Maurice Harmon, ‘First Impressions: 1968-78’, in The Irish Short Story, ed. Terence Brown & Patrick Rafroidi (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979) [extract]

[An initial section describes rise of  the “New Irish Writing” page of the Irish Press, edited by David Marcus, whose early anthologies are listed here, and which provided a forum for work by Neil Jordan, Meave Kelly, Gillman Noonan, John Feeney, Maura Treacy and Brian Power. Also cites Bernard MacLaverty - alone among those mentioned in not being associated with that organ.]


The new writers are on the whole not experimentalists in terms of form or of narrative techniques, indeed less so than some of the contemporary novelists. The classic form of the short story, as practised by Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty and Sean O’Faolain, is still the accepted mode. This involves a chronological narrative, with minimal characterisation, careful attention to setting, one or two incidents, a taut control of tone and development, and the general sense of all the ingredients moving towards a moment of insight. Not all the new writers have this sort of idea in mind, nor are they restricted by these conventions, but their innovations are not radical and are found mainly in the work of two writers, Neil Jordan and Desmond Hogan.

Nor are the new writers much concerned with revolutionary nationalism, which setemmed in the past from the personal involvement of writers in the revolutionary movement. James Plunkett could still treat this subject in The Trusting and the Maimed (1955) and it surfaced in Seán O’Faoláin’s I Remember! Remember! (1959), but the recent violence in Northern Ireland has not exerted the same fascination. Benedict Kiely’s long short story Proxopera (1977) is a complex response to that vilence, but there is no ambiguity in its tone of love for a region and a landscape so cruelly violated by evil figures. The cause that never dies has in fact withered in the past ten yras and has little appeal to the literary imagination; the gunman lacks the mystique of nationalism, the myth of heroism, or the sanction of tradition. When the violence in Northern Ireland appears in the contemporary story, it does so as a context and background, and as something to get away from. John Morrow alone seems able to present it with a healthy black humour.’ (p.65; goes on to cite his own ‘Generations Apart: 1935-1975’, in Rafroidi & Harmon, ed, The Irish Novel in Our Time.)

[...] What we all know is that Irish socier has become less restrictive and more tolerant in recent years; the writer suffers less form either offcial or private censorship. The kind of hostile reaction [65] that greeted Edna O’Brien and John McGahern has not been as vocal in the ’seventies. Issues which were once taboo are now freely discussed on radio and television, in magazines and in newspapers. It is hardly necessary to stress that Irish society is more open and more tolerant. The literature reflects these changes in its expanded range of subject matter and in its treatment of human relationships. Since society itself has become less restrictive, the old issue of individual and society has virtually disappeared. The view of the individual as social victim is no longer dominant. Similarly the influence of the Catholic Church is less direct; the issues of personal guilt and the problems of the Catholic conscience have decreased in importance as subject matter. Writers treat sexual relationships, for example, with a new freedom and the problems of mixed marriages in a manner that has more comedy in it than guilt or suffering. Ironically, the absence of pressure from church and state leaves the writer with less definable objects for attack. Take away the habitual enemies and you deprive a man of those very forces against which he could measure his individuality and discover his identity. Up to the publication of The Dark, the dominant images in the formation of the adolescent imagination were linked closely to church teaching and practice. The assertion of self-reliant manhood, or the affirmation of the freedom of the imagination often involved breaking free of definable shaping forces. The struggle now is not with laws of church and state or with social conformity, but with personal relationships and through individual powers of perception and understanding. The inner life is now the arena in which the self faces its choices and comes to terms with its own humanity. Not that social pressures are no longer a force, or that the Catholic conscience has died, or that political issues are without weight, but their influence is felt, measured and determined within the individual and are manifested through other individuals. The former conflict of man against society, or man against Church, has been replaced by a fluid drama of human interaction and the nuances of the individual’s inner life.

