Edward O’Rourke
University of Edinburgh, UK | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 98-112 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2024-12472

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by Edward O’Rourke | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

The decades that followed Irish independence witnessed a doubling down of efforts to reinforce established gender roles and conservative systems of power in the fledgling state. The tensions that emerged between the cosmopolitanism outside of Ireland and the increasingly isolationist policies within found suitable expression in the contradictory treatment of Kate O’Brien’s work, lauded outside of Ireland, yet subjected at home to the stringent censorship laws that saw both Mary Lavelle (1936) and The Land of Spices (1941) banned upon publication. While, across the Atlantic, Maeve Brennan, then at the very outset of her career, was undergoing a form of selfcensorship writing her first extended work, later to be published as The Visitor (2000).

In the mid-twentieth century, Brennan and O’Brien explored depictions of women living on the margins of normative domestic life, beyond the institutions of marriage and motherhood. And in this, they paved the way for the radical cultural and spatial re-formations that would signal a new Ireland at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

In this essay, I consider Kate O’Brien’s novel Mary Lavelle (1936), alongside recently uncovered drafts of Brennan’s roughly contemporaneous novella, as a challenge to the patriarchal hegemony that emerged in the newly conceived Free State.  And I suggest that in drafting her first extended work of fiction, Brennan was conscious of the proscriptions that O’Brien had fallen foul of in Ireland.

Las décadas que siguieron a la independencia de Irlanda fueron testigos de esfuerzos redoblados para reforzar roles de género preestablecidos y sistemas de poder conservadores en el estado en ciernes. Las tensiones que emergieron entre el cosmopolitismo fuera de Irlanda y las políticas cada vez más aislacionistas dentro del país se ilustran con el contradictorio tratamiento de la obra de Kate O’Brien quien, a pesar de ser alabada fuera de Irlanda, fue sometida dentro del país a estrictas leyes de censura que desembocaron en la prohibición de Mary Lavelle (1936) y The Land of Spices (1941), poco después de su respectiva publicación. Al otro lado del Atlántico, Maeve Brennan, entonces al comienzo de su carrera, como este trabajo sostiene, se sometía a una suerte de autocensura mientras escribía su primera gran obra que se publicaría más tarde como The Visitor (2000).

A mediados del siglo XX, Brennan y O’Brien exploraron representaciones de mujeres que vivían en los márgenes de la vida doméstica normativa, más allá de las instituciones del matrimonio y la maternidad. De esta forma, allanaron el camino para las transformaciones culturales y espaciales radicales que caracterizarían la nueva Irlanda de principios del siglo XXI.

En este estudio, considero Mary Lavelle (1936), la novela de Kate O’Brien, junto con los borradores recientemente descubiertos de la novela más o menos contemporánea de Brennan, como un desafío a la hegemonía patriarcal que se manifestó en el recién concebido Estado Libre Irlandés. Sugiero que, al redactar su primera obra de ficción extensa, Brennan era consciente de las proscripciones a las que se había enfrentado O’Brien en Irlanda.

Maeve Brennan; Kate O’Brien; género; Irlanda; escritoras


By the time Kate O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle had been published – and promptly banned – in Ireland in the late 1930s, Maeve Brennan, then a minister’s daughter entering her nineteenth year, was already looking back at the country of her birth from the outsider’s perspective, equipped with a less parochial, increasingly American Weltanschauung.[1] She had, so far as the records show, not yet begun to write in any serious way, but when she did so, working as a young fashion editor in New York City in the early 1940s, her first efforts would evince similar themes to those of the more mature O’Brien, twenty years her senior: the adequate expression of women’s sexual agency, the loss of social cohesion through unremitting war and totalitarianism and, in early drafts of her first and only-known novella, The Visitor, “the general cultural narrowness, prudery, and […] exclusions of Free State Ireland” (Coughlan 1993: 60), explored with particular asperity through the figure of the castrated Irish male.[2]

On the face of it, there are few obvious connections between these two Irish writers.  O’Brien’s novels – her literary mainstay – are arguably closer stylistically and thematically to Elizabeth Bowen’s Anglo-Irish “big house” novels than to the contemporary fiction of writers such as Brennan, Lavin, or later still Edna O’Brien. For although Kate O’Brien’s writing clearly characterised the ascendant Catholic intelligentsia that in many ways superseded the Protestant hegemony depicted in Bowen’s fiction, it also reproduced certain hallmarks of its aristocratic colouring, with one contemporary critic noting that “however Catholic may be the world in which they move, Miss O’Brien’s heroines, without exception, may more easily be described as protestants” (Jordan cited in Cronin 2010: 51; original emphasis). Whilst O’Brien’s fiction typically espoused a bourgeois Eurocentrism which rejected the Catholic nationalism that had come to dominate the Free State socio-political discourse, Brennan’s short stories ostensibly eschewed politics of any hue (Cronin 2010: 49). Born amidst the fire and fury of rebellion – less than a year after the events of the 1916 Easter Rising, in which both her parents took active roles – Brennan’s upbringing was steeped in that revivalist nationalism which O’Brien repudiated, and which, in The Land of Spices (1941), the second of her works to be banned in Ireland, Mère Générale Helen Archer disdains in the parochial characters of Father Conroy and Mother Mary Andrew.

In spite of – or conceivably as a cause of – the political exigencies of her childhood, Brennan’s stories appear to resist historical positioning in all but the most perfunctory of ways.  Without the specifics of time or historical fact, they persist unfettered within the “obdurately ahistorical space of private reflection” (Fogarty 2002: 93); within the sequestered space of feminine narrativity itself.

