Bryan MacMahon

Life
1909-1998 [Bryan Michael MacMahon], b. 29 Sept., Listowel, Co. Kerry; ed. St Michael’s College, Listowel, where one of his teachers was Seamus Wilmot; proceeded to St. Patrick’s Teacher Training College, Drumcondra; spent 44 years as national school-teacher, becoming principal of Listowel National School; m. Kitty (Catherine) Ryan, 1936, and ran a bookshop in her name; prominent member of local amateur dramatic society; contrib. poems and short stories to The Bell (beginning with poem, ‘‘House Sinister’’, in second issue), and won Bell Award for fiction in a late issue (unpaid);

The Lion-tamer and Other Stories (1948), highly regarded by reviewers - e.g., by Irish Book Lover (1949); plays incl. The Bugle in the Blood (Abbey, March 1949); The Song of the Anvil (Abbey, 1960), music by Seán O Riada; The Honey Spike (Abbey, 1961; revived 1993), on a homewards journey made by tinkers (itinerants); knew Shelta language of the travellers; became stockholder in the Abbey; friend and contemporary of Francis MacManus; close friend of John B. Keane and co-founder of Listowel Players and Listowel Writers’ Week; member of Irish Academy of Letters, and of Aosdána; awarded LL.D for his services to Irish writing by National University of Ireland, 1972;

The Master (1992), autobiography of a career in teaching and winner of American Ireland Literary Award, 1993; The Storyman (1994), autobiography describing his life as a writer; d. 13 Feb., Beaumont Hosp., Dublin, after an illness of some months; A Final Fling (1998), stories of ‘conversations between men and women’; supporter of Gaelic football; a son, Garry, played for Kerry; his obituary appeared in The Irish Times, 14 Feb. 1998; posthum. novel published by Brandon as Hero Town (2004); a commemorative statue was unveiled by Senator Maurice Hayes in Listowel during Writers’ Week, 2005. DIL DIW

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Works
Short Stories, The Lion-Tamer and Other Stories (Toronto: Macmillan 1948), Do. (NY: E. P. Dutton 1949; rep. 1958), Do. (London: Dent 1958), and Do. (London: Souvenir 1995), 215pp.; ‘Two Stories from Ireland’ [‘‘Evening in Ireland’’ and ‘‘The Foxy Lad’’], in Partisan Review (August 1949), pp.687-97; The Red Petticoat and Other Stories (NY: E. P. Dutton; London: Macmillan 1955); The End of the World and Other Stories (Dublin: Poolbeg 1976); The Sound of Hooves and Other Stories (London: Bodley Head 1985); The Tallystick and Other Stories (Dublin: Poolbeg [1994]); A Final Fling: Conversations between Men and Women (Dublin: Poolbeg Press 1998), 306pp.

Novels, Children of the Rainbow (NY: E. P. Dutton 1952), Do. (London/Toronto: Macmillan 1952; rep. 1982), and German trans. (1982); The Honey Spike [as novel] (NY: E. P. Dutton; London: Bodley Head; Toronto: Clarke, Unwin 1967); Hero Town (Dingle: Brandon 2004; pb. 2005), 224pp.

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Plays, The Song of the Anvil, music by Seán O Riada, in Robert Hogan, ed., Seven Irish Plays (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota 1967); The Death of Biddy Early, Journal of Irish Literature, 1 (May 1972), pp.30-44; Jack Furey, Journal of Irish Literature, 1 (May 1972), pp.45-62; The Cobweb’s Glory (Listowel Bookshop Publ. [n.d.]); Fledged and Flown (Listowel Bookshop Publ. [n.d.]) The Time of the Whitethorn [q.d.], and The Gap of Life [q.d.].

Autobiography, The Master (Dublin: Poolbeg [1992]); The Storyman (Dublin: Poolbeg [1994]), 266pp.

Translations, ‘My Poet, Dark and Slender’, in Padraic Ó Conaire, 15 short stories, with other writers (Poolbeg 1982); Bryan MacMahon, trans., Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island (Dublin: Talbot 1974).

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Children’s books, Jack O’Moora, and the King of Ireland’s Son (NY: E. P. Dutton 1950); Brendan of Ireland (London: Methuen 1965), Do. (NY: Hastings House 1967); Patsy-O and his Wonderful Pets (NY: E. P. Dutton 1970); Mascot Patsy-O (Dublin: Poolbeg [1992]);

Miscellaneous, Seachtar Fear, Seacht Lá (1966) [GAA commissioned Croke Park commemorative pageant]; Here’s Ireland [travel book] (NY: E. P. Dutton; London: Batsford 1971).

Articles and Essays, ‘Place and People into Poetry’, in Seán Lucy, Irish Poets in English (Mercier 1972), pp.60-74; ‘Peig Sayers and the Vernacular of the Story Teller, in Feder and Schrank, eds., Literature and Folk Culture (1977), pp.83-109; ‘O’Faoláin the Encourager’, Cork Review, [Special Seán O’Faoláin Issue, ed. Seán Dunne] (1991), pp.55-56; Also, ‘I Own a Bookshop’, in The Bell [q.d.].

