Molly Keane was born in Co Kildare in 1904 into an Anglo-Irish gentry family.
The daughter of Walter Clarmount Skrine of Warleigh Manor, Somerset and Agnes Shakespeare Higginson, who published under the pseudonym Moira O’Neill, and whose novels The Elf Errant and An Easter Vacation, as well as a collection Songs of the Glen of Antrim, were popular in the 19th century.
Her birth name was Mary Nesta Skrine Her early novels were written under the pseudonymM.J.Farrell, and include The Knight of Cheerful Countenance(1926); Young Entry (London, Elkin Mathews & Marrot, 1929/New York, Henry Holt, 1929); Taking Chances (Elkin Mathews & Marrot, 1929/Philadeliphia, J.B. Lippincott Co, 1930.); Mad Puppetstown (London: Collins, 1931/New York,Farrar and Rinehart, 1932); Devoted Ladies (Collins, 1934/Boston, Little, Brown & Co, 1934) ; Conversation Piece(Collins, 1937); Full House (Collins/Little, Brown, 1937);Rising Tide (Collins/New York, The MacMillan Company, 1937); Two Days in Aragon (Collins, 1941); Red Letter Days(with Snaffles, Collins 1944); and Loving Without Tears(Collins, 1951/New York, Crowell. 1951).
An essay by Lani O Hanlon about the weekend held on June 3rd 2011 at the Writers Retreat
When they were setting up the projector to show a documentary of the writer, the late Molly Keane, being interviewed by Russell Harty, Virginia looked up and saw the projected of her mother looking down at her from the ceiling; this in the room where she did all her writing, including the Booker Short Listed ‘Good Behaviour’ and ‘Time after Time’.
I listened to Virginia and Writer, Robert O’Byrne, speaking about Molly on Pat Kenny’s morning radio programme. Virginia said that Molly was an artist in every way, in the kitchen, in the garden and with pen in hand.
The following weekend people gathered in that garden overlooking Ardmore Bay and I began to feel that the essence of the writer Molly Keane was indeed there amongst us.
That first evening we met each other around candlelit tables and bowls of fragrant roses. We swapped stories about when we had first encountered her work, beloved books read over and over. Those who had met her told stories about those meetings. Robert O’Byrne swanned in and out of the kitchen, as happy ferrying steaming plates of delicious food as he is when giving an historical account of the role of the big house in Ireland and the ‘hyphenated existence’ of the Anglo-Irish.
Molly was famed for her hospitality and Dr.Joe Meehan told me that when he called on her in the evening she would offer him a drink and call him a wimp when he said no because he had patients the next day. Likewise local vet Chris Humphries told me that he shared many a drink and a chat when he called to see her little dog, Hero.
As well as listening to the stories and memories of her hospitality, times shared and her playful and intelligent conversation, I was observing the way faces changed when they spoke of her, eyes and faces softened as they tried to describe something that was in the air around her - this same atmosphere that I soak up when I am with Virginia in the house in Ardmore. Like a child welcomed home to curl up in the window seat, mesmerised by the sea, the smell of food cooking in the kitchen, the salty air, the hypnotic scent and promise that permeates the pages of an old book.
Writer Polly Devlin wrote the introductions to the Virago editions of the books Molly wrote using the pen name M.J. Farrell. Polly described her relationship with Molly and read from Molly’s correspondence, she lowered her tomato coloured reading glasses, and told us that Molly had used her self-deprecating sense of humour as a shield to protect herself. In a world where being a writer would have consigned her to the obscurity of the ‘Blue Stocking’. (a derogatory term for an intellectual woman) This was an essential strategy for a woman who had the perception and courage to write honestly about her own culture and people.
Polly pointed out that in her letters, Molly turned the attention away from herself by praising Polly’s writing. Polly read from those letters and we heard Molly’s voice and that voice drew us in; it was charming in the best sense of that word.
Watching the interview with Russell Harty on Friday evening, we had already been cheered and beguiled by beautiful Molly, flirting at age seventy and describing herself as an awful child who was often sick. Russell Harty asked:
“Was there ever trouble with the local people when you were growing up?”
“Oh no never anything like that” then a short pause and with beautiful timing “Except for that time when they burnt the house down.”
Polly spoke of Molly Keane with the same quiet regard that I had observed in other people. We sat in the sunlit garden under a canopy of Bay trees, all of us there with one thing in common, a love of good literature. There were women from the Gaeltacht area ‘An Rinn’, Polly herself from a small village near the border and then another life in Manhattan, women who had lived in secluded big houses, writers and creators who know the tension that comes when a woman attempts to balance her creative life with the life of her family.
Robert O’Byrne spoke about life in the big houses in Ireland, the tradition of hiring the butlers from England, but how they still considered themselves Irish through and through and were surprised to hear themselves described with a hyphen. As Molly’s father said when they burnt his house down
“I would rather be shot in Ireland than exiled to England.”
Molly’s granddaughter, Julia, sat on the steps, listening to her mother, Virginia explain how her mother, Molly, came with her two daughters, Sally and Virginia, to Ardmore and made a cottage full of character working with the builder Jack O Brien, sketching their ideas on the back of an old cigarette pack. The cottage is indeed full of character with some of the ambience of a big house in the furniture, the shelves of books and the garden that falls gently towards the sea.
I watched Molly in that documentary, age seventy, her book on the Booker short list, her girlish smile and straight back as she chatted away to a young, swaggering Mick Jagger in the airport. She was on her way to give a speech, the nerves carefully hidden. I began to take in who this woman really was. A young widow, often struggling to survive, making light of her own self-discipline, intelligence and formidable writing gifts.
I was warmed and gladdened as we began to celebrate all that she was and the literary heritage she left us here in Co. Waterford. We picnicked in Goat Island, visited Dromana, a house that was very important in Molly’s life, sailed down the Blackwater with Tony Gallagher at the helm and returned to Dysert for more food, stimulating company and talk of books and other things.
Tired and sun blessed we snuggled down by a blazing fire with coffee, chocolate and John Gielgud in the film of ‘Time after Time’. Evening drew down the indigo sky and I made my way home through the quiet, breathing garden. I stopped by the steps, inhaling the scent of old roses, and I realised that Molly and Virginia had taught me something, to write yes, but as well, to celebrate all that is good in life.
Lani O’ Hanlon