Patrick Lonergan, review of Walter Macken: Dreams on Paper by Ultan Macken (Mercier Press 2009)
in The Irish Times (31 Oct. 2009), Weekend Review.

Details: Ultan Macken, Walter Macken: Dreams on Paper (Cork: Mercier Press 2009), 448pp.

Walter Macken, we’re told, always wrote in the morning. “In my memory,” writes his son Ultan, “I see myself and my mother waiting anxiously in the kitchen ... My mother would actually be saying a few prayers to herself aloud. When we heard the typewriter going my mother would say a prayer of thanks!” After about 45 minutes, Walter would call his wife and read whatever he’d written to her: she was always his first (and perhaps his best) critic.

This incident is not the most dramatic in Dreams on Paper, Ultan Macken’s biography of his father. But it encapsulates well the life of a writer who remains much loved in this country but hasn’t received the critical attention his work probably merits.

Macken’s family had a few reasons to be anxious each morning. His work was generally popular, of course, but he also encountered challenges during his career. As so often happens in Ireland, his books were praised by critics abroad but savaged at home; indeed, some of his best novels were banned in this country - a decision Macken found deeply hurtful. “People in Ireland have very little respect for writers,” he concluded. “You are writing for your own people. What’s going to happen if they stop your own people from reading you?”

Those prayers also reveal the centrality of Macken’s wife, Peggy, to his career. The daughter of Tom Kenny, one of Galway’s most influential men, she was appointed news editor of the Connacht Tribune at a young age. She sacrificed both the job and her relationship with her father when she eloped with Macken in 1937. Kenny was furious: his new son-in-law was six years younger than his daughter, was nothing more than an actor at An Taibhdhearc and was the son of a carpenter who’d been killed in the first World War. He wrote Peggy out of his life: according to Ultan, he spoke only once to her before his death, when he accidentally passed her on a Galway street. Peggy’s decision to give up a comfortable life is testament to the strength of her feelings for Walter - revealed here in a selection of the couple’s love letters.

One of the book’s strengths is Ultan Macken’s decision to include such letters - to allow his father’s life to emerge not from narrative but from quotation. A lengthy correspondence with Lovat Dickson, who was one of Macken’s editors at Macmillan, is a highlight.

Macmillan knew that their decision to publish Macken’s first novel, Quench the Moon, was an investment: they didn’t expect the novel to be successful but believed they could develop the young author’s talents over time. Dickson’s ability to do precisely that is impressive - we see how he cajoles, offers constructive criticism and stern advice and, ultimately, shares Macken’s joy when he becomes successful.

The use of letters also provides insights that could never be conveyed in narrative. I was very moved by the correspondence between Walter Macken’s parents during 1915-6, when his father was fighting in the British army. Macken Snr repeatedly expresses his hope to return home, and repeats, too, his confidence that the war must conclude within months. One statement captures poignantly his attempt to be optimistic in dreadful circumstances. “If I have the good fortune to be wounded,” he tells his wife, “I’ll have a good chance of getting a furlough for a few days.” He was killed in March 1916, when Walter was only a few months old.

There are moments when the letters feature an excess of detail (such as the cost of the carpets in a new family home), and there is some repetition. But this is an affectionate and honest portrait that ranges widely over many interesting themes: the Irish in the Great War, the Dublin theatre scene in the 1940s, social class in Galway before 1950 and so on. Ultan Macken doesn’t answer every question that the letters raise, and he doesn’t gloss every detail that he includes. That’s probably a good thing: the book’s main achievement is to encourage the reader to return once more to Macken’s novels and plays.

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