Irish Short Stories by Kevin Barry, Elizabeth Bowen and James Joyce

I had some plans for Irish Short Story Week but as usual I ended up reading mostly something else. I discovered two new short story collections which contain a wide range of stories. One is The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story(2011), edited by Anne Enright, the other one, New Irish Short Stories (2001), was compiled by Joseph O’Connor.

Anne Enright’s introduction to The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story was particularly interesting as she writes about short stories in general and underlines that the Irish have a very distinct short story tradition. Here is my favourite quote from her introduction:

I am not sure whether the novel is written for our convenience, but it is probably written for our satisfaction. That is what readers complain about with short stories, that they are not “satisfying”. They are the cats of literary form; beautiful but a little too self-contained for some readers’ tastes.

Kevin Barry is a writer I wasn’t familiar with. He is one of a very few who has a story in both collections. I read one from New Irish Short Stories called Beer Trip to Llandudno. What a hilarious story. It tells about a trip of a group of fortysomething men who regularly take trips to towns and cities just to sample the local beer. They move from one bar to the next and from pub to pub. Drinking beer is more than a hobby, it’s a religion. They take it extremely seriously and discuss the taste and flavour in minute detail. At the end, they rate the beer according to a complicated system. Of course, the more beers they have sampled, the more they are drunk and the trip gets farcical. If the story had ended there it would have been amusing but Barry goes much farther than that. He manages to convey a whole life in a few random sentences, in one or two allusions to side stories, he shows us more than a few guys on a beer trip but a group of human beings who have suffered, hoped, lost their dreams and  adjusted to life in various ways. Still, despite a lot of heartache and disappointment, they have kept their joy of life, their humour and their enthusiasm. Barry has only written one novel so far, City of Bohane which came out last year. Needless to say that I ordered it. This is a writer with a rare gift and I would love to read his novel.

Here’s the mini-blurb

This is the cool, comic, violent and lyrical debut novel from one of Ireland’s most talented new writers.

Elizabeth Bowen’s Summer Night is one of her most famous short stories. I found it in Anne Enright’s collection. It’s a beautiful, evocative story that takes place on a summer night in the Irish countryside. At the beginning a woman speedily drives a car through the landscape, seeing the sun go down and how everything is transformed by the softness of the light. Only the houses on a hill in the distance are still bathing in the sunlight. That’s where she is going but we do not know it yet. The point of view changes after a few pages. We do now see a scene in a large country house. A phone is ringing. The point of view changes again and another phone rings. We meet the people in those other houses, we know that they are linked to the woman in the car who is the one ringing but we don’t know what is going on. It will take the whole 30 pages of the story for us to find out the secret at the heart of the story. The character descriptions are masterful and the dynamics between the people very complex and subtle but what I liked most about the story was the description how the summer night transforms the surroundings, how the changing of the light seems to cast a spell over the landscape.

James Joyce’s Araby was the third short story I read. It was actually a re-read. I wasn’t aware when I wrote my introduction that Araby was the short story which was the reason why Dubliners is one of my all-time favourite books. I don’t want to write too much about it, I’m afraid my words would dispel its magic. It’s an enchanting, lyrical story that has a lot in common with Elizabeth Bowen’s Summer Night. I would call both stories, twilight stories. Twilight because at one point they describe the light at sun set but also because everything is half-hidden, half revealed. The feelings are hinted at, nothing is in the open. While Bowen’s story is a summer story, Araby is set in winter. What is interesting is to imagine the two stories like paintings. One is a softly colored summer painting, the other captures the darker colors of winter.

If you like, you can read Araby here.

I read the three stories as a contribution to Irish Short Story Week hosted by Mel u from The Reading Life.

Reviews and further suggestions can be found here.

How is your Irish Short Story Week going? Have you found anything interesting?

92 thoughts on “Irish Short Stories by Kevin Barry, Elizabeth Bowen and James Joyce

    • Thanks Seamus. I loved how different the stories were which I read. Barry is really good, it was like being on that trip, the dialogue is spot on.
      There is a Maeve Brennan story in the book which Enright edited and it seems to be one of the best. I’m very interested to read your review.

    • Seamus-Maeve Brennan is a lovely writer with a tragic life history, as you know. I will look forward to reading your thoughts on her and thanks you for participating.

  1. Beautiful review, Caroline! ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ looks like a wonderful story from your description. I want to read that sometime. I loved the way you have compared ‘Araby’ and ‘Summer Night’ to paintings. The line – “One is a softly colored summer painting, the other captures the darker colors of winter.” – is so beautiful.

  2. I’m grateful to learn through your post about the Kevin Berry beer story. I have an un-bookish young friend whose international travel so far has consisted entirely of a trip to sample beers in a handful of places in Ireland. He’s a smart guy, and I’ve always been a bit puzzled by his lackluster interest in literature. This sounds like it might be just the thing he needs to bring him around.

  3. I read the same Kevin Barry story a month ago. I really liked it a lot also, it shows how important pubs and male bonding through drinking is in parts of the Irish Culture. One of his newest stories can be found in the archives of The New Yorker, in the free section. It also focuses a lot on drinking and pub life. I have the O’Connor anthology and would get the Enright one if it were available as a kindle edition. Elizabeth Bowen is one of my favorite writers and I agree there is a powerful subtle intelligence behind her stories. I posted a few days ago on James Joyce’s story “Eveline” about a woman who wants to leave Ireland but is trapped by guilt and fear.

    Thanks so much for joining in and encouraging others to join also.

    For all those considering joining, there are extensive resources on my blog, including links to lots of web pages of Irish Women writers, many of which have linked stories. To join in all you have to do is to post about an Irish Short story on your blog and let me know about it so I can include it in the master post at the end of the month-

    Thanks again Caroline

    • Thanks Mel, for your comments. I want to read my way through your posts. I’m curious about Eveline.
      I have quite a few British and Irish co-workers and Barry’s story reminded me a lot of them. The term male-bonding didn’t come to my mind but, of course that’s what it is about. It’s funny and touching at the same time. I’m intersted in reading more of him, thanks for mentioning the free story.

  4. I want to read the Barry story. One of the things we love to do is sample local beers when we travel. The story sounds pretty entertaining. I hope you like his novel. He sounds like a great find.

    I’m off to a slow start for this week. I’ve spent more time battling a cold than reading. Hopefully the next few days will be more fruitful.

    • I had a feeling you were “absent” sort of. I hope you feel better soon.
      I think it’s a fun story and the way they dispute with some National Beer Rating Agency how beer should be rated correctly is funny. The story is in his collection. The novel seems very different. Rather dsytopian from what I understand.

  5. I really like the sound of Barry’s story more than the other two. It felt so much like Irish, you know them with beers 😉
    I’d love to know what you think of his Novel because I remember there was this author who was so great in short stories but failed in novel, I forgot his name. I hope Barry’s novel wont be like that.

    I have read 4 very short stories and will write it tonight before I go to sleep.

    • It’s typically Irish or British. I thought it was funny and deep, I liked it a lot.
      Bowen and Joyce are more beautiful, I loved both stories but to make a great story out of something that seems so trivial is great.
      I’m very keen on reading his novel. And your reviews. 🙂

  6. These stories sound great. “Beer Trip to Llandudno” sounds especially interesting to me. Strangely It sounds like it might have been written about me! I am a forty something man who regularly visits obscure locations to sample hard to find beers. I have a discussions with friends detaining subtle flavors and have a complex rating system. Doesn’t everybody do this? I will soon be reading this story!

    • Thanks for visiting, Brian. Your comment made me laugh. I don’t know if everybody does that. I have a few friends who enjoy beer but they stick to the same one and defend it against any other beer. It’s a great story and in a way has an almost universal appeal and still nobody wrote about it so far. I hope you will like it should you try him.

  7. i found an anthology on amazon today of irish drinking stories with writers like samuel beckett and edna o’brien. Selling for one cent plus post, i cannot buy it as to me the post is $15.00 i will look on line for the beckett story. eddie stack who I hope to post on writes a lot of drinking stories, four of his stories are online free at his webpage

    • I know. It’s often the same for me as Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union. Prizes from some countries like the UK are very high. It’s OK from Germany and France.

  8. I’ve not heard of Kevin Barry before–must look him up–I don’t read enough humor. I pulled out my half read Colm Toibin (the nice thing about short story collections is being able to set them aside temporarily and not lose the thread as the stories are all independent of each other), but I’ve not had a chance yet to read any of the remaining stories. Hopefully this weekend I can squeeze in a couple–would really like to read that Bowen and will see if it is in any of my anthologies at home! Sounds like a nice variety of stories you’ve read.

    • Barry is an original writer. I just received the novel and it looks very intriguing bit China Miéville meets Roddy Doyle. I’m spoilt for choice now with all of Mel u’s great recommendations. there is such a lot avaliable for free online. I would love to hear what you think of Toibin’s stories. Yes, it’s ideal, you can pick up a short story collection whenever you want.
      Summer Night is an amazing story, quite haunting. I loved her descriptions. I discovered two novellas by William Trevor, one of them My House in Umbria (and I also have the unwatched DVD here) – I think I’ll read that now or at least before the end of the month since he has extended the event until March 31.

  9. I like the sound of the Barry story.

    It made me think of wine events (like Les Hospices de Beaune) where people sip wines and try to throw subtle and inspired comments about what they’re drinking. I can imagine a film like Mes meilleurs copains, of men travelling near Bordeaux and visiting wine cellars and castles.

    I’m desperate :I don’t recall Araby at all, and I’ve read it last summer.

    • I have a feeling that you even mentioned Araby in the comments thread as the story you liked best… maybe I’m wrong. It’s odd as I loved it but I forgot the title. It’s the story about the boy who wants to buy a present at a bazar…
      Barry is fun and it’s very interesting to compare wine and beer tasting. It’s soo dfferent. I could hit wine tasters on the head with all their silly mannerism. Beer tasting is more down to earth.

      • Oh yes, I remember now. It was different from the others. When I think about Dubliners, I realise the only story I remember of is The Dead. Terrible. Especially since I really liked the book.

        ” I could hit wine tasters on the head with all their silly mannerism” Me too. They seem to be on a competition : who will use the most unusual adjective to describe wine. There are A LOT of them here, of course, talking about their cellars at lunch.

        • We had to go to some wine tasting at work once. Me and another girl who never drinks laughed our heads off. One guy tried to show off and used the most hilarious descriptions and got it all wrong. That’s quite different here, the way they rate and discuss beer, more like, how fresh is it, how is the foam, color, all things I get easily as well. Taste too, of course.
          Mind you I like nice wine but it’s enough for me to like it, it doesn’t need to taste of “burned sugar spiced with a hint of young violets blossoming on a spring evening”…

          • I must admit somewhat sheepishly that myself and some of my friends are more along the lines “burned sugar spiced with a hint of young violets blossoming on a spring evening” when rating beers.

            • Hmmm… Interesting. I would love to hear what you come up with. You must admit, I put my imagination into that line. That makes me wonder if there is any beer out there that would trigger a flowery scent association.

              • There are actually many beers that have floral aromas and flavors. Even when they are not brewed with flowers. There are also a fair number of beers actually brewed with flowers.

                If you check out websites such as Beer Advocate you can check out lots of reviews, many of which get into complex and subtle descriptions. I do keep a spreadsheet with all my notes. It is not as detailed as some folks keep however. If anyone is really interested if you email me I will pass it along.

                I really do need to read this story!

                • Interesting, I didnt know that and certainly wasn’t aware that there could be real flowers involved. You knw in France we have the tradition to mix beer with syrup and lemonade. Probably an awful thought for you. I hope you wont be disappointed as their beer rating is quite rudimentary. Still, it’s a good story. Thanks for offering the spreadsheet.

  10. Anyone who likes Barry’s “Beer Trip” story should immediately check out his collection There Are Little Kingdoms – it’s very good. I’m not tempted by his novel but I’d wholeheartedly recommend the stories. John Self has reviewed it at his blog: http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/kevin-barry-there-are-little-kingdoms/

    My next Irish short story project will be William Trevor, as somewhat shamefully I must admit I’ve never read him.

    • Leroy, the moment I had the novel in my hands I was a bit puzzled (should have read the description before ordering it). It sounds very China Miéville. Still, the writing is very different. I thought I’d like to read the whole short story collection. thanks for the heads up and the link. It’s been a while since I last visited John’s blog.
      I like William Trevor a lot. Especially the novels. Let me know which one you pick.

  11. I had wanted to read Beer Trip to Llandudno ever since I read Mel U’s review but then I never did get around to it. Thanks for reminding me of this story. Will be reading it right away.

    • It’s really worth reading. I wasn’t aware Mel reviewed it. Hmm Have to check out the review now. I hope you will like it and as you may have seen, it seems the whole collection is great.

  12. To be sure you have it, here is a link from the University of Sydney on Barbara Baynton-I am endorsing for Australian Irish Women’s Day, her “The Closed Vessel” (sometimes called just “The Vessel) and Squakayers Mate-I have the title wrong but you will see it-her life is itself an amazing story-

    http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/p00031.pdf

    I posted on the Kevin Barry story before the challenge began-as there is a lot of interest in his work I will try to post on his story in The New Yorker as everyone who wants can read it for free-

    • Thanks for the link.
      Yes, there seems to be a lot of interest in Barry’s stories. Nobody seems to have read his novel though. I got it and browsed it. I might read it in Aprl but not just now.

  13. Hi-I just want to let everyone know that there is a guest post on my blog today by Shauna Gilligan, a widely published short story writer from Dublin-I also added to the posts links to some of her own short stories

    Irish Short Story Week Will continue until at least March 31-to join in all you have to do is post on one Irish Short Story and let me know-if you prefer I am very happy to post your thoughts on my blog

    March 23 to March 29 I will be featuring Irish Folk and Fairy tales and also Emerging Irish Women Writers

  14. Hi-Just trying to let interested parties that I have posted another update on Irish Short Story Week Year Two listing all the new posts by participants, Emerging Irish Women Writers week march 23 to march 29 will is now official! also on March 26 or 27 Susan of You Can Never have too Many Books and I plan to do a joint post on four stories of Bernie McGill, all of which can be read online-

    Caroline-thanks so much to you and your readers for your support and interest for Irish Short Story Week Year Two-

    set now to close on March 31 but I may add on a week

    • Thanks for the info, Mel, and you are welcome. It’s a great event, I’m glad you are hosting it.
      It would be great if we could read the Delaney together in April.

