Seldom did neighbours come into that house but whenever they did, Martha told stories. In fact, she was at her best with stories. On those rare nights they saw her pluck things out of the air and break them open before their eyes.
Claire Keegan (76)
1In this excerpt from a story by Claire Keegan, the encounter between the narrator and her audience mirrors the relationship between the short story writer and her readers who are invited to admire “the things plucked out of the air” by the storyteller. According to this Chinese box structure, entering the house is like opening the book; Martha thus becomes Keegan’s reincarnation and we, readers, can recognize ourselves in the neighbours gathered around the peat fire.
2This metanarrative or second-order level invites us to keep remembering that the written story is a form that originates in the oral tale. The connection is recalled by many theoreticians, among whom Ben Forkner: “The short story is a form you may listen to, and its length conforms to the span of attention that a listener may give to an oral narrator” (16). Not only is the story writer read as if he were listened to, but he also writes as he speaks, as Richard Ellmann remarks about Frank O’Connor: “his own talent required the sense of an actual man, talking” (viii).
3If the short story thrives in a vibrant oral culture, no wonder Ireland has proved such a fertile ground for the development of the genre. As Forkner puts it: “The Irish story is firmly rooted in a land where a high premium has traditionally been placed on the spoken word, especially in the form of the story or tale” (22). In Gaelic society, the storyteller played an essential part. He passed down the stories of his people, together with myths and legends, from generation to generation. This local culture was orally transmitted for hundreds of years. But as Ireland was progressively assimilated to the English mores and language, some Irish writers of the late 19th century feared the extinction of their traditional culture. They organized themselves to safeguard this heritage, recover national identity and move away from English models. Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats or Douglas Hyde, among others, traveled all over the island in order to collect myths and legends in cottages and transcribe them. This initiative made it possible not only to immortalize, but also to widely spread a threatened patrimony.
4Because these literary productions are prose texts of short fiction, the authors of this Celtic Revival are somehow the first Irish short story writers. In any case, they contributed to creating an osmosis between Ireland and the short story. From then on, this specific literary genre has been considered as Ireland’s national art form. Although its morphology resembles that of the traditional tale, its contents, which are most often realistic, do not ignore the issues of contemporary Irish society. Reconciling the past with the present, “the short story is the natural result of a fusion between the ancient form of the folk tale and the preoccupations of modern literature,” as Declan Kiberd remarks (42). These preoccupations vary with the changes of society, as the themes of the short stories have testified for about one century.
5At the beginning of the 20th century, Ireland was depicted as a restricted, parochial universe, characterized by its narrow-minded bigotry and its stifling conformity. James Joyce, Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor and other short story writers described the society of their days as a community where taboos and prejudices were so powerful that their fellow citizens were continuously repressed and frustrated. Any personal initiative was discouraged. Only father-figures, whether they were political, colonial, religious or domestic, were decision-makers. Because of this context of a still, petrified, unchanging world, Joyce evoked Dublin as a “centre of paralysis.”
6In the second half of the 20th century, the genre mirrored the evolutions of a new society, which was progressively becoming more urban and open to the outside world. As it was also more competitive economically, the population’s standard of living was improving. Irish women acquired a different status and their places were less and less subordinate. Traditional values were somehow weakened by demands of freedom, cries of protest and denunciations of hypocrisy. These changes are reflected in Edna O’Brien, John McGahern or Benedict Kiely’s stories, for example.
7For two decades, Irish society has experienced chaotic situations: if the Celtic Tiger decade maintained a sustained high-level growth, it also generated wild capitalism, extreme materialism and ostentatious consumerism. As everybody knows, this period of unprecedented prosperity was followed by a severe downturn which fueled disillusionment, bitterness and suspicion towards political and financial authorities. Simultaneously, scandals in the Roman Catholic Church called the clergy’s credibility into question. As a result, all of the ideologies have been challenged and reappraised. Dechristianization, together with the dislocation of families and the archaism of patriotism exemplify the collapse of traditional values.
8Today’s short stories mirror a society which has lost its bearings. They observe, depict and ironically comment upon this Ireland. Their postmodern approach faithfully apprehends the uncertainties of the contemporary. The clash they narrate is no longer between Ireland and England, but between past and present values. They reflect the citizens’ distrust in public life and withdrawal into their own individual lives. Private concerns and personal expositions play an essential part in contemporary fiction. Today’s stories often narrate the way characters manage their lives and their relationships with others; intimate issues are treated without any taboos: sexual relationships are openly dealt with and mentioned in their diversity because everyone is master of their bodies.
