The Irish Short Story

Traditions and Trends

by Elke D'hoker (Volume editor) Stephanie Eggermont (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection VIII, 332 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 63


Often hailed as a ‘national genre’, the short story has a long and distinguished tradition in Ireland and continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. Critical appreciation of the Irish short story, however, has laboured for too long under the normative conception of it as a realist form, used to depict quintessential truths about Ireland and Irish identity. This definition fails to do justice to the richness and variety of short stories published in Ireland since the 1850s. This collection aims to open up the critical debate on the Irish short story to the many different concerns, influences and innovations by which it has been formed. The essays gathered here consider the diverse national and international influences on the Irish short story and investigate its genealogy. They recover the short fiction of writers neglected in previous literary histories and highlight unexpected strands in the work of established writers. They scrutinize established traditions and use cutting-edge critical frameworks to discern new trends. Taken together, the essays contribute to a more encompassing and enabling view of the Irish short story as a hybrid, multivalent and highly flexible literary form, which is forever being reshaped to meet new insights, new influences and new realities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Complicating the Irish Short Story
  • References
  • Part One: Transforming the Tale Tradition
  • ‘Let any one try to picture what it is’: The Dynamics of the Irish Short Story and the Mediation of Famine Trauma, 1850–1865
  • ‘Tedious and harrowing to the feelings’: Narrative Condensation and Repression
  • ‘To know the Irish poor is to know Ireland’: From Regional to Transnational Trauma
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • From Tale to Short Story: The Motif of the Stolen Child in Le Fanu’s Short Fiction
  • Le Fanu and the Editorial Politics of the Dublin University Magazine
  • The Weaving of Well-known Folklore Motifs into Complex Narrative Structures
  • The ‘Romantic Individuality’ of ‘The Child that Went with the Fairies’
  • References
  • Emily Lawless and History as Story
  • References
  • Part Two: Negotiating Modernism
  • Bridging Tradition and Modernity: George Moore’s Short Story Cycle The Untilled Field
  • References
  • Loneliness and the Submerged Population: Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice and Joyce’s ‘The Dead’
  • References
  • What Happened to Literary Modernism in the Irish-Language Short Story?
  • P. H. Pearse (1879–1916)
  • Pádraic Ó Conaire (1882–1928)
  • Maireád Ní Ghráda (1896–1971) and Pádraic Óg Ó Conaire (1893–1971)
  • Séamus Ó Grianna (‘Máire’) (1889–1969)
  • Seosamh Mac Grianna (‘Iolann Fionn’) (1900–1990)
  • Liam O’Flaherty (1896–1984)
  • Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906–1970)
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Frank O’Connor’s 1920s Cultural Criticism and the Poetic Realist Short Story
  • References
  • Part Three: Finding a Post-Modernist Voice
  • Oral Tradition with a Twist: Flann O’Brien’s Short Fiction and Nation Building
  • Introduction
  • Discursive Nation Building
  • The Pub Setting and the Storytelling Frame
  • ‘The Martyr’s Crown’
  • ‘A Bash in the Tunnel’
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Early Readings, Early Writings: Samuel Beckett’s Student Library and His First Short Stories
  • Academia and the Company of Books
  • Early Influences on Beckett’s Short Fiction
  • ‘Assumption’
  • The Belacqua Stories
  • ‘Sedendo et Quiescendo’
  • ‘Walking Out’
  • The Smeraldina Stories
  • Concluding Remarks: The Cohesion of Complexity
  • References
  • The Ghostly Fields of North Cork: Ireland in the Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen
  • References
  • Breaking New Ground and Making Patterns: Mary Lavin’s First Short Story Collection Tales from Bective Bridge
  • References
  • Part Four: Tracing New Trends
  • The Female Writer in Short Stories by Irish Women
  • References
  • Claire Keegan’s New Rural Ireland: Torching the Thatched Cottage
  • References
  • A World of Strangers? Cosmopolitanism in the Contemporary Irish Short Story
  • References
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index


