Irish Short Story
Adam Kavanagh (15437978)
Irish Fiction After 2005 (ENG31360)
Submission Date: 18/05/2018 (Extension Granted)
What do you consider to be the distinctive achievements of the short story within contemporary Irish writing? Discuss with detailed reference to at least three short stories (by two authors or more) on the course.
Chosen short stories
Foster, Claire Keegan
The Clancy Kid, Colin Barrett
The Moon, Colin Barrett
The Irish short story has a tendency to be misrepresented and overgeneralised in the works of some authors in recent times. Their form often revolves around the outsider in their battle with social constraints and in which loneliness featured as the privileged emotion. The success of the Irish short story can be explained by virtue of its closeness to the oral storytelling tradition and its embeddedness within rural Irish culture. Most Irish novelists regard their society as odd, self-defeating and out-of-touch with other Western societies, unable to achieve the stable, universalised view of human life that they seek.
This essay will focus on how these stories achieve their own distinct attributes of conveying landscape, community and relationships in ways synonymous with Irish culture, and ultimately what make their collection of stories a great success.
There is often a lot of familiarity amongst native readers that require little to no explanation of the cultural context. Often the writer assumes the reader has some familiarity with the place from the beginning. It sets up to give a natural feel to the landscape, which Barrett’s writing allows the “anxieties and claustrophobia of Glanbeigh appear as timeless”. [Mulrennan]
“My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs inside the square mile of the town’s limits. (Barrett, p.3).”
We associate early inclinations of what lies ahead with the generalised view of a rural Irish town. Images of the mockumentary series ‘The Hardy Bucks’ come to mind when we observe the characters; a bunch of lazy, uninspiring lads who speak of only past glory and their younger years. The native readers’ real-life knowledge of what has happened to small towns because of the economic crash goes beyond the Irish context. Non-native readers notice there is something not quite right. In The Clancy Kid, Jimmy does not speak of any character working at all, a sign that there are not many employment opportunities available.
“Barrett’s own description of Glanbeigh labels it as “too familiar, finitely-horizoned, sort of moribund. The countryside and rural towns are becoming even more paradoxical and incongruous places” [Mulrennan].
“Here there is room, and time to think” [Keegan p.13].
Barrett’s characters have always been there, often deemed not inspiring enough to document. Economic uncertainty only exacerbates the struggles they face as it seeps slowly into becoming a relevant part of their lives.
He was reimagining the type of person who sticks around, what consolations they might find in a place like Glanbeigh. Jimmy fits the bill, being able to describe Glanbeigh and the landscape in all its natural, albeit simple beauty. It is tranquil, peaceful and seems a million miles from any significant places, lost in a maze of rural villages, economic and social depravity and a lack of opportunity. Their lives exist only in Glanbeigh. “His stories are crowded with young men and women making a racket while going nowhere, with ambitions that don’t really stretch past scoring the next high or kissing the next girl” [Mulrennan]. Through Barrett’s characters, the reader gets an insight into the multi-layered rural Ireland, post-Celtic Tiger but pre-social media. His stories do not directly address the economic recession, more acknowledging its impact via the reoccurring images of money (and the lack of it).
“They are literally and figuratively miles from where the power is, and the people in power. [Mulrennan]. The community of Glanbeigh only remain concerned with what happens there. They are not interested in the happenings in Dublin or Europe. Glanbeigh does not matter to those in power or key decision makers, on a national or international scale. In The Moon, we see that Val doesn’t care for the luxuries of traveling, college or seeing past the local scene. He is there and appears to have taken pride in his own self-confinement of his village an everyone around his as they excel and he remains stagnant.
Yet, these remain as male-focused interpretations of the landscape. While not misrepresented by any means, gives a slightly hypersexualised narrative in both cases.
Alternatively, Claire Keegan’s stories are also set in contemporary rural Ireland; but with a young female narrator. Foster appears to be set in the 1980s, in the middle of conflict in Northern Ireland between H-Block Prisoners on hunger strike and the backlash rising from their treatment. It was also a time of great economic uncertainty.
Her descriptions of locale and rendering of speech plainly show a picturesque version of Clonegal, bordering the counties of Wexford and Carlow. Admiration of well-kept farmland is something foreign to her. Her own home is the antithesis of the Kinsella farm; cluttered and messy; there being no sink and a water bucket stands beneath the table.
“The Kinsella’s fields are broad and level, divided in strips with electric fences she says I must not touch unless I want a shock. When the winds blows, sections of the longer grass bend over turning silver. On one strip of land, tall Friesian cows stand all around us.”
In Foster, a child goes away from home to stay with an unknown couple, due to the struggles in her own family home. “It is a story of quiet optimism, highlighting the significance of a positive parental influence and pleasant family environment” [Jones]. However real the surrounding poverty and hardships may be, Keegan depicts adults (the child’s birth parents) failing miserably at ensuring the safety and due care of the most vulnerable societal group, children. With this, she becomes the responsibility of another family. “Keegan comments “It’s an examination of home and an examination of neglect; I don’t trust that home is necessarily where one finds one happiness” [Lynch].