There are, however, important parallels in the experiences of these two diaspora writers, whose reputations linger still amidst the morass of neglected Irish women authors, in spite of their recent, partial – and particularly in Brennan’s case, ongoing – recovery. At a time of great ambiguity in attitudes to Irish masculinity and by extension to the gender sphere more generally, both women contributed to the movement away from the quixotic depictions of Irishness espoused by the Literary Revivalists including Yeats, Gregory, and Synge, challenging instead shibboleths of post-Independence socio-cultural progress. Like Joyce, and many other Irish writers of the interwar period, O’Brien and Brennan went about “diagnosing the failure of a revolution” (Roche 1993: 95). Yet, Roche opines, O’Brien’s chief distinction lies in the “political critique [she brought] to bear on the exclusion, not of the Six Counties, but of women from the promised liberation” (ibid.).  It is my contention that Brennan shares in that distinction; that, in spite of new evidence that suggests she engaged in a gradually expurgatory treatment of her earliest(-known) extended work of fiction, The Visitor, Brennan, too, sought to reshape the gender(ed) sphere by challenging versions of Irish femininity that emerged under the cultural theocracy the cultural theocracy of the Irish Free State. I argue that she broke new ground by offering a cosmopolitan, transnational representation of Irishness that may in fact have gone some way to explaining her persistent obscurity in her home country even at the peak of her success at the New Yorker magazine. Much like O’Brien’s, Brennan’s version(s) of Irishness did not square with those promulgated by the Irish within and without the country in the mid-twentieth century.

In this essay, I discuss Kate O’Brien’s novel Mary Lavelle alongside recently uncovered drafts of Brennan’s roughly contemporaneous novella The Visitor. Writing on the margins – from the shadows, as it were – both women sought to problematise the patriarchal hegemony enshrined within Éamon de Valera’s 1937 Constitution, giving rise to O’Brien’s censorship and Brennan’s arguable self-censorship. Moreover, I suggest that in drafting her first extended work of fiction, Brennan was conceivably influenced by O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle, and almost certainly conscious of its proscription.

Early Convergences

In June 1943, as Éamon de Valera was giving his now-fabled radio address to the Irish-American diaspora – avant la lettre, as it were – Maeve Brennan’s first published work of (auto)-fiction appeared in Harper’s Bazaar.[3] Entitled “They Often Say I Miss You”, the short feature offers a conspicuously impersonal insight into the millions of letters exchanged between overseas servicemen and their sweethearts, eighteen months into the United States’ full-scale engagement in the war. Far from de Valera’s “comely [or ‘happy’] maidens”, Brennan’s text is addressed to an audience of young, independent, sexually-active women pining for their benighted lovers on the battlefields of Europe, North Africa, and Japan. An ostensible appeal to an American youth “in love with love” (Scheper-Hughes 2001: 213), Brennan’s report stands in sharp contrast to de Valera’s fustian ideology of “athletic youths”, “living the life that God desires [they] should live” (de Valera 1943).[4] She writes: “The letters turned quietly to old times. Intimate conversations were recalled with a blithe and sensible unawareness of the censor” (1943: 44).

The tasteful allusion to intimacy here is enough to imply the kind of (pre-marital) sex that, as explored in Mary Lavelle seven years earlier, had ensured the book’s censorship in Ireland. Innuendo aside, “They Often Said I Miss You” serves as a subtle denunciation of the cruelty of man’s wars – clearly (though not belligerently) man’s –, whose actions abroad are contrasted with woman’s inaction at home; her only concern, the text suggests, choosing the correct “notepaper”, or the correct words to write, so that her man, marooned in foreign lands, may not be made to feel, “even for a moment, outside and alone” (1943: 44).

Brennan’s use of language here is clearly rooted in the present, one that is all the more precious, more real, for its contingency; one that may in fact be cut short at any moment. “They wrote very quickly”, she continues,

and posted in a hurry and then the first letter was on its way. It said farewell and hail. Farewell, because after all it was plain that things would never again be quite the same as they had been, and hail. Life was entering a new and oddly slanted phase and the first letter was willy-nilly the first step in a new direction. (1943: 44)

The modish sentiment is oddly belied by the quaint, almost passé imagery of “pressed flowers”, “poetry […] copied” into letters, and the Solomonic “[c]arry me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm”, which appears to be one of Brennan’s personal transcriptions shared with the overseas correspondent who doubtless inspired the article (notwithstanding the narrator’s otherwise impersonal tone) (Brennan 1943: 94). Almost a decade after leaving Ireland, Brennan, it seems, is still sensible to her Catholic tutelage – the same that undergirds de Valera’s evocation of an Arcadian Irish past informing an equally chimeric future, of God, St. Patrick, and the land of Saints and Scholars – a past, indeed, that might never have occurred.

