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THE IRELAND OF MOLLY KEANE

‘They were strange days for the gentry of Ireland these, strange, silent, dangerous days. The morning’s paper (and if the post was late it was because a bridge had been blown up the night before or the mail raided on its way from Dublin) might tell of a murder of a friend; or the burning of a house that had lately been like Puppetstown, careless in its wide hospitality; or, more rarely, of the capture of rebels or a successful raiding for arms.’

Molly Keane was born Mary Nesta Skrine, in County Kildare 1904, into a family whose roots lay in the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. The backdrop to her life was characterised by the endless political turmoil following the 1916 Easter Rising and the  brutality of the Black and Tan war.
Her family lived in a big house Ballyrankin in County Wexford which was less dramatically affected by these events than some parts of the country.
After the Irish Peace Treaty was passed in 1921 establishing the Irish Free State the traditional life of the “Big House” Horse Protestants continued albeit in a more impoverished scale; so while their obsession with horses and hunting remained undiminished, they made do with second hand riding boots and worn or thread bare jackets.
Her mother was a poet writing under the nomdeplum Moira O’Neill “the poetess of the seven glens”.  Her father Walter Skrine had been a colonial governor of Mauritius was and was fanatical horseman and rider to hounds.  She grew up in a rather isolated way in her family house in County Wexford.

 

“my mother didn’t really like me and the aunts were ghastly to me and my father had absolutely nothing to do with me”

Molly doubted either of her parents ever read her books even after she was outed as the author.

“She (her mother) really didn’t know how to treat us. You can’t think how neglected we were, by our parents. I mean they didn’t do anything with us at all, they simply didn’t bother. They were utterly reclusive. My mother had great taste but was totally oblivious to comfort.

Life was much more stringent then, there was no such thing as hot water or central heating. There were fires but they went out and I remember the deadly cold of the school room and the blue cold coming off the wall. I never remember a fire in my father’s library or in the dining room, although my father was perhaps a bit more warmth conscious.”

Their life revolved around riding and the social functions such as hunt balls that went with it.
 “even in riding the children were simply expected by their father to be able to ride well and stylishly, as though through some genetic inheritance. It was extraordinary at dinner people would tell about some incident involving a small child shirking at a wall, blue with terror, or taking it clinging on for dear life as though it were the most amusing thing.”
She refused to go to boarding school in England with her brothers and sisters, instead being educated by her mother and a series of governesses and for a while at a boarding school outside Dublin.
 Her passion, like all her class and race were horses. It was all any body talked of at dinner. Philistinism was a virtue. Reading was not part of the world of her set, and though her mother wrote poetry it was of a sentimental nature suitable to a lady of her class. Molly loved the books of Jane Austen, the only author she reread. Like Austen, Molly’s ability for characterisation and an astute awareness of what lay beneath the surface of people’s actions. She was subversive both in her wit and her life.  
Her real passion, like all her class and race were horses. It was all any body talked of at dinner. Philistinism was a virtue.
She once said, ‘For a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm, I would have been banned from every respectable house in County Carlow’
She claimed “I hadn’t set out to be a writer. I’d really only started because when I was seventeen the doctor said there was a threat I might have T.B. and I had to stay in bed. There was absolutely nothing to do, no-one paid me the least attention and I started to write.”
So at seventeen she began her first book.  The Knight Of Cheerful Countenance published by Mills & Boon. She was even then dismissive of her talents describing her work as “an awful book, but I thought I was Shakespeare – I wrote it – and all the next books – under the name of M.J. Farrell (a name she saw over a pub, appropriately enough, on her way home after a day’s hunting) “and no-one connected them with me. I didn’t want to be recognised as a writer. I only wanted to be good in the hunting field and to be popular at hunt balls. I was so starved of fun when I was young, and I loved fun so much.”
Molly’s “scribblings” supplemented her dress allowance for all the hunt balls she loved to attend.  When funds were low she  locked herself away in her parents house, wrote a novel and with the few hundred pounds gained spent the next few months staying at friends’ houses, hunting almost every day. 
In her teens she escaped to the Perry’s house Woodrooff in the heart of fox and hound country in County Tipperary where she met sophisticated charming people who introduced her to London life.
“I almost lived there for six of seven years, mostly in the winter months, when I hunted three days a week on horses largely provided by Woodroof. There were so many horses in those days of the late twenties and early thirties that if you were lightweight and a moderately useful rider your fun was endless.”
Her friendships with the two children of the house Sylvia and John Perry led to her collaboration with John writing plays, two of which had great success in the West End. Spring Meeting, produced in 1938, was one of the Shaftesbury Avenue hits of the year, and deserves revival.
“My mother disapproved of Woodroof – she was frightened by the idea of it. She belonged to the nineteenth century and change. There was a woman there who’d been divorced and some what she would have called “dirty talk” which I didn’t know a thing about, but I soon found out and was rather good at. My mother was alarmingly prudish and old fashioned in those ways. In fact everyone there was wonderfully kind to me.”
Molly adored the theatre and close relationship she enjoyed with Gielgud and Beaumont. As well as their friendship this world of rehearsals and post theatre parties enabled her to escape anonymity that her social world had imposed on her.