Complicating the Irish Short Story

The twenty-first century has so far been good to the Irish short story. Major writers such as Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, John McGahern, and Bernard MacLaverty published brilliant new short story collections or brought out collected stories to great acclaim.1 Many younger writers made their name with short story collections and went on to win important prizes: The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature was awarded to the short story collections of Claire Keegan (2000), Keith Ridgway (2001), Philip Ó Ceallaigh (2006), and Kevin Barry (2007), and the latter was also the 2012 winner of the Sunday Times Short Story Award. Cork hosted the first Frank O’Connor Short Story festival in 2000 and awarded its international prize to Edna O’Brien for Saints and Sinners in 2011 and to Colin Barrett for Young Skins in 2014. Colm Tóibín, Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry received the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, established in 2007, and many more Irish writers figured on its shortlists. In 2012, Mary Costello’s short story collection The China ← 1 | 2 → Factory was shortlisted for the Guardian First Fiction Award, while Anne Enright, Claire Keegan and Sara Baume were the recipients of the newly established Davy Byrnes Short Story Award.

To meet the demands of a reading public avid for short fiction, further, several new anthologies of Irish short fiction have been published since 2000. The late David Marcus edited new volumes of the Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories in 2005 and 2007 and Joseph O’Connor and Kevin Barry took over as editors with Irish Short Stories (2011) and Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories (2013), respectively. Anne Enright edited the formidable Granta Book of the Irish Short Story in 2010 and brought out the anthology Silver Threads of Hope with Sinéad Gleeson in 2012, while Brian Ó Conchubhair brought the Irish-language story to greater prominence with his anthology Twisted Truths: Stories from the Irish (2011). Since 1997, new short story writing from Ireland is also fostered by The Stinging Fly Magazine and imprint, which has published anthologies such as These are our Lives (2006) and Let’s be Alone Together (2008), edited by Declan Meade.

In terms of literary criticism too, attention to the short form has picked up again, after the critical neglect of the genre in the final decades of the twentieth century. Cheryl Alexander Malcolm and David Malcolm edited a hefty critical Companion to the British and Irish Short Story (2008), which devotes separate chapters to the short fiction of James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty, Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O’Brien, William Trevor, Bernard MacLaverty, and John McGahern. In 2009 Heather Ingman’s informative A History of the Irish Short Story admirably filled the critical vacuum which had opened up in terms of literary histories since the article collections edited by Patrick Rafroidi and Terence Brown in 1979 and James F. Kilroy in 1984.2 Moreover, recent years also saw the publication of several author studies, both monographs and edited collections, which ← 2 | 3 → sought to counter the longstanding practice of neglecting a writer’s short fiction in favour of his or her longer works.3 In addition, such eminent critical journals as Studies in Short Fiction, Journal of the Short Story in English and the newly founded Short Fiction in Theory & Practice tend to devote ample attention to Irish short fiction in their pages, with Journal of the Short Story in English publishing special issues on Irish-American short fiction (2000), John McGahern (2009) and the twenty-first-century Irish short story (2014).

Many of these books and articles have opened up new perspectives on Irish short fiction, thus broadening the rather narrow and normative conception of the Irish short story which dominated the critical debate in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, in the 1960s and 70s critics and writers, emboldened by the – national and international – success of mid-century realist short fiction of Frank O’Connor, Séan O’Faoláin and Liam O’Flaherty, sought to define the Irish short story and to delineate it as a uniquely ‘national’ genre against its neighbours – the novel and British fiction, in particular. The result was a rather confining image of the Irish short story as a realist form used to depict particular truths about Ireland and Irish identity, a form which revolved around the outsider in his or her struggle against social constraints and in which loneliness was the privileged emotion. The success of the Irish short story, further, was explained by virtue of its closeness to the oral storytelling tradition and its embeddedness within what O’Connor famously called a ‘submerged population group’, or a society that lacked the stable structure conducive ← 3 | 4 → to the novel.4 As Deborah Averill explains, ‘Most Irish writers regarded their society as peculiar, self-defeating and out-of-step with other Western societies, and they could not achieve the stable, universalised view of human life that the novel demands.’5