The (dis-)ease with which these two modes sit side-by-side is instructive, for Anastasia King in The Visitor, Brennan’s next (and first major) work, will chafe at the strictures of her religion and the parochialism it engenders, even as she tries to install herself in an Ireland that will not – and apparently cannot – shelter her. As Mary Lavelle, too, at the eponymous novel’s conclusion, will depart Spain for an Ireland that cannot offer her anything more than a transit point, a way station on the journey to the “elsewhere” that must be her destination in the absence of all but a simulacrum of home. For Anastasia and Mary both embody the ambiguity of an apparently inexpungible conservatism which sits alongside, and ultimately drives, their nonconformism, just as Brennan’s faintly anachronistic account in Harper’s Bazaar is pictorially circumscribed by the tokens of modernity – advertisements for “Lanteen Yellow” feminine hygiene products, and “Ayds Candy Nutritional” diet pills.[5]

There is a second correlation here, since letter writing – particularly that which occurs between Mary Lavelle and her absent, unseen fiancé John – is an important trope in both texts.  In Brennan’s account, it is used to convey a sense of alienation and asynchronism, while in Mary Lavelle it becomes something of an index of the Irishman’s deficiency, his functional and arguably literal impotence relative at least to his full-blooded, dynamic counterpart in Juanito (ironically, “little John”). Following a brief meditation on the lot of the Irish governess, or “Miss”, in Spain, O’Brien’s novel begins as apparently epistolary fiction with three letters sent by Mary Lavelle on her first night in Spain to her father, spiritual mother (Mother Liguori), and fiancé John, after which the frame narrative approach is largely abandoned and the reader gains access to the content of John’s continued correspondence only through the narrator’s/Mary’s mediation.

The very opacity of John’s letters serves to underscore his slightness as a foil to the fleshly figure of Juanito. Indeed, Juanito’s letters (in the few instances he takes to writing to Mary) possess a potency John’s lack, such that his “Recuerdo de hoy” note, given to Mary on the back of a postcard, not only hastens an end to the narrative, but arguably precipitates his father’s premature death (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 278).[6] Indeed, O’Brien exploits the inherent mediacy of the act of letter-writing to further emasculate John, whose letters are conveyed to Mary with lubricious intent by the postman Esteban, who remarks to Don Pablo of the relationship between Mary and her absent fiancé: “If I were he, the sea wouldn’t flow between us” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 106). John’s outrage, when Mary informs him of the particular delight with which the Basque postman hands her his letters, is further neutered by a notionally feminine expression – the same that underscores the brooding passivity of Brennan’s female correspondent in Harper’s – when he describes himself as “moony” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 111).  His indignation, when it comes, amounts to little more than idle musings over the ideal choice of home for their future together, or the kind of bush he would like to imagine Mary leaning over to receive his letters from the postman – “I wish he handed you my letters across a rose tree though.  I hate those old waxy camellias” (2006 [1936]: 111).

Feminine Space

In the text of The Visitor as finally published – one of three variants that is now known to exist – Anastasia has neither friends nor lovers, but persists in a resolutely female space, practically devoid of men. This curiously feminine space, where motherhood is freighted with “a ravenous grudge” (Brennan 2002 [2000]: 82), and men are dead, absent, or impotent, captures something of the predominantly feminine space of Brennan’s own childhood, marked by her father’s habitual absence – on the run from British and Free State troops, or interned in both English and Irish prisons. Brennan depicts that suburban childhood in the seven auto-fictional accounts published in The New Yorker between 1953 and 1955, from which men – the father-figure in particular – are distinctly absent. Ailbhe McDaid writes of Robert Brennan’s “faint presence” in the stories, that it is “ghostly and slight […] When Robert is present, he is aloof and vaguely confused by the machinations of the three daughters and wife he appears to have acquired along the way” (2019: 86).

Maeve’s father, the real-life Robert Brennan, had in fact suffered a breakdown of sorts in the midst of a protracted and bloody war for Independence, which was exacerbated rather than relieved by the advent of peace: “When the Truce came”, he writes in his autobiography, “instead of getting better, I got worse” (Brennan 1952: 677). In this, the valetudinarian father embodies the general malaise of the years preceding and succeeding the Irish Civil War (1922-’23), marked as they were by “anxiety around the mental health of Irish people, primarily women and children” (McDaid 2019: 83-84). Indeed, it is this very neurosis which, I argue, O’Brien so deftly captures in Mary Lavelle, the same that a few short years later Brennan would particularise in her own novella, although quite differently so.

In seizing upon the emasculated, arguably feminised figure of the Irish male – thereby playing into long-standing challenges to Irish masculinity perpetuated by the British colonialist – both authors offered their own challenge to the latterly-established Irish patriarchy paranoid by gender(ed) conformism, and deeply wedded to a puritanical version of the devout, nuclear family enshrined in the new Constitution (1937). In fact, the generation of Irishwomen who had shared in the struggle for Independence with and alongside their male counterparts would be newly, “doubly” subjugated under the theocratic Free State that emerged in the 1930s; the same that abrogated the “avant-garde” Constitution of 1922 (Cahillane 2016: 97), drawn up by Irish-men and -women in the spirit of equality and “people’s rights” (Cahillane 2016: 97) only fifteen years before. Such women, amongst whose disillusioned ranks Brennan’s mother Una (born Anastasia) could be counted, promptly discovered that the bonds of one (foreign) oppressor had, in the transition of power, simply been replaced by those of another (domestic) one.[7] “Powerless under patriarchy”, the Irishwoman was, writes Ailbhe Smyth, “maintained as Other of the ex-Other, colonized of the post-colonialized” (1989: 10).

De Valera’s vision of an Arcadian Free State Ireland, filled with “athletic” men and devout women qua mothers, highlights the same paranoia around Irish sexualities that would contribute to the country’s repressive moral climate for much of the twentieth century, re-inventing the nation in the mould of its former oppressor; as a nation that became in many respects more English than the English nation itself, even if anachronistically so.[8] Perhaps it was for this, then, that Brennan’s novella underwent such striking revisions, of a notably expurgatory nature even. For the two alternate drafts that are now known to exist reveal a drastically different, shifting narrative approach in which men are not only present but even, in one instance, predominant.

