Review: Young Irelanders, Edited by Dave Lordan
Age-old themes are revisited in an anthology of short stories by new and established authors
Father of the form: Frank O’Connor in 1958. Photograph: CBS via Getty Images
edited by Dave Lordan
Another week, another short-story anthology. Or so it seems after a spate of collections from Irish publishers. Modern technology and social media can’t stop Ireland from being a nation of lonely voices – Frank O’Connor’s enduring description of the Irish affiliation with the short story. These days O’Connor’s name is attached to the world’s richest prize for a single collection, and last month the 90-strong longlist for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award was published, giving some indication of the health of the genre worldwide.
First to cash in on the loneliness this year was Brandon, O’Brien’s literary imprint, with Surge, an anthology showcasing creative-writing talent from Irish universities, published in late December. Liberties followed with Love on the Road, a mix of international voices writing on the highs and lows of romantic pursuits. In early spring Penguin Ireland published Andrew Fox’s debut collection, Over Our Heads; Stinging Fly Press made a welcome return with the launch of Claire-Louise Bennett’s experimental debut, Pond, and Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets is due in September. Transworld Ireland has a big release the same month, in Donal Ryan’s much-anticipated collection, A Slanting of the Sun.
But the prize for the loneliest publisher goes to New Island. It brought out the third Hennessy New Irish Writing anthology in March, introduces another collection of emerging voices with Young Irelanders this month, and will publish a new anthology of contemporary Irish woman writers in the autumn, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, whose title, The Long Gaze Back, comes, appropriately, from a Maeve Brennan story.
Young Irelanders, edited by the poet Dave Lordan, promises to “open your eyes and soul to a continually evolving Irish literary scene”. Following the Hennessy anthology, which achieved this with its 25 stories spanning a decade of Irish writing, Lordan’s collection is somewhat slight in comparison.
Comprising 12 stories in total, it is a curious mix of new and more established voices with certain stories that convince and others that are less engaging. In his introduction Lordan points out the “innumerable Irelands” represented down through the literary ages while maintaining that there are now “more talented writers, in short fiction especially”.
This current batch of Young Ireland revisit age-old themes – love, infidelity, bullying, self-harm, grief, death – using a variety of techniques and from a variety perspectives, from the modernist style of Claire-Louise Bennett’s impressive Oyster, whose narrative voice recalls the intelligent and eloquent presence evoked in her debut collection, to the short surreal tales of Cathy Sweeney’s Three Stories on a Theme. Little girls made of paper, wives enmeshed in webs, stories that take place “in the summer of the great heat when weeds grew totalitarian and trees oozed sap in an endless dream”.
The voice of the teenage narrator in Kevin Curran’s Saving Tanya, the opening story, is heavily crafted, with lots of “yeahs” and “likes” and “what is it” peppering the story, but a deflated ending works well to offset serious themes of bullying and suicide in the social-media age.
The instructive tone and second-person voice of Róisín O’Donnell’s How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps capture the plight of the young Brazilian woman who has chosen to forsake her homeland for love and now must learn Irish to get a job as a teacher, yet a switching in tense throughout the story draws attention to the author’s hand. Oisín Fagan’s Subject is an odd mix of a clinical character profile with fiercely subjective views and insights in long, punctuation-light passages that overflow with energy.
Elsewhere, Rob Doyle’s story Summer is an ambitious piece about infidelity that plays with form and invites multiple readings, not least for its great opening line: “Men don’t regret cheating actually, only the consequences.”
Mia Gallagher’s 17:57:39 - 20:59:03 is an extract from a forthcoming novel, and reads as such, but its “he-she” narrator’s handling of a lecherous taxi driver deftly conveys the lengths some people must go to be themselves: “Trans rule number one: never alienate.”
The author of Young Skins, Colin Barrett, is back with more convincing teenage anguish in Doon, vividly evoking the voice and world of 17-year-old Doon Minion, who cultivates a hard-man image among his crew while craving the familial bond that his cousin offers with regular haircuts.
Elsewhere: a priest and a feminist playing strip poker at a retreat; a student diet of sliced pan soaked in poteen; a grief-stricken mother who “sees that loss is a pit that becomes more cavernous and bottomless as the sides slope downwards”. It all amounts to a collection of stories that are unique in their subject matter, with flashes of those lonely voices emerging from the pages.