Social and economic hardship do not become the main issue at any point in her foster home; perhaps with the landscape or the psyche of rural dwellers feeling similar to Glanbeigh. They are too far from decision making, only paying attention to what is around them. The slow rhythms of life are based on rural and agricultural activity of what seems an earlier Irish generation. “The young narrator of the story, is fostered out to a home which has an abundance of unfamiliar household items; “a freezer, a hoovering machine, and other mod cons yet, incongruously, they have to go to the well down the fields to fetch water for the tea. There are also shopping visits to the local town and the child is taken to a local wake during the course of the novel” [Hanley], indicating the foster family are more financially secure and have a general involvement in their community.
A question raised in Barrett and Keegan’s work is, how could focusing on a close-knit community be liberating for any writer?
While the author does touch on the urge to emigrate and there are recurring images of small spaces and of people being trapped; Young Skins explores the decision to stay, to live and exist in a small town. Val and Jimmy are stereotypical locals to this submerged population. They know everyone and have their noses (occasionally) in everyone’s business. Every small event is the talk of the town. While emigration is a vital part of the Irish psyche of this era in Barrett’s work, he has chosen not to write about emigrants, but about the young men that stayed. The significance is not just staying in Ireland but in rural Ireland. The trauma of the economic crash is there in the underlying structure of Glanbeigh.
“A burden for Irish people is this reputation of Ireland as virtuous, saintly, scholarly, family oriented, and all this stuff and reality, of course, is quite different.” Nothing has shattered the idealized depiction of Irish family life more than the revelations of neglect and abuse of children from institutional, clerical and familial sources. The child has long been a notable presence in Irish fiction” [Lynch], citing the obvious issues with the child’s anxieties of feeling unwanted in her own home. The girls thoughts range far upon arrival: fears of being put to hard work, an awareness of the village where her father lost their heifer by gambling, her knowledge that her mother is not often in good humour, and her embarrassed recognition of her appearance, that she looks “wild as a tinker’s child with my hair all loose.”
Contrary to expectation, “the farmhouse kitchen is immaculate and welcoming” [Lynch], with a sense of togetherness far greater with the foster family. “The Kinsella’s are good neighbours and people come to John and Edna for help with various tasks; to dig a grave for a neighbour or help if a cow is having difficulty calving. “They are protected by those around them and neighbours admire their stoicism in dealing with their terrible tragedy.” [Hanley].
With these insular, perfect communities, comes secrecy. In the Moon, we observe Val’s conquests with the local females and keeping the details of his sexual encounters with Joan, Martina’s best friend, to himself. The secret of The Kinsella’s is more something hidden that doesn’t need to be told. Foster deals with more harrowing secrets in the girl’s discovery that the clothes she wore had belonged to the dead son of her foster family, whom drowned in a well some years previously.
The emotional currents of family and community are rife in these stories. [Jones]
When it comes to the developing relationships in these short stories, Jimmy describes it most accurately when stating “We all have things we won’t let go of”. Jimmy refuses to let go of his possessive, unrequited love for “My Marlene”. Val can’t stop himself from obsessively fantasising another passionate fling with Martina; the one that got away. He is confined to his own solitude, which makes his life more unbearable. Val appears to have few if any friends. Friendship is an antidote to the claustrophobia and isolation inherent for each character. Barrett once explained in an Irish Times podcast that “these friendships are a way for characters to find their own networks and familial units, as there are hardly any nuclear family set ups in the Young Skins”. The examples of friendship and alternate family set-ups offer a possible way to console the self and a way to overcome the internal exile of young men in rural Ireland” [Mulrennan]. Although problematic, it is possibly the only viable solution.
Indeed, the received version of the family has often had a baleful influence.
Jimmy tells us that Tug was “bred in a family warped by grief”.
Families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving.”.
Foster covers a few months in this damaged child’s immediate moment, with evocative intimations of a troubled past. Her namelessness becomes a metaphor for the realities of her short life, lacking identity and recognition. The absence of a name underscores the loss of identity and dehumanizing that this girl has suffered. “The second-person voice suggests a profound emotional detachment in the narrator.” [Lynch]
As Foster progresses, a positive and significant relationship develops between the child and her host parents. John Kinsella is an excellent, active guardian. He praises her, gives her a pound note to buy sweets and nicknames her “Petal”. Petal has never called her biological father “Daddy.” By crying “Daddy” at the end of the novel, she warns John Kinsella of the approach of the man with the stick, her birth father. “The female development sketched in Foster is thus again a hopeful one, as the girl’s stay with her foster parents has taught her about differences and choices, about responsibility and respect. [Lynch]. We recognise the coming-of-age nature of her maturity beyond her years from time spent away. Unsurprisingly, she wishes that it was her permanent home.
