Patrick Rafroidi, ‘The Irish Short Story in English: The Birth of a New Tradition’, in Terence Brown & Rafroidi, eds., The Irish Short Story (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979), pp.[27]-38.

The remarkable success of the short story in Ireland has been variously explained.

Sociologically. As the echo of a collective consciousness, the immediate mirror of a feeling of alienation, the short story, more than the synthetic form of the novel, can easily become the voice of those whom Frank O’Connor calls “submerged population groups”, [The Lonely Voice, London: Macmillan 1965].

Aesthetically. With some notable exceptions Irish writers are in at ease in the longer genre, especially in so far as it is less open to the suggestion of a face to face relationship between an author and a reader, reminiscent of a storyteller of the past speaking to an audience.

Historically. In the Gaelic nation, where urbanization is so recent, a fundamental place must be assigned to the immemorial tradition of the storyteller, the sgéalaí or seanchaí who every year from Hallowe’en to the night of Saint Patrick’s Day, was the very soul of the ceili, as people gathered around the fireplace in mansions or cottages to enjoy a performance from a repertory of 350 items or more.

Although this last reason, the most inspiring, is not to be understated (the texture of the Irish story often if not always suggests the influence of fireside gatherings) it does nevertheless require qualification. In Ireland as elsewhere an evolutionary shift marks the passage from the legend or the traditional story to the [27] modern short story. The latter is a short narrative based on a single isolated subject, referring to experience in its reality and even in its banality. It is quickly and economically presented and structure is dominated by a privileged moment. At the same time it resembles its ancestor in its frequent reliance on the direct testiimony of its narrator or author.

Furthermore the first Irish practitioners of the new genre not only wrote in a language other than that of the traditional story-tellers, they also preferred themes and structures that, at first sight, at least, seem to mark a major break with those of the Gaelic tradition.

This departure can be seen in the use of the fantastic by such romantic Anglo-lrish writers as Charles Robert Maturin, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Fitzjames O’Brien, Bram Stoker. In their work there would appear to be little that is typically Irish. Its content tends to be identical to that of the work of foreign contemporaries. One finds, for instance, the same preference for exaggeration and for a figurative expression that invites a literal reading. This is the case in “Leixlip Castle” by the first named author when the killer of his brother draws a dagger from its sheath and throws it into the sea while praying that “the guilt of his brother’s blood might be as far from his soul as he could fling that iat weapon from his body” [C. R. Maturin, in The Literary Souvenir, 1825]. The blood could not be wiped away however, and neither could the weapon.

Here as elsewhere, the mode of presentation implies a narrator who, by speaking in the first person, seeks to give more authority to his true story. One thinks of the first words of “The Wondersmith” by Fitzjames O’Brien:

A small lane, the name of which I have forgotten, or do not choose to remember, slants suddenly off from Catham. Street, (before that headlong thoroughfare rushes into the Park), and retreats suddenly down towards the East River, as if it were disgusted with the smell of old clothes, and had determined to wash itself clean. [ Poems and Stories of Fitzjames O’Brien, ed. William Winter, Boston 1881, p.177.]

or of the second sentence of Bram Stoker’s terrible story, “The Squaw”:

Nurnberg at the time was not so much exploited as it has been since then. Irving had not been playing Faust, and the [28] very name of the old town was hardly known to the great bulk of the travelling public. My wife and I being in the second week of our honeymoon, naturally wanted someone else to join our party, so that when the cheery stranger, Elias P. Hutcheson, hailing from Isthmian City, Bleeding Gulch, Maple Tree County, Neb., turned up at the station at Frankfort, and casually remarked that he was going on to see the most all-fired old Methuselah of a town in Yurrup, and that he guessed that so much travelling alone was enough to send an intelligent, active citizen into the melancholy ward of a daft house, we took the pretty broad hint and suggested that we should join forces.’ [ Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories, London: Routledge & Sons 1914, p.45.]

Even when a first person narrator is not immediately involved the third person narration refers to him at least indirectly as can be seen again in “Leixlip Castle”:

The incidents of the following tale are not merely founded on fact, they are facts themselves, which occurred at no very distant period in my own family. [Rafroidi’s itals.]

The sense of an eye-witness record can be achieved by such devices as documents or an intimate diary inherited from a friend. This is the simplest procedure of the - circumstantial method without which it is impossible to provoke the Coleridgeian suspension of disbelief exploited by Le Fanu throughout the whole of In a Glass Darkly (London: Bentley 1872) where each story of the collection is introduced as an item taken from his files by Dr. Hesselius, a German specialist in psychic cases.

In the stories of the above-mentioned writers the narrative structure - the “syntax” of the structuralist critics - conforms to the general pattern defined by Poe. Even when it is not based on an indispensable a gradation n it always seeks a single effect towards which all the components of the work must contribute.