Her experiences at Woodruff is the inspiration for her book Mad Puppetstown (1931)  in which the story is set before during and after the Easter Uprising of 1916 and through the Irish War for Independence when Puppetstown becomes an isolated vulnerable fortress.

Her family’s own estate was destroyed during the Irish War of Independence.
“It was a god-awful shock for my father who was a belligerent little Englishman. Everyone had warned him, had said you must come back and live in England and bring the children there, but he said. :I’d rather be shot in Ireland than live in England. He wouldn’t leave when they came to burn down the house.”

 

It was through the Perrys and Woodruff that she met “Bobby” Lumley Keane a gentleman farmer from Co. Waterford whom she married in 1938 after living with him for five years . -This in itself must have been truly scandalous at the time. She once said, “Bobby was incredibly supportive of my writing”.  They lived at Belleville in the Blackwater Valley. Their daughters Sally and Virginia were born in 1940 and 1942 but tragedy struck when Bobby  died in 1946 when she was only forty. After his death she lost her zest for writing.

She remarked one of the few reasons to cut somebody was “if they started putting optics on the spirits”. But her wit was often arch and her sardonic humour often came with barbs. In this she remained true to her Anglo Irish Edwardian routes which expressed itself through her disarming frankness.  It was not considered good form to be false – she was of the generation that should you ask, “does my arse looks big in this?” you’d be told the truth.

An aggressive little dog followed her around the place. Like many Anglo-Irish, she appeared profoundly upper- class English on the surface, with a deeply attractive pointed face, blue eyes of exceptional clarity and the voice of a woman in her youth. But as soon as she started to speak the illusion broke. Although a warm friend, she was never slow to point out the faults of others.

To make her books so good, she needed the dose of acid in the bloodstream as well as more conventional substances and Molly Keane was a subversive by nature. It is the sort of thing my own Irish mother or Grandmother would have said.

 

In her book, Eating Myself, Candida Crewe recalls a night she spent with Molly Keane, at the writer’s home, west of Cork, in 1993. Keane, almost 90 at the time, discouraged Crewe from having pudding at supper. It was just in case, she said, Crewe put on weight and subsequently put her husband off her. It is the sort of thing my own Irish mother or Grandmother would have said.

It may not be an anecdote to endear her to a modern, post-feminist audience, but for anyone familiar with Molly Keane’s novels, it sounds like just the kind of barbed, ironic remark she would have made. Beneath the sparkling façade of Thirties Anglo-Irish life that she portrayed in so many of her novels, lay the dark, bitter truths which have induced critics to liken her to Noel Coward and Jane Austen, and which earned her a Booker nomination in 1981.

Confident that we will still appreciate the woman who dared to portray a lesbian relationship in her 1934 novel, Devoted Ladies (only six years after Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness was banned as obscene) as well as an attempted abortion in her 1929 novel, Taking Chances depicts the grand country family seat sliding into disrepair and eventual abandonment. But it’s an association which has tended to see Keane primarily as, at worst a simple, popular marker of class, or at best, a satiriser of a particular set of people, when in fact she is a remarkably honest, some would say brutally so, explorer of relationships. And the first, and most important, of these is the relationship between a mother and daughter.

Molly Keane’s work has rarely made it into academic critiques of Anglo-Irish writing, perhaps because she was considered too commercial and popular a writer to deserve serious critical attention. But it may also be because she is the archetypal square peg in a round hole.  While she didn’t have the Catholic, guilt-laden attitude to sex that James Joyce or Edna O’Brien grappled with, she was also far less inhibited about exposing the inner lives of the Anglo-Irish than Elizabeth Bowen, and she showed little time for the mysticism of the Celtic Revival headed by Lady Gregory and W B Yeats. As Boylan said of her books, “The stage curtain was ripped away to reveal some of the cruellest, most selfish, most riveting characters ever contributed to fiction.” Most of these characters were mothers.

Molly once said, “Well quite frankly I know you’ll say I’m mad if I tell you. But I’m so queer in my mind about houses and places. I know things. For instance people belong to houses – not the other way about –either living people or dead.For houses can be as jealous as lovers and mothers, and under provocation more bitter than either. Nor do houses ever forget. What are ghosts but the remembrances they shelter?’

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