There is much less reference now to the rural scene. In the post-revolutionary generation urban life was regarded as alien, something that the writers and their families had little experience of. Instinctively, and by family tradition, they wrote about the rural roots from which most urban families had come and with [66] which they retained close connections. The sense of the eastwest, or urban-rural, division was strong and writers tended to romanticise the country way of life, specially if it was beyond the Shannon, or in West Cork, Kerry, or Donegal. Some of the best stories in the post-revolutionary period - “The Long Road to Ummera”, “Uprooted”, “Galway Bay”, - have this theme in common. Writers tended to transform reality, by making the countryside seem more representative than it actually was, as Frank O’Connor did in “Peasants”, “In the Train”, and “The Majesty of the Law”. In these he built into the narrative a sense of instinctive loyalty to old values. The western peasants in “In the Train”, for example, refuse to cooperate with the legal system in Dublin; instead they operate an older form of punishment: they will not inform on the woman who killed her husband (that would be to give way to the mode of justice brought in by invaders), but they will boycott her, driving her from their community. The old man in “The Majesty of the Law”, gestures to the landscape and speaks mysteriously of the knowledge that has been lost. Over and over in such stories the tendency is to dilate reality, to see a glory in the skies, to lament the passing of former greatness. There are several examples: the ending of “Uprooted”, the burial of the old cobbler-storyteller in “The Silence of the Valley”, the heroic islander in “Galway Bay”, making his last journey to the mainland fair. Writers now see the country way of life in realistic terms. Their point of view has more in common with Patrick Kavanagh’s portrayal of the subculture of the small farm than with Frank O’Connor’s Yeatsian notion of the peasant as repository of tradition.

Maeve Kelly’s “The Last Campaign”, is a story about the disappointments and setbacks of life on the farm. It is dense with the detail of daily life, the chores, the sparse conversations. Martha and Joe suffer yet another calamity, when their herd is condemned, but what the story really conveys is their tough and gencrous humanity. They work hard, they suffer successive losses, their marriage is barren, but they are fertile in love, in courage, in humour, in the ability to pull together and fight back against misfortune. The contrast with Liam. O’Flaherty’s “Spring Sowing”, that delicate, romantic account of the young couple making their first potato sowing is striking, but some of the same human lessons are there, although made without O’Flaherty’s mystique of the land. In the process Maeve Kelly reveals the [67] characters of the two people, the man more taciturn, the woman with a more active mind. The story’s resonance is achieved through these portraits, for what they tell us about two PeoPleg not by what they evoke of old faiths.

Maeve Kelly’s stories are in the tradition of Mary Lavin’s studies of rural and middle-class life. While she lacks the older woman’s depth of vision, she resembles her in the warm humanity that she brings to her stories. In “Day at the Sea”, two brothers return to the Clare coast from which their old mother had come in the remote past. The boys have married the land, they give their energies to it in unrelenting and orderly toil. At her request “they go west to a different landscape, to a place of primeval memories” where the younger brother wallows for a day in his soul’s ecstasy.

Indeed one of the pleasures of reading the new writers is this quality of warm humanity that many of them have. Bernard McLaverty writes with quiet humour and compassion, and above all with a strict concern for craft. “Between Two Shores” is a simple story in essence and develops with deceptive ease. It is an account of an Irishman returning to visit his wife and family. He remembers his loneliness in London, his affair with a nurse, and thinks of his wife waiting eagerly for him. His secret is the syphilis that he has contracted in London and which he has left untreated. “St. Paul Could Hit the Nail on the Head”, is an obliquely humorous account of a hardpressed Catholic wife married to a Protestant. Despite the likely consequences, she makes a room available in her home for the lonely priest who conies to visit her in the city. The humour implicit in this story resembles the situation of the wife in Emma Cooke’s “Family Occasion”. She has married a Catholic and finds her visits to her Protestant family with an increasingly large brood of children dismayidgly difficult, but ultimately comic.

Maura Treacy’s characters have an active inner life in which they imagine things happening, projecting and acting out their fears and phantasies, as Nally does in “The Weight of the World”. For the most part, her stories are low-keyed, psychological vignettes about human relationships. In a gentle, reflective manner, she treats of loneliness, dissatisfaction, longing for improved conditions. Her characters watch and wait; they hope for change, as does Delia in “An Old Story”, but there is really little change. Delia, for example, dreams of women with a home, [68] with children, with a husband who will take them for a drive on a Sunday. When she does marry, her husband goes fishing on a Sunday, as he has always done. What else should she have expected?

