MacMahon, Bryan Michael (1909–98), writer and teacher, was born 29 September 1909 in Listowel, Co. Kerry, one of four children of Patrick MacMahon, clerk in a law office and later a butter-buyer and exporter, and Joanna MacMahon (née Caughlin), schoolteacher. From an early age Bryan showed the keen sense of place, community, and history that characterised his later writing. His father was in the Gaelic League and Bryan claimed to be conscious, at the age of six, of the epic nature of the 1916 rising. Two years later, preoccupied by the great famine of the 1840s, he visited all the survivors in the area to record their stories. Later he was the youngest attendant at the ‘rambling house’ – the home of the local smith, where men gathered to talk politics, tell stories, and sing. His was a traditional and – as recounted in the early chapters of The storyteller (1994) – an idyllic country upbringing. His grandmother was a native Irish-speaker, from whom he learned his love of the language, and his grandfather was weighmaster in charge of the market, where Bryan spent much time assisting him. At St Michael's College, Listowel, he came under the influence of the writer Séamus Wilmot (qv), who encouraged his passion for writing. However, he had an equal vocation for teaching, which he felt was in his blood: his mother and three of her sisters were teachers, as was his brother, and later two of his sons. After attending St Patrick's teacher training college, Drumcondra, Dublin, he taught for a time in Donore Avenue, off South Circular Road, Dublin, but in 1931 resigned reluctantly, at his mother's insistence, and returned to teach in Listowel. At the time he felt he would be ‘cabined, cribbed and confined . . . he had had a bellyful of small places’ (MacMahon, The master (1992), 2), but he spent the rest of his life in Listowel, refused an American lecturing post, and became what the critic Eileen Battersby called ‘the Irish writer who best personified the cult of the local artist’ (Ir. Times, 14 Feb. 1998).
He married (1936) Kitty Ryan, and they soon had five sons. To augment his income he opened a bookshop in his wife's name on the main street of Listowel, and also began to have stories accepted by Sean O'Faolain (qv) in The Bell. These stories were collected in his first book, The lion tamer (1948), which established him as a fresh, invigorating voice in Irish literature. The book got the cover of the influential Saturday Review of Literature in America and was reprinted five times over a number of months. The following year his first play, ‘The bugle in the blood’, was performed in the Abbey. Three years later came his first novel, Children of the rainbow (1952). Set in ‘Cloone’, a fictionalised Listowel, in the early years of the Free State, it details vanishing folk customs such as keening at wakes. MacMahon was prolific and over the next forty-odd years wrote five more books of short stories, one novel, three children's books, two volumes of memoirs, five plays, and several travel books, as well as numerous articles on local history for the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society. Eileen Battersby wrote of him that ‘throughout his long career MacMahon avoided the two main scourges of the professional creative writer: he never suffered from writer's block and he never received a rejection slip’ (Ir. Times, 14 Feb. 1998).
His most famous play was ‘The honey spike’, performed by the Abbey in 1961 and dealing with the travelling community, whose secret language, Shelta, he mastered. The critic Robert Hogan (1930–99) called it one of the half-dozen best Irish plays since the second world war, and commended its ability to transform a picaresque story into stage action. However, MacMahon's chief claim is as a writer of short stories. They describe rural and small-town life and are in the tradition of O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor (qv), and Liam O'Flaherty (qv), but MacMahon's vision is more benign. Although a realist, he had an eye for the kindness and redemption in rural life, rather than the bitterness and frustration that many of his contemporaries evoked. Much anthologised, widely reviewed, and a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and of Aosdána, he was a surprise omission from the Field Day anthology of Irish literature.
MacMahon was a prominent member of the community, whose activities went beyond writing. As headmaster from the mid 1950s of the national boys’ school, he led a protest over the primitive premises. After a series of letters to the authorities on the inappropriateness of boys cleaning out lavatories, he ordered a strike. When alarmed parents began withdrawing children from school, the local curate called in the fire brigade to hose down the lavatories, and MacMahon was granted a meeting with the minister for education, which led to a new building being commissioned. He set up the Listowel Drama Group and, after a stint teaching at the University of Iowa writers’ workshop (1965), helped found the annual Listowel writers’ week, which continues to flourish. The area is known for its writers, which include George Fitzmaurice (qv), Maurice Walsh (qv), and John B. Keane (qv), whom MacMahon taught. His support for Irish language and culture led him to translate the biography of Peig Sayers (qv) in 1974, and to write a number of ballads about hurling champions. In 1966 he was commissioned to write a pageant which was staged in Croke Park to commemorate the Easter rising. His myriad enthusiasms reflected his boundless energy – John B. Keane called him ‘a giant and a gentleman’ (Ir. Times, 14 Feb. 1998).
He was active until the end: his last book of short stories, A final fling (1998), was published after his death in Listowel on 13 February 1998. He was predeceased by his wife but survived by his five sons, two of whom followed him into teaching, and one of whom – Gary MacMahon – played for Kerry in the all-Ireland final in 1960 and later also wrote ballads to sporting legends.