The Irish short story

When I was in my final year at school in Germany a long, long time ago, our English teacher took us on a journey through the Irish short story. His personal view was that only the Americans and the Irish knew how to write a short story, and moreover he believed that only the short story could claim to be a true literary device; novels, he felt, were for lazy writers who could not express their ideas succinctly. Having already previously spent many of my formative years in Ireland, this was a cultural paradise for me.

And now, more recently, I was transported back to this wonderful age. For the past two or three years, my wife (Heather Ingman) has been working on the definitive history of the Irish short story. The book, which is being published by Cambridge University Press, will I believe appeal to all those with an interest in Irish culture and literature; I guess I’m biased.

But reading her book has prompted a question for me. What has happened to all those canonical Irish short story writers of  the mid twentieth century? Frank O’Connor is still in print, but as Julia O’Faolain highlighted in an interview in the Irish Times on June 6, most of Sean O’Faolain‘s short stories are currently out of print and the same goes for those of Mary Lavin. This is astounding, given that, as Heather’s History of the Irish Short Story also shows, Ireland has always been seen as the home of the short story form and that both these writers had their greatest literary successes in that form. The short stories of Lavin and O’Faolain are regularly taught in the universities, but there must surely be a wider market for their work. Lavin’s work gives a faithful rendering of Irish domestic life in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Sean O’Faolain’s influence on the literary and cultural life of the nation, through his editorship of The Bell (1940-46) among other things, was enormous. His stories too chart a changing Ireland from his stories of fighting during the civil war, through the stagnation and disillusionments of post-revolutionary Ireland, to the gradual encroachment of modern life and loosening of the old pieties  in a masterpiece like ‘Lovers of the Lake’.

It is time for the Irish short story to be restored to its place in published literature, and for these great writers to be recognised again in this way.

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16 Comments on “The Irish short story”

  1. Iain Says:

    I wonder if these stories and other out of print works could be made available electronically and via a print on demand service (such as, whereby you could simply order a printed collection from amazon, etc. Technically no problem, just organisation, copyright etc to sort out, but it would mean less risk for publishers in terms of doing a full scale print run, etc.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Your English teacher was of course correct. Then I would say that. But the Irish have a bit of an advantage and regardless of the whining about learning the first language it gives us this ability to hear the difference between spade/shovel and axe/hatchet. We Irish would never – except D4 types- use spade unless scalpel was closer to the meaning we were getting at. And Axe, as in Axeman, quick dispatch for blood English. Again scalpel could be used. But hatchet, which is the same thing as an axe. Well, we hear the difference.
    This allows a shorthand when filling in the emotion of the short story. Innocent hatchet, has that, Ah, its only a question of time then it will kill. But innocent Axe, might stay that way.

  3. Aidan Says:

    Ireland does indeed have a rich tradition of short story writing. I read the work of the writers you mention at school but I would not be particularly interested in reading more of their work. I enjoy short stories but I prefer reading work of our time (e.g. the collections “Valentines” by Olaf Olafsson or “Mothers and Sons” by Colm Tóibín). Of course one might enjoy reading work from the last century but I don’t think that the short story writers of that time were inherently better than those writing today. Short story collections generally sell far less units than novels so the market as a whole is much smaller.
    What might be an idea is to change the medium. Short stories are far more suited to web publication given their length so a website devoted to the Irish short story might have more success in creating interest than republishing work that has gone out of print.

    Vincent – “regardless of the whining about learning the first language”
    What do you mean by this? Do you think that Irish people have an advantage because of the way we speak English?

    • Aidan, I was not of course suggesting that we should not read modern Irish short stories – I don’t see this as an either/or. Colm Tóibín is well published, Mary Lavin is not. We need to access the literature of every generation, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to read it.

      On the whole I don’t believe that the web is a substitute for more traditional publishing of literature. People use the internet for gaining access to all sorts of things, but mainly for the purposes of information gathering. I have yet to come across someone who will turn to the web in order to read literature. As readers of my blog will know, ebook readers may provide a solution, but the availability of books for that medium still requires them to be published.

      • Aidan Says:

        It’s not either/or but most of us have limited reading time so we have choice how to spend this time effectively. I choose actively to read modern work, it’s the same as listening to The Beatles rather than spending time listening to new artists.
        I don’t agree with you about the web being unsuitable for literature. For forms like poetry and short stories the web is fantastic. On my own blog I always draw attention to poems I have come across and I know that many people have read them because of comments I have gotten. On short stories I remember posting this list of links to short stories on the web by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie because she has only published two novels and this way anybody interested could follow the links and just print out the stories. Short stories are normally compact enough to be printable so the issue of e-readers is not as relevant as with novels.

      • Wendymr Says:

        I have yet to come across someone who will turn to the web in order to read literature.

        *shrug* I and several people I know have used Project Gutenburg to download and read classics and out-of-print novels…

        • So, Wendy, would you take your laptop to bed and read a novel on it before going to sleep?

