Queen Maeve

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“From the time I was almost five until I was almost eighteen, we lived in a small house in a part of Dublin called Ranelagh. On our street, all of the houses were of red brick and had small back gardens, part cement and part grass, separated from one another by low stone walls over which, when we first moved in, I was unable to peer, although in later years I seem to remember looking over them quite easily, so I suppose they were about five feet high. All of the gardens had a common end wall, which was, of course, very long, since it stretched the whole length of our street. Our street was called an avenue, because it was blind at one end, the farthest end from us.” (The Morning after the Big Fire, 1953)

Last Thursday’s property pages in the Irish Times carried a rather overwrought piece about a house for sale in Ranelagh, a suburb of Dublin to the immediate south of the Grand Canal. The origins of the name Ranelagh are rather curious. It derives from the Irish “Gabhal Raghnaill”, an area of what became County Wicklow centered around Ballinacor. Until the early 17th century, this region was under the control of an especially truculent branch of the O’Byrne family; Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne who was mentioned here a few weeks ago (The Cosby Show, March 11th) and who the altogether more unassertive Irish Aesthete likes to claim as an ancestor, was known in the 16th century as Lord of Ranelagh.
However, following the defeat of the O’Byrnes and the seizure of their lands, that title went to an interloper. In 1628 Sir Roger Jones, whose English-born father had been both Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was ennobled as Viscount Ranelagh. In turn his son Richard was created Earl of Ranelagh in 1677. The latter’s London residence, immediately adjacent to Chelsea Hospital, was called Ranelagh House and some time after his death without a male heir the property was bought by a syndicate who converted the site into a fashionable spot called Ranelagh Gardens (the same ground now hosts the annual Chelsea Flower Show).
So when in 1766 a Dublin entrepreneur called William Hollister decided to open a similar open-air place of entertainment on the outskirts of his native city, he chose to emulate London by naming it Ranelagh Gardens. Thus a name which had crossed the Irish Sea returned to its own country. Well-travelled readers will know there is also an area in Paris close to the Bois de Boulogne called Ranelagh. It too is named after the Earl of Ranelagh (the French were then more anglophile than later became the case) and was the site of the Ch√Ęteau de la Muette where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette spent their first years of married life. It was from here that the Montgolfier brothers made their debut ascent in a hot air balloon in November 1783. Coincidentally the first Irishman to take off in a balloon, Richard Crosbie, did so from Dublin’s Ranelagh Gardens just fourteen months later in January 1785.

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“Beyond the wall Mrs Bagot and Mrs Finn shared, a row of identical walls stretched off into the distance. All the gardens were attached, like all the houses. A grove of trees, forty diminishing walls away, completed the view to the sky. It was a narrow side street, a dead end, in the suburbs of Dublin. There were shops around the corner, on the main road, but none on the street itself. Schoolteachers, shopkeepers and minor civil servants lived on the street, and a policeman had recently moved into one of the houses with his family.” (The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary, 1966)

Dublin’s Ranelagh Gardens, like their London equivalent, eventually fell from public favour and the site came to be occupied by a convent of Carmelite nuns. They turned part of the grounds into a large kitchen garden that allowed them to be almost self-sufficient since they also kept poultry and even cattle. After the nuns departed in 1975 some of the site was retained as a public park and named Ranelagh Gardens, so retaining the link with the 18th century. Meanwhile the surrounding area had been gradually developed for housing as the city expanded and the prosperous classes moved out to what they judged the more salubrious suburbs. Ranelagh had the advantage of being outside and yet close to the commercial centre, allowing easy access especially after the advent of trams from 1872 onwards: many of Ranelagh’s red-brick terraces date from the decades immediately following the arrival of public transport.
In the 18th century there were a few fine houses in the area surrounded by large gardens but inevitably these were lost as demand for development land rose. Despite the best efforts of the Irish Times writer, the resultant streets cannot claim much aesthetic merit. The houses are formulaic in style, all with the same narrow entrance halls opening onto two reception rooms before a short flight of steps descends to the kitchen with a door to the garden. A flight of stairs leads up to a couple of bedrooms, passing a bathroom en route. Built for the petite bourgeoisie, the Mr Pooters of Dublin, their design consciously avoided originality lest it frighten prospective buyers. Conformity was critical to their success.

