Young Irelanders | Review 0 BY ANNE O’NEILL ON JUN 25, 2015 LITERATURE, LITERATURE REVIEWS

Young Irelanders, the name of this new anthology of short stories, is well titled with its echoes of the 1848 rebellion in famine-ravaged Ireland. In this year, a group of romantic nationalists and intellectuals heavily influenced by events in France and the broader continent made a stab at liberty from the crown. This reference is obviously intentional by editor Dave Lordan, who, in this exciting anthology, gives voice to the writers of the New Ireland, whose influences and scope extend far beyond the old literary guard, who, according to Lordan, wrote in a ‘melancholy naturalist mode.’

The renaissance of the short story form in Ireland in recent years is due perhaps to the popularity of M.A. courses in creative writing, and the emergence of world-class journals both online and in print, including the likes of gorse, The Penny Dreadful and The Stinging Fly. These lit-mags have provided a nurturing home for many emerging fiction writers, and acted as launch pads for writers such as Kevin Barry, Rob Doyle and Colin Barrett.

Anne Enright in her introduction to the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2010) writes that short stories are ‘the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little self-contained.’ The cats in this anthology are a new breed of feline, screeching, feral and howling at times, as in Alan McMonagle’s outstanding story The Remarks; purring enigmatically à la Claire–Louise Bennett’s Oyster, and warring love cats in Rob Doyle’s experimental story Summer.

Young Irelanders, rob doyle, colin barrett, dave lordan, eimear ryan, short stories, new island - HeadStuff.org

This anthology, carefully curated by Dave Lordan, is a delight, all twelve stories written by true disciples of literary New Ireland. Sean Ó Faoláin famously said that the things he likes to find in a story are ‘punch and poetry.’ In this collection the punch flows like the poteen in McMonagle’s story, and the poetry is lush and poignant in the prose of Bennett and Roisín O’Donnell.

Ireland has undergone seismic changes over the past decade and these profound cultural changes in our society are reflected in the dazzling prose and imaginative prowess of these authors. This anthology is a literary exposition of the state of our nation, one no longer constrained by conservative Catholic reins.  This is a society embracing a new multiculture, struggling with the demands of the brave new world of social media, and reeling from the economic devastation of the past few years. This is the prose of recession not repression, an examination through the short story medium of what it means to be Irish now.

These structural changes in society are echoed by the innovative narrative framework of these stories, exemplified in the wonderful Doon by Colin Barrett and Subject by Oisín Fagan.  I read them all in one sitting and let the variety of styles and voices wash over me and leave me with a vague sense of a truth glimpsed or tenuously grasped.

While the ‘melancholy’ may not be of the naturalist mode, there are certainly tears. In Alan McMonagle’s story The Remarks, the trio of bachelor flatmates cry rivers and weep inconsolably when they accidentally try some poteen-soaked bread. The bringer of the poteen to the bachelor enclave is Mary P., who tells the boys that ‘tears are the ultimate form of communication’. Later, as the trio prepare to go their separate ways, their year of self-discovery over, they decide to cry together one more time using the poteen and bread formula. One of the boys wonders where they’ll be a year later and another foretells a year of success and glamour for them all, one as a renowned musician, another a fêted dramatist and one as a celebrity chef. The tears gushed from them all then ‘as if there was no tomorrow’, flowing with existential dread and the melancholia of futile dreams.

Roisín O Donnell’s story How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps is the story of a girl from São Paulo who moves to Ireland with her boyfriend Seán and has to learn Irish in order to use her qualification as a Primary School teacher. We witness the irony of Luana trying to learn Gaeilge in a country where everyone she asks to help her retorts that they wouldn’t have a notion about Irish.  Her boyfriend Seán only remembers the words for cake and sweets, cáca and milseán. Oisín Fagan’sSubject is ambitious in its exploration of what it means to be a young Irish man navigating the new millennium, “heterosexual, Caucasian, sub-bourgeois, Irish, post-peasant, empowered, lonely, distant when sober.”

