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Mary Beckett (1926 - 2013):

Mary Beckett

Mary Beckett was widely acclaimed as one of the finest writers anywhere in Ireland, her novels and - some would say especially – her short stories, winning her plaudits in the highest literary quarters. 

She was born in Belfast, daughter of Seán and Catherine Beckett; her father was a teacher. She was educated in the city, at St Columba’s National School and St Dominic’s High School, followed by St Mary’s teacher training college (later St Mary’s University College), where she qualified as a primary school teacher, accepting a post in Holy Cross in the north Belfast district of Ardoyne. 

In 1949, BBC Northern Ireland broadcast her first short story, “The Excursion”, and was a contributor to The Bell, the Dublin-based monthly review of literature and social comment founded and (for a time) edited by the writer Seán Ó Faoláin. Peadar O’Donnell, a later editor of The Bell, championed her writing, and David Marcus, the celebrated Cork-born publisher and editor, selected her story “Three Dreams Cross” for a special issue of Irish Writing devoted to women writers. Both these publications were wound up in the 1950s, and this, together with marriage (to Peter Gaffey) and raising five (surviving) children, led to over a decade’s publishing silence on Beckett’s part. However, in the 1970s she returned to her former literary activities; David Marcus published her story “A Belfast Woman” in the Irish Press. There followed her collection of the same name, published by Poolbeg in 1980. Bloomsbury published her novel Give Them Stones in 1987. Though Beckett had long settled in Dublin, this novel is set in her native Belfast though she returned to Dublin as a setting with A Literary Woman (1990), a collection of 10 short stories. Stories by Beckett are included in a number of anthologies, and have been broadcast on RTÉ radio as well as the BBC. Her books for children include Orla at School (1991) and Hannah or Pink Balloons (1995). Dsome of her work has also been published in the Unites States. 

Beckett’s work was widely acclaimed. A Literary Woman was described by the Sunday Times as "a striking collection... immensely effective"; while she received a Sunday Tribune arts award in 1987, and was shortlisted for the Hughes Fiction Award in 1988. Perhaps more significant are the views of her peers, such as the Belfast-born writer Brian Moore, who described her as an “extraordinary miniaturist of ordinary lives, lives of quiet despair sometimes relieved by quixotic gestures of defiance” and critic and novelist Miranda Seymour who was impressed by Beckett’s characteristic that: “Nothing is stated directly; everything is suggested by artful juxtaposition of images or the unexpected twists of a sentence.” On her passing, the Northern Ireland Arts Council stated quite simply that she was “one of the leading Irish writers.”

Born: 28 January 1926
Died: 10 November 2013
Richard Froggatt

Irish Times 23.11.2013; Belfast Telegraph 12.11.2013;;