Posthumously published from a single typescript discovered at the University of Notre Dame in 1997, little was known of Brennan’s The Visitor but that it was written in New York sometime in the mid-1940s, sent to the publishing house Sheed and Ward, and that it was thought that no other copies existed. That changed in 2017, when a new Brennan archive was made available at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. It includes two separate drafts of The Visitor, recently discovered, which I have had the chance to appraise; and which, for clarity, in the account below I have labelled variants A and B – though no such distinction is made in the archive.

One draft sees the cast of male characters increase by at least four from the solitary figure of the published text, whilst the other sees the figure of Anastasia’s father become comparatively central to her aimless pilgrimage, even as the mother becomes less apparent, less important. The mother-figure in the unpublished drafts is either less oppressive (A), or generally absent, as is the case in variant B where Nora Kilbride, her mother’s portrait, the ghost of Anastasia’s mother and the figure of the Virgin Mother are all excised, leaving an arguably well-meaning if misguided Mrs. King, the equally well-intentioned Katharine, and very little else besides. As the male protagonists (or deuteragonists) become more central, the female characters – Mrs. King in particular – become notably less virulent, receding to the point of arguable triviality. Indeed, the gender scales of Brennan’s Dublin at mid-century appear to have no (satisfactory) equilibrium point: as one gender preponderates, the other loses all élan, even to the point of disappearance.

Perhaps most conspicuous of the changes, however, is the devolution of Anastasia’s sexual agency. It seems that Brennan engaged in a process of self-censorship, however consciously, in which Anastasia becomes progressively less contentious, and therefore increasingly submissive to the agents of conservative values all around her. From a girl of passionate sensibilities who longs so desperately for escape that, like Mary Lavelle, she falls into the arms of a married man (and, in yet another parallel with O’Brien’s novel, elopes to Spain), to the Anastasia of The Visitor as published, who seems powerless to effect a positive change in her life, whose every action is guided by the inimical surrogates that persistently provoke and importune her, one can only guess at the reasons for such expurgatory emendations – albeit in the absence of a clearer progression of drafting, or a better understanding of its publication history, hesitantly so. Yet, Anastasia King as written in the two textual variants, though still subject to her grandmother’s hostilities, is a markedly bolder, less harried young woman, who, in defiance of her family, engages in an illicit liaison that ends in elopement and a period of exile for which she shows little remorse, even when challenged by a sister of the local (Spanish) convent. In this, I argue, she shares a great deal with the recalcitrant Mary Lavelle. And it is to the analogous treatment of both protagonists that I wish to turn now; to the jaundiced view of the (post-)wartime Irish Free State presented in both narratives, and in particular to Irish masculinities as evinced in the castrated figures of Mary and Anastasia’s would-be lovers.

Civil War

War, notably civil war, is at the heart of Mary Lavelle, though admittedly so obfuscated by metaphor that readers could be forgiven for missing the theme entirely. Yet in setting the novel deliberately, self-consciously even, over the summer and autumn months of 1922 – the date is thrice given in Mary’s three letters in the opening pages – O’Brien situates the action in the opening months of civil war in Ireland (1922-’23).[9] The novel itself was penned in the months preceding the outbreak of Spain’s protracted civil war, which would claim the lives of almost half a million people, and itself precede the advent of world war in 1939.

Despite the use of the thinly disguised Mellick for Limerick (O’Brien’s home county), the action is firmly rooted in time and space; so clearly rooted, in fact, that the drama of the corrida can be timed to late July – “Mary, six weeks in Spain now, was finding that she liked Spanish people” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 90) – and more telling still, the arrival of John’s “moony” letter, pinpointed to August – “August struck warmly on the little bay” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 110).  Perhaps the more surprising, then, that John’s letter should contain no news of the war, nor of Michael Collins’ assassination that same month at Béal na Bláth (Irish for “mouth” – or “opening of the flowers”). Indeed, the parallel between the flowers of Collins’ place of ambush and John’s idle musings – “we’ll have to have a lot of nasty painted flower-pots with camellias in them – though I hate flower-pots and camellias” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 111) – is conceivably intentional, even provocatively so.[10] In fact, despite its ostensible conformity to the actualities of time and place, O’Brien’s narrativity remains curiously, consciously, indifferent to temporality in a way that is notably akin to the ahistoric spaces of much mid-twentieth-century Irishwomen’s fiction, and to that of Brennan’s writing in particular.[11]

Anne Fogarty notes of another of O’Brien’s contemporaries, Mary Lavin, that while “the action of [her novel] Mary O’Grady coincides with many of the most explosive events in Irish history at the beginning of the century, these occurrences never impinge on the narrative” (Fogarty 2002: 93). Such intentional circumscription, she argues, acknowledges a female subjectivity that is “curiously resistant to narrativity, locked in the obdurately ahistorical space of private reflection” (2002: 93). Likewise in Mary Lavelle, the grotesqueries of civil war (Ireland’s and, in a sense, Spain’s) are clearly constrained to metaphor. No shots are fired, no blood (but that of the many slaughtered bulls of the corrida) is spilled, and the few irresolute attempts to introduce political or historical fact into the text inevitably fall short. Indeed, it is with “amuse[ment]” that Mary overhears the names Arthur Griffith and Patrick Pearse mentioned in “the oration of a Basque nationalist”; and as a “schoolgirl crush” that she conceives of the name Michael Collins, indifferently coupled with the English stage actor Owen Nares (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 112, 190). When Louisa, Juanito’s eminently capable Spanish wife, skilfully abbreviates the present state of Irish internal affairs, the evidently bewildered Mary becomes the more convinced of her own inadequacy, born of a perceived disqualification from the male dominion of politics.[12] Indeed, Mary’s response to the only direct acknowledgement of the civil war across the entire narrative is to admit to feeling “uninformed and uneasy about this new outburst of fighting” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 132).

