Mairead McSweeney

“Irish” novelist

Arty Types

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Mairead McSweeney — her website supplies instructions on how to pronounce her forename — first turned up in the books pages a decade-and-a-half ago with a novel called The Galway Girl. Described by the Observer as “an eye-popping dissection of adolescent anomie”, it sold nearly 30,000 copies, appeared on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize and was very soon followed by a second book, the no less successful Rose of Tralee — its film rights sold for a “substantial” six-figure sum — centred on the brutalisation of a teenage girl by the vicious administrator of a Kerry orphanage.

Profiles of Ms McSweeney began to appear in British newspapers. These were usually accompanied by outsize photographs of an immensely striking woman with prodigious cheekbones and a great deal of tawny hair. Although she turned out to live in Whitstable and to have been educated at a university in the English Midlands, there was no doubting Mairead’s attachment to her ancestral home. 

If this was cruel, then it was even crueller of Private Eye to run a story alleging that her baptismal name was, in fact, Brenda

When, two years later, in the wake of her third novel, Last Train to Tipperary, she was invited onto Desert Island Discs, her choices ran to Enya, The Chieftains, The Boys of the Lough, Sinead O’Connor and several Irish folk musicians of such fabulous obscurity that the BBC technicians had trouble locating copies of their songs.

It was now, too, that Mairead began to develop a complementary career as a controversialist. While most of this polemicising confined itself to the field of literature — one might note an impassioned defence of Finnegans Wake, published in the London Review of Books, in which she claimed that anyone who struggled to comprehend Joyce’s challenging final work “cannot be taken seriously either as a reader or a writer” — there were also forays into politics. 

These included a bracing account of the late Elizabeth II’s 2011 visit to Ireland, printed in the Guardian, which criticised the trip as “a shabby, belated and fundamentally faux-contritional post-Imperial gesture” and a furious justification of her refusal to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, also for the Guardian, on the grounds that “literature should not be beholden to kings and queens”.

In recent years, MS McSweeney has featured rather less in our cultural life. It was a review of her fourth novel, An Cat Dubh (“The Black Cat”) in the Irish Independent which first hinted that all might not be well in her carefully tended Hibernian garden, the reviewer claiming that any reader who tried to board a Dublin bus in the manner of feisty heroine, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, would end up going nowhere, such was her creator’s ignorance of the local geography. 

If this was cruel, then it was even crueller of Private Eye to run a story alleging that her baptismal name was, in fact, Brenda, that she “didn’t know a word of Gaelic” and that she had not set foot on the Irish mainland until her twenty-third year. It is all very unfortunate and, unhappily, Mairead’s claim that she is “as Irish as Shane McGowan” has so far fallen on deaf ears.

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