  15. Pingback: Irish Short Stories by James Stephen, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Orflaith Foyle « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  16. Pingback: Irish Short Story Week – some short stories and fairy tales « Vishy’s Blog

  17. I added four new posts by Participants in Irish Short Story Week Year Two (now extended to April 31) to the update page yesterday-

    coming soon

    Ghost Stories week starring Charlotte Riddell (19th century author of some real scary ghost stories) and with appearances by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, probably Elizabeth Bowen, and who knows who else my float it?

    Priests Week with a guest appearance by Anton Chekhov with his most Irish Short Story, “The Bishop”, will include William Trevor, Colm Toibus, Frank O’Connor and some others

    E. R. Week-not related to the American Medical Show!-to be a surprise

    Maybe events

    William Carelton Week

    Desmond Hogan week-with a guest post by a real expert on his work

    I will also continue posting on Emerging Irish Women Writers, I will not stop at seven. I am needing help selecting in this area. I am very excited over the quality of the stories I am reading.

    There will be stop over from some of the world’s greatest short story writers.

    Colette has sent word she will stop by but we will believe that when we see her. Flannery O’Connor will be here to represent the Irish Americans. Ryunosuke Akutagawa will for sure be stopping. Rabindranath Tagore will stop by to say hello, he has a strong Irish connection and is also the first Asian to have won the Nobel prize. Maybe he will join us for Nobel Prize winners day. All of these writers have strong connections to the Irish Short Story. I am looking, I hope Nancy Cudis will help me here, for a writer from the Philippines who could join us.

    • This is amazing, Mel. Really great. I guess we postpone reading the novel. That will give me the opportunity to read some of William Trevor’s short stories.

    • Mel, I think we should wait. It will be realted to your Irish Short Story week but come afterwards. I’d like to read one of Trevor’s novellas I downloaded the other day.

  18. Kevin Barry just won a £30,000 prize in a best short story contest for the story you posted on. I got today a copy of Claire Keegan’s collection of short stories, Anartica, read the first two stories, amazing, I feel a Claire Keegan week coming on. Also a week on Colm tobias collection, Mothers and Sons, My great thanks to you for your help and there is plenty of time to join and enough material for a dozen life times

    • This is great news, I’m pleased for Barry.
      There is really enough material – I feel an Irish Short Story Year coming.
      I haven’t read Keegan but think there is one of her stories in an anthology I have.

    • I’ve been looking everywhere, including Mel’s blog but can’t find an online version. I’m sorry. There is another one available online but not this one.

  19. Irish Short Story Week Year Two will for sure end on july 1,
    Two more guest posts coming soon, one by Ethel Rohan author of “Beast and the Bear” and a first look at Kevin Barry’s new collection as well as my post on a book by a follower of my blog that is listed for the Frank O ‘Connor prize. I will be the first to post on this work due out shortly. Shauna Gilligan will be publishing an orginal story also.

    Plenty of time to join us!

  20. Hi, i just posted two updates, one on guestsrtipant posts, now over thirty and one on my plans for the next 85 days for Irish Short Story Week, for sure to end july 1

  21. Caroline. just wanted to announce a whole new area Irish Short Story Week is now warmly welcoming. Stories by Latin American writers of Irish descent. I have, in fact, recently discovered this new to me area. i need help in this area as my Spanish is weak. Just google something like latin american Irish Writers. There are English language works that can be read online. Minimum requirement is an Irish great grand parent.

  22. Caroline. I will do some work on latin american irish writers and be back with you on this.thanks so much. There was a big emmigration to Argentina. I will be back to you

  23. I just want all those who are customers of Amazon and live in the UK (other countries can try but it does not work for those in USA or Philippines) that for seven days only you can download a free kindle edition of Beer Trip to Llandudno. –

  24. Hi, there is a new update with new links to posts by participants. I have renamed the event to The Irish Quarter: A Celebration of the Irish Short Story, the event will run until july one and all are welcome to join in

  25. I agree with you on the beautyness of the story.
    I especcially like the role of Justin and how she has depicted his character.

    What do you say if I guess aunt Fran murdered Vivie (perhaps “killed” is a better word)?

  26. Pingback: Some Short Stories by Elizabeth Bowen – Mrs Windermere – The Demon Lover – A Day in the Dark | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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