9In this respect, Colm Tóibín’s collections are worth mentioning: Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family are, as their titles indicate, focused on family links. Nevertheless, the family is not idealized in this fiction: on the contrary, it is depicted as a space which hardly ever stands for comfort and well-being. It fosters guilt, incommunicability and hampers the development of its members. All of the Irish topoi are revisited in Tóibín’s stories which still deal with the traditional themes of Irish fiction, but according to the postmodern, relativist point of view of our contemporary western societies. Family values, but also Catholic beliefs and patriotic principles, which were once glorified, are now ironically re-assessed. As one character eloquently puts it: “I do not believe in God (…) I do not even believe in Ireland” (4). Adultery, homosexuality, aids, paedophilia, drug-addiction are as many themes treated in Tóibín’s fiction.
10In the past as in the present, contemporary Irish short stories can be read as adaptations of anecdotes, of news items, of unusual minor events of everyday life, which are nevertheless pointers to changes in society. However, two thematic categories can be distinguished: on the one hand, new subjects reflecting present society are noticeable. They are the antipodes of the themes that could be picked up in the stories of the past. On the other hand, great motifs, such as disillusionment or entrapment, which already characterized the Irish short stories of the 19th and 20th centuries are still present in today’s texts. The causes, manifestations and consequences of disillusionment are different, but the feeling remains. Likewise, the forms of entrapment have changed, but the sentiment is still there. Joyce’s characters are caught in the nets of an oppressive home or unhappy marriage; they brood over their jealousy towards their workmates who managed to escape their restricted universe and are likened to harnessed horses walking round and round statues. In today’s stories, characters fall into different traps, such as easy money, inextricable liaisons or addictive substances, but the motif of entrapment remains. Besides, the revelation of truth is often the same too: characters become aware of their condition by a sudden spiritual manifestation, an epiphany which opens their eyes. By the same token, in spite of their recurrent preoccupations for other places, for difference and alterity, many stories prove to be very traditional, particularly in their crafted narratives and sober style. This paradox is exemplified by Tóibín, Enright or Keegan’s stories, for instance.
11All in all, in many respects, today’s Irish stories are not so different from yesterday’s. The secret of emotions, passed on by elliptical modes of expression, is still a feature of the genre. Short stories remain small-scale, compressed forms that mean a lot with few words: “Short-stories are a lovely little explosion of a moment. They can encapsulate an entire life purely by suggestion,” according to Colum McCann who considers suggestion as the cornerstone of the genre, as Sean O’Faolain did fifty years before him: “The short-story writer’s problem of language is the need for a speech which combines suggestion with compression” (250). A short story proves that there is always more than meets the eye. Because of its brevity, it suggests a maximum with a minimum of words. It does not dwell on details but calls for decoding and incites the reader to be active. To take up Roland Barthes’s terminology, the short story is a “writerly” text—un texte scriptible, which makes demands on the reader who has to work things out, look for and provide meaning. The reader is no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.
12Beyond the requirements of this elliptical genre, suggestion establishes interconnections, especially when the story can be interpreted as an allegory, when national features are perceptible in families, when the personal is given a collective dimension. Any short story character can be perceived as embodying part of the national psyche. This capacity to go from unity to multiplicity is a specificity of the genre, which can still be observed today. The short story remains characterized by its amazing plasticity. It exceeds any limits and borders.
13As many articles in the present volume illustrate, the genre is not strictly marked out, insofar as stories construct bridges with other genres, such as theatre plays, poems or novel chapters. Besides, some of the following articles show that the boundaries of literature are also challenged, as many texts establish connections with other artistic disciplines, such as painting, music or sculpture. These connections draw on a dialogic form which is a feature of postmodern aesthetics in which the 21st century Irish short story is deeply anchored.
14The few elements of context outlined above, which seek to situate the genre in the restricted spatio-temporal context of a nation today, are exemplified and treated in depth in the following pages. These papers are grouped by themes, so that readers may compare examinations of the same type.
