The Irish Short Story

With my return trip to Ireland as a faculty sponsor for Study Abroad just a couple of months away, I decided to delve deeper into Contemporary Irish Literature. Last summer, I spent most of my reading time exploring Irish culture and history. And I took a second turn with James Joyce’s Ulysses. I have a passable familiarity with other works by Joyce and Yeats and I’ve read a few of Heaney’s poems. But the extent of my experience with Irish fiction writers whose work was produced in the second half of the twentieth century was Roddy Doyle’s trilogy.

This week, I picked up the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story and did something I seldom do. I read the editor’s introduction. I tend to read greedily, foregoing introductions to collections and diving right in to the stories. Most of the time, I’ll eventually get around to reading what the editor had to say, but not always. (Yes, I admit this with some shame.)

This collection’s editor, Anne Enright, has her own impressive list of accomplishments: five novels and two short story collections, along with essays and a book of non-fiction. Yet, I didn’t know much about Enright. So, I started with her introduction to the collection; it features no less than thirty-one different Irish writers including Frank O’Connor, Clare Boylan, Sean O Faolain, and Colm Toibin.

Enright sets the table for this feast of Irish literary delicacies by describing short stories this way: “Short stories are the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers’ tastes.” It was an analogy that resonated with me. I do appreciate a good short story for its containment. Alice Munro– my favorite contemporary North American writer– is particularly adept at creating a world within a well-defined space.

What I’m looking forward to as I read more Irish writers’ short stories over the next few weeks is discovering the lyrical within them. Irish story telling has a long oral history out of which its poetry and prose have developed. Irish writers excel at taking the language of their oppressors, the English, and using it to express more than a clever tale or message. The Irish write their personalities and temperaments, as well. I suspect it’s their outsider identities that lead them away from the traditions of English fiction writers, to a more artful use of the medium.

I expect to have read most of these stories well before its time for my departure. If anyone has a recommendation for other works of contemporary Irish fiction, especially in short story form, that you’d like to share with me, please leave a comment with your suggestions.

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