Brian Power’s stories focus on two separate but overlapping worlds - the inner-city and the presbytery. The former has its ugly face, of crime, vandalism and deceit; its inhabitants are victims of impoverishment and social deprivation. Power depicts the ugliness in its own idiom and life-style but reveals within it the mysterious operation of goodness. No man is totally bad; within him stir memories of home or of acts of kindness, stirrings of conscience that rise to the surface of his life. The world of the priests is more middle-class, but gullible to the con-men from the inner-city, for here too a generous humanity triumphs. In “Requiem”, an old priest, somewhat outdated by the changes introduced by Vatican Two, pays his last respects to his faithful sacristan, feels the nudges of mortality, but is still able to cope with fresh young curates who do not know their place.

In some ways it is easier to illustrate the changed attitudes towards traditional values by examining a number of stories that incorporate the more permissive aspects of Irish society in the ’seventies. Gillman Noonan’s “God and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop”, turns the traditional portrait of Irish mother and son upside down. The first person narrator had what he calls an “agnostic and liberal upbringing in the obscurantist forties and fifties”, an opening sentence that alerts us to the deliberate aim of this story to place imaginative landmines under sacred cows. Uin mother, a ravishing, liberated widow, is an agnostic and free-thinker. At first he adores her, as does everyone else. She is a doting mamma, even to the point of encouraging and facilitating his love-affairs as soon as he is able to have them. So what more could a boy want? The twist comes, when he grows to hate his mother for the very things that make her so acceptable in the first place: her liberal morals and the civilised veneer that she has created for both of them. He is a Stephen Dedalus without dw nets. Not having God thrust upon him in boyhood, he has to find Him for himself, which he does: he rejects his mother’s "hedonism and becomes a Church of Ireland minister.

There is much more to the story than can be suggested here, but clearly we are a long way from conventional images of mother machree. Seán O’Faoláin did some of this debunking towards the [69] end of Stories (1958), in “Childybawn”, “Unholy Living and Half Dying” and “Lovers of the Lake”. His aim was to show that beneath the agnosticism of the modern Irishman lies a deep layer of pious Catholicism. Noonan’s character overcomes his mother’s influence by turning religious, or, more exactly and more ironically, by finding a form of Christianity not too different from what he had found in the antique shop run by his mother. In his view the Church of Ireland has an old-fashioned, antique look about it; it therefore suits his dilettantish character.

Gillman Noonan is interested also in what binds men and women to each other. Opposed to sentimental notions about love, marriage and living happily ever after, he is fascinated by the inexplicable oneness of some couples, whose relationships persist, when young love has long passed, or when sex has become routine. Something else is there - acceptance, defeat, consideration, a realisation of the pitiful human condition - any number of possible explanations suggest themselves to him. And it is this something that he would have us see, sometimes harshly, as in “Between the Cells”, sometimes gently, as in “Money for the Town”, sometimes more complexly, as in “Shamrocks”, in which the Irish wife exiled in Germany sees beyond a the trite acceptance in for better or worse. The title story of his collection is a satirical send-up of the conventional male role of cunning pursuit of the female object. Here the Irish Romeo is matched against the teutonic Helga, who has herself programmed to find a sex partner for every other month, which is when she can conceive. Sean (what else can he be called ?) is put off his stroke by such calculation, so unexpected, he thinks, in a woman; he does not see it as a mirror image of his own “carefully cultivated manner”.

