What’s the real story behind the success of the Irish short story?
Irish writers have excelled at the short story. But is it due, asks writer Jaki McCarrick, to our oral tradition, Catholicism’s drama, an acute sense of place, an accident of history or because writing is the last free art?
Jaki McCarrick: I consider that the Irish write about exactly the same things as non-Irish short story writers – human isolation, the deep, dark moments between people – but, the question remains, why do we do it so well?
Jaki McCarrick: Claire Keegan said that she considered the Irish to be “a covert people”, that the “talker” in Irish society is often thought of as “the fool” – and that the hidden stories, those to be kept quiet from the rest of the fold, find their outings in short fiction. I’m not entirely convinced
In the summer of 2014, I was a guest speaker at a talk for the inaugural London Short Story Festival, held at the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones. This three-day literary event was an expertly-run boutique festival, packed with workshops, readings and talks, all dedicated to various aspects of the art (and craft) of the short story. The talk had the somewhat provocative moniker, What is it about the Irish? and aimed to explore, and explain, the copiousness of the Irish short story. Sharing the panel with me were writers Claire Keegan, Colin Barrett and Mary Costello, none of whom I had met previously, with proceedings chaired by the event’s director, Paul McVeigh, himself a writer of short stories and a novel.
Prior to the talk, I had given this assertion-framed-as-a-question a lot of thought. I re-read Anne Enright’s feature on the same subject, which, as editor of the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, she had penned for the Guardian in November 2010. Enright makes some astute observations in this feature (I particularly like her point that in their self-containment short stories are “the cats of literary forms”) though the exact reasons as to why Irish writers, in particular, would seem to be so adept at the short story form ultimately elude her. (In fairness, the feature is more an account of Enright’s selection process for the Granta anthology.)
But then, are Irish writers really that good? Of the two most prestigious prizes offered annually to short story collections, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, since 2007 two Irish writers have won the Frank O’Connor award, Edna O’Brien with Saints and Sinners in 2011, and Colin Barrett with Young Skins in 2014, while Irish writers have scooped three Edge Hill Short Story Prizes in the past seven years: Colm Tóibín, Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry. While “world domination” might be overstating the matter somewhat, clearly, when it comes to the short story, the claim that Irish writers rank as (being among) the best in the world is a claim with solid foundation.
During the discussion, I suggested that perhaps the roots of this national precociousness lie in the fact that Ireland has a much-celebrated oral tradition. But of course, many cultures have this. And while we have a “founding” legend in The Táin, composed as it is of tragedies, histories and heroic tales, again, so too do other cultures (The Mabinogion, Beowulf, The Bhagavad-Gita etc). And besides, who of us in Ireland have actually been raised on stories from The Táin? (Enough for the tales to have entered our bloodstream and become a source for short story writing?) I would say not many. The bedtime stories read to me as a child were by Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. I knew the name Rumpelstiltskin long before I’d heard of Cú Chulainn.
In retrospect, I might also have suggested the Catholic upbringing of those of us who grew up in the Republic. Lorca often cited the Mass as the root of his dramas, with its delineated acts (climaxing in transubstantiation), in which everyone shakes hands and goes home at the end. That’s pretty much the shape of a lot of short stories, too. Joyce saw his own writing as Mass-like, and once asked his brother Stanilaus:
“Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying in my [poems] to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of daily life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own…for their mental, moral, and spiritual uplift.”
Nonetheless, there are lots of largely Catholic populations/countries, and they don’t all produce great short story writers. So perhaps the drama of the Mass is not the culprit either.
Claire Keegan had many fascinating things to say about the short story and Irish writers. She said that she considered the Irish to be “a covert people”, that the “talker” in Irish society is often thought of as “the fool” – and that the hidden stories, those to be kept quiet from the rest of the fold, find their outings in short fiction. I’ve thought a lot about this in the months since the festival, and I’m not entirely convinced. Such stereotypes as “the fool” and his/her opposite, “the cute whoor”, are known to all of us who live in Ireland – but such characters exists in many cultures (the cute whoor appears frequently in Dickens’ novels – as his/her English counterpart: the sly and wily cockney). I honestly don’t think you can generalise about an entire populace (though we do this all the time in Ireland; summing up our countrymen/women is a national pastime – but God help anyone else who does it). And speaking personally, I am closer to having Tourette’s syndrome than being particularly covert (“whatever you say say nothing” etc).
But presuming this master of the short story form is dead right about us Irish, and we are a covert people, and the roots of the story are, as Keegan states, in “a reluctance to reveal” – are the Irish really any shadier in character than anyone else? I doubt it. David Foster Wallace said “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being”, while Frank O’Connor said that “there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we don’t often find in the novel, an intense awareness of human loneliness”. I consider that the Irish write about exactly the same things as non-Irish short story writers – human isolation, the deep, dark moments between people – but, the question remains, why do we do it so well?
Perhaps there is a flaw in the question, in the premise itself. I think so. A little. Yes. For the question contains in it an element of astonishment. As if the Irish should be surprised at their own success. The UK and US have produced their fair share of great short story writers (when I list my own favourites it is Americans who top the list) but I bet neither US nor UK writers wonder at all about their evident skill. Still, Ireland has an indisputably strong record for a small (divided) island (in which the people in the South of the island do not always have a great awareness of the literary doings of the people in the North of the island and vice-versa) on the edge of Europe.
Could the answer be less to do with supposed national characteristics and more to do with geography and history? For various reasons (mainly consistent economic disaster), over the past few hundred years there has been much human traffic out of the country to the countries that flank our own – the UK, Europe (France mostly), and to the US, Canada, Australia – hence the canvas for a writer from Ireland is much broader than it might be without emigration.
Most Irish writers I know love American writing, they reference US writers as “influences” all the time. Irish writers just have some kind of weird spiritual connection to the US. I am no different. I read far more American short stories than Irish ones (Flannery O’Connor, Carver, Ernest Hemingway, William Gay, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Poe, Lorrie Moore). In fact, the Ulster Gothic “category” that my own stories have occasionally been placed in by readers or critics probably owes more to the Gothic stories of the American South that I’ve read over the years than to Irish fiction – yet I am still intrinsically an Irish writer. So, perhaps it is a case that the Irish short story is, especially now, when the populace is on the march again, engaging at a very deep level not just with itself but (as emigration has returned with a vengeance) with the American short story, the British short story and perhaps, more recently, with Canadian and Australian short stories, too.
While Ireland produces fantastic short story writers it also produces world-class novelists, playwrights, poets. And I think this is largely because writing is the last free art. Whereas England is chock-full of expensive drama schools, music (opera, classical, musical theatre) schools, art schools, dance (contemporary, classical, jazz) schools, Ireland is not. And while the number of degree programmes in music, dance, film and drama are, thankfully, increasing (and Irish film is in a particularly robust state at the moment) – “writing” mops up much of the creative energy in Ireland because it is, well, free.
Anyone can pick up a pen and write. You don’t need to be trained to do it. You can teach yourself. (And writers in the UK also have the lure of writing for TV and radio, which is not as great a draw in Ireland due to the comparatively small size of the Irish TV industry.) And add into the mix the fact that there is an awful lot to write about in Ireland. Especially since the collapse of the economy in 2008. In her Guardian feature, Anne Enright discusses why contemporary Irish short story writers do not have the concerns of the likes of O’Faolain and O’Connor, stating that:
“Of course, things are different in the 21st century, now that poverty has been banished (or was, for a whole decade) and the success of our writers is officially a matter of national pride.”
The feature was written before the disclosure of many of the Church abuse scandals, the high-profile symphysiotomy law suits, the Savita Halappanavar tragedy, the Tuam babies revelations, the Waterford foster home revelations – and before it became blatantly clear that Ireland’s guaranteeing of bondholders after the collapse of the Lehmans’ bank (and the ensuing deal with the IMF/ECB) would plunge the country into an economic abyss. So really, things are not that different in the 21st century for contemporary Irish short story writers. Except that now the canvas is very wide – and is black as coal.
Another reason that might explain the success of the Irish short story is this: we are a small, tribal country and we all pretty much know each other’s business and so, as writers (in Ireland), we can offer our stories detail and a sense of truth that, perhaps, those living in much larger communities are less in a position to offer. Sam Shepard hails from a village in the US of less than 500 people and much of his writing is about the people he knew there. Place plays an important role. Just as in Irish poetry – where Kavanagh has Inniskeen, Heaney has Anahorish, Michael Longley has Carrigskeewaun – John McGahern endlessly references the flora and fauna of Leitrim, Eugene McCabe features the Monaghan lakes and boglands, Joyce charts the topography of Dublin. Authentic detail is very necessary for story writing; you can’t be general in a story, you have to be specific.
An audience member during the LSSF talk wondered why the Irish stories he’d heard on the radio of late were all so dark. I think he was Irish himself and had lived in London a long time and felt that the stories he had listened to possessed “no light” and failed to reflect the Ireland of his memory. Perhaps he was also trying to say, in his own way, that these stories were selected by radio producers with an agenda: to make Ireland look bad etc (for whatever reason). Needless to say, his question – and assertion – caused a bit of a stir. But the truth is that contemporary Irish stories (especially those written in the post-Lehmans, post-Lenihan era) are dark because right now Ireland is, despite rumours of “recovery”, still in a pretty dark place (pick up a newspaper). This darkness is inevitably going to permeate (in some way) the art produced here – and contemporary Irish short story writers are, it would seem, channeling the pain. It might be argued that we are doing exactly what Peadar O’Donnell, Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain told their contributors to do when they edited The Bell in the 1940s, which was (like the ethos of Faber’s Geoffrey Grigson) to encourage work that reflected the true socio-economic picture of a then resurgent Ireland. They told writers to give them – if not exactly full-on romans à clef – then stories about:
“…the throbbing engines of the Shannon scheme – or the Beet factories. This may be unpleasant; depressing; suggestive of a phase that other countries are sick of. There it is. We have to accept it…(the images) are significant because they are true to life. “
As an Irish writer, I feel that I cannot ignore the recession and its effects for the simple reason that the recession is not ignoring me.
Finally, the question-as-title of the talk at Waterstone’s (What is it about the Irish?) suggests a lot more than it asks. For there is, I consider, a veritable explosion in new Irish writing. Emerging and newly established authors are producing stories, collections, debut novels at a phenomenal rate. Something is going on. And Paul McVeigh at the LSSF has picked up on this. When I began to write plays in 2002, I saw the same explosion in new playwriting then as I am witnessing in short-fiction writing in Ireland now. The likes of Kevin Barry, Colum McCann, Desmond Hogan, Claire Keegan are now established masters of the short story form. Before them were writers such as Eugene McCabe, Colm Tóibín, Edna O’Brien – all of whom are still producing stunning work. But there are new kids on the block: Alan McMonagle, Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle, Órfhlaith Foyle, Mary Costello, Madeleine D’Arcy, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Bernie McGill, Paul McVeigh, Billy O’Callaghan – the list is long and I am only naming people here whose work I have read or have heard good things about. There are many others. Perhaps “world domination” of the Irish in the short story form might not be an overstatement after all.
Jaki McCarrick’s play Leopoldville won the 2010 Papatango Award for New Writing, and her most recent play, Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. Jaki’s critically acclaimed story collection, The Scattering (Seren Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. She is currently editing her first novel.
An earlier version of this feature appeared on the Easons blog in 2014.