Irish Short Fiction: A Saint Patrick’s Day Review

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| By Eric Bargeron, Layman Poupard Publishing |

This Saint Patrick’s day, readers of Literature Criticism Online can distinguish themselves from the masses by eschewing green beer and shamrock kitsch, and contemplating instead the many contributions of Ireland to the world of literature. As critic Terence Brown notes in Short Story Criticism, volume 226, “it is scarcely a disputable fact of literary history that Irish prose fiction writers have been drawn to the short story form and have indeed excelled in it.” That volume, which is devoted entirely to Irish writers, includes a lengthy entry on James Joyce. His stories, all of which are contained in the collection Dubliners, are widely considered to be among the best in the English language. Joyce himself was fairly convinced of the importance of the book, even before its publication, as Morris Beja writes in his essay “One Good Look at Themselves”:

During their dispute over the problems in bringing out an edition of Dubliners, James Joyce wrote the publisher Grant Richards that ‘I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.’

Joyce, who left Ireland for good in 1904, is rivaled in reputation as a short story writer by Frank O’Connor, also treated in Short Story Criticism 226. Born Michael Francis O’Donovan in 1903, he left home at age fourteen after a difficult childhood, joined the Irish Republican Army a year later, and fought in the Irish War of Independence. After the war he began writing, adopting the pseudonym Frank O’Connor for fear that his views on the social conservatism of post-revolutionary society might cost him his civil-service job as a librarian. In his essay “Frank O’Connor’s Lonely Voice,” Eibhear Walshe notes that following the establishment of an independent Irish state in 1922 O’Connor became disillusioned with the new nation’s “Catholic ethical codes and laws”:

As a former revolutionary, O’Connor felt entitled to critique the state he had helped create and wrote about the aftermath of the Irish War of Independence and the traumatic Civil War in these terms, ‘What neither group saw was that […] what we were bringing about was a new establishment of Church and State in which imagination would play no part and young men and women would emigrate to the end of the earth, not because the country was poor but because it was mediocre.’

Despite O’Connor’s fears, the opposite proved true in the case of writer Mary Lavin, who was born to Irish immigrant parents in Massachusetts in 1912 and moved to Ireland with her mother at the age of ten, around the time the Irish War of Independence was wrapping up. Her first collection appeared in 1942, but her short-fiction work was probably best-known to American readers through her association with the New Yorker magazine, which published sixteen of her stories between 1958 and 1976. Gráinne Hurley’s essay “Trying to Get the Words Right” in Short Story Criticism 226 offers insight into Lavin’s writing process through her correspondence with the magazine. It also gives a picture of New Yorker editor William Shawn’s squeamishness in the face of some of Lavin’s frank descriptions:

William Shawn proved as uneasy as his predecessor, Harold Ross, with references to sex and bodily functions in the magazine, and included in his list of words that he would not permit in the magazine were ‘balding’ and ‘pimples.’ The bloodiness of Lavin’s ‘The Lost Child’ presented a problem because ‘it made Mr. Shawn sick,’ but [fiction editor Rachel] MacKenzie ‘assured him we could drain a good bit off in the editing.’

Lavin was agreeable to many editorial cuts to her work, perhaps because, as Hurley notes, “she could still use her suppressed material in another version.”

To sum up: take a good look in the mirror and be willing to offer honest critiques, but be prepared to accept suppression. On second thought, where was that green beer? And a traditional toast to “Ireland—St. Patrick destroyed its creeping things of other days—may his disciples speedily exterminate the political reptiles of the present age.”

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