Shelley Marsden meets the lady who has made the art of letter writing a one-woman crusade
Senior citizen Marie McSweeney may go down in history as one of Ireland’s greatest letter writers. For the past forty years, she has regularly sent in letters (and in more recent years, emails) to radio stations, talk shows and a variety of national and local newspapers airing her very strong views on a variety of things.
A sharp writer since she penned her first letter aged nineteen, the Dublin native, who lives in Drogheda, has since penned several books and her fourth – Letters From A Recalcitrant Woman – is a fascinating collection of her thoughts on a range of topics .
In a time when some of us are simply a bit tired and disbelieving of what politicians have to say, this humorous, opinionated lay person’s view of current affairs in Ireland over the past four decades is both informative and refreshing.
Marie, who will not give her age but says she is “most definitely in the senior citizen category”, was initially only gathering her letters together as a record for her three grown-up sons.
“Sometimes our parents die, and we don’t know who they’ve been”, she says. “I know my father died and I never really knew him. I think we have a right to know who our parents are, so I decided to leave this record; it’s a substantial part of me to leave behind.”
It was only when others suggested her collection might have a wider appeal because of her strong record of involvement in the issues of the day that she began to think of publishing anything.
Jane Austen may have suggested that “Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female” (Northanger Abbey), but she probably didn’t mean the more incendiary kind of letters Marie was writing from the late 50s.
In years gone by in Ireland, few women got as involved in Letters to the Editor as men, which is another reason Marie’s book is of interest.
She affirms: “There aren’t many women of my age, having spent their time at home rearing children, who would have got as involved socially and politically as I had. And I always maintained freedom from any political commitment (I couldn’t join any party because I didn’t agree 100% with any of them).”
When Marie started to dig out her old scrapbooks, most of her correspondence across the years was in there, except for some of her earlier writing, and she had the basis for a book.
Her writing is articulate, often witty and in her own words “terribly opinionated” on lots of things, but she has also included snippets of other comments and historical explanations of important debates to widen the context of her letters.
She thinks people here will appreciate it: “Hopefully the Irish in Britain that are interested in current affairs and what’s been happening back home in the last four decades, will be interested in this unique way of looking at things.
“Be it Ireland, the UK or elsewhere, there are so many similarities these days in the ways people are being oppressed, thieved from, if you like. This is one person’s way. It’s a little oblique, skewed if you like, but interestingly so, I think.”
As the idea of a published collection began to take shape, Marie says that foremost in her mind was the thought that her book might encourage others to speak out – but firstly, to be sure and confident that their opinions are their own.
“People need to be very careful these days that their beliefs are actually theirs”, says the author, whose desire to air her views has evidently not dimmed over the years.
“We are in the age of the quick sound-bite. If we’re going to be preached at by a variety of people including politicians, economists, whatever – we need to say more than three trite words in response.
She disappears off for a moment to find her copy of John Ralston Saul’s book The Unconscious Civilisation, and comes back with one of her favourite quotes: “He says: ‘The power we refuse ourselves goes somewhere else’. That is so important. We need to own the power that’s in our hands.”
Drawing together all those years of correspondence was harder than she thought. She began on New Year’s Day, 2013 and didn’t finish until September. Sorting every letter into years on two huge tables in her living room and transferring to computer, it was a shock to her just how much she had actually written since she first began penning missives as a curious teenager.
In the introduction, Marie mentions a letter that she hadn’t been able to find – one that had a “big impact” on her life. But when I mention this, she says disappointingly that it’s a “teaser” and something one she doesn’t go into in the book, a secret that she will take to the grave.
In her schooldays, Marie was already interested in current affairs and opinion-sharing, and quickly became involved in debating societies, which she continued to participate in beyond education.
One issue that she recalls got her really fired up was the huge controversy in Ireland over capital punishment in 1970.
The catalyst for the widespread tension was the killing of Garda Michael Reynolds, who was shot dead in St Anne’s Park after a bank robbery in September 1975.
He had been off duty, out shopping with his wife and daughter when he came across the raiders’ getaway car. He pursued the raiders and caught up with them in the park where he was gunned down within earshot of his family.
“Marie and Noel Murray, who were politically active, were initially sentenced to be hanged for his murder”, says Marie “I got involved because I disagreed vehemently with the views of a man from a fundamentalist background in the US, who had a church in Dublin; a few others got involved in that discussion and it was one that went on for quite a while. It’s one I won’t forget.”
For the full article, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 11 January 2013) – in shops now.
Copies of Letters From A Recalcitrant Woman (£15 incl.P&P) can be ordered via a cheque to Marie McSweeney, 9, Five Oaks, Dublin Road, Drogheda, Co. Lout, Ireland or for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. A website will be up and running in the coming weeks.