I stumbled upon this hilarious personal account, of four tongue-tied students and a bewitching girl from the early 1910s, in the Witness Statement of Robert Brennan. The story is centered around a house in Lennox Street in Portobello and is worth reading in full:
“I had traveled to Dublin for an examination and I was met at the railway station by three Wexford friends of mine, John Moloney, his brother Peter, and Fred Cogley, all students. They were all staying at the same digs in Portobello and they had arranged for me to stay there also. We were hardly well inside the house when the three of them rushed to the front room crying, “Here she is”. I joined them and saw a very good looking girl. She came up the steps of the house and entered and the attentions of all three of them were transferred to the doorway through which she could be seen tripping lightly up the stairs. They said to me
“Isn’t she grand?”
I agreed and asked what she was like.
“Well, haven’t you seen her for yourself?”
“But what is she like to talk to?”
They didn’t know. They had never spoken to her, because they had not been introduced. She was a lodger like themselves. Her name was Kiernan and she was a native of Carlow. I thought it strange that in the course of several weeks they were unable to strike up an acquaintance. They wanted to know how.
“Well” I suggested, “you could, for instance, run up the stairs when she’s coming down … bump into her and ‘beg your pardon’ and there you are”.
“But” said Peter, “what could we talk to her about?”
“I don’t know” I said, “maybe if you get talking to her you could think of something”. I suddenly remembered she was from Carlow. “Why not talk about Carlow?”
They knew nothing about Carlow, did I?
“The only thing I know bout it,” I said “is that they have electric light there.”
At the time Carlow was the only provincial town in Ireland so blessed.
The next day I left the library and walked up into Grafton Streer. What was my amazement when I saw Peter Maloney on the opposite side of the street standing talking to Miss Kiernan, or rather he was standing looking at her, his round, fair, innocent face like the rising sun. When he saw me he sent out signals of distress and I joined him and was introduced.
“This is Mr. Brennan, Miss Kiernan”.
I looked at her and saw the bluest eyes I had ever beheld. They were paralysing. I managed to say:
“How do you do?”
“I’m well, thanks” she said, and she was blushing too. I made a violent effor to concentrate.
“It’s a fine day” I said
“Yes” she replied
Then I tried in vain to think of any further word in the English, Irish or any other language. The silence was sold. At last I blurted out:
“Which way are you going?”
She indicated the direction of Stephen’s Green.
“That way” she said.
“So am I”
The three of us walked towards Stephen’s Green. I tried to think of something to say and Peter’s obvious embarrassment did not help me. At last I had an idea. Of course, I could not know that Peter had said it already.
“I understand” I said “that you are from Carlow, Miss Kiernan”.
I saw now that Peter had already said it, but it was too late to draw back.
“I believe”, I said, and there was desperation in my voice, “that you have electric light there.”
We entered Harcourt Street without another word. The perspiration was rolling off me. It was clear that what Peter was saying to himself should have blasted me from the earth.
We were halfway up Harcourt Street when we saw Cogley coming down. I thanked God.
He stopped and was introduced.
“How do you do”, he said and I was horror stricken to see that her eyes had the same effect on him.
“I’m well thanks”
He managed to say “It’s a fine day.”
After a very long pause, he said: “I think I’ll go back with you”.
And the four of us walked on. The silence was now fourfold.
Of course, Fred got the same idea. I saw it dawning in his mind and I kicked him. This only spurred him on.
“I believe, Miss Kiernan” he said, “that you come from Carlow”.
He knew now. It was evident from the quiver in his voice.
“I understand” he said “you have electric light there.”
It was terrible. There was not a word spoken till we turned into Lennox Street. John Maloney was sitting on the steps of house. I hastened on in front.
“John” I said in a tragic whisper, “don’t say anything about electric light in Carlow”.
And aloud he said: “What about electric light in Carlow?”
She heard him and she passed indoors, her head held high. She never looked at any of us again.”
