Irish Short Stories by James Stephen, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Orflaith Foyle

As you may know, Irish Short Story Week has been extended until the end of the month and maybe beyond. The week 23 – 29 has two parallel themes, Fairy Tales and Emerging Women Writers. I chose to read three stories for this week. A fairy tale, The Enchanted Cave of Cesh Corran by James Stephens which can be found in his book Irish Fairy Tales. Then, after Mel suggested it, I read  Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Midwife to the Faeries which I found in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2011), edited by Anne Enright. The last story I read has been reviewed by Mel as well and there is a guest post of the author on his blog today. The story is Somewhere in Minnesota by Orflaith Foyle, found in the New Irish Short Stories (2001), compiled by Joseph O’Connor.

While the three stories I have read this week are quite different in tone and content, they all had something in common. They were highly disturbing. Maybe not so much the fairy tale by James Stephens, although it was certainly unusual as far as fairy tales go.

Stephen’s tale The Enchanted Cave of Cesh Corran contains a few elements typical for Irish fairy tales. There is some sort of other world and fairies but both have nothing in common with what we know from fantasy stories that claim to be influence by Irish folklore. The world in this tale is rather coarse and crude. The army chief Fionn and his men, among them Goll who hates him but serves him nonetheless, are resting near the cave of Conaran, King of the fairies. Conaran hates Fionn more than anything else and has waited for an occasion like this. He lures the men into the cave, casts a spell and calls his extremely ugly daughters to finish them off. His daughters are fairies but with whiskers. They are as fierce as they are cruel, no fair maidens at all. I won’t tell you how the story ends but there is fighting involved. It’s nothing like any other fairy tale I’ve read before, it felt very archaic but was humorous as well. It depicted a world in which hatred and friendship go hand in hand and can change at any moment. It depicts an insecure world in which life isn’t worth much.

This last element was equally present in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s excellent story Midwife to the Fairies. This is a haunting and mysterious story, a story which reads as if someone had mixed Shirley Valentine with a tale of some archaic, fierce fairies. The story begins as an interior monologue. A woman, a midwife, sits in front of the TV with her husband on a Saturday night. The voice sounds uneducated, working class but very intimate as well. Late at night someone knocks on the door. It’s an emergency and they need a midwife at once. It does seem unusual that these people wouldn’t go to a hospital but the man is forceful and she follows him into the night. What awaits her is a depressing scene. A young woman, a girl really, is about to give birth. There is a crowd in the house but nobody cares about what is going on. The midwife helps her and delivers the tiny, premature baby. What follows is sad and shocking and involves a crime. What was interesting was that the story was broken up. On every page there were bits of a fairy tale in italics. One can read only those parts and the parts together form a whole tale which mirrors the one we read. Unwanted pregnancies are a frequent theme in Irish stories. I’m not even sure, if abortion is not still forbidden in Ireland or most certainly has been much longer than in most other countries. Unwanted pregnancies is the core theme of this disturbing story. What was really disturbing was the way the people handled this. The midwife, the man, the woman giving birth and her relatives, they all pretended it didn’t happen. The fairy tale that was told in parallel had the same theme. It’s not a pretty fairy tale at all. On the contrary it contains a very shocking element as well. Fairy tales like dreams are a to a certain extent a means to express the hidden, the suppressed. Pairing these two tales made this a powerful and uncanny short story.

The third story I read, Orflaith Foyle’s Somewhere in Minnesota, wasn’t less disturbing. A young woman, an artist, sits in a diner, somewhere in Minnesota. She has run off. The woman behind the bar and a man are drawn to her. They say she triggers an urge to protect her. The young woman’s face looks bloody and destroyed, someone must have beaten her up. They assume a man has done this to her and so do we for a while. We find out that the truth is very different. There are allusions to a troubled childhood, abuse, brutality. This in itself has the power to disturb but what is far more disturbing is that the two people who pretend they want to help her, appear to be turned on by the fact that she may have been beaten by a man.

With these three tales I have moved far away from the beauty of the three other stories I have read but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like them. All of the stories I have read were very well written and powerful.

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.

If you are interested, you can still participate in Irish Short Story Week which has been extended.

Mel and I are planning on reading Frank Delaney’s Ireland together and post on it either during week 2 or 3 in April. Is anyone interested in joining us? Let us know and we can plan which date would work best for all of us.

