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The reverent muse

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The year was 1958, and I was a nervous 11-year-old with my schoolbag on my back, uncertain of what I would find behind the high gates and in the swarming, noisy schoolyard. Certainly, I did not expect to find within the walls of St. Thomas’s one of 20th century Ireland’s finest short-story writers. For the school principal was Michael McLaverty.
By then in his mid-50s, McLaverty had been in charge of the school since it had opened a year or so earlier, as part of the new educational program to soak up working-class children who did not get into the more prestigious grammar schools. Every morning in the large, drafty gym that was used as the assembly hall, McLaverty would appear as the rather short, balding gentleman who stood on the stage, the teachers arrayed behind him, leading the school in morning prayers. We shuffled uneasily, stifling yawns, halfheartedly following his lead before trooping off, class by class, to begin the day.
I did not know that the year I started St. Thomas’s saw the publication of McLaverty’s sixth novel, “The Choice.” He had published two acclaimed collections of short stories — “The White Mare and Other Stories” (1943) and “The Game Cock and Other Stories” (1947).
Born in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, in 1904, McLaverty had spent part of his early life on Rathlin Island, a few miles off the north coast of County Antrim, not far from where the razor-straight edge of Fair Head drops into the Atlantic Ocean. His family had then moved to Belfast during the height of the Troubles in the early 1920s. We had another school in common: St. Malachy’s College, one of most prestigious of the Catholic grammar schools in Northern Ireland, which McLaverty had attended before going on to Queen’s University, Belfast, where he earned a degree in science. McLaverty went on to a teachers’ training college in London, and then spent the rest of his life in that profession, teaching mainly in Belfast. He married Mary Conroy in 1933, and the couple raised a family of four children.
We had no idea that our headmaster was a literary figure of some significance. He never mentioned to us, at any time, that he had by then six novels and two books of short stories to his credit. Our ignorance was partly due to the fact that McLaverty’s career as a writer had faded. By the early 1960s, his short stories were out of print. “The Choice” had been his first novel in four years; it had been more than 10 years since he had issued a short-story collection. And it would be another seven years before his next novel, “The Brightening Day” (1965), would appear. That would also be his last. Though he took early retirement in 1964, according to Sophia Hillan King, who has published a study of his work, “he faced the artist’s deepest fear: a blank page, on which he could make no mark.” He produced no more original work though he lived for another 27 years. After suffering a stroke, McLaverty died in 1992.
McLaverty’s best work was written in the late 1930s and early ’40s, in the form of his first two novels, “Call My Brother Back” (1939) and “Lost Fields” (1941), and his two short-story compilations. The first contains vivid descriptions of a Belfast blighted by poverty and sectarian violence, while “Lost Fields” is an elegy for the loss of the rural life when the hero’s family is forced to sell its fields and move to the grimy city on the Lagan. But it is in his short stories that McLaverty excels. His virtues are essentially those of a miniaturist. The themes of his tales are little tragedies closely observed, and rendered vivid in precise language. His similes and metaphors are always fresh and arresting, and fix the image in the reader’s mind. In “Uprooted” we read of a “tarred road as shiny as the back of a herring.”
In “The Prophet” the view from Rathlin Island is described like this: “The sky was grey: the Mull of Kintyre was smothered in fog, and turning round he saw a tonsure of mist on Knocklayde.” The main character, Brendan, describes his grandfather: “He saw his brown beard and moustache, and the dark toothless mouth reminded him of a thrush’s nest.”
“Ah Robert, my memory is wearin’ as thin as an ould shoe,” sighs Alice in “Look At The Boats.” In the same story we read how “the train moved out, and sunlight crossed and recrossed the carriage like pages turning in a book. . . . The hedges were black and ragged, and deserted nests stuck out as clear as thrown sods.” In “Stone” we read: “He was a small grass hopper of a man, withered and worn, and cold to look at.”
(His desire for precision spilled over into his teaching. A pupil from St. John’s, where McLaverty taught before coming to St. Thomas’s, recalls him asking each boy to describe the sounds his boots made when walking through the snow en route to school in the morning.)
Of 23 short stories in the “Collected Short Stories,” 16 deal with loss and disappointment. A boy is ridiculed at school after pretending he has inherited his grandfather’s power to predict the weather and his forecast is proven wrong. An old farmer who refuses to give up plowing his land finds his sister has sold off his white mare. A boy is allowed to play with a beautiful model boat only to see it swept out to sea and lost forever.
And yet McLaverty shows that he can handle loss and disappointment on a larger scale. One of his most powerful stories is “Six Weeks on and Two Ashore.” It deals with the marital breakdown between a lighthouse keeper, Tom O’Brien, and his wife. The story deals only with the last few hours of his last day ashore, as they wait for the boat to come to take him back to the lighthouse, which is visible in the distance just off the island. The marriage has degenerated into a dry and loveless relationship; the husband’s two weeks ashore have become something his wife dreads, consumed by petty wrangling. Try as she might to make him happy, she fails. The O’Briens’ arid and destructive relationship is played out against the background of that of a neighbor — a young wife whose husband is also a lighthouse keeper. But her relationship is in contrast still vibrant with love and tenderness. In a chilling, unforgettable moment, Mrs. O’Brien turns to the empty house her husband has just left and finds “There was nothing there but silence and sunlight, and behind her the stir of the cold sea.”
The woman’s emotional and sexual unhappiness is powerfully but unobtrusively suggested by the imagery of the sea.
McLaverty has been faulted in his novels, especially the later ones, for his inability to deal with mature relationships between men and women. There is truth in this criticism — his rigid Catholicism imposed a sort of moral straitjacket on his characters that makes any enjoyment of physical love seem impossible for them. He was gnawed at by the fear that something he wrote would morally harm his readers. The problem was that McLaverty’s primary feeling, a profound reverence, could sometimes dissolve into a sentimental piety, particularly when it was directed at priests, mothers, the land and man’s relationship to it.
The generation that he taught, the one that I grew up in, reveled in irreverence, and so his work for a while lost relevance for us. Now we are old enough to appreciate what he meant.
Last year, in time for the 100th anniversary of McLaverty’s death, Blackstaff Press in Belfast reissued his collected short stories, edited by Sophia Hillan, with Seamus Heaney’s introduction. Oh yes — I forgot to mention: Among the poets that McLaverty introduced us to were Edward Thomas, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and a young student teacher from Queen’s University called Seamus Heaney, who taught English to what he called a “less than literary 4B.”
McLaverty took me aside one day, knowing my love of Greek history, to reveal that the student teacher from South Derry could read Homer in the original, so we should treat him with some reverence. After that, we did. The rest, as they say, is literary history.
(The Collected Short Stories of Michael McLaverty, edited by Sophia Hillan, with an introduction by Seamus Heaney and a new afterword by Hillan, is published by Blackstaff Press, Belfast.)

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