The “explosive events of Irish history” (Fogarty 2002: 93), to the extent that they manage to penetrate O’Brien’s narrative at all, do so with extreme intermittency, with radical attenuation even, and it is only through the narrator’s apparently heedless intimation and innuendo that we perceive the true malaise that underlies (and in a sense overlays) the novel.  Early on, for example, we learn that Mary’s brother Jimmy was involved with the I.R.A., a thing that precipitates his banishment from the family home following an altercation with his father. Here, for the first time, we see the political (and historical) encroaching on the female narrative, if merely by tenuous degrees. But in the contours of father and son’s discord – Jimmy’s Republican allegiance suggests an anti-Treaty position in opposition to his father’s – we recognise a prelude to the countless family rifts that would characterise the civil war in Ireland. Moreover, we cannot expect anything more than such obliqueness, O’Brien reminds us; for in the opening pages of Mary Lavelle she writes of the protagonist – and of the Irish ‘Miss’ more generally – that, “her future is her treasure, small but proportioned to her, as history and mountains are not” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: xiv). The “terrifying peace” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 124) of the nascent Irish state at war with itself can only be expressed in the staged, senseless, and strangely mesmeric violence – the “terrible beauty” (Yeats 2015 [1920]: 54) – of the corrida, in turn an analogue for the tempestuous longing that erupts between Mary and the married Juanito.

Death and Desire

Whilst O’Brien’s critics have observed the correlation between the bullfight and Spain’s looming civil war, it is crucial to view the “burlesque, fantastic, savage” corrida (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 101) as an analogue for the conflict in Ireland, if only in addition to that of Spain’s. For it expresses something of the erotics of decay that would come to suffuse the puritanical Irish state in the wake of Independence, as the “vigorous[ly] de-angliciz[ed]” Irish male (Delaney 2003: 192), increasingly touchy on questions of Irish masculinity, became openly hostile to expressions of female sexuality.

The gruesome imbrication of death and desire – indeed, the necrosis of sexual longing – finds convenient expression in the matador’s sensualised slaughter of the bull, itself an analogue for Juanito’s “frenzied” intercourse with Mary at the end of the narrative (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 294). As Pronceda’s performative act of slaughter is freighted with love and desire – “The matador drew his enemy to his breast, and past it, on the gentle lure; brought him back along his thigh as if for sheer love” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 99) – so Mary’s seduction of Juanito is freighted with violence and death. And it is Mary who seduces Juanito. In entreating him to “finish it for [her]”, to Juanito’s apparent astonishment, Mary imagines herself as the agent of desire (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 266). Three times she asserts her sexual dominance when she wonders, “Should she take him now”; “Should she take him now”; “Should she take him now” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 224-25).

Yet, notwithstanding the frank, perhaps even surprising, tokens of female desire, Mary’s actions are hardly unambiguous expressions of empowerment. For one thing, the sexual act, once undertaken, becomes an assuredly passive one from Mary’s perspective, arguably going so far as to reproduce some of the characteristics of a violation: seeing Mary “cry out and writhe in shock” beneath him, Juanito thinks: “How grotesquely we are made […] how terrible and insane are our delights and urgencies. I love her, love her, and yet I tear and break her for my pleasure” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 269). More curious still, Mary is necessarily androgenised in the pursuit of her “masochistic passion” (Fogarty 1993: 113). At a souvenir shop in Toledo, even as she pledges her virginity to a waiting Juanito, she contemplates a miniature sword and “[thinks] of John” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 212). Thus (physically) endowed by thoughts of her “asexual Irish lover” (Fogarty 1993: 112), Mary prepares to carry out a penetrative act upon him, making a martyr of John as she herself in the hours that follow will be described, post-coitus, as “a wounded Saint Sebastian” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 269). In professing her unmediated desire, Mary “appropriates the symbolic force of male violence”, the same with which she effectuates the emasculative act upon John (Fogarty 1993: 112).

More than simply figurative, however, Mary’s desire clearly portends the advent of literal death as her frantic intercourse with Juanito in the mountains of “the good Basque country” in the novel’s final chapters coincides with – arguably provokes, even – the fit of angina pectoris that leads to Don Pablo’s death in the succeeding hours (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 263).  O’Brien herself acknowledges this perverse marriage of death and female sexuality when Juanito reflects that “while [they] made love in pagan frenzy a few miles away beneath the moon, his father, dying, held the relief of death at bay” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 294).