More sacred cows sink to their knees in Sean MacMathuna’s exuberant story “A Straight Run Down to Kilcash”. The setting is that traditional one - the boarding school run by religious, but the expected traumas of conscience are not present. The “I” narrator is not like Stephen Dedalus, or the girls in Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices. He has an eye for the servant girls in the school and without much ado about anything has an affair with one of them every other night in a little room lined with chamber pots. Naturally, these nocturnal activities have their effect on the playing field, where he fails repeatedly to shoot the ball between the posts. When the priests finally shine a torch on [70] the naked bodies on the closet floor, none of the conventional guilt and shame comes over him. Instead he wants to know which of them held the torch, for as he says accusingly and tellingly, the light lingered more on the girl than on himself. When he is “rusticated” - not expelled as would have been the case in the past - his father comes to collect him, not as the outraged parent, but as one man to another, anxious to hear the details: “What was she like, son?”

Denis has proved himself: he’s a chip of the old block, can inherit the farm, marry the girl next door and live happily ever after, or as his father memorably phrases it - it’s a straight run down to Kficash, that being the family graveyard and a straight run down to it being the “local euphemism for a happy life”. His escapade with the girl has led him into this trap, but there is justice in it, as the story slyly shows.

Sean MacMathuna writes with comic skill and intelligence, quite happy to “send up” traditional literary notions of Irish education, the so-called power of priests in boarding schools, and the conventional view of the puritanical Irish parent. The echoes of Stephen Dedalus at Clongowes may be coincidental, but the story does not suffer as a result. And the portrait of the rogue of a farmer, a rip-off artist of the ’seventies is masterly. Patrick Kavanagh’s tormented Patrick Maguire is a long way from this “hoor” who gleefully declares that Ireland is “a paradise for farmers”, and that there are “grants for pissing crooked”.

When Denis goes to bed, the old iconography on the walls has a banal quality: “Mary Magdalen holding a chalice, the Little Flower with a little flower, and a huge Sacred Heart bearing the inscription that John and Eileen Stack were enrolled in the League of Eternal Prayer”. He cannot sleep and in ironic deflation his thoughts drift outward - to his father boasting of sexual exploits in the local pub, to his mother’s dried-up body tending the cooker, to the life he has settled for and been saddled with.

Frank sexuality is a feature of the new writing, although it is not excessive. Some writers have a harsh vision that resembles that of Patrick Boyle. Gillman Noonan’s “Between the Cells” is a confessional account of a sordid and unhappy relationship a husband and wife estranged, the wife in hospital, the husband’s girl friend pregnant. Trying to raise money for an abortion, he fewls debased, yet his love for his wife endures, as though they [71] were “outcasts of some kind full of a mixture of damnation and sainthood, people who will only find themselves in a new dimension of growth that stemmed from beneath layers of decay and disease. Yet some all-acceptance is there already, however tentative”.

John Feeney’s characters are isolated - from home, from loved ones - in a hostile world of institutions, urban ugliness and debased values. They suffer in an alien environment, like the girl in “Dirty, Dirty”; they inhabit a private mental world that their colleagues will not even try to understand, like the priest in “Mao Dies”. Feeney’s stories sometimes rely on a drastic bringing together of the strange and the familiar, the outlandish and the conventional. In “Scourge of the Reds” he formulates a drastic juxtaposition of the personal and the cataclysmic through the figure of Fr. Flood, whose personal sexual torment is related through images of plague to the advance of the menace of Communism. Michael Foley’s comic imagination, on the other hand, can mock the crudities of human behaviour and can bring the ugly and the beautiful into challenging contact.

One of the best shaped stories, with a strong sensual emphasis, is Clare Boylan’s “Not a Recommended Hobby for a Housewife”, a witty account of the annual get-together of a few a old girls who pity Maria because she seems to have gone to seed. At the end, however, her lover enters and sweeps her off in a radiant expression of fulfilled sexuality. Another point of view is found in John McArdle’s “The Warmth and the Wine”. Here the Irishman abroad is faced with what Austin Clarke used to call “the bright temptation”, in the figure of a beautiful, sensual, liberated girl, with whom he spends a delightful evening in a restaurant and who expects that their rapport will lead to lovemaking. But even when she does manage to share his bed, he remains faithful to his wife. Is he to be admired for such loyalty? Is he to be condemned for being so hard on the Dutch girl? O’Faoláin and O’Connor also treated this problem and also used the device of bringing products of two cultures together for purposes of contrast and judgment. O’Connor used to imply that sexual freedom was acceptable in another country, but not at home. O’Faoláin in his later work outgrew such inhibiting dichotomies and wrote of loves that know no national boundaries, as in “The Faithless Wife” and “Foreign Affairs”.