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“Thinking about all that walking had given him a sense of energy and well-being. He felt in good health and good humor, and contented to be coming home after his day’s work, and he was smiling as he stepped into the hall. There were red glass panels in the side frames of the front door, and he was always aware of the glass and always closed the door carefully. At the same instant that he was hanging his raincoat on the rack, he looked down the hall and saw the kitchen door close quicly and quietly, but not quickly enough to prevent him from seeing that Rose was down there.” (Family Walls, 1973)

Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917 and at the age of five she and her family moved to Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh, a street immediately identifiable in the many short stories she would later write. Her parents were both republicans and at the time of her birth Robert Brennan had been in jail for leading the 1916 Rising in Wexford. In post-independence Ireland he became part of the new establishment and in 1934 was sent to the Washington as the Irish Free State’s first minister to the United States. Ten years later he returned to Dublin but his daughter Maeve remained, moving to New York where initially she worked for Harper’s Bazaar; it’s worth pointing out that at the time this was unquestionably the most influential women’s magazine in the world and had another Irishwoman as editor, the Dublin-born Carmel Snow.
In 1949 Maeve Brennan was offered a staff job at The New Yorker where she remained for the rest of her writing career. Although she mostly produced social pieces under the title of The Long-Winded Lady, from 1950 onwards The New Yorker also carried her short stories, the best of which are set in Ranelagh. These tales, mostly featuring the same handful of characters although written decades apart, are as redolent of the world she had known in her youth as are James Joyce’s stories in Dubliners. In particular she possesses a remarkable ability to evoke sense of place; read her Irish stories (many of them collected together and published as The Springs of Affection in 1999) and you are immediately transported to Ranelagh.
Maeve Brennan’s Ranelagh is not today’s self-consciously chichi “village” but an altogether more modest suburb of Dublin whose residents, as she makes plain, possess few ambitions other than to ensure their immediate neighbours remain unaware of the tempests brewing behind those glass-paned frontdoors. This is, of course, scarcely new territory but what sets her work apart is its ability to turn the mundane into the exceptional. Thanks to her adroit yet simple use of language, the regular red-brick terraces are filled with drama even while nothing remarkable takes place. Nobody is killed, or engages in adultery, or behaves violently or even shouts, but still those streets pulsate with passion.

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“They were Mr and Mrs Derdon, and they had been married to each other for twenty-seven years. He was the senior by five years. They slept in the back bedroom upstairs, and their window looked over their little walled garden, not much different from the other gardens in the terrace, and beyond that over a strip, grey and corrugated, of garage roofs.” (The Poor Men and Women, 1952)

Maeve Brennan’s later years were not happy. The pall of melancholy that hangs over her stories spilled over into her life. In 1954 she married The New Yorker‘s managing editor St. Clair McKelway, an alcoholic womaniser with three divorces behind him. A few years later she became his fourth ex-wife. By the 1970s she had developed her own drink problem and by then also suffered from declining mental health which required hospitalisation on a number of occasions. Having lived in a series of rented apartments and hotel rooms over the previous decades, she now became homeless and took to sleeping in the women’s lavatory at The New Yorker‘s office. Destitute and unwell, eventually she was admitted to a nursing home and died in Brooklyn in November 1993 at the age of seventy-six.
A few years after her death, Maeve Brennan’s stories were republished, leading to her discovery by a new readership; she has since been the subject of a biography and a play. While neither of these especially caught my fancy, I can recommend her Dublin short stories without reserve. No writer better conveys the spirit of the city in the aftermath of independence and in particular the character of Dublin’s then-burgeoning suburbs. Thanks to Maeve Brennan attributes hitherto hidden become apparent and the seemingly ordinary streets of Ranelagh appear beautiful. This is the transformative power of great prose.

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“Still, he could not believe that even a human being as ineffectual as she had been could vanish from life without leaving any trace of herself at all. Any trace would be a sign that might guide him to the grief he wanted to suffer for her. But there was no sign.” (The Drowned Man, 1963)