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Thread: A Celebration of Irish Short Fiction

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    A Celebration of Irish Short Fiction

    A Celebration of Irish Short Fiction
    Five Fine Irish Short Stories

    (Note: all five of these stories appear in Great Irish Short Stories, edited by Evan Bates, Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 2004. Some of these and others in the public domain may also be available online.)

    Among the cultural riches which the Emerald Isle has bestowed upon civilization, Irish contributions to literature are pure gold. The distinguished roster of Nobel laureates lists three native sons of Ireland– Yeats, Beckett, and Heaney–as well as Bernard Shaw, who was born on Irish soil. Eugene O’Neill, who won the prize in 1936, was Irish-American.

    Inexplicably absent from the list is arguably the greatest fiction author of the twentieth century –also Irish. Though he was, like Samuel Beckett, an expatriate, James Joyce created stories, characters, and settings firmly rooted in the auld sod. But within that fertile Irish ground are scrupulously grafted scions of history, classical myth and Christianity. Additionally, Joyce transplanted European literary sources, successfully adapting , for example, the “stream-of-consciousness” device he had discovered in a 1888 French novel by Edouard Dujardin. With the earth-shaking publication of Ulysses in 1922, James Joyce forever changed the form and content of the novel, consequently transforming the literary conventions and ideas of the past into a literary sensibility more closely mirroring the fractured mind of modern man, in all of his sensitivity, disillusionment, and ironic incongruity. Integral to this achievement, culminating in his last work, Finnegans Wake, was Joyce’s unique invention with language, such as multi-lingual wordplay from which he produced a bountiful harvest of semantic, lyrical, and musical crops.

    Joyce had already redefined and reinvented the art of the short story with his 1914 collection Dubliners, which contains “The Dead,” one the finest short stories ever written. In addition to themes and subjects closely identified with ordinary Irish folk, these works of short fiction liberated the act of fiction to such an influential degree that his structure and style serve as literary models to this day.

    Joyce’s golden reputation has a tendency to outshine the works of other Irish writers who therefore may not be as widely known. The following is a brief look at a quintet of remarkable stories by Irish authors. Four of the authors’ names might be unfamiliar to some readers, while one of them will be instantly recognized, though not often mentioned in the context of the short story.

    Published in 1902, “The Only Son of Aoife,” by Lady Gregory (1852-1932) is a retelling of an ancient Celtic myth. The story begins with the great hero Cuchulain having left Aoife, the queen of Alban whom he had defeated in battle, pregnant with his child. He also leaves her with a golden ring as a way for the child, Conchubar, to identify himself at such time when he would, once grown, reunite with his father. Upon learning that Cuchulain has resumed his life in Ireland by marrying another woman, Aoife plots revenge. The relatively fast-paced narrative shows the harrowing result of her revenge as dramatically as a Greek tragedy; indeed, the short story can also be seen as a small-scale epic. Cuchulain’s lamentations after the climax of the story sound almost biblical. Yet Lady Gregory’s mastery of her subject allows for emotional resonance among modern-day readers.

    Lady Gregory worked diligently to create a tradition of Irish drama, such as establishing the Abbey Theatre, but she is best known her professional association with William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) whose plays were among her productions. In many ways, Yeats is as a significant figure in modern poetry as Joyce is in fiction. When we hear his name we think of his great poems, such as “Leda and the Swan” or “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” or “The Second Company”–and, perhaps as an afterthought, The Celtic Twilight, his slim little nonfiction volume about Irish folk and their local legends. We don’t immediately think of him as a writer of short stories. In “The Tables of the Law” (1897), there isn’t much of a plot; instead, the two-part story primarily consists of a lengthy conversation and a revisit occurring a decade later between the first-person narrator and a religious scholar, Owen Aherne. (Both Aherne and “Michael Robardes”, twice mentioned in the story are recurrent figures in Yeats’s work; both are the actual names of Yeats’s acquaintances, but the characters themselves are entirely fictional, thought to be spokesmen for the poet himself.) Much has been written about Yeats’s fascination with myth, mysticism, and the occult, as well as his own system of philosophy, an intricate labyrinth of symbols and allegory based on 28 phases of the moon. Allusions to many of those influences in Yeats’s vision can be found in this story, and for that alone, this work is worthwhile. But it has interest as a short story in its own right. A jaundiced view of orthodoxy and theological doubt percolate up in an unconventional but dynamic way, catching a reader off-guard, evoking a reaction similar to that of reading “The Grand Inquistor” for the first time.

