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Val Mulkerns Biography

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Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, Ireland, 1925. Career: Associate editor, The Bell, 1952-54; weekly columnist, Evening Press, until 1983; writer in residence, Mayo County Council, 1988; novelist, journalist, lecturer, and teacher of creative writing. Awards: A.I.B. Prize for literature, 1984.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Time Outworn. London, Chatto & Windus, 1951; New York, Devin-Adair, 1952.

A Peacock Cry. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1954.

The Summerhouse. London, J. Murray, 1984.

Very Like a Whale. London, J. Murray, 1986.

Short Stories

Antiquities: A Sequence of Short Stories. London, Deutsch, 1978.

An Idle Woman and Other Stories. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1980.

A Friend of Don Juan. London, J. Murray, 1988.

Other

Editor, New Writings from the West. Mayo County Council, 1988.

Introduction, Hurrish: A Study by Emily Lawless. Belfast, Northern Ireland, Appletree Press, 1992.

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Critical Studies:

No Mean City?: The Image of Dublin in the Novels of Dermot Bolger, Roddy Doyle, and Val Mulkerns by Ulrike Paschel. New York, P. Lang, 1998.

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Val Mulkerns, born in 1925, has had what amounts to two separate publishing careers. In the 1950s, some of her short stories appeared in The Bell and she published two novels, A Time Outworn and A Peacock Cry. Subsequent published work, beginning with a short story collection, began to appear more than 20 years later, in 1978. Mulkerns's work examines the complexities of family relationships and conveys a strong sense of contemporary Irish life, especially for its women.

Although she later dismissed her first two novels as "juvenile" and refused to have them reprinted, they offer a window on an everyday Irish world of the 1950s that is rarely represented in literature. A Time Outworn tells the story of Maeve Cusack, a young woman who takes a job (arranged by a family friend) as librarian in a small town in Tipperary. She has not scored well enough on her exams to continue her education, but her boyfriend Diarmud remains in Dublin to continue his own studies. In Tipperary, she rooms in the same house as the schoolmaster, a Kerryman with radical ideas about society and language. When Maeve learns that one of her old school friends is pregnant by Diarmud, she breaks off the relationship with him. Her friend dies in childbirth; Maeve and the schoolmaster visit the Aran Isles. In a sentimental ending, Maeve drowns at age 20 when an "Aran curragh capsized" on her second holiday in the west. The novel examines some important contemporary issues—the fate of the Irish language, the division of the island into two separate countries, the role of Irish literary figures such as Joyce, Yeats, and Gregory—but it is often cliched and melodramatic.

Mulkerns's next novel, A Peacock Cry, is set mainly in the west of Ireland. The exception is a brief visit to Dublin, the occasion of a literary party with figures no doubt recognizable to those who knew literary Dublin in the 1950s. In this novel, Mulkerns brings an Englishman to the west of Ireland; he is the nephew of Dara Joyce, rough-hewn novelist of Syngean themes. The novel is flawed in several ways; the main obstacles for twenty-first century readers are its insularity (open prejudice against all things English, American, and Jewish) and the lack of credibility surrounding Dara Joyce. The novel only succeeds if readers can accept him as his devoted wife describes him—"'rare and splendid, a product of the purest and oldest form of Gaelic civilisation"'—but it also exposes him as a fraud in many ways, making such acceptance difficult.

After a long hiatus, Mulkerns published Antiquities. This book is a series of short stories about several generations of an Irish family. Not presented in chronological order, their connection only gradually becomes clear to the reader. The oldest setting is post-1916; the most recent is right up to the publication date. The stories examine family relations and question some of the Irish political verities endorsed by Mulkerns's earlier work. The return to violence that broke out in the late 1960s has cast a new, unpleasant light on those political platitudes. The interconnections among the stories, and between family life and politics, are sophisticated and finely wrought. After another collection of short stories, An Idle Woman, which takes on themes of familial neglect and cruelty, snobbery, inadequate middle-aged husbands and bored wives, Mulkerns published another novel, The Summerhouse. The Summerhouse is a short story writer's novel; although not containing separate stories, it is structured as a series of family narratives covering different time periods and told by various characters. The novel's main themes are the isolation of individuals and the dysfunctional nature of many families (especially their cruelty to those perceived as outsiders, often including children and spouses). The novel is interesting in part for the way Mulkerns uses the multiple narrators to represent conflicting explanations of actions and attitudes presented by different characters.

Her most important novel, Very Like A Whale, draws on her lifelong knowledge of Dublin. Mulkerns is a Dubliner, and in this novel she examines the city directly and at length. The main character, Ben, returns to Dublin after several years abroad and finds that both his family and the city itself have changed enormously in his absence. Ben takes a job at a northside school, and one of the novel's preoccupations is with the debased conditions of life he finds there. This territory has become known to many through Roddy Doyle's fiction, but Mulkerns examines it with a more serious eye. Dublin, by the 1980s, has lost much of its small-town character and has become more urban and faceless. The chaos and degradation wrought by drugs on the northside of Dublin is symptomatic of more widespread changes. Ben is made aware of other areas of change through his family; his parents have separated and both have new residences and new relationships, and his sister and brother-in-law are upwardly mobile young parents with an au pair and a fashionable home in what used to be artisans' cottages. Mulkerns's novel is an important addition to twentieth-century literature about Dublin.

After Very Like A Whale, Mulkerns published A Friend of Don Juan. Several of the stories in this collection are reprints from earlier publications. Mulkerns's outlook is expressed concisely in an introduction she wrote for an Emily Lawless reprint, Hurrish, in 1992. First, her introduction presents feminism as a necessary and inevitable response to certain arrogant male behaviors, and second, she describes the original appeal of Lawless's novel (in 1887) as that of "a dispatch from the battlefield." Lawless's English readers, baffled by the social and political movements gaining force in Ireland at that time, could find some answers in her novel. Mulkerns observes that "the Irish question" has yet to be answered; in her own novels, she provides some insight into the social and political conditions of the second half of the twentieth century.

Rosemary Johnsen

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