Controversial Rathangan author Maura Laverty's trailblazing life laid bare in new book

Liam Kenny takes an in-depth look at the first biography of Maura Laverty, the Rathangan writer who shocked the town in the 1940s

Liam Kenny

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Liam Kenny

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Controversial Rathangan author Maura Laverty's trailblazing life laid bare in new book

Maura Laverty had a varied, and oftentimes controversial, career

Rathangan has a lot to be proud of — its thriving community spirit, its enviable location scented by the heather breezes from the peatlands, and its galaxy of native-born patriots and poets.

Now the west Kildare town’s repute is reinforced with the publication of a cracking biography of one its sometimes controversial daughters — Maura Laverty — who was a household name in the mid-20th century.

Born Mary Kelly in 1907, she was baptised, and later married, in the old Catholic church in the town where in a gesture of great symbolism her biography was launched 110 ten years later in front of an audience of townspeople, all of whom were aware of the conflicting reactions to her depiction of their town in an earlier generation.

Readers of a certain generation will remember Maura Laverty as a scriptwriter for Tolka Row (1963), Irish television’s first urban soap series and forerunner to the likes of Fair City. Such was her versatility that she was also known in homes throughout the country for her cookery book Full and Plenty, which is still treasured on many a cosy kitchen shelf.

However it was her endeavour as a novelist which brought her into glare of controversy. Three of her four novels written in the 1940s attracted the attention of the Irish censor. And while this may not have been a particularly high bar of notoriety — just about everything with any realism published in Ireland at the time fell foul of the censor — it was on a more local canvas that she was to provoke enduringly controversial reactions among some in Rathangan. Although her writing was fictional, and no names of real people or places were mentioned, locals insisted that two of her books were thinly disguised exposés of life in Rathangan, warts and all, in the 1920s.

The author of the biography, called The Maura Laverty Story — from Rathangan to Tolka Row, is well-qualified to write on the story of this complex and vivacious woman.

Seamus Kelly was, like Maura Laverty (née Kelly), born in Rathangan, but despite the similarity of the surname is no relation.

He still lives within the boundaries of County Kildare, being a resident of Leixlip for many years. His enthusiasm as a communicator of local history has seen both places benefit. He has published a guide to the Liffeyside town entitled A Walking Tour of Leixlip which complements his popular walking tours during the June festival weekend while A Ramble in Rathangan is a similarly engaging account of the settlement on the banks of the river Slate. It is this familiarity with Rathangan which gives him an invaluable insight into the environment in which Laverty grew up.

However, his interest in her many-faceted personality prompted him to track down sources throughout Ireland and beyond — extending even as far as America to reach out to members of her wider family circle.

The sheer diversity and scale of Maura Laverty’s output, across a variety of genres including scripting for the new technology of television, should have brought her to a biographer’s attention much earlier. It is to the credit of Seamus Kelly, that this notable omission from the biographical shelves of the nation has been rectified. It is clearly a labour of love for him, and his regard for his subject is evident in his introduction: “It is my considered view that Maura Laverty was the most versatile Irish writer between 1940 and the mid-1960s”.

In a deft turn of phrase he declares: “She was a storyteller of note whose own story has not been told.” However while his regard for his subject is clear, his training as a historian ensures that his assessment of her life and work remains grounded and balanced. How she was — and is — remembered, both positively and negatively, in her home village of Rathangan, is an important theme that is explored fully and fairly in the book.

While Maura Laverty has been the subject of a number of articles and of some academic attention, this is the first full scale biography.

And as well as dealing comprehensively with her better-known endeavours as an author widely read in Ireland, Seamus Kelly’s book shines new light on previously un-researched aspects of her life, including her American connections, the international reach of her publications, and of her pioneering role as a female radio scriptwriter, long before Tolka Row brought her notice in the embryonic era of television.

Maura Laverty’s family had moved from Kilkenny to Rathangan, and the burden of providing for the household seems to have fallen on her mother, who was a dressmaker. Writing in later years, Maura Laverty recalled that her mother’s work was “admittedly not haute couture, but it gave full satisfaction to the women of Rathangan.”

A surprise discovery made by Seamus Kelly in his research was that, as family means tightened in her Rathangan household Maura was sent to live with a childless couple in Hardwicke Street, Dublin for three years. It was an unhappy time for her.

