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Kelly, Maeve

KELLY, Maeve

Nationality: Irish. Born: Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, 1930. Education: Studied nursing at St. Andrew's Hospital, London. Family: Married Gerard O'Brien-Kelly; two sons. Career: Founder and administrator of Adapt, shelter for victims of domestic violence, 1978. Awards: Hennessey Award, 1972. Agent: Mic Cheetham, Sheil Land Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London, England. Address: Adapt House, Rosbrien, County Limerick, Ireland.

Publications

Novels

Necessary Treasons. London, M. Joseph, 1985.

Florrie's Girls. London, M. Joseph, 1989.

Alice in Thunderland: A Feminist Fairytale. Dublin, Attic Press, 1993.

Short Stories

A Life of Her Own, and Other Stories. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1976.

Ms Muffet and Others: A Funny, Sassy, Heretical Collection of Feminist Fairytales (contributor). Dublin, Attic Press, 1986.

Mad and Bad Fairies (contributor). Dublin, Attic Press, 1987.

Orange Horses. London, M. Joseph, 1990.

Poetry

Resolution. Dover, New Hampshire, Blackstaff Press, 1986.

* * *

Maeve Kelly writes in several genres, and all of her work is informed by clear feminist principles. Born in 1930, Kelly has lived through significant changes in Irish society's attitudes toward women, but her literary works suggest some of the ways in which the changes have been insufficient. Her fictional representation of what life is like for Irish women is both emotionally and intellectually convincing.

A Life of Her Own, her first published collection of short stories, introduces the themes that recur throughout her oeuvre. Most of these stories have a clear feminist voice, and Kelly creates sympathetic characters whose ordinary lives embody the barriers women face. The title story, "A Life of Her Own," is told by a young female narrator who recounts the attempts of her aunt to achieve a measure of independence after spending many years as housekeeper for her bachelor brother. Her brother ridicules her for marrying and literally starves himself to death in a display of self-pity; Aunt Brigid herself dies in childbirth, for she was not young and the risks were greater in those days.

Kelly's first novel, Necessary Treasons, draws on her own experiences establishing and directing a Limerick-area shelter for battered women. Young Eve Gleeson is pulled in two directions: she becomes engaged to a middle-aged doctor, Hugh Creagh, at the same time as she grows steadily more involved in the women's movement. Her fiancé's relatives are living proof of the tenacity of sexism and the vilification of independent women. His sisters participate enthusiastically in denigrating Eve's political involvement and mistreat their former sister-in-law, Eleanor; Eleanor was physically abused by their brother, Donogh, who absconded to England with their child while Eleanor was being treated for the injuries he inflicted. Eleanor's search for her daughter was fruitless, but at novel's end it is revealed that she has been spending a month at the Creagh home, with the four sisters, every year since her father spirited her away. Eve's work with the women's shelter, in its infancy, brings her into contact with many kinds of concrete wrongs that women all around her suffer daily. As she leaves behind her sheltered, middle-class existence, Hugh becomes increasingly resentful; he is fascinated by the sufferings of the past, as manifested in old family papers he is studying, but refuses to grant any credibility to the present-day sufferings Eve brings to his attention. As the novel progresses, Eve becomes more outspoken about women's rights, and the others pull away from her. Even Eleanor, an outspoken feminist, fears that Eve will become an "earnest, humourless missionary." Finally, Eve breaks off her engagement and goes to California for six months to learn from women's activists there. The novel's representation of women's issues is compelling; Kelly shows the political, legal, religious, medical, and social forces arrayed against Irish women. It is sometimes unclear, however, whether readers are to see Eve's changes as maturity or if Eleanor and the others are right to criticize her for being "obsessive."

After a volume of poetry, Resolution, Kelly published her next novel, Florrie's Girls. Florrie's Girls draws on Kelly's experiences as a student nurse in London. Caitlin Cosgrave leaves the family farm in County Clare at age eighteen to train as a nurse in London. The farm cannot support more than one family member, and it is to go to Caitlin's brother. The narrative is written in journal form; there are no dates given, though sometimes days of the weeks or months are named. The journal begins with Caitlin's journey on the train taking her away from home, and continues throughout her four-year training course. It shows her growth as a person and includes often-scathing commentary on the medical profession. The novel underscores the rigid male hierarchies of medicine; while the nurses perform virtually all of the practical care of patients and become quite skilled at diagnosis, they have to bow before the male doctors who come in and make pronouncements, often dictating procedures with little consideration for the dignity and humanity of the patients. A brief stint with a gynecologist underscores for Caitlin how the medical community treats women's health as abnormal and somehow grotesque. Another significant theme in the novel is relations between English and Irish, but here again the rhetoric and the example of the novel seem to be in conflict. For example, Caitlin complains often of stereotypical English views of the Irish, but she herself is full of anti-English stereotypes. She contrasts English "bossiness" and craving for order with Irish virtues, but as a character she often embodies those supposedly English traits. She loves her uniform and notes repeatedly that she enjoys opportunities to manage things and believes herself to be better at it than others.

After another collection of short stories, Orange Horses, Kelly published a satirical novel, Alice in Thunderland. Subtitled A Feminist Fairytale, the satire takes on the social codes that continue to denigrate and limit women. Alice in Thunderland examines contemporary society by creating a fictional world of "memblies" and "femblies" whose interactions reveal very strange codes of conduct; Alice comes from Harmony Isle and is baffled by what she sees in Thunderland. Kelly's satire is in the tradition of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (notably, the embittered brother in "A Life of Her Own" reads Swift's condemnation of the female Yahoos) but takes on its own targets. Kelly's satire is insightful; hilarious and provocative by turns, no summary could do it justice. The book includes cartoon-style illustrations (drawn by Trina Mahon), showing Alice as a very large figure, looming over the inhabitants of Thunderland with her big hair and Doc Martens-style boots.

Kelly is a notable figure in contemporary Irish literature, disproving the critical commonplace that there were no serious Irish women writers until the 1990s. Hers is an important feminist voice, and her fiction creates a realistic and compelling portrait of the everyday lives of Irish women.

Rosemary Johnsen

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