This is an Ireland where there are no De Valera maidens dancing at the crossroads.  In the case of Tanya in Kevin Curran’s story, Saving Tanya, a woman who gets tagged on Facebook engaged in a sex act sanguinely declares herself to be a celebrity, because in the aftermath she received one thousand friend requests. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Oyster is a poetic, surreal bath of prose from which the reader emerges with a sense of disquiet and an insight into the feelings of someone who is ‘ineffable and freakish and remote’. This startling new voice in Irish fiction nods stylistically towards Beckett and the 1950’s nouveau roman led by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

These stories also explore what it means to be Irish in a world dominated by consumer giants like Aldi and Lidl; cyber-bullying; Twitter grotesques, and pornography. Even religious archetypes like parish priests appear playing strip poker at a writers’ retreat in Eimear Ryan’s witty and resonant Retreat.

This new wave of Irish writing in the short story tradition shows the form adjusting beautifully to modern Ireland, able to convey a sense of life and reality with stylistic aplomb. The Young Irelanders rebellion of 1848 may have ended in defeat, but this anthology, exhibited with great tenacity by Dave Lordan and New Island, shows that the order is changing. The crown has landed on new heads. If this is a revolution in Irish short fiction, then vive la révolution!

Short Stories are the new novel

IMG_0017In the week that Alice Munro won the nobel prize for literature it is very apt to discuss the short story, its subtle art and its recent renaissance. As a literary form it was the last to develop. Of all the literary forms I believe the short story to be one of the jewels in the crown. Storytelling in one form or other is hardwired into our human discourse, a way for us to shape the telling of our personal histories and to imagine possibilities ‘that would enchant, terrify, enthral, admonish, titillate’ and entertain. The informal oral tradition of storytelling only became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology coupled with the middle-class literacy in the 19th century gave rise to mass market general interest magazines and periodicals to service the new reading public’s desires and preferences. This new medium provided a forum for a piece of short fiction in the five to fifty page range and writers like Hawthorne, Poe and Turgenev rose to the challenge and began to write classic and timeless short stories virtually from the outset. The novel still held sway in mid 19th century Britain even after the influential story “ The Two Drovers” was published by Walter Scott in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827; a literary text that inspired George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in Britain, Balzac in France, Pushkin and Turgenev in Russia and Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne in America. In fact the true beginnings of the short story has been laid at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s door with his publication of Twice- Told Tales in 1837. When Edgar Allen Poe read Hawthorne he made the first real analysis of the form with his simple definition of the short story as a narrative that “can be read in one sitting.”
He also encapsulates the ability of short fiction to become more resonant and memorable than its length might dictate. A short story written
with care and skill” is like “a picture painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.
It is generally agreed by literary critics that Anton Chekov (1860-1904) is the greatest short story writer ever. William Boyd in his essay A Short History Of The Short Story states that the simple reason for this is that Chekhov, in his mature stories of the 1890’s “revolutionised the short story by revolutionising narrative.” This new form of short story introduced a fictional style that corresponded with the random, inexplicable and sometimes agonising lives we all lead- Chekhov abandoned the old authorial manipulation of a story for one not striving for a climax and with characters who speak for themselves without censure or praise. His cool, unflinching, dispassionate attitude to the human condition resounds in writers as diverse as William Trevor and Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, Muriel Spark and Alice Munro.

Some of my favourite short story writers include F.Scott Fitzgerald especially his collection ” Flappers and Philosophers ” and the works of Flannery O’Connor whose story A Good Man is Hard to Find is one of the finest in literary history. The beauty of Alice Munro’s prose is a joy for any reader and her often melancholy tales of small-town Canadian life demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best. . Kevin Barry is a new voice in Irish Fiction who writes dark, blackly hilarious and realistic narratives. His short story “Beer Trip to Llandudno won the Sunday Time’s award last year and having seen him give a very animated reading at a literary festival I began to read his work most notably the short story collections Dark Lies the Island and There are Little Kingdoms. Barry is able to breathe life into characters and make them engaging to the reader; amateur ale enthusiasts on a beer trip to Wales when portrayed by Barry become “sweet, funny and unexpectedly moving” – his account of a hotel owner’s experience in a remote part of Ireland where ” it rained two hundred and eighty seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings” is especially entertaining.

Short story collections are ideal to read when the reader wants to commit less time to the experience than that required when reading a large novel. The journey can be all the more entertaining despite its brevity and when vividly told the story allows readers to live momentarily but memorably beyond the confines of their own individual existence.