It was one of my books for Christmas. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. And it was my recommended read for our book club this month.
But they’re a stubborn crowd, my book club lot. They know their own minds. What did they think of the book?
Took a long while to get into.
Some of the stories were lousy.
There are writers here I like, but they have better stories than what we got in this collection.
Some of the stories had no beginning or middle or end.
These can’t be the best Irish short stories of the last century!
It was time to turn the discussion around, get it working on a more positive vein.
Well, can we talk about the stories we DID like. Let’s see if we can select a half-dozen.
This did the trick. Lots of stories were enjoyed. We got a consensus on the top half-dozen Irish short stories from the Granta selection:
Claire Keegan’s ‘Men and Women’
From the 1999 collection Antartica, this story gets going with the great opening lines, ‘My father took me places. He had artificial hips, so he needs me to open gates.’ For our discerning lot, Claire Keegan’s stories, set in her rural mythic landscapes, are a triumph of writing.
Colm Tobin’s ‘A Priest in the Family’
We admired the grit, the dignity, the self-possession of Molly, mother of the child-abuser priest. After informing her of the devastating news, Father Greenwood adds, ‘I’d say people will be very kind.’ Molly replies knowingly: ‘Well, you don’t know them, then.’
Edna O’Brien’s, Sister Imelda
It’s almost 30 years since this story first appeared and it captures the boarding school world of bacon and cabbage, tapioca pudding, ‘fairly green rhubarb jam’ and the nuns’ ‘monotonous Latin chanting, long before the birds began’.
Eugene McCabe’s ‘Music at Annahullion’
Three siblings share a home on ‘thirty wet sour acres’ and their wretched lives are captured in words spoken in Annie’s dream: ‘I wish to God we were never born.’
Mary Lavin’s ‘Lilacs’
This piece goes back almost six decades to Mary Lavin’s collection Tales from Bective Bridge. The images of dung and lilac counterpoint the worlds of gritty reality and class aspiration with astute precision.
William Trevor’s ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’
The last story in the Granta selection and the master does not disappoint with this world of the greasy garage, the wayside weeping statue and the strange dressmaker.
We all agreed there were enough good stories in this collection to be getting along with – even if each of us had our hate list.
This is my half-dozen list of books from Ireland or by Irish writers that I think would make great Christmas gifts. And not a whiff of misery writing about the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger or the sorry IMF/ECB bailout.
Emma Donoghue’s Room was my book of the year before it won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year prize. Asked at the awards ceremony why she thought the book had such an impact Emma said, ‘I think it touches on the universal theme of a young person discovering there’s more to life their own little world.’ That little world of Jack and Ma incarcerated in a room is richly imagined and conveyed with humour and freshness through the voice of the child narrator.
I was at the launch of Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain at the Abbey Theatre in September where the poet roamed over and back between old poems and new. This is his twelfth collection. John Banville said: ‘Human Chain marks many deaths but all the markings are a celebration of what was lived.’
The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story is edited by Anne Enright. How on earth did she make her selection from a century of Irish short story writing? ‘I wanted to put together a book that was varied and good to read, with a strong eye to the contemporary,’ she said. It is a delight to have O Faolain and O’Connor, Mary Lavin and Maeve Brennan, Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan and many others in one volume.
A legendary Irish text-book has been reprinted. Soundings, a poetry anthology edited by Gus Martin will evoke mixed emotions if you sat your Leaving Cert between 1969 and 2000. Joseph O’Connor describes it well: ‘Amid the ink-stains of our adolescence, the shocking sweetness of first kisses, the pimples and growth-spurts and uncertainties and aches, it saw to it that poetry would find a way of seeding itself.’
The Thank You Book is edited by Roisin Ingle and is a fund-raising initiative of the Irish Hospice Foundation. The book will be largely written by you as you fill the pages with your gratitude lists in these dismal times.
There’s a personal bias in my last selection, Michael Viney’s Wild Mayo. It is my native county but the places are familiar to many through Michael’s weekly column in the Irish Times. Described as ‘a poem to a place’, it captures a county’s natural history and evokes a wild landscape of peatlands and islands and rocky shores illustrated with sumptuous photos.
(If you are looking for other Irish book ideas, Publishing Ireland have a list of 25 to choose from here.)
Any suggestions? Of Irish books as Christmas gifts? Would love to hear.