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Criticism
Patrick Rafroidi, ‘From Listowel with Love, John B. Keane and Bryan MacMahon’ in Rafroidi and Terence Brown, eds. The Irish Short Story (Lille 1979); Dan Binchy, review of The Storyman (Irish Times, 21.1.95); Joanne L. Henderson, ‘Four Kerry Writers: Fitzmaurice, Walsh, MacMahon, Keane: A Checklist’, in Journal of Irish Literature, 1 (May 1972), pp.112-18; Gordon Henderson, ‘An Interview with Bryan MacMahon’, in Journal of Irish Literature, 3 (September 1974), pp.3-23; [q.a.], obituary, Irish Times (14 Feb. 1998); Benedict Kiely, review of A Final Fling, in The Irish Times (11 April 1998), [infra]; Earl G. Ingersoll, ‘Metaphor and Metonymy in James Joyce’s ‘‘A Little Cloud’’ and Bryan MacMahon’s ‘‘Exile’s Return’’’, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 16, 2 (December 1990), pp.27-35; George Fitzmaurice, ed., The World of Bryan MacMahon (Cork: Mercier Press 2005), 192pp.

Also, Frank O’Connor, ‘The Belfry: A New Poet’, in The Bell, 1, 2, (Nov. 1940) [review of “House Sinister”, a poem by Bryan MacMahon], pp.86-89 [see extract, including lengthy quotations from the poem, infra].

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Commentary
Benedict Kiely, review of A Final Fling, in Irish Times (11 April 1998), [q.p.], recounts his meeting MacMahon through Francis MacManus; quotes, ‘I do not think that it is part of the teacher’s duty to convey to the children the false notion that life is devoid of malice, injury, ill-fortune, treachery, or injustice. Rather should he somehow convey the manner in which these traitors should be downfaced, dodged or overcome, But, somehow or other, he should never cease to promote in children the determination to say Yes to life, to the dark as well as to the bright of it, to its beauty and glory, to its lapses from grace into degradation, and its eventual restoration to serenity. Thus it is that, as a person, the teacher needs to be carefully selected, not for false piety or simliar inferior motive, but above all for an infectious enthusiasm allied to knowledge in its widest sense.’

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Maurice Harmon, ‘The master storyteller’, review of George Fitzmaurice, ed., The World of Bryan MacMahon, in The Irish Times, 30 July 2005), Weekend: ‘ He was a dedicated teacher who wanted, as he said, to “open the windows of wonder” and to have an impact on his pupils that would last for three generations. Every child, he believed, has a gift and it is up to the teacher to open the young imagination to the beauty of poetry, of affection, flowers, and the landscape. He read to them every day and told them stories. [...] It was only at night when the house was quiet that he could write. In The Storyman MacMahon declares “in one form or another my whole life has been devoted to the telling of stories”.’ Commends Bernard O'Donoghue's reading of “The Lion Tamer”. Further, [... John] Coolahan refers to MacMahon’s account in The Master of what it was like to be a teacher in those years. His school was “a squalid mess”, damp, insanitary, and poorly heated. It was no place, he informed a visiting government minister, to educate a grandnephew of Michael Collins, the grandson of a man who sat with the visitor in the first Dáil, and a nephew of Thomas Ashe. The minister got the point and a new school was built.’ (See full text.)

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Maurice Harmon, ‘Trapped in the straitjacket of a small town world’, review of Hero Town, in The Irish Times (15 Jan. 2005), p.12, writes that the novel is ‘an attempt by MacMahon, through Mulrooney, to understand himself’, and writes further: ‘Mulrooney wants to change, wants above all to have a sexual relationship with a woman, but lacks the know-how. Although he is only 40, he thinks and feels like an old man and, as the year advances, feels “an increasing sense of dark dismay”; life to him is “a banal existence of quiet desperation”. His ideas about women are absurdly outdated. He is so uptight that one wants to shake him. A few townspeople urge him to get outside the straitjacket of respectability and self-doubt. But he cannot do so. / Hero Town is not a success. Mulrooney, MacMahon’s alter ego, wants to describe “the roller coaster of the rhythms of life in a small place”, but apart from a few scenes, the novel moves sluggishly. While too self-conscious and wordy, it is knowingly Joycean in its play on language, its kaleidoscopic view of the town, its segmented structure and its use of interior monologue. / None of this might matter very much if Mulrooney’s concerns and predicament were seen to be significant, if the depiction of the town and its people were compelling. The trouble is that the contents of his mind lack depth. His self-pity becomes intrusive, his complaints lack credibility.’ The review concludes with with a reminiscence of MacMahon, who told the reviewer that the modern Irish writer ‘must marry Peig Sayers to the pilot of the jumbo jet’. (See full text.)

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References
Belfast Public Library holds Children of the Rainbow; The Red Petticoat (1955).

Helena Sheehan, Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories (RTE 1987), lists The Bicycle Man, a series of four plays for children [The Bicycle Man, A Boy on the Train, The school on the Green, and Children of Dreams], Bryan MacMahon/Christopher Fitzsimon (1966).