The semantics of these stories show the same attraction for the themes that Mario Praz [ The Romatnic Agony, OUP 1933; 2nd edn. 1951, &c.], Roger Caillois [ Anthologie du fantastique, Paris: Gallimard; Club Francais du Livre 1958], and Tzvetan Todorov ( Introduion àla littérature fantastique, Paris: Edition du Seuil 1970]. were able to find in the fictional production of writers in Romantic Europe and beyond its shores. In broad terms these are combinations like beauty/ugliness, beauty/death, the surfacing of murky desires (sadism, masochism), the concrete [29] manifestations of remorse, fear of the other (woman-phantom or belle dame sans merci - objects which come alive), the fear of emptiness (the dissappearance of the natural milieus, of the loved person, the halting of time), the terror of death and of supernatural beings (satanism, bargains with the devil).

Alongside these not particularly Irish semantic elements one can, however find certain tendencies that give a speciality to the writer’s work.

At the outset it should be described as no more than an Anglo-Irish specificity in the strictest sense of the term Anglo-Irish.

Anglo-Irish society, the most charming in the British Isles, was a guilty society’ [V. S. Pritchett, Intro. to In a Glass Darkly, London: John Lehman 1947].

writes V. S. Pritchett and a conviction of guilt accounts not only for the extraordinary flourishing of a taste for the supernatural in this milieu from Burke to Wilde, but also for the basic elements of the works themselves. They show the clear mark of political guilt (the theme of usurpation), of sociological guilt (the theme of the irresponsibility of the Planters as they womanize, brawl, drink, laze, spend and live by the sweat of others). Such works are weighed down by a feeling of futility and impotence in the present moment, by insecurity about the future and these inspire symbols whose intense qualities cannot be found in other, more secure civilizations. There is no other explanation for the motif of the powerful reincarnation of faults (e.g. “The Familiar”, by Le Fanu), for the recurrence of the theme of the bloodsucking vampire (e.g. “Carmilla”), for the obsession with a cut-off hand - e.g. “The Haunting of the Tiled House”) [House of the Churchyard, in DUM 1861-62; later spearately as “the authentic Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand”] these last two also by Le Fanu - the horror of attack by unidentified assailants (e.g.O’Brien “What Was It” [“What Was It? A Mystery”, singed Henry Escott, first pub. in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, XVIII, March 859, pp.504-09] which faithfully embody the nocturnal terrors which the secret societies could visit at any time on the mansions of the Ascendancy. Guilt feelings are not the only manifestations of the special situation in which the ruling class found itself in nineteenth century Ireland. Ambivalent, anxious feelings about identity often reveal themselves in a fascination for portraits and images which retain a suggestion of a lost Golden Age when in fact the subject portrayed has become unrecognisably ugly.

The place of many Anglo-Irish writers in a “gothic” or [30] fantastic tradition may however give them, finally, a specificity that is simply Irish. Here, while using material of foreign origin, they discover some of the deeper tendencies of the race to which they were very imperfectly assimilated but whose qualities finally rubbed off on them. Among these was a feeling for the supernatural even in everyday reality as expressed in folklore.

Folklore as such of course is not within the scope of this article, even if the period dealt with is one which sees its first transcriptions in the work of Thomas Crofton Croker, Thomas Keightley, Patrick Kennedy, Lady Wilde and other precursors of Douglas Hyde, Lady Gregory and Yeats whose Irish Fairy and Folk Tales [1888] is a first timid effort of classification pointing the way towards the learned works that were yet to be written [e.g., Stith Thompson, Motif Index of Folk Literature, Indiana UP 1955-58; Antti Aarne & Stith Thompson, The Types of the Folktale, Helsinki 1961; O’Suilleabháin & Christiansen, The Types of te Irish Folktale, Helsinki 1963]. The present study can only deal with works showing a personal creative imagination and it is obvious that a true writer cannot be content with just transcribing or adapting. Experience shows that adaptation quickly becomes unduly poetic or burlesque in tendency and this quickly undermines the realist bases of popular forms of fairylore or deprives it of its potential seriousness.

At the same time contact becomes revelation and imitation a liberating discipline. Out of the ancestral soil spring original plants that, in all likelihood, would never have seen the light of day in a land other than the one where they first took root. Some of Carleton’s work or that of Griffin or the Banim brothers and later on in the century that of authors as different as Oscar Wilde, James Stephens and Yeats himself illustrate this point.

Again and again in Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833), Tales of Ireland (1834), The Fawn of Springvale (1841) or Tales and Sketches (1845) afterwards called Tales and Stories, Carleton can be caught in the act of exploiting folk-lore material which he either refuses to transmute or which he treats comically. Nevertheless in other works he is the outstanding intermediary between the old order and the new, and the originator of a modern art.