However brighter skies and opportunities were to open up for her when, at 17, she went to Spain to work as a governess and, later, secretary. Not for the first time, an aspiring Irish writer was to find inspiration and freedom on continental Europe. Her four years in Spain were critical to her development as a writer.

The cover of Seamus Kelly's new book on Maura Laverty

Apart from the essential skill of learning to type, Maura got the ‘start’ which is the breakthrough moment for all young writers. It came courtesy of a most unlikely outlet for a female writer.

While in Spain she translated 12 stories of Spanish legends and sent them to the editor of Our Boys, a magazine published by the Irish Christian Brothers. It might seem an unusual outlet for female writers, but as Seamus Kelly comments wryly: “It says a lot about the very limited opportunities in the 1920s, that they [women writers] had to target Our Boys to get published”. She was paid a very respectable nine pounds for her submissions to the magazine. Her initial foray also highlighted a canny streak to her approach to writing. She was no idealist — getting paid for her work was important to her. It is no small tribute to her industry that for the following 30 years she sustained herself — and, in time, her family — from her writing output in a mainly Irish market where paying opportunities for creative writers were very limited.

Her success rate in being published was impressive and by 1928 the Leinster Leader recorded that she had been published in a wide range of national newspapers. Seamus Kelly highlights how she was very much a modern writer, making it into writing for radio (Radio Éireann) which was hitherto alien territory for female writers.

Right through the 1930s, she broadcast on an exceptional variety of subjects including religious, cookery, children’s, folkloric and general interest topics. Her religious programming included a series on the mysteries of the Rosary, programmes on the saints including, appropriately for a Kildare woman, St Brigid, and depictions of famous shrines of Christianity. Again Seamus Kelly unerringly sums up the contradictions in how her work across different genres was received: “It is ironic that Catholic Church influences that helped to ban Maura’s work in the mid-1940s were very supportive of her and she of them in the 1930s.”

Seamus Kelly charts how her work proliferated even into the austere years of the Emergency at the outbreak of what the rest of the globe termed the Second World War. It was during this time that she was at her most creative in literary terms, turning out four novels within the decade.

It was the first two of these that are of most interest to Kildare readers, being based heavily on her recollections of her observations of Rathangan where she grew up and lived, albeit briefly, as a young woman.

As Seamus Kelly notes “For better or for worse, thinly veiled references to many local people in Rathangan permeate Never No More and Alone We Embark.

Her first novel was set in a fictional Ballyderrig, which, based on an abundance of clues in the work, is clearly Rathangan. In writing about a local dance hall, she refers to 'The Temple', the true, curiously religious sounding name of Rathangan’s ballroom of romance.

Her description is evocative: “It was a leaky barn … but that night I forgot its damp stained walls, and remembered only the lights and the music and the dancing. I remember it as a bright glamourous place blossoming with romance, I could not remember it otherwise for it was the scene of my first love affair.”

But while places are unlikely to take much offence trouble arises when the same full-on descriptive approach is applied to people, real or imaginary. For example she refers to a character she names Roach Doyle who she writes was “a truly horrible old man and his equally horrible brother.” An unfortunate fictional Mrs Higgins did not fare much better. She was called ‘soot” because “her complexion supported the popular belief that she washed her face only at Christmas and Easter.”

There is a lot more in a similar vein — blunt and often unflattering — and it is not surprising then that Never No More ruffled feathers in Rathangan, and, according to Seamus Kelly, still rankles with a few locals.

He reports that a Rathangan exile wrote to him to suggest that a copy of the book was held in Rathangan library in the 1960s with “the offending section” torn out.

However, while he says that he encountered some who still expressed resentment for her portrayal of Rathangan, he is also fair to Laverty when he considers the dilemma faced by the writer. How to create a portrayal of a locality which is, at least in the view of the writer, realistic and honest? Every writer must draw from her or his life experience and observations of the world around them.

As Seamus Kelly says: “Many writers have to make a call on these matters. What to put in, what not to put in, how to say it and how not to say it.” He ponders on whether Laverty could have disguised some of the characters, and notes that had she written the books in Rathangan, rather than from the distance of Dublin, she may have tempered her descriptions. However, she had to follow her own authenticity and portray with conviction her impressions of a small Irish village in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Her rendering of her observations in fictional form gave her a freedom to commit that honesty in print, however uncomfortable it might be for those who claimed they saw a connection with their own neighbours and townspeople. Our knowledge of the past would be all the poorer if writers had to temper their authenticity for fear of irritating local audiences.

