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.