Frank O’Connor, ‘The Irish Short Story’ [Introduction], in Modern Irish Short Stories (Oxford: OUP 1957) and do. [facs. reiss. as Classic Irish Short Stories] (1985), pp.ix-xv.

I believe that the Irish short story is a distinct art form: that is, by shedding the limitations of its popular origin it has become susceptible to development in the same way as German song, and in its attitudes it can be distinguished from Russian and American stories which have developed in the same way. The English novel, for instance, is very obviously an art form while the English short story is not.

The point is illustrated in three stories in this collection: the story of the County Cork inquest as told to Eric Cross by Timothy Buckley, the Tailor; Somerville and Ross’s “Lisheen Races, Second-hand’; and George Moore’s “Home Sickness”. Timothy Buckley was one of the really great folk story-tellers and severely criticised some of my own stories which someone had read him for their lack of ‘marvels’. There is no lack of ‘marvels’ in “Lisheen Races, Secondhand”; like most good English stories - Kipling’s “Bread Upon the Waters”, for instance - it is a tale rather than a story. While Buckley’s story requires an audience, this implies one. It contains more talent than Moore’s story and shows far more knowledge of Irish life and character. But Moore’s story is a masterpiece as the other is not. Its form is dictated solely by the material and not at all by the presence of an audience, real or imaginary. The difference is that between even the finest German folk-song and some little poem by Moerike set by Wolf. It is not necessary to take sides, merely to recognise that the former is rudimentary, the latter highly organised. [ix]

What accounts for the difference is not only that Moore’s model was Russian rather than English. Besides that, one must also realise that in the meantime Yeats had effected a revolution, part literary, part political, against contemporary English literature which was dominated by money and rank. His movement affected even English writers of the period, and its effects can be perceived on Lawrence’s early stories. One of the most famous of these, “Odour of Chrysanthemums”, is clearly a pastiche of Synge’s Riders to the Sea. But generally, it affected mainly poetry and the theatre. Moore’s The Untilled Field stands alone in its generation in Ireland.

The next generation produced a change. O’Kelly, Colum, Stephens, Corkery, had one foot in Yeats’s camp, one in Moore’s. Joyce’s work represents a revolt against Yeats’s romanticism. His early work, also influenced by Russian and French models, bears a strong resemblance to the early stories in The Untilled Field, but whereas Moore’s stories develop a disillusionment that turns into polemic, Joyce’s stories, though equally disillusioned, become formally more and more intricate. This was the direction that Joyce’s talent continued to take for the rest of his life and it is illustrated fully in Dubliners. His problem - a problem for all naturalistic writers, and even for some realists - was what you use to replace the Tailor’s ‘marvels’. How do you arrive at organic form? Joyce does so by the use of metaphor and symbol. This was already an old device and one that Henry James frequently adopted. Joyce’s original contribution to the technique was to use metaphor in a dissociated form, to conceal and disguise it as it is disguised in dreams, so that the whole story might be read without the reader’s becoming aware of it. At its most elaborate - in Ulysses [x] - we find Mr. Bloom making use of an outdoor lavatory rather than climb upstairs because Mr. Bloom represents a reincarnation of Ulysses himself and the whole chapter in which he is introduced illustrates the doctrine of the transmigration of souls by reference to the transmutation of matter. “The Dead” represents a rudimentary form of this technique, and only the most careful reading will elicit the complicated threads of metaphor that run through it. That Gretta takes three ‘mortal’ hours to dress is a simple example of a device that in Ulysses turns into a rolling stream of puns like the ‘mortgage’ or Molly’s dress with the ‘rip’ in it.

His contemporaries, as I have said, still kept one foot in Yeats’s camp. Corkery, though a city man, writes mainly of country people; Stephens uses mythological material. One may sometimes regret it and feel that it injured their talent. In Stephens, for example, under all the wit and warmth is a vision of life that makes Joyce’s look like Peg’s Paper. Beside the enchanting piece of fictionalised autobiography I have used, I wish I could have had space for a story like “Hunger” to illustrate that darker side of his nature.

It was O’Casey and the Civil War between them which finally exploded the romantic myth of Yeats. O’Casey himself, as his fascinating autobiography shows, is the last of the romantics, and his great early plays were directed not against the gunmen and politicians as critics of the day believed but at the romantic in himself which made him-a poor, uneducated, sickly Dubli n navvy-give himself to every cause from the Gaelic League to the Communist Party that seemed to promise a betterment of men’s lot.

