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.

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?