What Elsie Martin’s husband chose to do to his wife

Orange Horses by Maeve Kelly (Tramp Press)

TRAMP PRESS'S most recent publication, Orange Horses, a collection of short stories by seriously overlooked Irish writer Maeve Kelly, is the third in its Recovered Voices series.

First published in 1990, most of the stories were written during the seventies and eighties. The unvarnished reality of life as it was then for most Irish people, particularly those who spent time in Britain, is the meat of a couple of Kelly’s more striking pieces.

This is a pre-Ceasefire, pre-Riverdance world when it was not fashionable to be Irish. She brings to life that time of terrible student accommodation in London and the IRA letter-bomb campaigns. In this pre-Graham Norton, pre-Jedward world there was the never mentioned, but ever present, danger that, in the absence of any other suspect, the London Metropolitan Police might decide that you, Paddy or Bridget, or whatever your name was, probably did it, and if say, Ken Livingstone or Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue of your detention, The Sun could be relied upon to condemn them bitterly from its front page.

The theme of the oppression faced by all Irish women – whether they were aware of it or not – is central to Kelly’s writing. She is a witty writer and, despite the dark subject matter, had me laughing several times. 'Queen’ is a portrait of an upper middle class woman whose life is suffocated by the toxic combination of respectability and an alcoholic husband: “Everyone said of Edna that her table manners were the perfect expression of her self-control. Even as a child…”

The truth is though that Edna, her ability to eat soup without slurping aside, is in not much more control of her life than the wife of the average docker: “Her husband had been the single great embarrassment of Edna’s life. He had been a social disaster but she had borne his disgrace with a charitableness which, her friends said, gave her a claim to canonisation.”

Thankfully, after many years, he does the decent thing and dies. Edna was not the only Irishwoman of her generation to be relieved to see her husband’s coffin being lowered into the ground.

The most devastating piece in this fine collection is the title story, which opens with the incomparable short paragraph: “Elsie Martin’s husband beat her unconscious because she called him twice for his dinner. To be fair, she did not simply call him. She blew the horn of the Hiace van to summon him.”

Next time some eejit who has stuffed his head with Richard Dawkins’ latest book starts complaining about the way Muslim women dress, feel free to remind said individual that it is not all that long since almost no one in Ireland had anything to say about what the likes of Elsie Martin’s husband chose to do to his wife.


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