    When the narrator asks his friend why he has decided not to take his final vows as a priest. Aherne takes him on a tour of his private chapel, housing glorious works of religious art, and the most precious of all, an illuminated manuscript by the twelfth century prophet, Joachim of Flora. The teachings of this Joachim of Flora –part mystic, part heretic–have rendered Aherne obsessed with the idea that there are two strands of religious doctrine, the orthodox and the “hidden.” The reader will have no trouble guessing which way Aherne has chosen to follow, but just the same , the last paragraph of this story may come as a shock, as chilling in its way as that of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.

    The Irish and to a lesser extent, Irish-Americans, have been the target of stereotypical jokes, namely the typical Irishman as a home-loving, confirmed bachelor or, if he does relent by settling down to marriage, he does so extremely reluctantly. James Stephens (1882-1950) best-known for his endearing novel, The Crock of Gold, shows the more mordant aspect of his wit in his 1913 satirical story, “The Blind Man.” In this story Stephens’s character has a particular kind of misogyny, a certain kind of “blindness,” which causes him to see women only through a distorted filter:
    He was not sexually deficient, and he did not dislike women; he simply ignored them, and was only really at home with men. All the crudities which we enumerate as masculine delighted him–simple things, for, in the gender of abstract ideas, vice is feminine, brutality is masculine, the female being older, vastly older than the male, much more competent in every way, stronger, even in her physique, than he, and having little baggage of mental or ethical preoccupations to delay her progress, she is still the guardian of evolution, requiring little more from a man than to be stroked and petted for a while.
    The last observation about the female role of evolution –a surprising mention, given the relatively early publication date of the story–is a Shavian reference. The difference lies in the fact that Shaw (in Major Barbara and notably in the first act of Man and Superman) has an idealized, if not glorified, idea of the Female, whereas Stephens uses a disagreeable male in order to send up misogyny. The character’s animosity deepens when his mother, with whom he had never gotten along, wills the family farm to his younger brother, leaving the disinherited son with no other choice: “He married a farm of about ten acres, and the sun begun to shine on him once more, but only for a few days.” But soon it dawns on him that
    he had not married a farm at all. He had married a woman–a thin-jawed, elderly slattern, whose sole beauty was her farm. How her jaws worked! . . .those jaws were never quiet, and in spite of all he did not say anything. There was not anything to say, but much to do from which he shivered away in terror.
    To add to his misery, the wife’s mother and two sisters also cohabited with them, all “talking, talking, talking,”–-“And everywhere those flopping, wriggling petticoats were appearing and disappearing.” Stephens wraps up his story with the miserable husband constantly escaping to a pub where he drinks “to get drunk” and finishes with an ominous prediction for the man’s eventual fate. Despite the unpleasant descriptions of the females, they are not the villainesses; Stephens assigns the darkly comic role to the main character himself, with a blindness that is incurable because it is thoroughly willful.

    The ironic, detached tone of Stephens’s story is a characteristic of “modern” writing, but the most modern story in this quintet is a 1903 work,“Home Sickness” by George Moore (1852-1933.) The brief opening scene is set in New York City’s Bowery, where the protagonist, James Bryden, works in a bar-room. Bryden has been suffering with ill health, so on the advice of his doctor, he travels back to Cork, the homeland which he had left thirteen years previously. Although the voyage itself is therapeutic, he’s disappointed to see that the bucolic village of his memory is in reality run-down and blighted. The impoverished tenant farmers indebted to a skinflint landlord in the “Big House” nonetheless generously accommodate the visitor, for whom “a few weeks of country air and food, they said, would give him back the health he had lost in the Bowery.” All Bryden wants, however, “was to be let alone”:
    [H]e did not want to hear of anyone’s misfortunes, but[. . .]a number of villagers came in, and their appearance was depressing. Byden remembered one or two of them–he used to know them very well when he was boy--their talk was as depressing as their appearance, and he could feel no interest whatever in them. He was not moved when he he heard that Higgins the stone-mason was dead; he was not affected when he heard that Mary Kelly, who used to go to do the laundry at the Big House, had married; he was only interested when he heard she had gone to America. No, he had not met her there, America is a big place.
    It only takes a few more tales of woe –crop failure and loss of livestock-until “Bryden began to wish himself back in the slum. And when they left the house he wondered if every evening would be like the present one.”