In any event, there was no fear of her audiences in Ireland and in other parts of the world making any connection with individuals in Rathangan. To a wider audience, it was a portrayal of life in an Irish town with a rich cast of characters many of whom — despite the local emphasis on the critical characterisations — were portrayed by Laverty in warm and engaging terms.

Local author Seamus Kelly with son, Peter, and daughter, Laura, pictured launching his latest book, ‘The Maura Laverty Story’ in Rathangan Community Hall on Sunday, November 19. Picture: Tony Keane

As a review in the Irish Press in 1943 noted: “It is the story of a little lost village in the Midlands of Ireland and it tells of a life that is gone, a good life, simple, generous and uncomplicated.”

What’s more, to contemplate Laverty’s legacy solely in terms of her Rathangan references would be to understate the extraordinary breadth of her achievement. In an extraordinarily productive life, she went on to write children’s books, stories and journalism in American magazines, and plays on radio and in the Dublin theatre. Earning a living from writing was always a precarious pursuit, and especially so in the Ireland of the 1940s when the outlets for creative writing were few and invariably conservative. With searing words, she characterised the censoriousness of the time, which she blamed on Mr De Valera’s political agenda, as having reduced “our Abbey Theatre to the level of village theatricals and which is fast turning this country into a dirty, damp ill-lit nursery.”

However, her wells of determination were deep and she broke through barriers that would have deterred a lesser spirit. Seamus Kelly’s research reminds us of hitherto forgotten gems of her output not least an article she wrote among her regular contributions to a magazine published by the Passionist Order in the United States. It was a portrayal of the county town of Naas in 1954, and her article is as good a characterisation as any of the power structures of an Irish town in that era: “Naas has everything that typifies the contentedness of Main Street, Ireland — church, vigilant priest, plain folk, helpful landowners, and Mrs Lawlor.”

Certainly, no radical ideas were going to disturb the combined hegemony of church and local interests. She records how some stalwart parishioners reported that they had given the run to a chap distributing 'Communist leaflets' in the public houses of Naas.

She visited the Glennon family of New Row with the magazine’s photographer, and pondered the future of the younger members against the background of the pull of emigration which permeated town and country. Fortunately, that particular family thrived on home soil — Chris Glennon, retired political editor of the Irish Independent, Mary Glennon, former Naas town council member, and Bill Glennon, who has been practising the shoe repair craft for decades are among its distinguished members.

The foregoing sense of social inquiry, but geared for a Catholic audience, represented one strand of Maura Laverty’s multi-faceted output. Children’s literature, cookery books, scripts for radio, theatre, documentary film, and later TV drama are all documented by Seamus Kelly whose research in archives in Ireland, Britain and the United States does full justice to her talent and energy. Perhaps the last word is best left to him: “There’s a lot more to Maura Laverty than her comments about Rathangan people”.

Maura Laverty encountered joy but also difficulty in her personal life and Seamus Kelly documents her story sympathetically but accurately. She had three children 17 years apart, and eventually seemed to become the principal bread winner, sustaining her family on her writings. Despite her status as a regular contributor to press and broadcasting she was in a lonely place by the time the 1960s came about.

The young Nuala O’Faoláin, who visited with Maura’s daughter Barry wrote: “She never spoke about herself, much less uttered any complaint, but I used to feel loneliness coming from her.”

However she worked with great industry, perhaps worked too hard, until she died alone in her Rathfarnham home in July 1966. Her death was recorded in obituaries including in the The Times (of London).

The world moves on, and so too has Rathangan. While there may be a trace of residual animosity towards Laverty, the town has for many years embraced her repute as a widely read commentator on the life and times of 20th century Ireland. Plaques and heritage talks have celebrated her memory.

However there will be few expositions as enduring or as comprehensive as Seamus Kelly’s engagingly written and studiously researched biography of Maura Laverty, whose outstanding place in mid-twentieth century Irish journalism and broadcasting is only now beginning to be understood.

The Maura Laverty Story is available in local bookshops or from Seamus Kelly at 10 Ryemont Abbey, Leixlip, on 087 4345147