In his recent A History of the Irish Novel, Derek Hand convincingly gives the lie to the belief that Ireland can boast no strong tradition of the novel and such recent studies as The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English and The British Short Story have similarly refuted the claim that Britain has no short fiction tradition to speak of.6 It seems high time, therefore, to also abandon the claims for the unified identity and nationalist specificity of the Irish short story as they belong to a time when the stakes of the fledgling new form of the modern short story and of a specifically ‘national’ literature had to be marked and defended. As Anne Enright accurately notes in her introduction to the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, ‘Much of what is said about the short story as a form is actually anxiety about the novel’ and ‘much of what is written about Irish writing is, in fact, anxiety about England’.7 Since both Irish literature and the Irish short story have now abundantly proved their worth on international and global platforms, we can be free to abandon these normative conceptualizations of the Irish short story, which are still far too often resorted to in literary criticism. In doing so, however, we should take care not to substitute them for yet another theory which claims to essentialize and unify the Irish short story, as this inevitably leads to the marginalization of writers who do not fit the frame. What is needed instead is a critical approach that engages ← 4 | 5 → with the genre’s historical specificity and recognizes its multivalent nature. The articles gathered here hope to offer such an approach: they consider diverse national and international influences on the Irish short story and investigate its genealogy; they recover the short fiction of writers which did not fit the norm, and trace emerging new trends; they pay attention to both the material contexts of publishing short fiction and to the historical contexts many stories bear witness to. What emerges as a result, I hope, is a fuller and more complex picture of the rich tradition of Irish short fiction from the nineteenth century to the present. In this introduction, I want to kick-start this process of complication and reimagining on a more modest scale, by surveying recent criticism on the Irish short story, mapping contentious issues, and pointing ahead to the articles that will follow.

Fifty years after its original publication, The Lonely Voice is still often quoted as an authoritative source on the short story. This is somewhat surprising given the contradictions and idiosyncrasies of many of O’Connor’s definitions and his obviously prejudiced treatment of writers such as Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce. Moreover, as John Kenny points out, O’Connor’s observations ‘should always be read, at least in part, as O’Connor’s theories about himself’.8 Still, his concepts and catch-phrases have had an extraordinary resonance, none more so perhaps than the idea of the lonely voice itself, which captures both O’Connor’s ideal of the voice of the solitary writer who, through the short story, establishes contact with the solitary reader and his belief that loneliness is ‘the one subject a storyteller must write about’.9 In O’Connor’s romantic individualist perspective, this loneliness is typically the loneliness of the outsider, of ‘outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society’, ‘always dreaming of escape’.10 In this way, the notion of the lonely outsider chimes with O’Connor’s other oft-quoted concept, that of the ‘submerged population groups’, which the short story is supposed to focus on: ‘tramps, artists, ← 5 | 6 → lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests’.11 In his application of this concept, however, O’Connor’s emphasis shifts from such social categories to nationalities or ethnic groups, in an attempt to explain the short story’s flourishing in off-centre groups or countries, which lack ‘the classical concept of a civilized society’.12

In spite of the ambiguities and paradoxes surrounding these concepts, they have been hugely influential in defining the Irish short story as shaped around the outsider and lonely hero. In her critical history of the Irish short story, Deborah Averill traces in the short fiction of writers from Moore to O’Connor what she considers ‘one of the broadest and most pervasive themes in the Irish short story […] the conflict between the individual and the community’.13 In his contribution to Rafroidi and Brown’s The Irish Short Story, similarly, David Norris considers the individual’s imaginative revolt against the authority structures of Church, State and Society as the theme ‘common to all significant writers’ of the Irish short story14 and James Kilroy argues in his critical study on the Irish short story that ‘the subject treated in almost every short story is the individual’s relationship to society’ – a relationship which is mostly one of alienation, disillusionment and despair.15

There is inevitably a certain truth in the observation that the conciseness of the modern short story necessitates a focus on one or two rather than a large cast of characters or that its predominantly psychological focus encourages an emphasis on intensely felt emotions. Still, given the wide range of characters and situations which short stories can and do depict, the image of the rebellious or lonely outsider seems an impossibly restrictive one, whose enduring influence may have to do, as Kenny suggests, ‘with the way in which it helps to cultivate the popular Romantic image of the writer ← 6 | 7 → that we especially cater to in Ireland’.16 It is also this image which makes the writer-protagonist in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s story ‘Illumination’ wonder ‘if an ordinary, sane person, lacking any stunning eccentricity, could be a writer at all’.17 This rather narrow identification of the Irish short story with the experience of the outsider has arguably been a factor in the marginalization of women’s short fiction in particular. Surely, the explorations of family life in the short stories of Maeve Brennan and Mary Lavin do not fit very well with this definition. Nor do the tales of communal experiences and adventures collected in Jane Barlow’s Irish Idylls or Somerville and Ross’s The Irish R.M. And even though tension and conflict often complicate the relationship between mother and daughter so often depicted in the short fiction of women writers, the focus is just as much on the relationship as on the feelings of loneliness that may ensue. Perhaps, it is therefore more accurate to state that the feeling of loneliness is but one dimension of what Anne Enright considers ‘one of the great themes of the short story’, that is to say, ‘connection and the lack of it’.18

