- "As Important … in My Childhood as the Catholic Church and the Fight for Irish Freedom":Legacies of Conflict in Maeve Brennan's Cherryfield Avenue Stories
After many decades of obscurity, Maeve Brennan's writing has recently regained popular and scholarly status.1 The relevance and richness of her work is indicated not only by the popularity of her reissued short stories but also by the attention that her work has attracted from a range of critical perspectives. Thought-provoking attention has been paid to the New York and Hampton contexts as well as the domestic, urban, and suburban Dublin settings of her short stories, to the unheimlich and Gothic tones in her novella The Visitor, and to her presentation of the experiences of Irish migrants to the United States. Angela Bourke's biography of Brennan underpins all this scholarship, as a document both of Brennan's life and of the wider contexts into and out of which she wrote. Brennan's family heritage within the Irish republican movement as the child of Robert and Una, both prominent activists during the Anglo-Irish War and civil war, is regularly mentioned as part of the writer's biography, and this article argues that the aesthetic and thematic legacies of growing up during this volatile period are crucial elements in her writing. Editor William Maxwell declares in his introduction to The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, "her [End Page 79] best stories are always set in Ireland and have no characters that are not Irish"; Brennan's Cherryfield Avenue stories are of particular interest here, although the long reach of childhood disruption can also be perceived in stories based in the United States.2
As Heather Ingman notes in her essay "The Short Story" in A History of Modern Irish Women's Literature, Brennan's stories, with their "emphasis on realism, reminiscence and place," depict a bleak Irish society after independence: "introverted and xenophobic with a narrow definition of femininity."3 Brennan's dissatisfaction with Ireland and its strict confines for women is embedded in the vivid female characters she creates: ranging from malevolent to miserable, Brennan's women share a common experience of extremely limited autonomy. Indeed, many of her stories circle around the petty power struggles that come to define restricted lives, struggles that appear insignificant but are a distillation of the essence of frustrated human interaction. Mary Ramsay's assertion of dominance over her small sphere, the ladies' toilet of the Royal Hotel, is resisted by Miss Williams in "The Holy Terror"; in "Christmas Eve," Delia Bagot smuggles Bennie, her pet dog, into her single bedroom against her husband Martin's knowledge; the fictionalized Una Brennan deals out excessive charity from her kitchen against her brother's advice in "The Old Man of the Sea."
The near-pitiful defense of these assertions suggests the contraction of women's sphere of authority in Irish society: deliberate gestures of independence that take place in a domestic setting, underpinned by negotiations between private and public, male and female, and sacrifice and service in each short story. Bourke observes that the actual Cherryfield Avenue house "should have meant independence and stability at last" for the Brennan family, but rather the political climate meant that "lasting, bitter, political division" followed and "began to take its toll on personal happiness."4 Incisively, Bourke further comments that, "for women like Una Brennan, idealistic activists relegated to domesticity by the relentlessly conservative men who now dominated both factions, the new regime brought only disillusionment."5 The struggles of dominance and domain that take place in Brennan's writing can be read as a (regularly failed) negotiation for selfhood, status, and social capital within the family structure and, implicitly, the wider Irish society.
This article concentrates on legacies of conflict in Brennan's work, specifically in four stories—"The Morning after the Big Fire," "The Old Man of the [End Page 80] Sea," "The Day We Got Our Own Back," and "The Clever One"—from the Cherryfield Avenue era, the semi-autobiographical stories that depict the Brennan family in the period 1921–28.6 These stories were originally published in the New Yorker and reappeared...