In the narrative technique and themes of this writer the influence of popular tradition is unmistakable. One immediately thinks of A The Three Tasks a (16) where the motif reappears of an adventurous journey to a wonderful country akin to Tir na nOg in the Ossianic sagas and folklore, as well as the voyages (imrama) of Saint Brendan and others. But in such a work or in “A Legend of Knockmany” [Tales & Sketches, Dublin: James Duffy 1845], one can find a transcription among whose values is an already greater realism (a point which will be dealt with later). Other stories also come to mind, like the extraordinary “The Donagh or the Horse Stealers” [Traits and Stories .. &c., 2nd ser., Dublin: W. F. Wakeman 1833, Vol. 1] which completely reverse the proportions of tradition and originality in this fantastic vein; and there are those stories which deal realistically with everyday life.

Even if he is far from being the most artistically honest, Carleton is without doubt the most gifted of the storytellers of the first generation of the nineteenth century. Many of the stories of Gerald Griffin, (“The Barber of Bantry” [ Tales of My Neighbourhood, London: Saunders & Otley 1835, Vol. 1], for instance, could be examined from a similar point of view and if I am not delaying on the work of the Banim brothers it is because their relationship to the present subject is more readily apparent in novels than short stories.

It may appear surprising to find Oscar Wilde next on the list. Admittedly the son of Speranza seemed to feel no more than a middling attraction for an Ireland which in turn has been slow to claim him. Besides, his most famous attempt at a ghost story, “The Canterville Ghost”, is a burlesque where he gives in to the fatal temptations that we have noted some other practitioners of the genre also experienced. Yet at the same time critics have often passed over the seriousness of his approach when, from folklore motifs (often common in his native country), he creates his own wonderful universe of kings (“The Young King”), of dwarfs (“The Birthday of the Infanta”), of Giants (“The Selfish Giant”), of mermaids (“The Fisherman and his Soul”), of statues come to life (“The Happy Prince”), of animals with the power of speech (“The Star Child”). These he ultimately uses to reach an apparently contradictory double philosophy of aestheticism and mutual help.

James Stephens’ novel The Crock of Gold (1912) and the not easily classified work In The Land of Youth (1924) show an abundant Gaelic influence. Neither one of them however is simply imitation, the personal themes of the author, like Time and the condemnation of Mercantilism, are always close to the surface or even dominant and the plot is always original. Straddling the frontier of the real and the imaginary, his short stories proper also betray his memory of his readings of ancestral legends. This is especially true of “Desire”, the piece at the start of Etched in Moonlight [London: Macmillan & co. 1928].

The creative prose of W.B. Yeats has not attracted the same [32] cohorts of thesis writers as his poetry (21), yet it shows the same exemplary development. In a way his role as a collector of tales enabled him to skip the level of the profane (literal history) and to arrive immediately at the level of the sacred (the symbol of the human psyche) and even at that of an initiation (the hidden esoteric meaning which is the reflection of the collective subconsciousness or the Memory of the World) in pieces like “The Tables of the Law” or “The Adoration of the Magi”, collected in 1925 in the volume Mythologies.

A few more names could be added and a longer study would look at the work of Lord Dunsany and others. At the same time what has been argued above amply makes the point especially since neither the supernatural, the magical nor the esoteric constitute the richest themes of the Irish short story written in English during the following generations.

Nor indeed does the heroic inspiration inherited from the Gaelic tradition. It could be argued, it is true, that the hand of Cuchulainn can still be seen here and there, as in The Green Rushes by Maurice Walsh (22) and even more so his spirit in the work of Daniel Corkery, in Bryan MacMahon’s (( Kings Asleep in the Groundu, and in Michael MacLaverty’s a The Pigeonsm. Yet if one reads the stories found alongside the two last mentioned titles in David Marcus’ recent anthology [[ Tears of the Shamrock, London: Wolfe Publ. 1972] one becomes aware that the dominant mood is one of relativism, of weariness, of disgust, of a feeling of absurdity. The same is true of the famous m Guests of the Nation >, by Frank O’Connor, of a The Patriot Son n by Mary Lavin, of - Scoop n by James Plunkett (and one could have chosen the much more typical ((The Wearin’ of the Green ), (24) by the same author), and of the unusual cc An Aspect of the Rising m by Tom MacIntyre in which the Republican tradition is embodied in a prostitute who, before going to her gainful employment, stops under the official residence of President de Valera and abuses him as a traitor.

