In a dismissive review of her first collection, the critic J.B. Kilfeather, complained that Maeve Kelly, “does go on rather much” about the plights of girls and women in Ireland, conceding that he “can well believe” them.
Given Kelly’s experience in all the subjects of her work, she was hardly in need of Mr Kilfeather’s nod to validate the authenticity of her accounts.
Born in Louth in 1930, Kelly had already lead a rich life before her short stories came to print in the 1970s. By the time her first collection, A Life of Her Own, was published in 1976, she had been a student at Oxford, a nurse in England, a farmer in Clare, and had co-founded both the Limerick Federation of Women’s Organisations and the Limerick Refuge for Battered Wives (now Adapt House), as well as becoming the mother of two children.
The stories collected in Orange Horses span a decade of Kelly’s work, and are built not only from her intimate understanding of diverse lives, but on a staggering literary range – from the bleak naturalism typical of the time, to polyphonic mindscapes.
Kelly is committed to forging a voice for the silenced. At the heart of all of these works, are the voices of women and men marginalised by the stringent, patriarchal and atomised worlds of 1970s Ireland.
The Price of Integrity
As stories like “Parasites” and “The Sentimentalist” make clear, this author does not consider writing something that transcends social responsibility –
“You suck in sensation and burp it out again into your ghastly novels,” says the poet.
“I’ve given back,” replies the novelist, “What have you given back?”
The stories in Orange Horses, are at times baldly polemical, and there is more than a hint that the characters are acting as mouthpieces, espousing the liberal feminist agenda primarily driving the women’s movement at the time: “Black or white, male or female, atheist or believer, to be healthy and able to work and earn one’s keep was the only important thing.” (“Tattooed”)
Occasionally, the social commentary is uncomfortably direct, with characters engaging in slightly unnatural over-explanations of the patrilineal systems that disenfranchise and trap both men and women: “But you were a boy. And Father had wanted a boy so much … Well, I was the eldest, so Father said I should stay at home for a while …”
A touch of the soapbox is perhaps the price of integrity. As a feminist activist, Kelly has unremittingly employed her intelligence and talent to forward change, bringing about academic works such as the groundbreaking study on violence against women, “Breaking the Silence”, and fiction that hauled the lives of the underrepresented into public light.
In any case, there are only rare moments where polemic compromises the power of these stories. Kelly’s deftness of touch, her lean prose and mastery of the short-story form, mean that, for the most part, the explication is woven beautifully into the text, and the characters are strong enough to carry their critiques.
Seeds of Change
Between 1970 and 1980, only 10 percent of published writers were women, but this period nonetheless represented an increase in the prominence of Irish women writers, leading to Irish Times articles such as “The Rise and Rise of the Lady Short Story Writer” (1980), and Benedict Kiely’s suggestion that “some eager young man” might make “a study of contemporary Irish writers who happened to be women” (Irish Times, 1978).
Founded in 1970, the Irish Women’s Movement pressed for equal pay, education and employment opportunities, contraception and the rights of single, deserted or widowed mothers.
Although it would be twenty years before these issues received any real redress by the Irish government, for Kelly and contemporaries such as Edna O’Brien and Mary Lavin, the marginalisation, subjugation and sacrifice of Ireland’s daughters in a patrilineal society, became a central theme.
Out of sync with the fatalism of many of her contemporaries, Kelly’s work is shot through with powerful moments of hope and faith in the strength of human solidarity:
“She began to laugh and so did he. They sat on the floor watching the raindrops pelting in faster on the plastic buckets, hitting the sides and splashing out on the floor. They laughed at the enormous joke of life, at the huge, side-splitting star-shattering, cosmic comedy of it all.” ( “The Last Campaign”)
Many of these pieces digress from the strict realism that was fashionable at the time. They are skilfully studded with spectacular symbols of the wasted sacrifices of girls and women – the daughter killed by a mother who misses her son; the young Brigid, whose imaginary flame-bright horse might actually materialise to free her and her mother from a dreary cycle of abuse.
Mothers and Daughters
While the father-son relationship is a theme deeply embedded in the traditions of the Irish short story, the 1970s saw female Irish authors write the mother-daughter relationship into the fore.
What is particularly striking about Kelly’s work is the treatment of mother-daughter reconciliation as a redemptive feature. Unlike the work of other feminist writers at the time, where mother represents the shackles of the old order, Kelly portrays the mother-daughter bond as the key to reshaping society.
Freedom is found not in a rejection of the mother, but in solidarity with her. In the first story of this collection, “Amnesty”, the hardened protagonist finds peace only through finally forgiving her long-dead mother for the life she has left to her: “Forgiveness was a sweetness that smoothed out lines and quenched burning looks. It eased her drying bones and lifted the corners of her mouth.”
The title story, “Orange Horses”, and the wonderfully uplifting “Ruth” are both shockingly original, beautiful, and deeply moving tales of the power of mother-daughter love.
A Legacy to Keep
With this, the third of their Recovered Voices series, Tramp Press has brought us back a legacy to be treasured. In her life’s work, Maeve Kelly has not only contributed immeasurably to equality in Ireland; she is also a literary gem. These are stories to be read and reread for generations.
Orange Horses by Maeve Kelly (Tramp Press, 2016)