Friday 23 February 2018

Books: Bringing vibrant Irish voices to wider audience

New Bord Gais Energy short story award champions a medium which is often ignored by editors

Chapter and verse: Stinging Fly publisher Declan Meade has supported the short story and unearthed great talent
Chapter and verse: Stinging Fly publisher Declan Meade has supported the short story and unearthed great talent

Dermot Bolger

It wasn't always easy to read Irish short stories. During the Second World War such a shortage of paper existed that Sean O'Faolain actively asked readers of The Bell magazine to sell copies second-hand after reading them to allow the tiny print run to circulate.

In 1946, 21-year-old David Marcus championed the short story by starting his literary quarterly, Irish Writing. This became the nomadic New Irish Writing page, now edited by Ciaran Carty for Independent Newspapers. But despite such champions there has remained a scarcity of outlets for new stories, which is why we should salute Declan Meade of The Stinging Fly for being like Marcus and Carty: a great editor and supporter of the short story.

For eight years the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards has honoured Irish writers. This year sees an addition to the existing awards: The Short Story Award. This is unique in that that while the McManus and Hennessy Awards exist for unpublished stories, stories published in small magazines can fall into limbo, known only to a small readership and never reprinted or acknowledged unless the author publishes a collection.

This is no foregone conclusion because publishing is in the doldrums and it is a brave editor who takes on new collections of stories. Yet the fact that Alice Munro has just received the Nobel Prize for a lifetime devoted to the short story shows how powerful this medium is. If stories did not retain a huge impact on our imagination then an old school book like Exploring English would never be reinvented as a best-selling gift book.

The six stories shortlisted for Short Story of the Year Award display the diversity not just of Irish writers but also of the outlets working against the odds to bring these vibrant voices to a wide audience. Appropriately they include another fine talent unearthed by Meade's Stinging Fly: with Danielle McLaughlin's quietly perturbing A Different Country having first appeared in that magazine.

McLaughlin's story superbly shows her young narrator watching her boyfriend morph slowly back into being a different person when he brings her to visit his rough childhood world of fisherman. The city gloss vanishes as she hears: "Jonathon's accent shifts little by little to match Pauline's, until it became something different, something foreign."

Billy O'Callaghan's The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind (the title story from his collection, published by New Island) occupies a similarly remote rural world. In this masterclass in understatement, an emigrant returns to visit his elderly father-in-law who is raising the emigrant's eight-year-old son, following the unexplained death of the boy's mother six years before. This is presumably from suicide, but this – like much else in this deftly understated story – remains unsaid, as we watch a father share a kitchen with the son whom he cannot acknowledge with causing too much pain: a boy who may instinctively know his identity.

Rural Ireland is also present in Soft Rain by Trisha McKinney, published in The RTÉ Guide. A middle-aged son, Henry, cares for his father, Nelson, in a dilapidated farmhouse. "Henry thinks they are Siamese-bound by bad decisions. It's not that time has stopped exactly; it's more of a spiral ... where Henry waits for his life to begin and Nelson waits for his to end."

The always innovative Paul Murray subverts this rural landscape in his brilliantly comic How I Beat The Devil, from Town And Country: New Irish Short Stories, edited by Kevin Barry for Faber. Murray describes the tedium of a ten-year-old boy, whose holiday in Ireland is enlivened – only slightly – by discovering that the next cottage is rented by the Devil. Satan is allowed swindle people out of their souls in glamorous locations, but his contract with God only lets him relax in "purgatorial" places, like "unimaginative, middle-of-the-road restaurants. A two-drink limit in bars. Holidays in places like this". Lucifer relieves their boredom slightly by cheating at marbles and making cows levitate while brooding on his adolescent crush on a succubus. But their ennui allows us to watch a wickedly ingenious comic writer at work.

Colin Barrett offers a darker take on rural Ireland in the superb Bait from his debut collection, Young Skins (Stinging Fly Press). Barrett's vignette of young lives in a Mayo town brim with sexual longing, foreboding, alcohol and the invisible castes and schisms in a town where "the irrelevantly elderly lined the bar, mostly fat men with dead wives, hefting pints into their bloated, drink-cudgelled faces". Barrett's characters are brilliantly realised: rendered fresh by a linguistic dexterity that never teeters over the edge or hits false notes.

The reader is likewise drawn into the unconscious callousness of a young girl's mind, unable to break through the protective cordon of protective self-absorption when confronted by a family tragedy in The Day Things Changed by Niamh O'Connor from Poolbeg's anthology If I Were A Child Again.

This shortlist shows the vibrancy of the Irish short story. There can only be one winner but how great it is to see six writers engaged in this medium all recognised here, and recognition also for the publishers and outlets who provided varied platforms to let these short stories be heard.

To vote go to Votes can be cast until midnight on November 21 and the winners will be announced at a gala event in The Double Tree by Hilton Hotel (formerly The Burlington) on Tuesday, November 26

Sunday Independent

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