Before becoming the subject matter of the short story the theme of heroism has to pass through an individual sensibility, and rather than the praise of high deeds, authors now prefer a scepticism prompted by the spirit of the age. Moreover, the anecdote itself, heroic or otherwise, cannot be the whole of the short story and, after the fictional discourse has abandoned the hearth or the camp fire and settled down in the printed page, exceptional destinies and protagonists fade into the background. [34] Henceforth the genre is open only to mateiral that springs from everyday life and eschews more exotic sources. [33] Henceforth the genre is open only to material that springs from everyday life and eschews more exotic sources.

Carleton understood this lesson, in part at least. According to his biographer D.J. O’Donoghue he had a high opinion of the realist truth of his work:

It is told of Carleton that when somebody said to him that his pictures of Irish life were “really more reliable than those of Mrs S. C. Hall” he boisterously answered a “Why, of course, they are! Did she ever live with the people as I did? Did she ever dance and fight with them as I did? Did she ever get drunk with them as I did?” [ Life of Carleton, London: Downey & Co. 1896]

(This last question is of course highly rhetorical when one thinks of the energetic and extremely virtuous wife of Samuel Carter Hall; a puritanical lady who practised Victorian charity and threw herself heart and soul into the Temperance Crusade). Carleton expresses an opinion about some of his stories that is probably valid for all the others.

My “Lough Derg Pilgrim” … resembles a coloured photograph ... there is not a fact or incident which is not detailed with the minuteness of the strictest truth and authenticity [Idem.]

If Carleton were to be taken literally then his work would not be pertinent to the present article. But the fact remains that he is at the source of a development, which, because of his lack of education and an absence of models, he was unable to exploit fully. Besides he had no immediate successors and he lucidly saw the reasons for this in the immediate aftermath of the Great Famine :

Banim and Griffin are gone and I will soon follow them ultimus Romanorum, and after that will come a lull, an obscurity of perhaps half a century, when a new condition of civil society and a new phase of manners and habits among the people - for this is a transition state - may introduce new fields and new tastes for other writers [Idem.].

In fact the subsequent history of the short story in Ireland was going to know fewer than fifty barren years, at least if one thinks [34] of the Irish cousins, Edith Somerville and Martin Ross whose work should not be too systematically contrasted with their great predecessor’s. Like him they use rural material, they are as sensitive to laughter as to tears, and they show the same gift for rendering linguistic particularities. Such points of resemblance are more important than the obvious differences, of social class, which from another point of view would place the two aristocratic writers in the lineage of Maria Edgeworth or in that of William Hamilton Maxwell in his Wild Sports of the West [London: R. Bentley 1832] ] rather than in step with the peasant writers. But their class position does add a patronizing touch to their humour and introduces echoes of the insecurity of a doomed society.

The greatest gap between the short stories of the cousins and those of Carleton lies in the artistic education and consciousness of their authors. Somerville and Ross are anything but self-educated. They were acquainted with the English tradition in which they admired, among other storytellers, Kipling. While a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris Edith had, before George Moore, come into contact with the French tradition. Their compositions do not show the improvisation and inconsistency of those of the author of Traits and Stories. Each story has a coherent internal structure and each collection also shows a careful overall structure involving a common framework, a common protagonist [Major Yeates] and variations on a theme that ultimately reveals its unity, that of the disharmony between man and the world which surrounds him. Details and isolated effects are all subordinated to a general design based on economy, progression, crisis and dénouement.

One wonders therefore at the way the work of these two writers is neglected while George Moore and James Joyce are proclaimed as the fathers of the modern Irish short story. Ignorance is not the only explanation of this state of affairs; the windows of the Great Houses of Somerville and Ross were too tightly closed and their lands too strictly reserved for the horses and hounds. The formal perfection of their work could not make up for such deficiency.

George Moore, a scrupulous and sophisticated writer, opens his work to an outside world that is much wider and that his personal dialectics make him successively love and chastise, which situates him in a modern Irish tradition that expresses the disenchantment of individuals with a milieu (generally rural) which is narrow, gossipy, banal, priest-ridden, crushed by taboos and numb to feelings of beauty and pleasure.

He stated in his preface to Celibate Lives that he preferred “soul cries” to adventures. Nevertheless it is only with the work of Joyce that “adventures” either disappear totally or become a mere occasion for an internal vision which humanizes everything, even the city of Dublin perceived like a vast paralysed body remembering the various moments of its private and public life while death approaches - one has only to think of the title of the last story in Dubliners.

The new lineage, more accomplished and less prolific, is now, for better or worse, established.

Between them the two traditions exhaust nearly all the possibilities. Admittedly the new Irish short story will show the colours of various possibilities, become more daring and sometimes indiscreet, yet its metamorphoses will be more formal or ephemeral responding to vogues of technique and manners, than fundamental. But of course the century is not yet over.


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