In fact, the notion of woman as bringer of death is not uncommon to Irish literature. It is arguably entrenched in the mythos that inspired the Anglo-Irish Literary Revivalists, and, concurrently, those of the Irish Ireland movement as espoused by D. P. Moran, which sought to invigorate the Irish male in part by relegating the Irish woman to the abject and the abstract.[13]  The Irish nationalist tradition that O’Brien so palpably eschewed was fraught with such images as the castrating cailleach, or witch; the vampiric sean bhean bhocht, or old woman of the roads; and even the “Kali-like Síle na gCíodh” (O’Rourke 2022: 140), complete with gaping vulva through which, as Brennan would later explore in her stories of Dublin, the evirated Irish male sees his own demise. This spectre of Irish woman as both vampire and bestower/despoiler of masculinity was perhaps most vividly brought to life by Yeats and Augusta Gregory in the role of Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902); and it is, I argue, partly in response to such figurations that O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle undertakes her cuckoldry of John, as an oblique challenge to the patriarchy that underwrites the strictures of conventional femininity, the same that elicits Mary’s desire to escape Ireland at both the beginning “and” end of the novel; indeed, the same culture – parochial and censorious – that Anastasia King is everywhere brushing up against in The Visitor.

Expurgating The Visitor

As Mary’s story concludes on a train, crossing the mountainous Basque country on her way home to Ireland (temporarily, at least), so Anastasia’s begins on a train travelling through the Dublin suburbs on her return from a period of exile in Paris – or in the case of the only variant (A) to depict any part of Anastasia’s story outside of Ireland, Barcelona. The choice of Spain for both Mary’s and Anastasia’s elopement is, as previously mentioned, just one of a series of close parallels between the two texts. Yet, it is in Brennan’s treatment of Anastasia’s love interest(s) that the similarities become most apparent and, for readers of the published text in particular, most startling.

In variant A, having breached the filial pledge made to Nora Kilbride and cast her wedding ring into the bottomless quarry, Anastasia continues her excursion into the Dublin hills.[14] There, alone, she wills a romantic encounter with a stranger, Bernard Lindsay. In a scene reminiscent of Mary’s encounter with Juanito in the Toledo mountains, Anastasia sits with Bernard’s head in her lap. Thus endued with the same boldness evinced by Mary when she “pulled [Juanito’s] head down for a kiss” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 265), she attempts a seduction of the clearly close-mouthed Bernard, finding him unreceptive and ill-equipped: “He wet his lips with his tongue hastily. He did not move at all, even to take her hand. After a moment she bent and kissed him” (Brennan n.d.: 87).

The kiss, we read, was “a matter of fumbling”; “his mouth […] as quiet as it looked” (Brennan n.d.: 100). Anastasia realises that her advances have not been well received. Worse still, Lindsay proceeds to tell her that theirs makes for him the fourth in a succession of abortive liaisons, that he has “a want” in him; intimacy with women, he confesses, “makes [him] sick” (Brennan n.d.: 100). There is a sense here in which the conventional gender roles have been turned on their head, for it is the sexually passive Bernard who is left feeling confused, even aggrieved, by the kiss, which he regards as clearly improper, if not “almost sick[ening]” (Brennan n.d.: 102). A disappointed poet, he confesses to Anastasia that much of his adult life was spent living with his mother, whose pension kept him in reasonable comfort until, after her death, unable to manage alone, he was forced to sell the house. Now, the profits long gone, he lives in second-rate lodgings paid for by the job he reluctantly keeps in the civil service.

Bernard’s abortive engagements with women, indeed, his listless courtship of Anastasia, suggests the need of an intimacy that is at once less than sexual, even maternal, and at the same time sexually divergent, indicating a possible if not probable homosexual desire. Yet, the implied critique of Irish masculinities becomes rather more explicit in Variant B, where Bernard is replaced by John Lindsay, a sexually dynamic (if emotionally intemperate) Englishman, who kisses Anastasia passionately within only minutes of their first meeting. No longer the instigator of physical congress, Anastasia is nevertheless keenly receptive to the stranger’s advances.  Indeed, moments after their first embrace, she observes his eyes and mouth up close and leans in to kiss them of her own volition.[15]

Clearly a foil to the auto-infantilised Bernard, John also contrasts sharply with Anastasia’s other, no-less-inadequate Irish lover Ronan Kelly. In variant A, we learn of Anastasia’s elopement to Spain with Kelly, a married man, through her extended conversation with a Sister Hildegarde from the convent in Barcelona where she has worked for much of the past six years. Late in Variant B, Anastasia describes the whole ignominious affair to John Lindsay: the illicit meetings that preceded their impetuous flight from Dublin, and the subsequent fall-out that saw Kelly foreswear his actions within days of their arrival. When asked by Lindsay why he returned to the woman he saw as shrewish, Anastasia replies, “Oh, I suppose she mothered him” (Brennan n.d.: 47). Further subverting his masculinity, she continues, “Maybe he thought he loved me. He was only twentyfour (sic). He said I was innocent and timorous and pastel, if you can imagine that. Then we got to Spain and he discovered that he wanted to be innocent and timorous too” (Brennan n.d.: 46).