The effects of the more liberal environment in Ireland today are seen in many of these stories with a sexual theme. Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices was banned for a one sentence reference to homosexuality. Desmond Hogan’s “A Poet and an Englishman”, has homosexuality as one of its main issues. In this story Peader and his wife, Sandra, go to Kerry, where he has been raised by a man called Michael. The journey brings back boyhood associations, in particular memories of Michael, who had minded and seduced him. Those memories, becoming stronger as the couple drive closer to the town, create a silence between them, an estrangement. In an act of exorcism Peader makes love to a boy he meets in the town, reenacting his own affair with the older man, then seeks Sandra, who has fled when she discovers them together. The story handles a complex and delicate emotional situation and this emphasis on personal relationships is characteristic of the contemporary story in Ireland.

Another characteristic is a concentration on ordinary things. In Michael Foley’s “The Stranger” the visitor’s sentiments are seen to be unusual: “He spoke of the beauty of ordinary things, how in the rush and bustle of our lives we tend to undervalue all that is most precious”. Not that human awareness can be changed forever; the story is careful to suggest that one man’s words or one man’s example cannot do that, but Michael Foley’s work, like Dermot Healy’s is intensely sensitive to the real world. This world, Healy says in “Jude and his Mother”, is “contained with the maximum of pleasure on the shiny surface of a penny piece”. Any reality, he declares, is only appraised by its followers. In “The Island and the Calves” he concentrates on the phenomena of the visible and the audible, writing of one of its characters - “at last he had authenticated the outside world, and each part was now sustained by itself and no longer needed a deity nor an interpreter”. The gravity of the relationships between perceiver and object recurs in these writers. Here the whole story affirms an appreciation of the ordinary in the intensity of its imagined details, and in its counterpointing of the natural setting against the ritual of the Mass. Nature is the song of songs.

Some of Juanita Casey’s stories are almost entirely descriptive; their movements follow and reflect the associations of an individual mind, so that her work is attentive to myriad, shifting perceptions, to radiantly accurate description, as when the boy comes upon the dead peacock in “The Well” or the or the manacing zebra: “the flaring bands on its body shook and rippled [...] it had an intensity, a feline, white-hot fire behind the bars of its painted hide.”’

In Gillman Noonan and Neil Jordan we find new images in the Irish imagination; the techniques emphasise the swirl of objects, broken figures, images, a dance of phenomena, what Noonan calls in “Artifacts” “the drift of senseless forms”. Jordan concentrates on the reality outside of and around his characters. All the people in Night in Tunisia are, he says, “trying to break out of their personalities”. The actions that they engage in break down barriers either “to destroy their separateness, or redefine their personalities”. His characters are shaken out of their routines: Reg in “The Old Fashioned Lift” by the intrusion of the new cleaning girl; the civil servant is drawn away from his office by the girl in the orange blouse in “A Bus, A Bridge, A Beach”. The Woman in “Skin”, responds to an inner urge and goes to the seaside; the boy in “A Love”, separates finally from the older woman; the boy in “Night in Tunisia” comes of age.

Jordan treats character in what he calls an “elemental way” … getting behind the social persona to the more basic constituents”. He projects people in settings, as though his imagination conceived them in cinematic terms, figures within settings, against changing shapes, within different perspectives. The man in “A Bus, A Bridge, A Beach”, where the title indicates Jordan’s vision, “filled his day with events … and each event gave rise to several more events and so on, in infinite series”.

One of his main interests is the relationships between generations. His heroes are often adolescent boys, who tend to be self-absorbed, to be adrift in a flux of anxiety, to feel the precariousness of existence and the fragility of relationships. Stories are told from their limited perspectives. The boy in “A Love”, lacks historical perspectives. While he can register the objective reality of de Valera’s funeral, he cannot measure the importance of the man or the significance of his passing. The dead leader is remote, his power not defined: “his angular face and his thirties collar and his fist raised in a gesture of defiance towards something out there, beyond the rim of brown photograph, never defined”.