Several of the articles in this collection serve to highlight this relational dimension of Irish short fiction. Michael O’Sullivan turns the tables on O’Connor’s central concept of loneliness by showing how an individual character’s encounter with death in stories by Joyce and Mansfield invites compassion, communion and a sense of universal connection. Loneliness, O’Sullivan suggests, is a very self-directed emotion, which Joyce’s stories seek to transcend by staging ‘a polyphonic conversation between text, style, and community, between the intertext and the reader’. In her reading of Claire Keegan’s short fiction too, Mary Fitzgerald reveals a concern with relationships both within the family and within the larger, rural community, while Anne Fogarty argues that the transformative encounters with the Other and otherness, staged in several recent short stories, point towards a scrutiny of cosmopolitanism and ethical questions. ← 7 | 8 →

As Fogarty notes, moreover, the best Irish short stories have always persistently linked the local to the global, the parochial to the worldly, thus transcending the strictly national paradigm in which Irish short fiction has often been interpreted. O’Connor’s emphasis on the national and political dimension of Irish short fiction caused him to question the ‘Irishness’ of Mary Lavin’s short fiction: because of the absence of politics in her work, he felt that ‘an Irishman reading the stories of Mary Lavin is actually more at a loss than a foreigner would be’.19 For Richard Peterson, Lavin’s marginal position vis-à-vis the canon of the mid-century Irish short story is the result of her being ‘unfairly judged on the basis of a view of Irish literature as the sole property of rebels and exiles’.20 A similar fate had, for a long time, befallen the short fiction of Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett, which was considered not sufficiently Irish to warrant inclusion in the canon. In an attempt to counter this nationalist emphasis, Patrick Lonergan has argued for the recognition of three important strands in Irish short fiction: regional, national and cosmopolitan. He notes:

the development of Irish short fiction [in the period 1880 to 1921] could be considered from three interlinking perspectives. The works of Somerville and Ross and others can be seen as ‘regional’: insofar as they address a metropolitan audience and locate Ireland as a marginal but essential element of the United Kingdom. A second mode of writing evident at this time might be described as ‘nativist’ or nationalist – writings addressed directly towards Irish audiences, which attempt to promote the notion that the country is not only worthy of political independence but also deserving of its own distinctly ‘national’ literature. Finally, there is also a ‘cosmopolitan’ mode of short fiction; that is, works by Irish writers who see the subject of their literature as transcending national boundaries, while also crossing the boundaries of realism into the fantastic and the mythological. A similar three-part perspective could also be used to chart the development of Irish writing from Independence to the end of World War II.21 ← 8 | 9 →

Lonergan’s three strands usefully broaden the conceptualization of the Irish short story and recognize the different interests at stake in Irish short fiction since the final decades of the nineteenth century. The articles in this collection go even further than this and point towards the many cross-currents that exist between these three strands. Johanna Marquardt, for instance, locates concerns with nation-building and national identity in two stories of Flann O’Brien which are mostly known for their fantastical, metafictional and intertextual elements, while Hilary Lennon traces the many international influences in Frank O’Connor’s short fiction, which has typically been understood as quintessentially Irish. Similarly, Brian Ó Conhubhair shows how cosmopolitan and modernist elements complicate Irish-language short fiction in the first half of the twentieth century and he draws interesting comparison between, for instance, the short fiction of Séamus Ó Grianna and Rudyard Kipling, Seosamh MacGrianna and George Moore, and Máirtín Ó Cadhain and Virginia Woolf. In his article on Elizabeth Bowen’s so-called Irish stories, Eibhear Walshe goes on to argue that they have been shaped both by her war experiences in London and by her anxieties about the dissolution of the Anglo-Irish in an independent Ireland. Debbie Brouckmans, for her part, shows how Moore’s The Untilled Field has been influenced by both the regional tradition of narratives of community, specifically Barlow’s Irish Idylls, and the development of the modern short story in Russia and France. In her article on Beckett, finally, Veronica Bala traces the influence in Beckett’s early short stories of the extensive reading he did in Italian and French literature as a student and lecturer at Trinity College.

