As a major Irish writer, Mary Lavin is a realist in the tradition of Frank O’Connor and Seán O’Faoláin. The resemblance to those important Irish writers, however, stops there. Her characters are usually solidly middle class, and they tend to be shopkeepers and clerks, a population that is, perhaps, less “submerged” than that of O’Connor’s fiction. For Lavin, social class is a determining factor in a character’s behavior and fate. She stresses the limitations imposed by a character’s social role. In addition, she does not use humor as a major fictional device. Instead of humor, there is often an ironic twist to the plot. Lavin’s plots also tend to avoid the simple solution provided by techniques such as reversal and recognition. Instead, she closely examines the problems that her characters encounter. If there is a resolution, it is by no means a simple one.
Lavin is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1944, the Katherine Mansfield-Menton Prize in 1962, the Ella Lynam Cabot Fellowship in 1971, the Gregory Medal in 1974, and the American Irish Foundation Award in 1979. Lavin was president of the Irish Academy of Letters from 1971 to 1973, and she received the American Irish Foundation award in 1979.
Lavin was honored at the Kells Heritage Festival in County Meath in 1993, when a Irish television documentary about her life and work, An Arrow in Flight, was screened. Also in 1993, Aosdana, the Irish body that honors writers, musicians, and visual artists, granted her its highest distinction by electing her to the rank of Saoi, “in recognition of creative work which has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland.” The Irish President at the time, Mary Robison, praised Lavin’s ability to “catch the tones of the Irish family and the tensions therein.”