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Quotations
Two Stories from Ireland” [“Evening in Ireland” and “The Foxy Lad”]: in Partisan Review, 7 (July 1949), pp.687-97. The first is an account of a jovial, interfering priest about the business of rural matchmaking, the second a tale of a politician whose speech is interrupted by an old couple asking for the return of the body of their son, the title-character executed by the government (for a crime), and ending with the politician’s implied rejoicing in their polite and decent spirit of loyalty to their own: ‘When the leader tried to begin afresh, he found his voice drowned in the jaunty uproar of his heart.’ (p.697); the latter also includes a speech on the Irish language: ‘For the language is, primarily, the hallmark of ur identity as a separate distinct nation: lost, it cannot be recovered: betrayed, it cannot be redeemed. Due to the peculiar nature of our nation’s history, our culture exists neither in fine statuary nor in the excellence of sombre canvases - for rearely has a cruell opppressed and proscribed people the indolence or the opportunity requisite for the exercise of such arts. Rather does our claim to an individual culture rest upon the living sinuous little language that has come down to us across the breached centuries, bequeathed from grandsire to sire and from sire to son in one clean unbroken line ...’ (p.695); the ‘leader’ is probably modelled on de Valera, here speaking ‘calmly, confidently, and with dispassionate sincerity on many topics: on the sowing of grain, the development of fisheries, the division of ranches, and the resuscitation of the Gaelic language.’ (p.694.) Further, ’Gradually the neutral watchers realised that the quality that had made him leader was concealed in hisvoice. His speech could squarely be termed quietly florid with rhythmic periods. But his trick of understressing the rhetorical natre of his sentences set his hearers the happy task of bringing the words up to full strength. Each man in the square was thus an orator in hisownright. But, after a while, the continued urbanity of the speech made them a trifle sleepy. But its most important attribute was this: in some inexplicable fashion it had the effect of making the vexing question of the dead by quite ordinary.’ (p.694); ‘Watching closely, the people saw the leader’s fingers move slowly westward along the unplaned handrail. The movement somehow conveyed the analogy of a mind travelling backwards over exhilarating revolutionary years. Watching still more narrowly, the people saw the fingernails find and welcome the splinter, saw the fingernails pick at it thoughtfully. Silver cap-badges in the throng had begun to move eastward and westward, converging on the old couple. With a decisive and almost curt geture, the leader motioned them back. He broke off the splinter and essayed speech again.’ (pp.696-97). Further, “I beg your pardon, sir [...] but believe us - we didn’t come here to cause a disturbance”. Then, to the people, ladies and gentlemen: “I beg all of ye’er pardons. I do, indeed.”’ (p.697.) On the whole the narrative naturalises the power of government in the post-revolutionary landscape, embraces the idea that power of life and death are part of its mandate, and at the same time establishes its sympathetic relation with the decent feeling of the people. Other contribs. to the issue incl. Henri Michaux (“The March into the Tunnel”, trans. Richard Ellmann, cantos sel. from longer poem), J. F. Powers (“St Paul, Home of the Saints”), Brewster Ghiselin (“Hart Crane: Bridge Into the Sea”), Frederick Kiesler (“Pseudo-Functionalism in Modern Architecture”), et al.

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Culture in Rural Ireland’, in Christus Rex, Vol. 22 (1968), warning against increasing industrialisation with concomitant loss of identity: ‘[T]hings like wedding-sets in country kitchens, of the high-spirited strawboys at Kerry wren-dances, of the disturbing and primal response to the throb of the West Limerick tambourine; I think of the domestic excitement and the subsequent festivities associated with the annual visit of the priest for the stations with everybody sticking varnish everywhere; of the ritualistic holy-water blessing of the stock on May eve; of the colourful folk-tales once told over rural fires. I think of the thrust and parry of local conversation, the appreciation of local characters, the haggling over buying and selling and all that makes a happy arabesque in country life. for me, culture means the full, variegated, multi-coloured fabric that is indigenous Irish life.’

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Notes
River of Words’ [series on N. Kerry Writers], RTÉ1, Wed. 1 June 1994, Bryan MacMahon recalls his life and influences, including having his original ballads adopted by others; and the encouragement he gave to Seán Ó Riada to modernise Irish music.

The Telescope”, in The Tallystick, features a newly married middle-aged couple from in Knocknareirk spend their weekend honeymoon in Dublin searching for a telescope through which the Bridegroom might gaze at the stars by night and at the world stretched out before his home by day; used used to considering only his own needs, he learns through his bride’s reaction that in dealing with women he will do much better by studying them at close quarters.

Obituary (Irish Times, 14 Feb. 1998), cites first published work as Lion Tamer and Other Stories (1942) [sic]; play, The Bugle in the Blood (1949); The Song of the Anvil and The Honey Spike (both 1961); close friend of John B. Keane, who received his first poetry prize from him at the age of ten; 44 years as a teacher; ed. Listowel Boys’ National School, St. Michael’s College, Listowel, and St. Patrick’s TTC; m. Catherine (Kitty) Ryan, 1936; supporter of Gaelic football; a son, Garry, played for Kerry.

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