Taken together, the articles convincingly demonstrate that the Irish short story has been shaped by many different concerns and influences – local and global, national and international – and that its particular tradition and development should be considered in the context of similar, or different, developments elsewhere. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the teleological perspective that inevitably characterizes literary histories is realized differently in the case of the British and the Irish short story. In British short story criticism, the modernist short story of Woolf, Mansfield, Lawrence and Joyce is seen as the high point of a development which started in the final decades of the nineteenth century and saw the ← 9 | 10 → emergence of the modern short story out of earlier forms of short fiction, such as the Victorian tale. Irish criticism, on the other hand, typically takes the mid-century realist short story of O’Connor, O’Faoláin and O’Flaherty as the apogee of the development, and hence, the ‘norm’ to which all earlier short stories are progressing and to which all subsequent short stories should aspire. As Greg Winston puts it, ‘from its origins in Moore’s The Untilled Field and Joyce’s Dubliners, the modern Irish short story has emerged by mid-century as a respected artistic medium and reliable barometer of national life’.22 In British short story criticism, this teleological perspective and the corresponding ‘modernist’ norm, which sees the modern short story as essentially plotless and lyrical, with an emphasis on psychology and mood, has increasingly been challenged in recent years. In an Irish context too the normative ideal of the realist and mimetic short story, which comments on Irish (political) life, has recently been questioned. In fact, one of the central arguments of Heather Ingman’s A History of the Irish Short Story is that a central strand in Irish short fiction is concerned with ‘playfulness and subversion’, with ‘experimentation and modernity’ which has been neglected in criticism given the ‘the traditional affiliation of the Irish short story with the mimetic fiction of writers like Frank O’Connor and Séan O’Faoláin’.23 She continues, ‘A longer historical overview allows us to assess the extent to which the form’s alliance with realism may be limited to a certain historical moment and reminds us that while realism in the short story might seem the norm, it is not the only mode in which the Irish short story operates’. Several of the articles included in this volume further substantiate this claim. They trace metafictional, fantastical, or folkloric elements in Irish short stories and expose their often experimental, intertextual and polyphonic qualities. In her article, Heather Ingman locates metafictional concerns in the short fiction of women writers, through their staging of the figure of the woman author. She traces a development from a ← 10 | 11 → late nineteenth-century depiction of the difficulties facing women writers in the literary marketplace, to a meta-fictional staging of aesthetic questions about the function, form and uses of modern literature and the modern short story in particular. In his article on Bowen, Eibhear Walshe further bears out Ingman’s claim that the Irish short story often probes ‘themes of fragmentation and dissolution’ by showing how Bowen’s ambivalent use of gothic and ghostly elements in her short fiction reflects the dividedness of her Anglo-Irish identity. Gaïd Girard, finally, draws attention to the sometimes uneasy or uneven mixture of realist and fantastical elements in Le Fanu’s short stories, which she reads as part of his transitional position between the Victorian tradition of the tale and the modern tradition of the short story.

In this way her article, and the articles of Marguérite Corporaal and Heidi Hansson, further elucidate the emergence of the modern short story in the final decades of the nineteenth century. As several critics have noted, the precise ‘origin’ or ‘starting point’ of the modern Irish short story remains a point of discussion. Some scholars have proclaimed The Untilled Field as the ‘first’ Irish short story collection; others point to Somerville and Ross’s The Irish R.M.; while for Seamus Deane it is William Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1930) which stands at the birth of the tradition.24 In an international context, it is usually agreed that from the 1850s onwards, the modern short story emerged out of earlier ‘tales’, which were mostly much longer, heavily plotted and frequently framed by oral storytelling devices. Only in the final decades of the nineteenth century did a new consciousness of the short story as a separate, aesthetic form emerge and, as Adrian Hunter puts it, shortness came to be seen as ‘a “positive” quality’, inspiring conciseness, condensation and a focus on psychology and mood.25 The influence of foreign writers, such as Maupassant, Turgenev, Chekhov, has been recognized as of primary importance in this development from the ← 11 | 12 → Victorian tale tradition to the modern short story in Britain and Ireland. The articles of Hilary Lennon and Debbie Brouckmans in this collection confirm and elaborate on this observation as they trace the influence of Turgenev on Frank O’Connor and George Moore, respectively. Yet other articles further complicate this historical narrative by drawing attention to other pressures and concerns that have influenced the development of the modern Irish short story.