    Shortly after, Bryden meets a local lass, Margaret Dirken, and shortly after that–almost at a lightning pace-he finds himself engaged to her. The local traditions, especially concerning marriage, seem both strange and familiar, as their religious fervor, “all very new and very old to James Bryden,” who becomes infuriated by the knowledge that the entire village is under unquestioning thrall to the tyrannical priest. Under the pretext of an insignificant “letter from America” Bryden has the opportunity to escape back to New York, where he could resume his former life and marry, like the aforementioned Cuchulain. Or should he stay in the village of his birth, marry Margaret, and doom them both to a life of hopeless destitution? Moore’s story answers that question for us, but Byden’s wistful regret leaves the reader as well with an unsettling feeling more profound than a facile moral, like “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” : and that is, any choice we make comes with consequences and pain we can never avoid.

    Finally, this group of stories ends with the theme with which it began: revenge. Published in 1976, “The Pedlar’s Revenge” by Liam O’Flaherty (1897-1984), begins like a Gaelic Law and Order episode with the police discovering a corpse in a ditch. The body is that of a septuagenarian, Paddy Moynihan, whose dying words had accused the pedlar of having poisoned him. There is some funny business involving the strenuous act of hoisting Paddy, an extremely large and corpulent man, onto a cart, but O’Flaherty provides some counterpointing touches, such as images of young boys using a rolled-up leaf to fashion a makeshift drinking fountain out of the trickling water and of a family of birds. When the police finally get around to questioning the pedlar, they hear a story involving a decades-old feud, ignited by bullying episodes back when Paddy and the pedlar were schoolmates. Up until his dying day, Paddy had continued to plague the pedlar, whom he sees as an easy victim in order to provide fruits and vegetables from his abundant garden and –fatally--food from his larder --for Paddy’s raging appetite. During the interrogation, a rate-collector named Finnerty goes out of his way to defend Paddy, while the police gather the testimony in a more-or-less official way; still the members of the squad seem as if they were working under a religious rather than civil authority. This comic story ends on a rare–and ironic, since it so seldom pans out in real life – note of “satisfaction” arising from an impromptu act of revenge after a lifetime of “terrible shame and sorrow and pain.”

    These five stories are only a few of the many illustrating the panoramic spectrum of the Irish literary vision, mixing fantastic legend with cold realism, Nature with Art, tradition and progress, intellect with emotion, and the comic and the tragic, all attributable perhaps to the unique character of the Irish writer: innovative and conventional, sentimental and methodical, rebellious and patriotic, witty and philosophical, simultaneously gregarious and introspective, with the uniquely bittersweet melancholy of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus: “agenbite of inwit.”
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 03-20-2012 at 03:57 PM.

  2. #2
    I have heard a lot about Yeats but didn't know where to start, so thanks for remedying that! ^_^ I really liked Samuel Beckett's Waiting, so is there any other works you could suggest by him? I'm finding Dubliners to be just a tad dull. XD
    Talk to me sometime. http://dysfunctional-harmony.tumblr.com/

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    Auntie, this is an exquisite composition! It was both enlightening (even for a Dub like meself) and entertaining. James Stephens' "The Charwoman's Daughter" was one of my favourite books in school. Yeats and Joyce are sacred of course, as is Patrick Kavanagh, who is one my favourite poets, not that I profess to know anything about poetry really.

    Really beautiful piece though this. I didn't know you had such a scholarly appreciation of Irish literature! I think of the modern Irish writers, Joseph O'Connor and John McGahern (though so different in their ways) are very much in tune with these forerunners you have written about.
    Thanks for posting, it was a delight to read.

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    dysfunctional-h - I'm a big fan of Beckett, and have recently been reading and studying him a lot. You might like Beckett's other plays, such as 'Endgame'. And if you want to move into the novels, I think Watt and Murphy.

    AuntShecky - great essay. I think we should all celebrate Irish Literature more. It has such a brilliant heritage and I find it interesting the way some Irish writers hang onto and celebrate this heritage, whereas others detest it and try to distance themselves from it.
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