15A first series of articles deals with the traces of oral tradition in the Irish short story today. Colum McCann’s “Aisling” is obviously focused on the heritage of storytelling. According to Marie Mianowski, the short story writer, inspired by an ancient form of poetry, embodies the voice of an eternal Ireland. Orality is so pregnant that the reader can hear the text breathing, sighing and panting. Colm Tóibín’s stories are also humanized in the course of the talks between characters, but also the conversations between narrator and narratee or between author and reader, as Catherine Conan demonstrates. Her paper perceives in these exchanges the expression of the tensions at work in contemporary Ireland as a community. For Eoghan Smith, oral popular tradition, combined with literary naturalism, characterizes Claire Keegan’s collection, Walk the Blue Fields, and endows it with aesthetic sense. In Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s stories, Chantal Dessaint-Payard perceives a will to reconcile spoken and written languages; her article is based on a story which alternates narratives diegetically anchored in the present with tales taken from oral tradition. In this case, memory plays an essential part. Edna O’Brien’s short story, which is studied here by Vanina Jobert-Martini, is also highly connected with orality, as illustrate the talks between the two protagonists which provide the reader with “a soundtrack recording the tensions and conflicts at the heart of the plot.” Last, in Claire Keegan’s stories, Claudia Luppino notices a compromise between the survival of the old traditions of oral storytelling and their readiness to tackle Ireland’s current issues. This constant return to tradition means something fairly specific in spirit, matter and style.
16A second series of articles is more directly connected with the notions of resonance, revision and reinvention: in Elke D’hoker’s article on two stories by Edna O’Brien, the mother-daughter relationship is revisited and leads to a renewed definition of the mother-figure. Flore Coulouma considers Julian Gough as the heir to Flann O’Brien as the two writers have a lot in common, particularly their humorous and nonsensical writing or their complex relationships with orality and literacy. In a story of her latest collection, Saints and Sinners, Edna O’Brien takes up the old stereotype of the “Paddy,” the Irish manual labourer in England who personifies “brawn rather than brain.” This old tenacious cliché is revisited by Jeanette Shumaker’s paper which considers these “Shovel Kings” as creators of civilization and founders of empires.
17A third category of articles is in line with the ironic observation of contemporary Ireland. In Bertrand Cardin’s paper, irony is indeed the major characteristic of Gerard Donovan’s vision and interpretation of the prosperous years of the Celtic Tiger. The depiction of present Irish society by an ironist fits into the scheme of postmodernism, as exemplifies Anne Enright’s work which, according to Thierry Robin, can also be interpreted by post-Freudian, post-feminist and post-nationalist analyses. This post-position involves a backward look on the past with a touch of irony. Besides, in her fiction, Enright does not resort to the usual markers of the nation, and nevertheless depicts genuine Irishness. Ironic is also the narrator’s turnaround in William Trevor’s story “Justina’s Priest” whose reader, influenced by the context of clerical scandals in Ireland, would expect the relationship between the two characters—a young woman of limited intellectual development and a priest—to be somewhat asymmetrical and abusive. Using the Lacanian notion of the real which lurks beneath and around the symbolic order of language, Eugene O’Brien’s article probes “the real of this relationship.”
18The papers classified in the fourth part of the volume arouse a reflection of the text about its own nature. A collection by Emma Donoghue is considered by Debbie Brouckmans as an example of the experimental short fiction of Ireland. It is envisaged by Brouckmans’s paper in the larger context of the feminine aesthetic of rewriting and metafiction. In his article on Keith Ridgway’s stories, John McCourt perceives the characters as having a lot in common with the readers, as all of them are unable to understand their places in the world. As for Claire Majola-Leblond, she highlights the way William Trevor, who was a carver before being a writer, manages to enhance his literary production with a new dimension—his art of carving meaning.
19A number of short story collections are studied here. They all share a common feature: they were written by Irish men or women over the past two decades. They are highly diversified, particularly in the connection they establish with their authors’ nation. Some stories reflect a familiar Ireland; others have nothing to do with it. Political events like the Troubles in Northern Ireland are depicted by some, ignored by others. The link with the nation differs according to the texts, and this has been noticeable particularly since an Irish diaspora was officially recognized. Nowadays, the Irish are free to live in Ireland or not. And if they choose to live in a foreign country, it is a deliberate decision. The concept of Irishness keeps on undergoing changes and always needs to be redefined. Ireland is no longer limited to its national borders, but is open to the world. Ireland is no longer paralyzed, but free to make its decisions. This Ireland, depicted by Fintan O’Toole as “frantic, globalized and dislocated,” is mirrored in short stories. Considering the writers’ movements and places of residence, together with their international readership, is the concept of national literature still meaningful? Is an adjective of nationality still relevant to characterize a genre or a writer? How far can a writer be restricted to the nationality which is written on his/her passport? In Ireland, as in many other countries, the current short story is pluralistic, cosmopolitan and universal. Writers belong to the country in which they were born, but also to the one in which they live; they consider themselves as being parts of both, as participants and observers; they are somehow insiders and outsiders here and there. Beyond national divides, short story writers signal their desire for equality among human beings and contribute to characterizing their literary production not so much by its Irishness as by its amazing vitality.