In October 1940 the first issue of a new monthly magazine, The Bell, rolled off the printing presses in Dublin. With an image of a bell and an Irish harp on the frontispiece, The Bell announced itself as “A Survey of Irish life”. The table of contents of that first issue proudly displayed many of Ireland’s most prominent authors at the time: Flann O’Brien, Lennox Robinson, Elizabeth Bowen, Patrick Kavanagh, Peadar O’Donnell, Frank O’Connor and the editor, Sean O’Faolain.
In his first editorial, “This is your magazine”, O’Faolain explains the magazine’s title as the choice for a “spare and hard and simple word”, “with a minimum of associations”, which reflects the magazine’s ambition to clear away the romantic myths of the past and to focus instead on representing the present and shaping the future of the new Irish Republic. With its focus on the new, The Bell followed in the footsteps of other modern Irish magazines with similarly bold titles such as Klaxon and Ireland Today, as well as the British wartime periodical Horizon, edited by Cyril Connolly, and the Russian-French Kolokol, from which it borrowed its resounding name.
Spinning out the connotations of the title, O’Faolain envisions The Bell spreading its modernising message across Ireland as “a linking, widening circle of notes, a very peal of bells, murmuring all over the land”. What is needed to achieve this, O’Faolain argues, is first and foremost a new writing, which bravely and accurately registers the “Truth” of Irish life. Hence, he calls on his readers to “write about your gateway, your well-field, your street-corner, your girl, your boat-slip, pubs, books, pictures, dogs, horses, river, tractor, anything at all that has a hold on you” and promises in turn that The Bell will “go out nosing for bits of individual veracity, hidden in the dust-heaps of convention, imitation, timidity, traditionalism, wishful thinking”.
[ ‘Mirror of a changing Ireland’: The Bell’s view on The Irish Times in 1945 ]
Over the first Emergency years of the magazine’s run, many readers and aspiring writers heeded O’Faolain’s call, submitting sketches, stories and testimonies of Irish life. They were complemented by stories and essays from more established writers, recruited through the extensive literary networks of O’Faolain and his assistant editors, Frank O’Connor, Peadar O’Donnell, Hubert Butler and Geoffrey Taylor.
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Although The Bell was a miscellany magazine that featured poetry, reviews, journalism, opinion pieces, autobiography, advertising, and readers’ letters, a considerable part of every issue was devoted to short stories. These ranged from memorable anecdotes and humorous sketches to O’Faolain’s complex psychological stories and from O’Connor’s Cork stories and Bryan MacMahon’s Listowel tales to James Plunkett’s grim depictions of Dublin’s slums.
The prominence of the short story within the magazine was further underscored by O’Faolain’s attempts to educate fledgling writers about the characteristics of the short story as a modern form, quite distinct from 19th-century tales and from the oral storytelling tradition. For O’Faolain, the modern short story was the genre best suited to provide Ireland with a literature that befitted a modern, independent nation: as a realist genre, the short story could offer illuminating snapshots of Irish contemporary life in all its variegated complexity, while its modernist characteristics of unity, compression and suggestion could lend these snapshots a wider symbolic resonance as well as an essential psychological depth.
Contrary to his generous gesture of welcome in the opening editorial, however, O’Faolain quickly felt the need for more guidance to the new writing The Bell sought to publish. In spite of O’Faolain’s clarion call for the new, many of the stories published in the early volumes of The Bell were backward looking. They told stories of the past, reminisced about a lost childhood and revisited rural homesteads, while also using the patterns, plots and conventions of the older tale tradition.
[ The Selected Essays of Sean O’Faolain review: He gave as good as he got ]
In increasingly exasperated editorials, O’Faolain urged writers to turn their attention to Dublin where “a native government, a corps diplomatique, a Church of unbounded influence and occasional panoply, a growing middle-class full of energy, a raw, new industrialism” were begging to be depicted. In the New Writers series, launched in the February 1941 issue, O’Faolain also conducted mini-creative writing classes by discussing the merits and failures of selected stories by aspiring writers. And in his Craft of the Short Story series from 1944, he instructed readers in the art of the modern short story, drawing on examples from the Russian masters, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol, as well as Irish writers Frank O’Connor and Elizabeth Bowen.
O’Faolain’s fervent didactic crusade must have taken its toll, for in April 1946 an exhausted O’Faolain resigned as editor, passing on the baton to Peadar O’Donnell, who had already been managing the financial side of the magazine. O’Donnell, a less overbearing editor by most accounts, steered the magazine through financial difficulties and a two-year publication gap until its final demise in 1954.
Throughout the 14 years of its existence, The Bell was the most influential and significant of Irish literary magazines
O’Faolain, in his final editorial, looks back rather despondently on the magazine’s initial hopes of sounding in the new Ireland, noting wryly “our task has been less that of cultivating our garden than clearing away the brambles”. He concludes: “this magazine did seriously intend, eleven volumes back, to be a magazine of creative fiction. We found that wishful thinking.”
