Lavin, Mary (1912–1996)

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Lavin, Mary (1912–1996)

Irish writer. Born in East Walpole, Massachusetts, on June 11, 1912; died in Dublin, Ireland, on March 25, 1996; only child of Thomas Lavin and Nora (Mahon) Lavin; educated at Loreto Convent, Stephens Green, Dublin; University College Dublin, B.A. (honors), 1934, M.A. (1st class honors), 1938; married William Walsh (a lawyer), in September 1942 (died 1954); married Michael McDonald Scott, in 1969 (died 1990); children: (first marriage) Valentine Walsh; Elizabeth Walsh; Caroline Walsh.


James Tait Black Prize (1944); Guggenheim Fellowships (1959, 1962, 1972); granted honorary D.Litt, National University of Ireland (1968); American-Irish Foundation Award (1979); Aosdána (Irish Government, 1992).

Mary Lavin was born in 1912, the only child of Irish immigrants living in Massachusetts. Her parents returned to her mother's family home in Athenry, Galway, when she was ten. Later, the family moved to the east of Ireland, to Bective in Meath, where her father worked as an estate manager. Lavin retained close links with the area until her death, and it provided inspiration for her fiction. She studied English at University College Dublin and wrote her postgraduate thesis on Virginia Woolf . Lavin published her first short story, "Miss Holland," in 1938, and in 1939 another story was published in Atlantic Monthly. Two years later, her first collection of short stories, Tales from Bective Bridge, was published and won the James Tait Black Prize. She continued to write steadily after her marriage in 1942 and the birth of her three daughters, publishing the short-story collections The Long Ago (1944) and At Sally Gap (1946), which included the novella The Becker Wives. She also wrote two novels, The House in Clewe (1945) and Mary O'Grady (1950)

Mary Lavin drew upon her own experiences for many of her stories: the tension in her parents' marriage, the people and the landscape around Bective, her school and student days in Dublin. The Irish academic and critic Augustine Martin has written of the disregard by many Irish writers of "that great provincial hinterland represented by Mullingar, Roscrea, Kilkenny and Athlone where the real dynamism of change and development is centred…. They bypass a whole provincial ethos in a blur of alternating grey and green." Mary Lavin was an exception to this, and Martin considered her an exemplary chronicler of this neglected, provincial Ireland. Writing, Lavin once said, was "only looking closer than normal into the human heart, whose vagaries and contraries have their own integral design." She observed the changes in Irish society in the first decades after independence; she never sentimentalized Irish rural life but saw with compassion its emotional and social problems, especially as they affected women. In The Will (1964), she describes a young girl who elopes with her lover and is rejected by her family, a rejection symbolized by her mother cutting her out of her will. This conflict, between those who seek and accept love, and those who turn their hearts and minds against it, is echoed in other stories. This leads to another theme, as Maurice Harmon has noted: self-deception, the self-deception of those who blind themselves to reality, who diminish themselves and those around them.

Mary Lavin's husband died suddenly in 1954, leaving her with three young children to support. She continued to write but included her children in her writing life as much as possible. Royalties were spent on travel, and one of her daughters recalled that by the age of 14 she was acquainted with the Vatican Museum in Rome. Lavin could write anywhere and was a well-known figure in the National Library in Dublin and in various cafés where she would sit with a mass of manuscript, wrestling with words, adding, pruning, and writing draft after draft until she was satisfied. The novelist Maeve Binchy , who taught Lavin's daughters early in her career, noted that Lavin demystified the business of writing. "She said that she regarded going to the National Library as going to the office, and that if she was late she would run … as anyone would run if they were going to be late for a job. She always said you could never be sure of inspiration but you should be sitting down quietly with your pen and paper ready in case it did strike."

In 1959, her Selected Short Stories were published, and she won the first of three Guggenheim fellowships for fiction. Lavin abandoned novel writing after 1957 and had a growing reputation as a master of the short story. She was variously compared to other Irish short-story writers such as Liam O'Flaherty, Sean O'Faolain, and William Trevor, as well as to Balzac, Chekhov, and Saki. Lavin herself paid tribute to Jane Austen whose work she had long admired for its precision. "I don't think a story has to have a beginning, middle and end. I think of it more as an arrow in flight … or a flash of lightning, lighting up the whole landscape all at once, beginning, middle and end." She was irritated by the wariness of most publishers towards the genre: "Publishers are definitely unfair to short story writers … since the essence of the short story is its conciseness, an addiction to change is an occupational disease and not the self-indulgence publishers think."

Lavin wrote compassionately about widows who refuse to be cowed by death and who are not afraid to seek new relationships and experiences. In 1969, she married for a second time. It was a happy marriage, and her husband Michael McDonald Scott was a considerable support to her. In her last stories, old age was a dominant theme, particularly the interlinking of generations—grandmothers,

mothers and daughters—a process which had its rewards, but also, as Lavin the realist was aware, its share of tensions.


Bowen, Zack. Mary Lavin. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1975.

Kelly, Angeline A. Mary Lavin, Quiet Rebel: A Study of Her Short Stories. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1980.

Peterson, Richard F. Mary Lavin. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland