Mary Kenny: 'Telling a different story'
A new collection of short stories brings the past vividly into the present
Autumn is the season for book prizes and awards, nationally and internationally, and these often highlight themes expressing the zeitgeist - the spirit of the age. But let me turn to storylines arising in a less literary genre: the 40 winning short stories and vignettes of memory appearing in the 2019 Anthology published by the popular Ireland's Own (with a foreword by the novelist Cathy Kelly).
These narratives evoke a very different world from that of Sally Rooney or Kevin Barry, let alone Margaret Atwood or Bernardine Evaristo, her Booker co-winner. In the Ireland's Own collection, there are no non-binary Marxists challenging a patriarchal society, no coarse language, no mention of cocaine, and sexual relations are often restrained, or kept within the private sphere - as in a tasteful description of Charlotte Brontë 's pleasure in her honeymoon in Kilkee, 'Sojourn in West Clare', written by Mae Leonard.
There is often a note of nostalgia, though not necessarily in an overly rosy way: more a sense, perhaps, of appreciation of the hardships of life that parents and grandparents often endured.
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"Daddy toiled virtually all his life, on a small, unforgiving Offaly farm. Poverty rode with him for company," writes Aidan Grennan in 'Daddy's Hands'. His father's hands "cut the turf, saved the hay, built walls, sank wells, thinned beet, mended the family footwear and white-washed the family home. In addition, he thatched homes for neighbours as well as his own." In 'The Lost Photograph', Mary Burke describes a man seeing, for the first time, an old photograph of his own mother, who died when he was a baby, leaving seven children. As he moves towards death himself, his mother seems to appear to him to guide him on his final journey.
Remembering her early days in nurse training, Margaret Sheriff describes the demands of hospital life for an 18-year-old at the time: "a system that was authoritarian and hierarchical, with little regard for softness and unsupportive." The student nurse was treated as a skivvy, and the physicality of the work was back-breaking. But there was one kind patient on the ward, who helped her, encouraged her, even bonded with her, and the young nurse finds she alone is with that patient at the hour of death. She never forgot the patient she calls 'My Lady of the Gabardine Coat'.
The recollections of "taking the emigration boat", when Irish emigrants really did take a boat, remain constant. Life working on the buildings in London led many a man to drink away his portion, either from loneliness or heedlessness, leaving behind the girl he might once have married. "Each night Paddy would pass away the time in some public house. The 'craic' was good and soon the drink became an all-consuming habit… At times he would think of Maura and home; it was then that the grief and sorrow of his wasted life would hit him hard and he would indulge in a bout of drinking which would leave him senseless and deaden his mind to his sorrows," writes Ben O'Dea, in 'It's Never Too Late'. But he is given a chance to make amends and finds unexpected rewards when he faces up to his past.
The destruction wrought by alcoholism is brought out with stark honesty in a story by Marion Fenton, 'Death, the Leveller'. In a small Tipperary town, Annie waits at the church for the coffin of her ex-husband, remembering how he was when she first met him - a great strong man "with jet black hair and a confident swagger", and a gifted singer. But Paddy - another Paddy, coincidentally - began his drinking binges after their son was born, and gradually, the inevitable decline set in. The priest gives a somewhat harsh sermon, and it is left to a fellow-alcoholic, himself a wretched figure, to remember his friend, and the kind things he did in his life: Annie is grateful her son hears this.
The past revisiting the present arises in two outstanding stories about adoption, told with compassion, but also with a certain realism - there isn't always closure or resolution to the complex feelings involved. In 'I Called You Rose', Bernie Kirwan describes a woman contacting her birth mother to request a meeting.
"I'm sorry Roseanne but I can't meet you," the mother replies. "I'm old now, and life hasn't been easy, too much sadness, too many memories." A bond is nevertheless established by correspondence, and Roseanne finds hope in this, though a sad event intervenes. The story highlights the delicacy in this relationship, which now involves wider kin on both sides. In 'To Never Know', Katherine Carroll depicts a birth mother's view, never knowing what became of the child she was forced to yield.
Not all the stories draw on the past: in Madeleine Breen's 'A Dramatic Introduction', the hero is a Pakistani doctor arriving in an Irish community. In 'Open Doors' by Richard Lysaght, a sullen modern teenager bonds unexpectedly with an aunt sent to mind her for a weekend. 'The Writing Class' by Linda Lewis is a nice take on a man's struggle with a modern creative writing session. Yet overall, the Ireland's Own 2019 collection recalls an Ireland in which the past is vividly present, and present events often lead back in memory to an Ireland now slipping away.