With the benefit of hindsight, this judgment can definitely be considered too harsh. Throughout the 14 years of its existence, The Bell was the most influential and significant of Irish literary magazines. In a difficult time of international war and national isolation, The Bell offered a creative space to Irish writers and introduced readers to current writing and new literary developments.
Most of the famous literary authors of the time published in its pages – the likes of Kate O’Brien, Brinsley MacNamara, Michael McLaverty, Louis MacNeice, Maura Laverty, Elizabeth Bowen and Liam O’Flaherty – but O’Faolain and O’Donnell also fostered the careers of new writers such as Brendan Behan, James Plunkett, Val Mulkerns, Mary Beckett, Benedict Kiely and David Marcus. Because of its specific attention to the short story, moreover, The Bell contributed in important ways to the genre’s flourishing in mid-20th-century Ireland and to its consolidation as a significant “national” form.
Even though O’Faolain may have been disappointed by the immediate results of his short story campaign, in the longer term his examples and teachings did serve to educate both readers and writers about the conventions of the short story as a modern genre, one that could shed light on contemporary life in a manner that is as condensed and economical as it is perceptive and profound. Moreover, in foregrounding the short story as the preferred literary form, The Bell also paved the way for later literary magazines, such as Irish Writing, edited by David Marcus, and of course The Stinging Fly, which have been similarly instrumental in promoting the tradition of the short story in Ireland.
In fact, a comparison between The Bell and The Stinging Fly readily reveals how far the Irish short story has travelled since The Bell’s efforts to foster and shape the short story as a modern, realist and quintessentially Irish form. The absence of didactic and normative statements in The Stinging Fly, first, is a sure sign of the more secure status of the short story as an established and recognisable form in contemporary literature. This also allows the magazine to be much more open and flexible in the stories it publishes.
While The Bell tended to exclude stories that veered away from the realist mode and Irish focus towards the parodic, playful, experimental, popular or fantastic, The Stinging Fly publishes a great variety of stories, in terms of style, tone, setting and tradition. In a similar way, The Stinging Fly’s openness to international writing bespeaks the greater self-confidence of Ireland and Irish literature than was the case in O’Faolain’s time, while the diversity of authors published in The Stinging Fly also provides a decided improvement on the rather lopsided one-to-seven ratio of female authors in The Bell.
[ Envoy, the literary magazine that sought to put Irish culture on the map ]
In selecting stories for The Writer’s Torch, we have sought to apply these principles of greater openness and diversity as well: famous mid-century authors are included next to those who have been all but forgotten; the ratio of women writers has been raised in light of the exceptional quality of their work in The Bell; and although The Bell published far more writing from the Republic, Northern Irish writing is here represented with stories by Mary Beckett, Michael McLaverty, John Hewitt and Benedict Kiely. With all of these writers we have given preference to stories that are not often anthologised, but deserve to be rediscovered and re-read. In this anthology, moreover, contemporary authors have taken up the challenge of re-reading the stories and responding to the ideas, forms and questions they contain.
The importance of this practice of re-reading was asserted by O’Donnell in an editorial that has provided the name for this book, Under the Writer’s Torch. Writing in September 1946, at the end of his first six months as editor, O’Donnell notes that in tumultuous times writers often turn back to the past, looking for guidance and inspiration. “In order to free themselves from a temporary bewilderment, in the rapidly changing scene,” he writes, “writers should turn for a refresher study to well-lit moments in our cultural past.” Reculer pour mieux sauter, as the French would say. At the same time, O’Donnell also urges his fellow writers to “draw confidence from the fact that they have an enlightened appreciation of the past to guide them forward to where the people fight and hope”.
This book takes you on a tour of mid-century Irish writing, seen through the prism of the present
O’Donnell’s image of the writer’s torch carries here a threefold meaning. Like O’Faolain, he invites writers to train a spotlight on contemporary Irish reality, to truthfully depict its manifold realities, while also highlighting problems and social wrongs. As a more socially engaged writer than O’Faolain, further, O’Donnell also wants writers to be torchbearers, to lead the way towards a more just society. Still, as we have seen, offering guidance for the future also entails drawing inspiration and courage from the past, from re-reading and reflecting under the writing lamp.
In these equally tumultuous times of war, refugee crises and global warming, this book holds out the promise of such re-reading and reflection. It takes you on a tour of mid-century Irish writing, seen through the prism of the present. In brief personal reflections, the contemporary authors we have invited for this collection enter into dialogue with their predecessors through the short stories of The Bell. These authors offer enlightening exercises in reading, as they register the powerful resonances between the scenes and characters of the stories and the world of today.
This is an edited extract from the introduction to The Writer’s Torch – Reading Stories from The Bell, edited by Phyllis Boumans, Elke D’hoker and Declan Meade