After him, writers like O’Flaherty, O’Faoláin, Mary Lavin, and myself turned from the theatre and adopted fiction-mainly the short story-as our medium. There [xi] were, of course, other reasons for this than purely literary ones, like the difficulties O’Casey himself encountered in dealing with a moribund theatre - but there was also, what is always to be understood in the short story, a turning away from the public to the private thing. This tendency of the short story can be illustrated by a comparison between Moore’s “Home Sickness” and O’Flaherty’s “Going into Exile”. Moore, writing when he did, cannot ignore the fact that emigration is largely caused by the sheer boredom of religious authoritarianism; O’Flaherty ignores everything but the nature of exile itself: a state of things like love and death that all men must in some way endure.

O’Flaherty is one of the most exciting of storytellers. He flings himself on a theme with the abandonment and innocence of a child, completely unaware of any reflections that might be made on it.  “The Fairy Goose” is an amazing example of his skill. In its miraculous avoidance of any of the crudities that reflection would demand-satire, irony, farce - it stands with “Home Sickness” as one of my two favourite stories. He, too, would need more space than I can afford. Some of his best stories deal with animals, and the nearer his characters approach to animals - the child in “Three Lambs” for instance - the happier he is in dealing with them.

In this, he stands at another pole from Seán O’Faoláin who is first and foremost a man of letters, as Gide was. As with Gide his stories and novels are a commentary on his biographies, histories, and essays. To take a single example: his life of Constance Marcievicz, the Irish society woman who became the friend of the labour leader, James Larkin, and fought in the insurrection of 1916, is almost contemporary [xii] with his first book of stories, Midsummer Night’s Madness, in which one character sings the praises of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

I tell you I’m ashamed to be called an Irishman, and in fact I’m not an Irishman. I’m a colonist-a planter-whatever you like, one of those that tried to come and do something with you people.

His life of Daniel O’Connell shows him coming to terms with Irish democracy, and the stories in A Purse of Coppers are full of a sort of wry resignation to the emotional and intellectual limitations of Irish life. Once more, the life of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, shows him searching for a prototype, this time on a higher social plane, and this is reflected in the collection of stories called Teresa, from which I have chosen two. Naturally, where O’Flaherty’s work remains at a constant level of performance, O’Faoláin’s is incalculable, always changing with his changing thought.

Elizabeth Bowen, like L. A. G. Strong, has her place in English literature, but she also has her corner in Irish. Hers is an art of arrangement rather than construction; her characters and incidents are disposed with an apparent casualness that conceals elaborate care. Mary Lavin’s on the contrary have the solidity of characters and incidents in a novel. Her great gift as a story-teller is her remarkable power of gripping a subject till she has wrung everything from it. My own experience shows as much for I hesitated for a long time over “The Will”, wondering if anyone not brought up in an Irish Catholic home could grasp all its implications. Those friends to whom I showed it found no difficulty in understanding it.

O’Faoláin, O’Flaherty, and I wrote in the period of disillusionment which followed the Civil War, though with considerable respect for the nationalism that gave [xiii] rise to it. The period immediately succeeding ours does not seem to have been a favourable one for literature. In Yeats’s theatre the great Gaelic sagas have been turned into pantomime enlivened by jazz; the sentimental political songs of my youth like “Bold Robert Emmett” [sic] are sung by my juniors in the manner of “She was pore but she was Honest”. The outstanding figure of the period is Brian O’Nolan, the brilliant columnist of the Irish Times. In Mr. Garrity’s anthology he is represented by a story on the well-known Resistance theme of the woman who, to protect her hunted men, pretends to be a prostitute. It is probably as old as history but Mr. O’Nolan must be the first writer to have treated it as farce.

It is remarkable that the period should have produced two story-tellers as good as Bryan MacMahon and Michael McLaverty. MacMahon is a poet and a Kerryman; he delights as much as Synge did in vivid speech and characters blown up with romantic eloquence. After re-reading his two volumes of stories I was left with the delighted impression that in the rainiest country in Europe it was always sunlight. McLaverty, on the other hand, is all that Northern Irish people like to imagine themselves to be when they contrast themselves with us of the South; truthful and restrained.

Since then there is evidence of another change of temper in the younger writers. There is a new firmness and harshness in the work of James Plunkett which is obviously very deeply influenced by that of joyce. Though he has still not solved for himself Joyce’s problem of reconciling verisimilitude with artistic form, and though he spoils some of his best stories with forced symbolic contrivances, he is obviously a story-teller of high seriousness. I believe one can [xiv] detect a rather similar change of temper in the work of some of the younger novelists, Benedict Kiely and Val Mulkerns, for example.

I have preferred to keep to my own idea of the short story as an art form distinct from the tale, though I realise that the distinction may be more philosophical than critical. As I understand it, the short story derives from the novel, and like the novel has attempted successfully to combine artistic and scientific truth. The latter is not an artistic standard - critics who disapprove of it are right in this - but it is its application to artistic ends that has made fiction the greatest of the modern arts. [xv; end.]


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