeing it, came running. Other children started running towards the Bagot house, too. A neighbor getting a new sofa was an event and had people on the streets blatantly watching or discreetly peeking from behind a curtained window. All eyes were glued on the sofa being carefully carried across the yard. Finally, once on the porch, the sofa’s grand tour ended and people went home.

Placed facing the fireplace, the sofa looked very well in the room—much better than expected. Mrs. Bagot and her daughters spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the sofa, contemplating it, stroking it, describing it, and above all, they took turns posing on it. And the excitement the sofa had caused kept them talking all throughout dinner.

Epilogue: There are big stories in small events.

“Or you could say that an exile was a person who knew of a country that made all other countries seem strange.” Maeve

*from her obituary written by William Maxwell of The New Yorker


Related: Maeve Brennan finds a place at the table + Maeve Brennan « The Irish Aesthete + Maeve Brennan: Lessons and lessons and then more lessons + Maeve Brennan: loneliness elevated to an art form + Maeve Brennan podcast with her biographer Angela Bourke + A Maeve Brennan Revival? + The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan review: irresistible stories + A Look at the Inspiration Behind Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly + Maeve Brennan: On the Life of a Great Irish Writer, and Its Sad End +

Maeve blatantly used her own childhood address for her some of her short stories: 48 Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh, Dublin.

The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin on archive.org HERE

Untouched since Joyce’s Heyday, Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, Dublin) + James Joyce and Italo Svevo, the story of a friendship + Italo Svevo + Joyce lived in Rome from 1906-1907 but didn’t like it +


Bourke, Angela. Maeve Brennan: homesick at The New Yorker. Counterpoint. NYC. 2004.  Read on archive HERE

Brennan, Maeve. The Springs of Affection.

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