Though the characters of Kelly, Bernard and John Lindsay are all excised from the published text, the vaguely incestuous mother-son relationships explored in (A) and (B) are arguably reconstituted in the near-hermetic bond shared by Mrs. King and her son John (Anastasia’s father). Just as Ronan Kelly sides with his mothering wife over Anastasia, so John King sides with his mother over his wife Mary (Anastasia’s mother), leaving her isolated and outnumbered within the household. When Anastasia commits herself to Bernard Lindsay at the close of the narrative (A), despite being apprised of his sexual limitations, she is arguably following her mother’s example of choosing a man whose sexual – potentially homosexual – needs are subordinate to his need of being mothered.[16]

Curiously, the only trace of Anastasia’s free sexual expression carried over to The Visitor as published is Nora Kilbride’s admission that:

It seemed little enough to lie down with [my lover], when he wanted me to.  And I wanted to, though I should be ashamed to say it. […] I’ve always been glad.  I’ve never been sorry at all.  I never told it in confession.  It saved me from being an old maid.  I’m not an old maid. (Brennan 2002 [2000]: 57)

That the defiance is transposed from the mouth of the twenty-something Anastasia to that of an old woman on her deathbed, says a good deal about the curious expurgation of the working text. Why Brennan chose, like O’Brien, to espouse the already well-established stereotype of the feminised Irish male, and more importantly, what caused her to later abandon the idea – substantially, if not entirely – is one of the key questions raised by the emergence of the two previously unseen drafts of The Visitor. There is, at all events, an unshakeable sense in which O’Brien’s and Brennan’s treatment of men is less denunciation than a kind of shared sympathy. For the men of post-independence Ireland, as depicted in both texts, are fated to inexorable decline, thwarted by impotence, and synonymous to one extent or another with failure – normative, artistic, and aspirational. Casualties of a patriarchy that makes a mirror for the strictures of conventional femininity, they depend upon women both to validate their masculinity, and to insulate them against the encumbrance of masculine identity. And it is this very antinomy, the patrimony of suffering common to both genders, that Brennan and O’Brien captured so skilfully and so scathingly in the two texts.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that Brennan held any real aspirations of publishing in Ireland at the time of writing (mid-1940s), she was almost certainly aware of the illiberal censorship laws in operation, which in the previous decade had led to the banning of O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle and The Land of Spices – the latter for the offence of a single sentence.

It is not possible to say with any degree of certainty why Brennan saw fit to sanitise Anastasia – and to a certain extent herself as author – as she did, though she may well have been following the advice of friends, fellow writers, or publishers. She may simply have been exercising caution in light of reactionary attitudes at home, of which she was almost certainly conscious. What remains clear, however, is that Brennan did cast an enquiring eye over the gender sphere of Ireland in the 1930s and ‘40s, one she later repudiated certainly, but cast, nevertheless, at a crucial moment in the post-revolutionary years.


In this essay, I have attempted to establish a shared heritage of defiance in the works of two important Irish writers, who occupied a marginal or interstitial space, personal and professional, in the shadow of their overwhelmingly male compeers. Like O’Brien before her, Brennan sought to disrupt and reshape the gender(ed) sphere by challenging received versions of Irish femininity perpetuated by an obscurantist and repressive theocracy, which took hold in the wake of Independence. Despite censorship and expurgation, both authors showed a willingness to question the prevailing moral and social praxis, and the systems of power that undergirded it. Through their roughly contemporaneous texts, Brennan and O’Brien subtly undercut the gender paradigms that demoralised Irish women and stifled Irish men. Despite living most of their lives away from the country of their birth, both authors remained transfixed by its antinomies, in thrall to its abiding influence, yet equally determined to lay bare – and in doing so, to refashion – its excesses of bigotry and dogma.

Considering The Visitor as a composite of all three texts, one cannot escape the impression that it was written from a perspective of considerable personal flux, one that somehow neatly reflects the continual change of a post-independence Ireland as uneasy with its new, uncertain identity as with the act of looking back on its past. Like Mary Lavelle, it resists historical and political situatedness, persisting in a sequestered space of female narrativity that nevertheless fails to insulate the protagonists from the demands of nation, home, and the agents of conservative values that governed the fledgling state. O’Brien’s novel captures the confluence of death and desire at play in a society still traumatised by internecine conflict, and newly tyrannised in its struggle for adequate self-expression.

Whether Brennan was directly influenced by Mary Lavelle in the writing of her first extended work of fiction – and I believe there is a good case to be made for a discernible dialogue between the two texts – she clearly recognised the same limitations of a Catholic cultural nationalism that yielded division and disaffection in place of unity and equality.  Previously unseen drafts of The Visitor reveal a scathing critique of a blighted Free State, manifested in the impotence of its men (and the aberrant maternalism of its women). Yet, I contend, in spite of its expurgatory treatment, Brennan’s novella as published stands with O’Brien’s as a trenchant commentary on a failed revolution and the counterrevolutionary mythology that succeeded it.


[1] The term Weltanschauung loosely translates to “worldview”. It describes an overarching framework of beliefs, values, and/or attitudes through which an individual, group, or culture interprets and understands the world around them.

[2] Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917.  When de Valera sent her father to the United States as the first Free State minister, Brennan moved to New York (by way of Washington) where she spent much of the remainder of her life. Taking up the role of staff writer at the prestigious New Yorker, she spent more than twenty-five years producing editorial content, reviews, and short stories for the magazine.  Brennan explored such themes as family, love, identity, and – indirectly – paranoia, in both her urban and suburban (auto-)fiction. Though briefly married to New Yorker colleague St. Clair McKelway, she lived alone for much of her life, eventually succumbing to the depression and paranoia that dogged her later years. Her literary reputation has experienced a continued rehabilitation since her death in 1993.

Kate O’Brien, born in Limerick in 1897, was a prolific writer of novels, travels books, memoirs, plays and editorials. Part of the Catholic middle-class that would supplant the Protestant ascendancy, O’Brien explored the antinomies of Irish identity – notably women’s identity – cultural, religious, and sexual. Having spent a year working as governess for a prominent Basque intellectual and his family in Bilbao, O’Brien spent much of her life writing about Spain through fiction and non-fiction works. Exploring queer lives and loves from the early-1930s, she transgressed the boundaries of Irish(-women’s) writing at a time of deep conservatism and censorship, paying the price herself in the proscription and expurgation of her own works both in Ireland and Spain (Morales-Ladrón 2010: 61-67).  Having suffered a popular decline in her later life, O’Brien has since experienced a reclamation – not unlike Brennan’s – and is today regarded as an important, early feminist voice in the Irish literary canon.

