by ehistoryadmin on March 14, 2014

Maeve Brennan and The Devil in Us

By John Landers

 “I WAS PEACEFULLY APPROACHING the end of my thirteenth year when I was startled out of all placidity by an unanswerable question that still returns sometimes to puzzle my mind. I was at a convent boarding school in Kilcullen, a village in the County Kildare. There were sixty or more girls at the school, and we used to be taken for long crocodile walks into the flat and spiritless countryside that surrounds the village. There were several shops in Kilcullen, but the only building I ever entered there was the church, where we occasionally went to confession . Most of the time , we went to confession in the convent chapel, which we approached on tiptoe through the darkened main hall of the nuns’ quarters. We wore navy blue uniforms, with long black wool stockings and black slippers, and before entering the chapel for confession, or for morning Mass or Sunday-afternoon Benediction, we covered our heads with net veils.”

No, this is not part of a newly-discovered memoir by a former student of the Cross and Passion College in Kilcullen, although I am sure that there are those who might be able to produce such an account. It is, you may be surprised to learn, the opening paragraph of a short story, “The Devil in Us”, by Maeve Brennan, written in 1953 and published the following year in the “New Yorker” magazine and forms part of a collection of her short stories, “The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin,” published in 1998, five years after the writer’s death.


Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917 and moved to the United States with her family in 1934. When she was twelve years old she and her sister spent two years as boarders in the Kilcullen school. As a writer she has been largely ignored in Ireland. Her first biography: ” Maeve Brennan: Homesick at the New Yorker,” by Angela Bourke was published in 2004. Both her parents were deeply involved in Irish politics and her father, Robert, was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising. The sentence was later commuted to penal servitude. Maeve was born while he was in prison. He was an ardent supporter of Eamon de Valera and was Director of Publicity for the Anti-Treaty Republicans during the Civil War. He was also a writer of short stories and a playwright and several of his plays were presented at the Abbey Theatre. He also wrote detective novels. He was also a founding member of the Irish Press. In 1934 he was appointed Irish ambassador to the United States and the family would remain in Washington until 1944 when all but Maeve returned to Ireland. She went to New York to work for Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion copywriter. She became a close friend of Truman Capote and it has been suggested that the character of Holly Golightly in his novel, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was inspired by Brennan. Then she got a job with The New Yorker” magazine and wrote a social column under the pseudonym of The Long-winded Lady. Her first short story was published in the magazine in 1950.


In Chapter 6 of her biography, entitled “Cross and Passion,” Angela Bourke discusses the two years Maeve spent in Kilcullen. The two sisters arrived at the school in the late summer of 1929 on a bus from Dublin and were accompanied by their mother, Una. She handed them over to the care of Sister Mary Agnes and Sister Mary Stephanie. Their mother frequently wrote to them sending them parcels “with treats”. In the first year “the girls slept in a brand-new extension with central heating, and each had a cubicle with her own basin and cubicle,” Bourke relates. In their second year they were moved upstairs to less comfortable dormitories with communal bathrooms.

The short story, “The Devil in Us”, was inspired by her stay in Kilcullen. Her first year
“went off fairly smoothly”. She was an average student. She found life in the school tedious. There was very little to read. She hated basketball and hockey. The story deals with the singing class when all the students in the school would assemble in the largest classroom to practise. Their repertoire included such homely classics as “The Mountains of Mourne”, “The Rose of Tralee” and “The Spinning Wheel” and “Who is Sylvia?” Sister Veronica was in charge of the singing. Sister Hildegarde, the headmistress, visited the class one afternoon. She listened to the singing and announced that not all of the girls were doing their best. She said that some of them were shirking. They were lazy. They were idle and she pointed out that the Devil always finds works for idle hands. Four girls, including the author, were singled out. They were relentlessly persecuted by the two nuns. The headmistress called them the “Devil’s walking sticks”. They were not beyond salvation. They could sing alone during Sunday afternoon Benediction. They were so frightened that their voices were barely audible. Not only had they let the school down. They had “deliberately let Our Blessed Lord down”. The Devil was in them and they “had felt his power in their dry throats and thumping hearts.”

It is too easy to dismiss this short story as simply a work of fiction with little or no basis in fact. Whereas Maeve makes no further reference to the singing incident in her later writings, she does describe the two nuns in a piece that she wrote for “The New Yorker” published in 1962 called “Lessons and Lessons and Then More Lessons”. She writes: “The head taught English and her assistant conducted singing classes, but they spent most of their time looking for sins. Their task was easy because of course we were all filled with sins, but they worked hard at it.” In a letter to “New Yorker” editor, William Maxwell in 1957, she “recalled that she had never felt so holy as she did after the nuns in Kilcullen explained to her in public that she was damned, damned, damned.”


There was an incident involving Maeve and three other girls. In a letter to her biographer in 2001, Maeve’s niece, Yvonne Jerrold, writes: “She started a secret society and organised a group of girls to be ‘Gaelic Leaguers.’ The girls bought Irish books with their own money to teach themselves Irish and had secret signs. Because the society was secret, and the girls would not divulge the purpose of it, they got in big trouble. The three day girls were expelled. Maeve was not expelled. She was a boarder. The irony is that the nuns would have strongly approved of the purpose of the society had they known what it was.” Before the end of their second year in Kilcullen they left to attend an Irish-speaking day school, Scoil Bhrighde, in Dublin but she would never forget those years spent in the Cross and Passion college. She was drinking a martini in a New York restaurant in the early 50’s when two nuns walked in and ordered a meal. They reminded her of the two nuns from her Kilcullen schooldays. She almost instinctively hid the glass under the table.


P.S. Many thanks to Julie O’Donoghue, Kilcullen Community Librarian, who very kindly sent me a copy of the short story.



{ 0 comments… add one now }

Previous post:

Next post: