Irish short story

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The Irish short story has a distinctive place in the modern Irish literary tradition. Many of Ireland's best writers, both in English and Irish, have been practitioners of the genre. It has been argued[by whom?] that its origins lie in the ancient Gaelic tradition of story-telling, though it conforms to the conventions of the genre elsewhere.


It has been argued that the Irish short story evolved naturally from the ancient tradition of oral storytelling in Ireland. The written word has been cultivated in Ireland since the introduction of the Roman alphabet by the Christian missionaries in the fifth century. But oral storytelling continued independently up to the twentieth Century and survived the general switch from the Irish to the English language. By the mid nineteenth century Irish writers had begun to use the English language to record the lives and convey the thoughts of the ordinary people, mostly impoverished peasants, and to address themselves to an Irish readership.[1] The most popular literary form to emerge from this development was the tale, and the most notable practitioner William Carleton (1794–1869), whose collection Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830) is a classic of the genre.

The modern Irish short story[edit]

Stories in English[edit]

What is regarded as the literary short story began in Ireland with George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903), stories of rural life using a variety of narrative techniques and originally intended for publication in the Irish language. In the following year James Joyce’s stories began appearing in magazines, to be eventually published as Dubliners (1914) a collection integrated as a narrative presentation of the lives of a selection of Dublin citizens.

Inspired by Moore, Liam O'Flaherty published his first collection in 1924, Spring Sowing, depicting the harsh life of his native Aran Islands. The remarkable Cork school of short story writers began with Daniel Corkery – A Munster Twilight (1916). He was an influential mentor to Sean O'Faolain (first collection Midsummer Night Madness, 1932) and to Frank O'Connor (first collection Guests of the Nation, 1931). With Elizabeth Bowen (first collection Encounters, 1923), this Cork school was to bring the Irish short story to new heights in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

By 1960 there was a consensus that the Irish contribution to the short story was on a par with the Russian and American, and that the short story was the national art form of Ireland.

The status of the short story has declined in Ireland since the 1960s, despite excellent writers cultivating the genre, including Cónal Creedon, Benedict Kiely, Mary Lavin, John McGahern, and Michael McLaverty. The main editorial influence on the short story from the sixties onwards was David Marcus through his New Irish Writing column in the now defunct Irish Press newspaper and the many anthologies he edited.

Stories in Irish[edit]

The Gaelic Revival at the beginning of the 20th century saw the Irish language re-emerging as a literary medium after a century of almost complete neglect. This had an effect on all genres, short stories among them. The tradition that developed was characterised by great variety, reflecting the background of the writers. It is likely that over a thousand stories have been written in Irish.[2]

The modernist pioneer was Patrick Pearse, language activist and revolutionary, and writer of stories of idealistic content in a contemporary European form. Pearse was executed in 1916 but left a legacy which opened new possibilities for the language. Modernist possibilities were further developed by Pádraic Ó Conaire, a writer of the 1920s on whom the European influence was evident but whose own legacy was mixed. He wrote, like Pearce, in the Irish of Conamara, sometimes setting his stories in that remote landscape and at other times in the towns. Ó Conaire has been described as the true pioneer of short story writing in Irish because of his rejection of older conventions and his determination to deal fearlessly with the truths of human nature.[3]

A different approach was taken by Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha (known as "An Seabhac" – the hawk), who set his comic stories and sketches in the Munster Gaeltacht. An Baile S'Againne (1913) ("Our Place") shows him to be a master of language in his own genre, deftly combining slapstick and irony.

The Donegal Gaeltacht brought forth Séamas Ó Grianna, who wrote prolifically and idiomatically about the people of his region, though much of his work has been criticised for its predictability.[4] His brother Seosamh Mac Grianna, less prolific, left a handful of excellent[according to whom?] stories.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a powerful and idiosyncratic writer, was born in the Conamara Gaeltacht, a region rich in folklore but with no strong literary tradition. His early stories, written in a thorny and difficult style, though great psychological penetration, were set in his native region. He settled eventually in Dublin and his style became more direct, though still marked by imaginative intensity. He remains generally regarded as the doyen of the craft in Irish and one of the best writers to emerge from Ireland in the 20th century, despite the fact that the difficulty of his earlier style was criticised – a difficulty which may have robbed him of a wider readership.[5]

The emigrant tradition in Ireland continued in the forties and fifties, and many of those who went were Irish speakers. One was Dónal Mac Amhlaidh, who took to writing about his experiences as a navvy in England and about other aspects of lives touched by exile. An fine comic writer, he was also capable of evoking a haunting frustration and sadness.

Liam O'Flaherty, though a native speaker of Irish, made his name as a writer in English. He returned to Irish in a collection called Dúil ("Desire"), containing stories in the west of Ireland. The reviews were disappointing and may have discouraged him from writing in Irish again,[6] but Dúil continues to be printed.

In the middle of the 20th century most habitual speakers of Irish still lived in the Gaeltacht, but the number of urban readers was growing. The genre was still dominated by a masculine sensibility, but in 1955 brother and sister Domhnall Ó Céileachair and Síle Ní Chéileachair published Bullaí Mhártain, stories dealing with both the Munster Gaeltacht and city life. These stories were praised for their scope and their skilful adaptation of the language to an urban environment.

A collection of sketches and stories called Feamainn Bealtaine ("Seaweed in May") was published by the distinguished[according to whom?] poet Máirtín Ó Direáin in 1961. These deal largely with his youth in the Irish-speaking Aran Islands, and are distinguished by their lyricism and humour.[according to whom?]

One of the best regarded[by whom?] contemporary practitioners of the genre, the poetic realist Seán Mac Mathúna (b. 1935), has published versions of his stories in both Irish and English. His reputation was confirmed by his collection Ding ("Wedge"), with its disturbing title story. He was never a prolific writer, and has published little for some years.

The short story continues to be a favoured form for writers in Irish, possibly because it lends itself to publication in the two main literary magazines, Feasta and Comhar. Collections in Irish continue to be published, with over 125 presently available.[7] It is noteworthy that women writers are now more prominent – Orna Ní Choileáin, Méadhbh Ní Ghallchobhair, Deirdre Ní Ghrianna and others. Younger readers are addressed by writers like Ré Ó Laighléis, whose stories deal with social problems such as drug abuse. Most readers now come from the urban Irish-speaking community, together with all the younger writers. This represents a distinctive change in the situation of the language and the future of its literature, though the Gaeltacht still has writers from the older generation, such as Colm Ó Ceallaigh and Joe Steve Ó Neachtain.

The prevailing tone of short stories in Irish continues to be quotidian and realistic. An exception is the work of Daithí Ó Muirí, whose stories, often dreamlike, are dark in their themes and their humour. He has published several well-reviewed collections.

Theory and art of the Irish short story[edit]

The development of the Irish short story has been accompanied by continuous reflection on technique, and driven by an evolving theory. James Joyce saw his stories as epiphanies, presenting moments of heightened perception. Two of the most influential books on the theory and practice of the short story were written by Sean O Faolain The Short Story (1948) and Frank O'Connor The Lonely Voice (1962).[8] They advocated a realist approach in which the story focuses on a moment of crisis or change in a character's life. O'Connor sees the story as the expression of human loneliness.

This approach has been the dominant influence on the short story in Ireland, and remained unchallenged until Jack Hart declared in the preface to his collection From Under Gogol's Nose (2004) that the parameters of the short story had been set too narrowly. He advocates a broader range of possibilities, from stories that are almost an essay to those that are almost a poem. He argues that the short story should be seen as closer by nature to the poem, requiring a similar engagement from the reader and communicating in a similar way through a fundamentally oral/aural process.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vivian Mercier, Introduction to Great Irish Short Stories (Dell, 1964); William Trevor: Introduction to The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (Oxford University Press, 1989)
  2. ^ Ó Cadhain, Máirtín, "An Gearrscéal sa Ghaeilge" (1967), Scríobh 5, an Clóchomhar Tta, 1985: "Scríobhadh na mílte gearrscéal sa Ghaeilge. Tá siad ina sprémhóin inti... Tá sé éasca iad a chur i gcló, nó iad a chur á gcraobhscaoileadh ar an raidió anois".
  3. ^ See Tomás de Bhaldraithe's foreword to Scothscéalta, Pádraic Ó Conaire (1956), Sáirséal agus Dill, Baile Átha Cliath ISBN 0-901374-14-8
  4. ^ Ó Cadhain, Máirtín, "An Gearrscéal sa Ghaeilge" (1967), Scríobh 5, an Clóchomhar Tta, 1985.
  5. ^ See the foreword by Tomás Bairéad in As an nGéibheann, Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1973), Sáirséal agus Dill, Baile Átha Cliath, pp. 15–16 ISBN 0-902563-25-4
  6. ^ Ó hEithir, Breandán (1991) (ed. Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín), An Chaint sa tSráidbhaile, p.167. Comhar Teoranta, Baile Átha Cliath.
  7. ^ This book ordering service has a comprehensive catalogue of publications in Irish. Retrieved 21 January 2011.
  8. ^ Sean O Faolain The Short Story (1948); Frank O'Connor The Lonely Voice (1962)
  9. ^ Jack Harte, From Under Gogol's Nose (Scotus Press, 2004)