The incredible life of Ireland’s first celebrity chef has been turned into a play, writes
MAURA LAVERTY, author of the classic Irish cookbook, Full and Plenty (published in 1960), was the closest Ireland had to a celebrity chef before the era of Darina Allen, Donal Skehan, etc.
A play about the Kildare-born chef, Maura Laverty — This was Your Life, will be performed in Mitchelstown, Bartlemy, Ballynoe, Youghal and Fermoy as part of the Blackwater Valley Fit-Up Theatre Festival.
The play sees Laverty (1907-1966) spirited back from the dead to face a live online audience on a surreal TV show called ‘This WAS Your Life’. Produced by the Curious Ensemble, this theatrical event asks how — over fifty years since Laverty’ s death — will a contemporary audience evaluate her recipes and tumultuous life?
Written by Yvonne Quinn and Bairbre Ní Chaoimh, the play is performed by Ní Chaoimh and Malachy McKenna, with the latter playing a TV host, “who is a cross between Eamon Andrews and Jeremy Kyle”, says Ní Chaoimh.
Ní Chaoimh’s interest in the multi-talented Laverty was sparked when she went looking for a copy of Full and Plenty. Her late mother’s original copy, complete with snippets of food lore by the author, had gone missing.
Ní Chaoimh, in the course of her search, discovered two banned novels by Maura Laverty from the 1940s which she hadn’t known about.
“She also wrote plays for the Gate and had her own sponsored radio programme for thirty years on RTÉ. On it, she advised on culinary matters as well as personal matters. She wrote Ireland’s first TV soap, Tolka Row, which was based on her second play for the Gate.”
Fascinated by Laverty, Ní Chaoimh pored through ten boxes of material on Laverty in the National Library. Ní Chaoimh, with her writer’s hat on, found out a lot about Laverty’s private life and met several people who had known her. She had always wanted to write a play with live cooking in it, focusing on a mother and daughter relationship. Ní Chaoimh and Quinn decided to write about Laverty who she says was a woman before her time.
“She worked all her life. She was a single parent after she and her husband broke up.
“This was in an Ireland where you didn’t talk about broken marriages, especially if you were an agony aunt and were supposed to have a perfect life.
Maura supported her children (two daughters and a son) as a freelance writer and broadcaster.”
Laverty’s own mother, who had nine children, worked as a dressmaker to support her family. Laverty’s father was a gambler who lost the family’s fortunes, says Ní Chaoimh.
Ní Chaoimh says she found out lots of secrets about Maura Laverty’s private life that have been included in the play. She reckons Laverty (whose maiden name was Kelly) had a strong role model in her mother.
Because of the poverty at home in Rathangan, Laverty was sent to a Dublin couple for a few years where she was looked after. At 17, she went to Spain where she worked as a governess.
“She was such a survivor. She had a lot of triumphs, but also heartache. She lived a roller coaster life in a lot of rented rooms, shoddy places, near tenements. Her fourth novel, Lift Up Your Gates, has as the central character a thirteen year old girl living in a tenement in Dublin.”
Ní Chaoimh relates an anecdote that highlights Laverty’s independent spirit. Orson Welles was in Dublin and came to see one of her plays at the Gate. There was a demonstration at the theatre because Orson Welles was considered a communist.
“Maura went out at the interval and sang ‘Keep the Red Flag Fying Here’ while clutching a glass of whiskey. That can’t have helped. There were threats to burn down the Gate.”
Maura Laverty, an indomitable spirit, is clearly excellent story material.