Three generations overlap in the story - de Valera’s, the older woman’s, the boy’s - and from this conjunction of ages, values, attitudes comes a failure of understanding that reveals and contains feelings of longing, love and limited sympathy. Between [75] the boy and the woman, love is less a sharing of feeling, as a “secret “ a “desecration”, an offensive act against each other and against objects, figures, forces outside of them:

I remembered the nights lying in your old creaking bed that looked out on the sea, our movements like a great secret between us, silent, shocking movements, our silence a guard against my father who had the room down below, our love-making a quiet desecration of the holiday town, of the church at the top of the hill, of the couples you fed so properly at mealtimes, of my embarrassed adolescence, the guilt you tried to banish in me, the country, the place, the thing you tried to hit at through me you taught me to hit through you. And all the time for me there was my father lying underneath, cold most likely, and awake and I wanted him to hear the beast I was creating with you, I wanted him to hear it scratching, creaking through to him from above, for your body was like the woman he must have loved to have me ...

Such love is not free in itself, nor of the past, nor of the psychic urges that motivate it. The relationship is fraught with compulsions that bring the boy and the woman together and drive them apart. When they travel westward to sources and hoped-for explanations, their love-making, accompanied by that past complication of woman, boy, father confirms that their love is finished. When she goes to take the waters at Lisdoonvarna, he, uncomprehending to the end, does not know whether this means to drink them or to bathe in them.

Already in this story the momentum is to transcend occasion and setting; the interest on memorable, evocative, or definable moments leads away from specific place and event, even though it tethers itself securely to them. In the title story, another account of adolescence in search of self, in search of love, in ambiguous relationship with the father, the circumstances of place are also well-realised, but they are drawn into the story, made part of its imaginal design, to which they give metaphorical richness. Everything in the story, place, incident, dialogue, description, becomes evocative of the time and state of adolescence. The story is rich in implication and suggestion; it creates atmosphere, feelings of time and place, moods, fleeting relationships. Its movement is neither consecutive nor chronological, [75] but fluid, wave-like, resonant, always evocative of more than appears in any one passage. The boy’s reflections on the sea might be applied to it:

The sea had the movement of cloth but the texture of glass. It flowed and undulated, but shone hard and bright. He thought of cloth and glass and how to mix them. A cloth made of glass fibre or a million woven mirrors. He saw that the light of twilight was repeated or reversed at early morning.

Against the background of long summer days, seaside, games of tennis, aimless hours, Jordan portrays the relationship of the boy with his father, a musician. Knowing the boy’s potential, the father would like to teach him to play well, but the son, rejecting him, defiantly tinkles out rubbishy tunes on the piano. The relationship is at once particular and symptomatic: on the one side, the loving urge to transmit knowledge, on the other, the involuntary urge to rebel. Above and beyond both man and boy is the sound of Charley Parker’s playing of “Night in Tunisia” a catalyst that brings the boy out of his adolescent inertia; in that scale of values, differences are diminished:

The notes soared and fell, dispelling the world around him, tracing a series of arcs that seemed to point to a place, or if not a place, a state of mind ... He decided it was a place you were always in, yet always trying to reach, you walked towards all the time and yet never got there, as it was always beside you.

The music is expressive both of adolescent need and of adult aspiration and the understanding that comes to both. It is also an analogy for the style of the story and what it seeks to evoke in words.

It could be said that Jordan’s work subsumes the emphases and conditions already noted in his contemporaries: the avoidance of nationalism, the indifference to social and religious concerns and the unembarrassed treatment of sexual matters. He is different from the others in his view of character, in his affinity with overseas writers, like Borges and South American writers, above all in his style; the evidence is that an individual talent is finding itself slowly but surely.

While it would be premature to [76] predict the likely directions of these new writers or to compare them at length with their predecessors, the evidence is that the revolution begun by David Marcus in 1968 has been steadily gaining ground and that we can anticipate the emergence within the next ten years of a number of good writers.

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