Beckett, Mary (1926–2013), writer, was born on 28 January 1926 in the family home at 48 Knutsford Drive, Belfast, the third of four children to Seán Beckett, a school principal, and his wife Catherine (née Bryson). The family were catholic, and she was educated at St Columban's National School and St Dominic's High School (later St Dominic's Grammar School) on the Falls Road, before attending St Mary's teacher training college (later St Mary's University College). She graduated in 1945 and her first teaching post was at Holy Cross primary school on the Ardoyne Road, Belfast, where she taught for eleven years until she married and moved to Dublin. Class sizes at Holy Cross ranged from forty to more than 110 children, and Beckett described her time there as providing a rich wellspring from which to draw her stories (Irish Literary Supplement, 10).
In 1949 she submitted her first short story, 'The excursion', to a BBC radio competition. Mindful of the sectarian codes of her birthplace, she later explained that she was 'very careful not to have a catholic or anything suggesting it in that story because I thought, I'm not going to shoot myself in the foot … My name is Beckett, a protestant name, so I could sail through under false pretences' (Perry, 67–8). The story won the competition and was the first of several that were broadcast on the BBC and RTÉ radio over the next two years.
She was also encouraged by Peadar O'Donnell (qv), editor of The Bell, and David Marcus (qv), editor of the quarterly magazine Irish Writing, to submit pieces for publication. Her short story, 'A farm of land', was published in The Bell in 1951, while Marcus included her story 'Three dreams cross' in a special edition of Irish Writing dedicated to Irish women writers in 1954. By then, she had cast off her earlier reticence to reveal her catholicism. In October 1951 The Bell included a symposium of views on the position of contemporary young writers in Ireland. Beckett, James Plunkett (qv), John Montague, Valentin Iremonger (qv) and John Ryan (qv) (1925–92) all submitted pieces; Beckett opened her essay by observing that 'catholics in the six counties are in the peculiar position of being unwanted both north and south of the border. Here we are alienated by our religion and politics; in Dublin, it would seem, by our accent' (The Bell, 18).
She had two further stories in Threshold, the literary magazine published by the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, in 1957 and 1958, but then endured a twenty-two-year hiatus in her writing, which she attributed to a number of reasons. In 1954 both The Bell and Irish Writing ceased publication, limiting the outlets for her stories. She also met her future husband, Peter Gaffey, while on holiday on Inishmore, Co. Galway. They married in 1956 and shortly afterwards moved to Dublin. After losing their first child, Beckett had four children in five years and then a fifth child seven years later. The combination of moving to a new city and raising five small children left her with little inclination to write. In an interview in 1991 she explained that it was not solely down to being busy with her family but also because, having always written about Belfast, she was afraid of not getting the language or intonations of Dublin right.
Her writing career resumed in 1979 when Seán McMahon, a publisher with Poolbeg Press, contacted David Marcus to encourage her to start writing again. Marcus published her initial story 'A Belfast woman' on the literary page of the Irish Press on 10 March 1979, and Poolbeg Press published a collection of eleven short stories under the same title the following year. The stories, all set in or around Belfast, followed the themes established in her earlier stories of women engaged in 'lives of quiet despair sometimes relieved by quixotic gestures of defiance' (Moore, 2013). Her first novel, Give them stones (1987), was published by Bloomsbury, and expanded upon the themes explored in A Belfast woman. Critically well-received, it was awarded the Sunday Tribune arts award for literature (1987) and was shortlisted for the Hughes fiction award (1988).
In 1990 Beckett published a further collection of short stories under the title A literary woman, and also brought out four children's books including Hannah or pink balloons (1995), which won the Bisto merit award in 1995. Her stories have frequently been anthologised, with literary critics focusing on the feminist aspects of her work, and her opposition to violence from all sides in Northern Ireland. Her writing has been described as non-partisan, embracing a 'radical ambiguity' with regard to religion and politics (Mack, 14), and focusing on women who battled poverty, oppression and disappointed lives. Megan Sullivan, in a study of women's role in the conflict in Northern Ireland, notes how Beckett's heroine in the novel Give them stones moved from a nationalist position to one where gender politics became more important (2000, 227). Ruth Carr noted that Beckett portrayed 'simply and unsentimentally, the psychic damage of poverty, ignorance and bigotry' she encountered in Belfast (Field Day anthology, 1148).
Beckett died on 10 November 2013 in Tallaght Hospital and was buried in Mount Venus cemetery, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. Fellow-writer and Belfast man Brian Moore (qv) described her as an 'extraordinary miniaturist of ordinary lives' (2013). She herself described the art of writing as one that gave her 'deep satisfaction and buoyant bliss' (The Bell, 20).