[3] Then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland Éamon de Valera gave his “On Language & the Irish Nation” broadcast on St. Patrick’s Day 1943. A recording of the address was later broadcast over US airwaves, within months if not weeks of the appearance of Brennan’s first publication.

The notion of Ireland’s diaspora is a relatively recent occurrence, gaining popularity under the Presidency of Mary Robinson in the 1990s (Devlin Trew 2018: 29; Lambkin 2018: 83).

[4] Unlike their American counterparts, the Irish “athletic youths”, imaginatively invoked in the Taoiseach’s St. Patrick’s Day speech, were shepherded away from the arena of war by a patriarchal de Valera legitimately concerned by the precariousness of the fledgling state, and the very real prospect of re-unification with the British (Fisk 1985: 237-38).

[5] Lanteen Yellow, “Dainty Feminine Hygiene Can Be Yours”, The New Yorker, Ayds, The Carlay Company, “Should Rationing Aid Overweights to Reduce?”, The New Yorker (June 1943: 94)

[6] Reading the words “Recuerdo de hoy” (memory of today) on the back of Mary’s postcard, Don Pablo realises it is his son Juanito who has stolen her affections (and, in a sense, not himself); it alone leads to the attack of angina pectoris that precipitates his death.

[7] P. S. O’Hegarty’s contemporaneous account of the civil war, The Victory of Sinn Féin (1924), suggested that such women “had become deranged and unsexed by their active role in the revolution” (Foster 2008: 75).

[8] It was a profoundly conservative, essentially Victorian model of Englishness that the Irish sought to emulate. O’Brien herself acknowledges the dictum when Mary, noting her speedy habituation to Spanish customs, thinks to herself, “‘More Spanish than the Spanish themselves’ […] joking back to Irish history” (O’Brien 2006 [1936]: 66).

The patriarchal tyranny over Irish women(’s bodies) – which was notably repulsed in 2018 with the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, allowing for the termination of pregnancies for the first time in the history of the state – may in fact be traced to post-Independence efforts (themselves a component of a long-standing colonised-coloniser dialectic) to establish Ireland as “a nation morally superior to the savage space of [the British]” (Gerend 2005: 45).

[9] Mary’s letters are dated 12th June 1922, precisely two weeks before the outbreak of war, signalled by the bombardment of the Four Courts by Collins’ Free State forces.

[10] Mary’s reference to “killing time” on the previous page seems equally deliberate, (O’Brien 2006: 110). Notwithstanding the (speculative) concurrence here, it should be noted that the etymology of Béal na Bláth is disputed, with Ó hÚrdail giving the meaning of “blá” as “green” rather than flowers (1999: 116).

[11] Indeed, it is arguably akin to women’s fiction more generally, for the work of O’Brien’s near-contemporary, Virginia Woolf, similarly elides the propinquity of war, which, according to Wade, becomes something of a lacuna in her contemporaneous works. An (un)conscious absence, it has no apparent place in the female narrative (Wade 2021: 265).

[12] Louisa’s uncommon erudition and equable argument, like that of Milagros and Nieves – Mary’s precocious charges – is almost certainly a product of O’Brien’s conviction that the Castilian temperament is an inherently “aristocratic” one, indeed that the Castilian culture, as the “archetypal ‘Spanish’ […] culture”, is an exemplar of the democratic “‘European Catholicism” that she viewed as a “sustaining alternative” to that of the ascendant Irish Nationalism, which, in The Land of Spices (1941), Mère Générale Helen Archer so plainly repudiates (Walshe 1993: 156; Cronin 2010: 32).

[13] Now, in the new Irish state, she would remain an “allegorical figure for the land of Ireland”, and the disempowered “Other of the ex-Other” (Smyth 1989: 10)

[14] In The Visitor as published, Anastasia drops Nora’s ring into a deep reservoir formed from an old quarry, after which she returns home and the narrative continues apace towards Anastasia’s inexorable disgrace and decline in the final pages.

[15] John Lindsay was presumably originally intended to be Scottish; but in (B) the words “Scottish” and “Edinburgh” are overwritten in Brennan’s hand with “English” and “London”.  Clearly, however, he is British, not Irish.

[16] The continuity is less clear, however, in Variant B, which though more explicit in its account of Anastasia’s affair with the married man, completely removes most references to the relationship between Anastasia’s mother and father, without which the symmetry is less apparent. In the published text of The Visitor, no such continuity exists, given Anastasia’s ostensible indifference to romance or friendship; or, at any rate, given that no such attachments past or present are described.

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——— n.d.  “The Visitor,” (Manuscript). Box: 5, Folder: 2. Maeve Brennan papers, Manuscript Collection No. 1142. Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library

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——— (2002). “The Horror of the Unlived Life: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Contemporary Irish Women’s Fiction.” Writing Mothers and Daughters: Renegotiating the Mother in Western European Narratives by Women, edited by Adalgisa Giorgio. New York: Berghahn Books. 85-118.

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| Received: 10-10-2023 | Last Version: 16-02-2024 | Articles, Issue 19