In her article on nineteenth-century short stories dealing with the Famine, Marguérite Corporaal argues that ‘modern’ elements of condensation, concentration and narrative innovation – typically attributed to foreign influences – could also have been due to pressures of the real, that is, the attempt to engage with the trauma of the famine in narrative form. She further shows how descriptions of setting, familiar from the regional tale tradition, were also used and transformed in these stories to bring the concerns of the ruined peasantry to public attention. Corporaal’s use of the notion of ‘cultural memory’ embedded in generic forms could also invite a comparison of these famine stories with the twentieth-century stories dealing with the trauma of the Troubles, as discussed in Michael Storey’s 2004 study, Representing the Troubles in Irish Short Fiction. Other avenues for research are opened up by Heidi Hansson in her article on Emily Lawless’ historical short stories, when she demonstrates the importance of considering the material and publication contexts when tracing the emergence of the modern short story in the late nineteenth century. Hansson analyses the historical stories which Lawless submitted to the London periodical, Nineteenth Century in the 1890s against the background of the historical and other articles it more typically published. She argues that the hybrid nature of Lawless’ stories illustrates the difficult ‘transition from the ostensibly objective truths of the historical sketch to the affective truths of short fiction’. Hybrid, mixed, and uneven are also terms used by Gaïd Girard to characterize those short stories of Le Fanu which use the folktale motif of the stolen child. In his stories, Le Fanu sought to reconcile traditional folktale elements with the emotional truth required in the modern short story and, as in Lawless’ stories, this results in odd shifts in narrative stance and tense and in revealing metafictional passages. For Girard, these shifts betray the tension between the communal dimension ← 12 | 13 → of the oral storytelling tradition and the subjective, individual perspective required in the short story.

In this way, her article also participates in the critical debate on the oral origins of the Irish short story. Critics have often argued that the very specificity and success of the Irish short story is due to its embeddedness in – or emergence out of – an oral storytelling tradition. Declan Kiberd has famously argued that ‘the short story has flourished in those countries where a vibrant oral culture is suddenly challenged by the onset of a sophisticated literary tradition’26 and Patrick Rafroidi notes, ‘the texture of the Irish story often if not always suggests the influence of fireside gatherings’.27 William Trevor echoes this in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, arguing ‘it is against this background of a pervasive, deeply rooted oral tradition that the modern short story in Ireland must inevitably be considered’.28 And even Ingman notes, ‘the distinction between the oral tale and the modern short story seems clear, yet in Ireland the distinction breaks down’, although she adds, ‘Time after time, we will find that where Irish authors draw on the oral tradition they do not seek so much to reproduce oral techniques as to combine them with modern literary forms and themes’.29

