When I was a little one, with a voracious appetite for books and cooking, one of the books that I devoured was my Nana’s well-used copy of Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty. The distinctive blue and yellow covers contained a treasury of old Irish recipes but the icing on the cake for me were the stories with which Laverty started each chapter. The woman whose fine soda bread was more praised by her future daughter-in-law than her smug neighbours cake, the boiled onions that effected a marriage, looking for cuppeen and platter mushrooms in the early morning – these were all well-loved and frequently read tales of old Ireland. After a long and fruitless search through second-hand bookshops and charity shops I eventually found a copy of Full and Plenty over the internet and it now sits proudly on my cookbook shelf alongside many more recent books.
But it took a New Zealand author to let me know that Laverty had actually written more than a cookbook. I had been reading my way through my copy of Christine Dann’s A Cottage Garden Cook Book – Recipes from a New Zealand Garden when I came across a stray remark about Laverty’s other books. That was enough to send me looking in the library which, wonder of wonders, stocks her first novel – originally published in 1942.
Set in the Ireland of the 1920s, Never No More is the story of a young girl and her relationship with her beloved Grandmother. They live in an old farmhouse outside the village of Ballyderrig in County Kildare and the book is full of tales of and from the Irish countryside – the cutting of the turf, weddings and wakes, the solemn ritual of pig slaughter, family nicknames and stories of possession. Laverty has a wonderful grasp of the texture of country life and great powers of description. As with Full and Plenty, food plays a great part in Never No More and the book is packed full of mouth-watering images.
“White bread, brown bread, Indian meal bread and bran loaves. Short cakes, butter cakes and scones of all kinds. She made seedy cakes and Sunday cakes and prune cakes. And an enormous rich fruit cake with a whole glass of brandy in it. My arms ached from beating the dozen eggs that went into the cake, and from cleaning and preparing the pounds of currants and raisins and candied peel and nuts. She made apple cakes and Carrigeen shapes and flummery and jellies, and Mike Brophy carried over to Nolans’ a big basket of Grandmother’s famous preserves – haw-and-apple jelly, sloe jelly, blackberry jam and damson jam and a half-dozen bottles of spicy mushroom ketchup to add piquancy to the cold meats. ”
With an original glowing introduction by Sean O’Faolain, a later one by Maeve Binchy as well as a quote from an imprisoned Brendan Behan, Never No More is an unexpected treasure. Binchy is also kind enough to fill in the biographical gaps between my much-loved Full and Plenty and Laverty’s other work. As well as writing a handful of cookbooks, another three novels and a pair of children’s books, she worked as a newspaper journalist, a radio agony aunt and wrote the scripts of a legendary Irish television series from the 1960s called Tolka Row.
Despite all her achievements, in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland Maura Laverty seems to have been all but forgotten. We’re too busy celebrating new imported cultures and foodstuffs to appreciate the native bounty that still surrounds us. It might be difficult to get your hands on a copy of Full and Plenty but her novels are still in print, courtesy of Virago Modern Classics, and they’re well worth searching for.