          • Wendymr Says:

            Don’t have a laptop, actually; I has a netbook. But no, of course not – and nor would I a Kindle. But it depends when and where I want to read as to how I would read.

    • Vincent Says:


      Messe [ocus] Pangur bán,
      cechtar nathar fria saindán;
      bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
      mu menma céin im saincheirdd

      Caraim-se fós, ferr cach clú,
      oc mu lebrán léir ingnu;
      ní foirmtech frimm Pangur bán,
      caraid cesin a maccdán.

      Ó ru-biam ­ scél cén scis ­
      innar tegdias ar n-oéndis,
      táithiunn ­ dichríchide clius ­
      ní fris ‘tarddam ar n-áthius.

      Gnáth-huaraib ar greassaib gal
      glenaid luch ina lín-sam;
      os me, du-fuit im lín chéin
      dliged ndoraid cu n-dronchéill.

      Fúachaid-sem fri freaga fál
      a rosc a nglése comlán;
      fúachimm chéin fri fégi fis
      mu rosc réil, cesu imdis.

      Fáelid-sem cu n-déne dul,
      hi nglen luch ina gérchrub;
      hi-tucu cheist n-doraid n-dil,
      os mé chene am fáelid.

      Cia beimini amin nach ré
      ní derban cách a chéle;
      mait le cechtar nár a dán
      subaigthiud a óenurán.

      Hé fesin as choimsid dáu
      in muid du-n-gní cach óenláu;
      do thabairt doraid du glé
      for mumud céin am messe.

      An example of a first language. Try saying it out loud.

      Frank o’Connor has a translation of it, as does R Flowers. I cannot be bothered finding a website for you, but google is good.

      • Aidan Says:

        @Vincent – I know what the first language of Ireland is and I speak it well enough. I was asking what you meant about the “whining about learning the first language” because I wasn’t sure if you though that learning the native language was good or bad. Personally, I don’t take any pride in the way Irish people speak English as I don’t regard English as ‘my’ language even though it is my mother tongue. Some Irish people take pride in Hiberno-English and even get very nationalistic about Irish accents. The same people make no effort to use the Irish they spent 13 or 14 years learning at school and don’t see any irony.

  4. Vincent Says:

    @Aidan – My point about Irish being a first language comes from its structure not its politics. This structure gives us a fairly unique ability to view other languages as plastic not legalistic.
    ‘The same people make no effort to use the Irish they spent 13 or 14 years learning at school….’ Yes, all to true. But when it comes down to it, the form of it is in the head and it arrives out in a turn of phrase, a sentence break or contradictory adjectives. And those who in their families- amounting to about 50% of the Irish population- who never used Irish for anything more than telling the servants what to do, have it also, because of the 13/14 years of whining.

    This phenomenon was noted in Classical Rome with their delight in the writings of the many who came from the provinces rather that the more formal exact delivery of the Capital.

  5. Aidan Says:

    Thank for the clarification. Of course the Irish language has had an influence on the way Irish people speak English but I wouldn’t over-emphasize the influence or the advantages that brings. Brussels French has lots of syntactic elements drawn from Dutch, that doesn’t mean that French speakers there have a hidden weapon not available to their French counterparts who in turn come from regions where French usurped the local language.
    For me Irish people should learn and use Irish because it the language is the best tool to preserve and enrich a separate national identity and not be just another English speaking country. Being multilingual is the norm in most of the world but yet many Irish people seem worried that speaking their own language will undermine their ability to speak English. My children (4& 5) speak three languages and I haven’t noticed any issues with them yet. It helps living in a country where only being able to speak one language is something to be ashamed about.

    • Vincent Says:

      My point has more to do with the influence of Latin on European literature. How its study coloured the future writings of those who studied it. And were largely unaware of its influence.
      Irish does exactly the same thing because its very age allows a seamless marriage.
      And I did say ‘a bit’ of advantage.

      On the Brussels reference, my friends in Flanders would say yes they speak Dutch in Brussels, but they certainly do not. And you would get a cold eye if you insisted that they do.

  6. Aidan Says:

    Thanks for clarifying again, you should start your own blog!
    As for Dutch in Brussels, the official languages of Belgium are French, Dutch (Nederlands not Vlaams) and German. Most Flemish speak both a dialect and standard Dutch. Flemish television news is in the same Dutch as the news in Holland. The Nederlandse Tallunie agrees the rules of standard Dutch. If I watch a program set in say Gent and they speak dialect I cannot understand a word but nor can I understand Dutch dialects like Limburgs or Twents because they are too far away from Dutch.
    Anyway the French dialects of Brussels have syntactic elements drawn from Dutch because Brussels is a French speaking city in a sea of Dutch. Languages in contact almost always have an effect on each other which is why Hiberno-English developed with many Irish language influences on the syntax and vocabulary.

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  8. JK Fowler Says:

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