Hartley, May Laffan (1849–1916), novelist, was born 3 May 1849 at 41 Philipsburgh Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin, second child and eldest daughter of Michael Laffan and Ellen Sarah Laffan (née Fitzgibbon). The Fitzgibbons, originally catholic, converted to the Church of Ireland and, having been tenants on the estate of the knight of Glin till c.1820, became members of the upper class in Dublin. Michael Laffan was a publican's son from Co. Tipperary who, exceptionally for a catholic, became a clerk in the Dublin Custom House. There was therefore a gap in social rank between her parents. All the children of this ‘mixed marriage’ were reared as catholics. May had one older brother, William Mackay Laffan (qv), two younger brothers, Michael Fitzgibbon (b. 1852) and James (b. 1854), and two younger sisters, Ellen Sarah (b. 1850) and Catherine (b. c.1858).
The Laffans moved house frequently, settling in 1862 at 4 Cross Ave, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, where May and her sisters attended the Dominican convent school at Sion Hill. In October 1862 Mrs Laffan died, followed two years later by Ellen Sarah. May first appeared in print in June 1874, when Frazer's Magazine accepted her article ‘Convent boarding‐schools for young ladies’, a critical study of convent education. We know little of May's youth, but her use of Fr C. P. Meehan (qv), the social activist, as a character in her fiction suggests involvement in his welfare projects. Her command of French, together with much detail about Parisian life in her fiction, suggests time spent in France.
In 1876 May's first novel, Hogan MP, appeared, anonymous like all her fiction. A version of the Faust story, it was popular despite its satirical humour and anti‐clerical bias. According to family tradition and May Laffan's correspondence, Hogan was condemned by some catholic clergy. In 1877 came May's second novel, The Honourable Miss Ferrard, set in Tipperary and describing the education of a neglected protestant girl. It was followed in 1878 by Christy Carew, a complex story of contrasting Dublin families. May Laffan is said to have had a ‘nervous breakdown’ while writing this. She resumed work with a short story, Flitters, Tatters and the Counsellor: three waifs from the Dublin streets, reprinted four times in 1879. Three more stories followed: Baubie Clarke and The game hen (1880), then Weeds (1881). These realistic stories about poverty were commended by John Ruskin, W. B. Yeats (qv), and T. P. O'Connor (qv). In 1880 May Laffan translated Sans famille by Hector Malot, a story about vagrant children, as No relations. Before 1882 she finished A singer's story (published 1885), set in Paris, and Ismay's children (1887), set in north Cork in Fenian times, which attempted to analyse physical‐force politics. Information about May's writing life derives from a series of letters (7 January 1881–17 April 1882) to and from her publishers, Macmillan.
On 4 July 1882 May Laffan married Walter Noel Hartley (qv), professor of chemistry at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, at Marylebone Church of England parish church, London. The couple lived first at 36 Waterloo Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin, where their only child, Walter John, was born on 25 April 1889, and subsequently at 10 Elgin Road. May Laffan Hartley published no more after marriage. Family tradition records an unsuccessful attempt on her part to have her son baptised a catholic. All her writings display ambivalence about her religious identity.
In October 1889 May became a founder member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in Dublin. In 1896 she submitted a paper to the Recess Committee set up by Sir Horace Plunkett (qv) to survey technical education in Ireland. This manuscript, unlike her fiction, is angry and paranoid, showing mental distress probably foreshadowing her compulsory admission to Bloomfield, a private psychiatric hospital in Dublin, in 1910.
On retirement in 1911 Walter Hartley was knighted, and died suddenly in Scotland in 1913. The Hartleys' son John died at Gallipoli (1915). May Laffan Hartley died in Bloomfield on 23 June 1916, following a stroke, and was buried in the Laffan grave in Glasnevin cemetery. The death notice in the Irish Times referred to her simply as Lady Mary Hartley, and there was no obituary. No portrait of May has come to light, and the whereabouts of any papers she left are unknown, as descendants of her heir and sister Catherine have not been traced.
May Laffan Hartley, almost alone among writers of the 1870s, held a mirror up to the Irish middle classes. Her characterisation and dialogue were highly praised by contemporaries. Her witty and outspoken style followed French rather than English influences. Certain themes recur in her work: the effects of colonialism, the evolution of the Irish middle class, religion as an index to social status, the importance of education, particularly that of girls. At a time when controversial issues seldom appeared in novels by women, May Laffan Hartley's work presented, along with its trenchant humour, a genuine social and political dimension.