“As soon as he takes it, I realise my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go so I won’t have to feel this. It’s a hard feeling but as we walk along I begin to settle and let the difference between my life at home and the one I have here be” (Keegan, pg 64).
The bond with her foster family is clear, reiterating a profound sense of a lack of love or affection in her own home. Wanting to do something special for the Kinsella’s during the difficult pre-departure period, Petal runs to the well to fetch water, falls in, and gets chilled. The Kinsella’s keep her in bed for a weekend. As Edna nurses her, Petal reads, rests, and dreams of her mother stuck in a tree, suggesting that she intuits her mother is trapped in a hopeless situation. “Keegan renders this in a paralyzing, and Joycean, ending that proclaims how disastrous the plight of the damaged child can be”. [Lynch]. It nearly brought a repeat of the very same set of circumstances that led to the death of the Kinsella’s own son. “The girl realises the near tragedy that could have occurred, while Edna realises she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that their daughter had drowned. I think that she was living with that and also, of course, the incident had brought back her own grief”. [Hanley]
Despite the awful tragedy which has befallen the household, both John and Edna are coping as well as can be expected following the death of their only child. There is a sharp juxtaposition between John Kinsella and Dan, the young girl’s father. He treats the young girl as if she was his own daughter, a privilege she is not familiar with from the neglect from her own parents. Both John and Edna are model parents. They develop attachments to her in different ways, ultimately giving her the feeling of being secure in a proper family.
“You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing” (Foster p.64).
The lack of nuclear families described by Barrett through his work is clear in Keegan’s own illustrations of family, as the girl is only made to feel comfortable in the Kinsella’s home, not her own. While economic hardship appears to have taken over the lives of her own family, the parents seemingly forget their obligations to look after their children should take priority. Jimmy contributes a line bearing great significance in relation to the formation of family and what it means in the context of the relationship between Marlene and Mark. When Tug asked about the situation between her and Cuculann, he explains
“They have a baby, so it’s only fair they play Mammy and Daddy” (Barrett, p. 8)
Resembling a playful game, this is where perhaps children can be traumatised or neglected by parents who were never meant to be. This child has been brought into the world by two people who don’t appear to have the maturity level to look after a baby, yet chose not to take measures to ensure this did not happen.
When we look further into the text, and the lads encounter with an unsupervised group of children by the river, we observe that this could perhaps be an embodiment of where that child will be in a number of years; playing in a dangerous, unsupervised spot with significant risk. The men speak little about their own family, delivering a conclusion that the model of disillusionment with trying to play happy families is set to continue past the next generation in the context of all three narratives observed.
The stories successfully implement narrative where little to nothing is happening, yet it proves a fascinating read.
“Crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts.” A “big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,” its movements,”describing a flustered circle,” and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is “eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw.” (Barrett, p.3)
The pace of this excerpt epitomises the unwillingness to change or to act when it comes to some of the characters. There is no pressure or sense of immediacy in their routine. The phrase of ‘existing rather than living’ comes to mind. They successfully indicate the unreachable standards set by the characters in the confinement of their own locale. Perhaps, it is therefore more accurate to state that the feeling of loneliness is but one dimension of what Anne Enright considers ‘one of the great themes of the short story’, that is to say, ‘connection and the lack of it.
Barrett, C. Young Skins: Vintage Press. 2013.
Hanley, V. (2017). Notes on Foster by Claire Keegan. URL: https://vinhanley.com/2017/12/19/study-notes-on-foster-by-claire-keegan/
Jones, S. (2015) The country of the young: interpretations of youth and childhood in Irish culture, Irish Studies Review, 23:2, pp. 252-255, DOI: 10.1080/09670882.2015.1017924
Keegan, C. Foster. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.
Lee, J. (2015). The Right Kind of Damage: An Interview with Colin Barrett. 3 March 2015. The Paris Review. Online Article. URL: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/03/03/the-right-kind-of-damage-an-interview-with-colin-barrett/
Lynch, V. V. (2015) “Families Can Be Awful Places”: The Toxic Parents of Claire Keegan’s Fiction. New Hibernia Review, Volume 19, Number 1, Spring/Earrach 2015, pp. 131-146 (Article) https://doi.org/10.1353/nhr.2015.0002
Luppino, C. (2014) The Old and the New in Claire Keegan’s Short Fiction.
Journal of the Short Story in English Volume 63 | Autumn 2014 Special Issue: The 21st Century Irish Short Story. pp. 1-14. URL: http://jsse.revues.org/1507
Mulrennan, M. (2016). Post-Celtic Tiger rural Ireland, internal exile and male identity in the fiction of Colin Barrett and Donal Ryan. The Honest Ulsterman. Online. URL: http://humag.co/features/post-celtic-tiger-rural-ireland-internal-exile-and-male-identity-in-the-fiction-of-colin-barrett-and-donal-ryan