Irish Short Fiction Summary


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

It is an undisputed fact of literary history that, whereas British writers and readers have always favored the novel over the short story, just the opposite has been the case for their Irish neighbors. Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor has attributed this distinction to differences between national attitudes toward society. Whereas in England, O’Connor says, the intellectual’s attitude toward society is, “It must work,” in Ireland it is, “It can’t work.” The implication of O’Connor’s remark, echoed by many critics since the 1963 publication of his well-known book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, is that, whereas the novel derives its subject matter from an organized society, the short story springs from an oral, anecdotal tradition. According to J. H. Delargy, in a frequently cited study of the Gaelic storyteller, ancient Ireland fostered an oral literature unrivaled in all of western Europe, a tradition that has influenced the growth of the modern Irish short story.

Delargy describes Irish storytelling as being centered on a gathering of people around the turf fire of a hospitable house on fall and winter nights. At these meetings, usually called a céilidhe (pronounced “kaylee”), a Gaelic storyteller, known as a seanchaí (pronounced “shanachie”) if he or she specialized in short supernatural tales told in realistic detail, or a sgéalaí (pronounced “shagaylee”) if he or she...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Other Irish Short-Story Writers Since 1960

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In addition to O’Brien, McGahern, and Trevor, several other Irish writers have excelled in the short story since the 1960’s. The most frequently anthologized contemporary Irish stories range from the relatively simple “The Poteen Maker” by Michael McLaverty, “The Ring” by Bryan McMahon, and “Secrets” by Bernard McLaverty, to the more sophisticated “All Looks Yellow to the Jaundiced Eye” by William Plunkett, “An Occasion of Sin” by John Montague, and “Diamonds at the Bottom of the Sea” by Desmond Hogan.

Michael McLaverty’s popular story, “The Poteen Maker” (Collected Short Stories of Michael McLaverty, 1978), is a relatively simple tale about a country school teacher. The central event, as recalled by a former student, deals with the teacher’s demonstrating the process of distillation. It is only years later that the narrator realizes that the teacher was making poteen, a kind of Irish moonshine. The story simply and economically presents a nostalgic reminiscence reflecting the Irish fondness for drink and the camaraderie a “wee drop” encourages. Bryan MacMahon’s “The Ring,” from The End of the World and Other Stories (1978) is a brief pastoral parable about an elderly Irish widow who, having lost her wedding ring while harvesting hay, doggedly spends an entire week searching for it. The narrator, the old woman’s grandson, who has always thought of her as “main hard,” is struck by the one time he saw her express emotion, crying “like the rain” when she finds the ring. Bernard McLaverty’s “Secrets,” from his 1977 collection of the same name, is a somewhat more complex story about a young man’s relationship with his maiden aunt. As a boy he read a batch of her love letters from a young soldier who later became a priest. Years later when he goes to visit her deathbed, he recalls her as his childhood teller of tales and weeps that she might forgive him.

Patrick Boyle’s story, “All Looks Yellow to the Jaundiced Eye,” from his 1971 collection of the same name, is an unsettling experimental story about a series of violent acts committed by a man who seemingly goes berserk for no apparent reason. The story explores the nature of unmotivated violence as presaged by an...

(The entire section is 931 words.)