Ireland has produced some of the world’s most celebrated short story writers – and continues to do so. Why are the Irish so good at the form, and why do they love it so much?
Ireland’s history with the short story form is well documented. James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Maeve Brennan, William Trevor and Mary Lavin are just some of a long list of internationally recognised writers.
For Frank O’Connor, whose study of the short story – The Lonely Voice – is considered a seminal work, the Irish are successful as writers of the short story because the best short stories focus on ‘submerged groups’ – marginalised people who live at the fringes of society and have no effective voice.
His main theory is that this submerged population changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials; Turgenev’s serfs; Maupassant’s prostitutes; Chekhov’s doctors and teachers or Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape.
I once heard Donal Ryan speak about his collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun and he stated that it was nearly impossible to name a happy short story. O’Connor too believes that the best short stories focus on the loneliness of an individual rather than the individual as part of the community of a novel.
There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in a novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again from companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal’s saying: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie
This remoteness is obviously a factor of island life and particularly of Irish life earlier in the 20th century, which could explain the lure of the short story to writers living on the fringes of ordinary society. Another theory is that the short story tends to flourish in cultures with a strong oral tradition – a culture of myths and tales – where brevity and impact are the key to a successful story. Alternatively, as Thomas Kilroy succinctly puts it, ‘at the centre of Irish fiction is the anecdote’.
Maureen Kenneally, writing in The Irish Times about the proliferation of Irish writers on the staff of The New Yorker in the 1960s notes that ‘Irish voices were original, distinctive and compelling, and they carried a quality of authenticity’ and indeed the success of Maeve Brennan, Frank O’Connor, Benedict Kiely, Brian Friel and Mary Lavin all flourished in that writing environment.
Yet, as this oral tradition dies and as Ireland has become a more modern and technological country, the short story continues to flourish with stunning collections from young writers such as Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry and June Caldwell.
Perhaps it is this essence of storytelling that can be captured in a short story that appeals. There is no excess in a short story, no fat. As Frank O’Connor says, it is a form where ‘a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes’.
Ireland is still a country in flux – the developments of the last twenty years from the Good Friday Agreement to the Celtic Tiger and subsequent financial crash means that Frank O’Connor’s ‘submerged’ protagonists still exist. And it is fitting that they still exist particularly in a society where the basic tenets of Church and State can no longer be trusted and where past figures of authority are being viewed in a new light.
This is fertile ground for the growth of the short story, for this kind of applied story telling. It is a modern day oral tradition, a passing down of stories to try to make sense of a changing world.
A great story is not necessarily short at all, and the conception of the short story as a miniature art is inherently false. Basically, the difference between the short story and the novel is not one of length. It is a difference between pure and applied storytelling.
Sinead Gleeson and New Island Books have done sterling work in the last few years in bringing female short story writers to the fore, with their unmissable and award-winning anthologies The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore.
Faber are about to publish a new collection of Irish short stories edited by Lucy Caldwell and featuring writers such as Kit deWaal, Eimear McBride and Sally Rooney.
Sinead Gleeson, again, is compiling a new anthology of 100 Irish Short Stories for Head of Zeus, entitled The Art of the Glimpse (as coined by William Trevor), which will be published in 2020, so the love affair with the Irish short story continues.
This week I will be focusing on short story collections from several Irish writers. William Trevor, long considered the master of the form; Mary Lavin, whose reputation and work are experiencing a well-deserved renaissance; Rosemary Jenkinson, whose stories have a particularly Northern viewpoint and Rob Doyle, who explores more subversive, meta-textual territory.
As a celebration of Short Story week, I will be giving away a copy of The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, edited and signed by Anne Enright. First published in 2010 it features stories from Roddy Doyle, Maeve Brennan, Séan O’Faoláin, Edna O’Brien and William Trevor.
To enter, simply comment and tell me your favourite short story (it doesn’t even have to be by an Irish author) and I will draw and announce a winner at the end of the week.
Martin Doyle, Books Editor of The Irish Times has a fantastic Twitter thread with links to short stories you can read online, by a raft of fantastic writers including Kevin Barry, Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, Donal Ryan and Lucy Caldwell plus loads more!
The Rise of the Irish Short Story in The Irish Times
Anne Enright on the Irish Short Story for The Guardian
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!