Tuesday 20 November 2018

Journal's bright birthday bullets hit the target

Fiction: Stinging Fly Stories, Edited by Sarah Gilmartin & Declan Meade, The Stinging Fly Press, €18.00

Sally Rooney stepped into the role as editor of 'The Stinging Fly' magazine, hailed as Ireland's foremost literary journal. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sally Rooney stepped into the role as editor of 'The Stinging Fly' magazine, hailed as Ireland's foremost literary journal. Photo: Tony Gavin

Anne Cunningham

Ireland's foremost literary journal, The Stinging Fly, is celebrating its 20th birthday this year and this special retrospective anniversary anthology has been published to mark the occasion.

In her introduction to the collection, co-editor Sarah Gilmartin writes: "The stories in this anthology are not meant to be perfect. They are bright bullets stopping us in our tracks for their short duration, and if we're lucky, sometimes much longer than that."

She and Declan Meade have managed to excavate a hefty fusillade of "bright bullets" in this book, many of them fledgling works from writers who have since established their respective places among our most important authors. Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry, Eimear Ryan, Colin Barrett, Mary Costello, Sara Baume and Michael J Farrell are just some of the names that grace the pages.

Declan Meade founded the magazine along with Aoife Kavanagh. Kavanagh had the publishing know-how and Meade the hawk's eye for talent. By the time Kavanagh had moved on, Meade was also editing the Bloomsday Magazine for the James Joyce Centre. In mid 2004, he considered wrapping up editing the Fly altogether, then met Sean O'Reilly, whose novel was looking for a publisher. As a result, The Stinging Fly Press was born, its first published book being O'Reilly's Watermark, and The Stinging Fly magazine, Volume 2, was relaunched in a new format. Stinging Fly Press has since published titles such as Kevin Barry's There Are Little Kingdoms, Mary Costello's The China Factory, Young Skins by Colin Barrett and Danielle McLaughlin's Dinosaurs on Other Planets.

As a tireless champion of emerging writers, Declan Meade says he's doing what he loves best. In recent years, Thomas Morris was appointed magazine editor and last year Sally Rooney stepped into the role.

The importance of the magazine is virtually unquantifiable, as it emerged in a Dublin we'd hardly recognise now, where unpublished fiction writers and poets had nowhere to go with submissions, nor hopes of publication. Following in the Fly's footsteps there are now several Irish literary journals which invite new writing. The Penny Dreadful, gorse, Banshee Lit and The Winter Papers are just a few of the titles regularly calling for submissions. One might wonder if these would exist at all if it were not for the pioneering example of The Stinging Fly.

In a recent interview with Nessa O'Mahony (an episode of her online Attic Sessions) Declan Meade was invited to think about where the magazine might find itself in the next 20 years. Does he still have the same appetite for new writing? He does, thank goodness, as does Sally Rooney.

He hopes to see it continue for "another few years". Indeed. And so say all of us.

Stinging Fly Stories is a stunning collection. Although most of the stories have been selected from the last 10 years or so, there are some early gems. Grace Jolliffe's Becoming Invisible is from 1998. A whimsical story about the delayed sexual awakening of a widow in her fifties, it stands the test of time. "People don't care what two middle-aged women like us do," one of the characters remarks. "Haven't you noticed? When you get past 40, you're invisible!" So it seems the youth culture we currently rabbit on about wasn't born yesterday. Plus ca change, eh?

Grace at the Wall of Death by Maria Behan, published in 2001, is tinged with the movie Deliverance. Set in some hillbilly American backwater and spattered with bourbon and sweat and homophobia, it's a tense read.

From 2007, Kevin Barry's Last Days of the Buffalo nails the plight of Foley, an oversized misfit in a small, mean Limerick town. Sitting alone in the bar nightly, nursing his pint "like a thimble in his hand", Barry writes that the sight of him "would go through you, if you were unfortunate enough to be in any way soft-natured". Michael J Farrell's charming Pascal's Wager recounts the watery escape of elderly resident Ronan from his nursing home: "Pascal's Wager was more than an intellectual exercise. To be quite frank about it, a man with an immortal soul needed to cover his arse."

Claire Keegan's Dark Horses is a masterful narrative of a wasted day and of drunken, maudlin, useless regret. Mary Costello's Things I See reverberates with the sharp slap of discovery as a wife watches her husband's infidelity.

The seed of Spill Simmer Falter Wither seems to be germinating in Sara Baume's heartbreaking Fifty Year Winter. An old man, the narrator's father, loses his wife to cancer and is broken. But the loss of his dog Fella shortly afterwards is his undoing. "...I think about how in recent months he has held himself like a man pinned beneath a tree trunk, how it is only since my mother started to die that my father started to stoop."

There are 40 stories here, all various, dissimilar, accomplished, whole. Almost all are, as the introduction promises, bright bullets.

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