It was fantastically written so I was not surprised that the author, Robert Brennan, wrote several novels, plays and a well-received memoir.
Brennan was a founder member of the Wexford branch of the Gaelic League, Wexford IRB organiser in 1916, commanding officer of the Sinn Fein Press Bureau from 1918- 21, director of publicity for the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War, a founding member of the Irish Press and Fianna Fail, Irish Minister to the United States from 1937 to 47 and later director of broadcasting at Radio Éireann.
He published his first novel, The False Fingertip, in 1921 under the pen name ‘R. Selskar Kearney’ followed by a crime novel The Toledo Dagger, in 1926 under his own name.
In the 1930s his play about the life of convicts in an English prison, The Bystander, was performed in the Abbey, and later in the decade his comedy on the disappearance of the Irish crown jewels, Goodnight Mr O’Donnell, was performed at the Olympia Theatre.
After his retirement, he wrote and published his memoir Allegiance in 1950. The following year he wrote another novel, The Man Who Walked Like A Dancer, that was set in Washington. Through 1956 and 1957 Brennan published a weekly column of reminiscences in the Irish Press entitled Mainly Meandering. He passed away in 1964 and is buried at Mount Jerome cemetery.
His daughter Maeve Brennan was a celebrated New Yorker columnist (1954-81), called the Long-Winded Lady, who was almost unknown in Ireland until her work was revived to critical acclaim in the late 1990s. Described by one journalist last year as “The greatest Irish writer you’ve never heard of”, Maeve grew up at 48 Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh (the setting for almost half her forty plus short stories) but moved to New York in her late teens after her father became secretary of the Irish legation in Washington DC.
Her entry in the Dictionary of Irish biography by Angela Bourke discusses her early work and the build up of her image:
From 1943 to 1949 she wrote fashion copy for [Harper’s Bazaar] and its offshoot Junior Bazaar, often accompanying photographers on assignment, and also completed her novella ‘The visitor’. Her strikingly glamorous image, with dark lipstick, high heels, and hair piled on top of her head, dates from this period, while her trained observations of fabric, cut and colour would lend characteristic detail to all her fiction, and to her ‘Long-Winded Lady’ essays in the New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the town’.
Recruited to the New Yorker in 1949 by William Shawn, Brennan first wrote fashion notes and book reviews, but fiction editor William Maxwell soon began to publish her stories about Dublin. Maxwell later said of her: “To be around her was to see style being invented”. Some believe she was the inspiration for the character of Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The two had worked together at both Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker.
Journalist Colin Murphy picks up the story:
She married a colleague, St Clair McKelway, but he was even more unsettled: he had been married three times, and was a drinker, womaniser and depressive. Their five years together were chaotic; they had no children and, after they split, Brennan remained single.
Her sardonic observations of New York life in her The Long-Winded Lady column in The New Yorker and her fiction criticism, fashion notes, and short stories were widely praised throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, by the 1970s she became increasingly isolated and unable to take care of herself. She was mired in debt, thanks to her generosity, extravagance and a habit of abandoning apartments to stay in hotels. Brennan became homeless, and took to sleeping in a cubicle at the New Yorker, where she nursed a sick pigeon she had rescued. Her last New Yorker piece, ‘A blessing’, appeared on 5 January 1981. She died, in 1993, aged 76, in a nursing home.
It was only after he death that she became to be appreciated in her home country. Thanks mainly to a series of posthumous collections and biography of her written by Angela Bourke. Two plays about aspects of her life have been performed by Emma O’Donogue (‘Talk of the Town’, 2012) and Eamon Morrissey (‘Maeve’s House’, 2013) in recent years. The latter of whom met her in 1966 in New York as a 23 year old after he found out he was living in that house she grew up in. Eamon explained to the Irish Examiner back in September:
She is a neglected author in the Irish canon. And she is very definitely an Irish writer, even though she lived most of her life in New York. She’s in that difficult situation where the Americans regard her as an Irish writer and the Irish regard her as an American writer. Both nations should be proud to claim her.