An Arrow in Flight: Introducing Short Story Week and a giveaway!

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.

Further Reading:

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



Giveaway Ireland Month Irish Literature

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

37 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Short story: The Artifical Nigger by Flannery O’Connor (book: The Complete Stories (31) by F. O’Connor
    A grandfather take his grandson for his first train ride to Atlanta Georgia.
    Funny, touching…unforgettable.
    Your post has given me some great reading suggestions, thanks!


  2. Another great post, Cathy. O’Connor’s ideas on loneliness and the short story are particularly interesting. It’s taken me years to come around to short stories which given my predilection for spare, elegant prose, often best exemplied in the form, is a wee bit strange! Got there in the end. I have to mention that wonderful cover for the Caldwell anthology. It’s already on my list.


  3. Short story: The Story of your Life by Ted Chiang
    I really enjoyed this post. Sounds like Ireland (like NZ) is another small country punching above its literary weight. 😶


  4. Such an interesting post, Cathy! Short stories are definitely more neglected by readers compared to other forms of writing – I do love reading them, especially when I don’t have much time to devote to reading in my day, but I tend to forget them rather easily.
    One of my favourite short stories is ‘The Thing in the Forest’ by A.S. Byatt, such a multi-layered and excellently written story. Thank you for the giveaway!


  5. What a great giveaway, I’d love to enter! Favorite short story: this is tough, possibly The Universal Story by Ali Smith from her collection The Whole Story and Other Stories?
    Really looking forward to finally reading Colin Barrett for short story week!


  6. Having started reading short stores 45 years ago, I have covered a bit of terrain and have many favorites. “Honeymoon in Tramore” by William Trevor is one of them. Thanks for your consideration.


      • Without doubt. One of many. Am happy to see what I perceive as a resurgence in interest in short fiction, both written in English and translated, but maybe that is just me given that short stories comprise a significant portion of my fiction reading


  7. `a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes.` – that’s what I love about short stories. My favourite short story is probably The Fly Paper by Elizabeth Taylor. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is another unforgettable one and there is one called Roman Fever by Edith Wharton that I love.


  8. Hi Cathy, thanks for sharing all these Irish authors – I love short fiction and was just thinking I need to read some. Although my favorite short story is by an American author, here it is: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway. Great post!


  9. Wonderful introduction, looking forward to reading your reviews this week! Being in the States, I can’t enter the giveaway, but one of my favorite short stories would be Joyce’s “Araby” – it was one of the first I ever read, and I’ve never forgotten it.


  10. I just finished a volume of stories by William Gay, an American southern writer, and there are at least two or three stories in it that are just excellent: Death in the Woods and The Man who Knew Dylan. William Gay needs to be more widely read.


  11. Brilliant post Cathy. I’ve not read The Lonely Voice but I will now. I think Dubliners is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. I can’t pick a favourite from it but I find it so rich and complex, and so beautifully written. Which means there really is no excuse for the fact I’ve not read Ulysses yet!


  12. This sounds like a great introduction to a range of Irish writers, a sampler as it were of what’s available. Wonderful.
    A recently read short story that sticks in my mind—mainly because it involves music lessons—is Carson McCullers’ ‘Wunderkind’, in a short collection I’ve almost finished. As a younger man, though, I was much taken with Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction, particularly those featuring his obsession with mazes and literary homages. I should not only revisit Borges but read more author collections, as I’ve rather neglected the genre in recent years.


  13. I enjoy reading people’s feelings on the difference between short stories and novels, and it’s even more interesting when you get those flash fiction writers comparing their work to short story writers. Thanks for exploring how a place and culture may shape the form in which they write!


  14. My favourite short story is one that I read in 1991 or 1992 and it made me gasp out loud – one of those reading moments that stay with you. The Painted Door by Sinclair Ross.

    My favourite experience of a whole book of short stories in recent years was listening to Montreal Stories by Mavis Gallant, narrated by Margot Dionne and Angèle Dubeau, published by small press Rattling Books. Listening to short stories was how I learned to appreciate audiobooks. Recommend that route to anyone who is new to the audiobook format. Also middle grade books helped me build up to enjoying novels in audiobook format.

    The Granta Book of Irish Short Stories and Being Various are both on my book wish list.

    Lara Maynard


  15. This is a great collection: I’ve dipped into it for past events myself. (It’s available in my public library, so no need to enter me, but thank you very much, all the same.) I was just discussing some of my big faves for short stories in the Edna O’Brien post, but I could also add that I’m now reading George Egerton’s stories for this event (Keynotes and Discords) as well as Dorthy Edwards for the Wales Readathon: both very good so far.


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