In judging the extent of the oral tradition’s influence on the Irish short story, it is useful to distinguish between two distinct elements of that influence. A first element concerns the techniques and modes of oral storytelling which pervade many nineteenth-century stories, both in Ireland and elsewhere, and often serve to voice an author’s wish to enthral, inspire or instruct his or her audience. Traces of these storytelling techniques can also be found in the communal voice which occasionally erupts in Le Fanu’s stories, as Girard demonstrates, or in the embedded stories told in the ← 13 | 14 → pub-setting of the O’Brien stories analysed by Marquardt. Still, as Declan Kiberd also recognizes, most modern Irish short fiction shows little or ‘no trace of the oral tradition’ and ‘the greatest short stories, in both Irish and English, owe more to the narrative genius of their authors than to the Gaelic tradition of storytelling’.30 A second element of the Gaelic tradition which has influenced the modern Irish short story, however, is the rich store of folklore, fairy tales and myths. As Girard notes in her article, the recovery, transcription and adaptation of oral tales and myths was booming in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland and cannot have failed to influence the emergent Irish short story in matters of plot and theme as well. The gothic and fantastic elements in the stories of Carleton and Le Fanu are clearly influenced by this folktale tradition and Theresa Wray also finds folktale elements and beliefs in Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge. The early twentieth-century Irish-language story too, was often steeped in folkloric lore and legend. Yet Ó Conchubhair rightly makes a distinction between the direct transcription of oral tales in the work of lesser writers and its ‘artistic interrogation’ and modernist adaptation in the short stories of writers like Pádraic Ó Conaire and Seosamh MacGrianna. Even contemporary writers like Emma Donoghue and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne often use folklore material in their stories. While their work thus participates in the international, postmodern and feminist strategy of ‘writing back’ to patriarchal narratives, its focus on Gaelic folktales also gives it a particularly Irish inflection.31 As Mary Fitzgerald argues, finally, some of Claire Keegan’s stories also display an interestingly hybrid mixture of the ordinary and the supernatural, of folktale elements and psychological realism.

From the famine stories examined by Corporaal to Keegan’s stories investigated by Fitzgerald, one claim which often returns in the articles is that of the Irish short story’s hybridity. As I see it, this term should not – or not primarily – be understood in the postcolonial sense which confers upon Ireland and Irish literature a uniquely hybrid sense of identity – after ← 14 | 15 → all, what nation or people can with any right claim a unified or straightforward sense of self? The hybridities observed in the articles in this volume can rather be attributed to the complex mixture of influences which have shaped and continue to shape the Irish short story: international aesthetic trends and regional traditions; large historical events and psychological observations; political questions and personal emotions; traditional folktales and metafictional reflections; experimental playfulness and mimetic realism – all of these concerns and influences can be detected in Irish short fiction and all conspire to make its tradition hybrid, complex and rich. In addition, the articles in this collection also successfully displace the teleological model of literary history which sees a genre as moving towards – or falling from – a particular high point or normative ideal. Instead they show the short story tradition to be always in flux, always in transition, as writers constantly use and modify known forms to meet new insights, new influences or new realities. The short story emerges in this respect as a remarkably flexible genre, which is quick to respond to changed circumstances or to adapt to new influences. The result, as these articles surely also demonstrate, is a multivalent, complex and particularly rich tradition, which ought not to be contained by what it should be, but rather studied for what it has been and celebrated for what it can be.


Averill, Deborah, The Irish Short Story from George Moore to Frank O’Connor (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1982).

Barry, Kevin, ed., Town & Country. New Irish Short Stories (London: Faber, 2013).

Bracken, Claire, and Susan Cahill, eds, Anne Enright (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2011).

Delaney, Paul, Séan O’Faoláin: Literature, Inheritance, and the 1930s (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2014).

Delaney, Paul, and Michael Parker, eds, William Trevor: Revaluations (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013). ← 15 | 16 →

D’hoker, Elke, ed., Mary Lavin (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2013).

Enright, Anne, ‘Introduction’, in Anne Enright, ed., The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (London: Granta, 2010), ix–xviii.

Gleeson, Sinéad, ed., Silver Threads of Hope (Dublin: New Island, 2012).

Hand, Derek, A History of the Irish Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Hunter, Adrian, The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Ingman, Heather, A History of the Irish Short Story (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Kenny, John, ‘Inside out: a working theory of the Irish short story’, in Hilary Lennon, ed., Frank O’Connor (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007), 99–113.


VIII, 332
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
identity variety critical debate genealogy
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 332 pp.

Biographical notes

Elke D'hoker (Volume editor) Stephanie Eggermont (Volume editor)

Elke D’hoker is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Leuven, where she is also co-director of the Leuven Centre for Irish Studies. She is the author of Visions of Alterity: Representation in the Works of John Banville (2004) and co-editor of Narrative Unreliability (2008), Irish Women Writers: New Critical Perspectives (2011) and Mary Lavin (2013). Stephanie Eggermont is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leuven. In her doctoral dissertation, she investigated the contribution of women writers to the birth of the modern short story in Britain. Her fields of research include British short fiction, gender studies and fin-de-siècle journalism.


Title: The Irish Short Story
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