IRELAND travels through the centuries by way of story after story, from the savage grip of the Ice Age to the green and troubled land of tourist brochures and news headlines. Along the way, we meet foolish kings and innocent monks, god-heroes and great works of art, shrewd Norman raiders and envoys from Rome, leaders, poets and lovers. Each illuminates the magic of Ireland, the power of England and the eternal connection to the land.

23 thoughts on “Irish Short Stories by James Stephen, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Orflaith Foyle

  1. I had no idea James Stephens wrote fairy tales; I’ve only known him as an irreverent poet (“The Glass of Beer” & “What Tomas Said in a Pub” are two of my favorites). Will have to check into his fairy tales, Thanks, Caroline!

    • They are available for the kindle and other e-readers very cheap. And I think on the public domain. They are very unusual. I read a few more. What I don’t know is whether he just transcribed fairy tales or whether they are his own. It’s not said in my copy. I didn’t know he wrote poetry. Thanks, I’ll look them up.

      • Just a quick note, all of James Stephens fairy tales can be downloaded for free at I posted on a short story of his set in a Dublin theatrical agency.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! ‘Midwife to the Fairies’ looks quite fascinating to me. Frank Delaney’s ‘Ireland’ looks like a fascinating novel. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

    I am hoping to read a few stories for Irish Short Story Week, staring from tomorrow. ‘Araby’ is at the top of the list 🙂 The other stories that I am thinking of are – James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Boarding House’, James Stephens’ ‘The Desire’ and Liam O’ Flaherty’s ‘The Sniper’. I am also hoping to read some fairytales / myths from a couple of collections I have.

    • Thanks, Vishy. It’s great that you will be posting as well. I’m looking forward to youre review. I’m curious to see what you think of James Joyce. All of them are wonderful. And I’m very interested in the James Stephens story. Obooki recommended his stories but I only found the fairy tales.
      Midwife to the Fairies is an amazing story. I’d like to read more of her.

    • Stephens’ stories are very different from what I’ve read so far, very archaic.
      The other authors are well worth keeping in mind. They are bothe excellent.

  3. I really hope to read Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s “Midwife to the Faries” one day, her story “Tresspass” was shockingly dark

    the stories of Orflaith Foyle are all great-maybe the stories of Stephens are dating a bit now-

    I changed my header picture to reflect the dates of ISSW2 and I also added a pic referencing our read along on Ireland by Frank Delany-

    I will do a new update soon

    for those interested-Irish Short Story Week (yes long week) will now run until April 11

    • It’s very dark. I didn’t expect it but well done. I would like to read more Foyle. I’ll try and get the collection.
      There are still reviews to come. I think Danille might review Toibin and I’m sure Vishy will participate.
      I hope more people join for the Delaney. It’s always great to read other’s thoughts. I’m looking forward to it anyway.

    • I’m not sure, to be honest. I would have to ask Mel or Orflaith herself. She grew up in Africa and has lived in Australia too. Not sure. I liked the story and will read her collection soon.

  4. I like the sound of the stories you write about but especially the second one. I was hoping the story would be in my Vintage collection I read from, but instead there is a story by her called Blood and Water. Maybe it has a similar theme. I still hope to read a few more short stories and have been reading from the Colm Toibin collection I picked up earlier in the year.

    • I liked both writers, they were both new to me and I want to read more of their stories. It would be interesting to know whether Blood and Water is similar. I hope you will review some of Toibin’s stories. Next year it will be a Irish Short Story Month – which it turns out to be as well now.

  5. All three sounds very interesting….much more interesting than the fairies stories I read for this event. each has its own depth. Although you said they are rather disturbing but it doesn’t altered the fun of reading them. I wish I had better luck in my Irish reading just like you

    • Yes, they were great and disturbing. Unfortunately the world isn’t as nice as we wish it to be, so depicting the truth or a part of reality can be disturbing.
      I think Mel has posted a review on the writer whose ghost stories you have read.
      The fairy tale I read was quite funny. When you think of fairies you don’t imagine some hairy big women with whiskers who will knock down and an army of men. 🙂

  6. Novroz, soon There will be a ghost stories week on Irish short story week year two, try some stories by joseph sheridan le fanu if they are in your anthology, i will be posting on ghost stories by charlotte riddell,from 19th century, real ghost stories, i will tweet you a link, also look for stories by lord dunsany, I will find you some good irish ghost stories to read, I have also once again extended the event, to April 31

    Thanks so much to all who join in, guest posting is also fine

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