In a place apart , probably the best book yet written about the violence in Northern Ireland (and one as tragically timely today as when it was published five years ago), Dervla Murphy observes that on arriving home from a winter spent in Baltistan, where the Indus River rises, to encounter anew the arguments raging in her native republic about the sale of contraceptives (also still a hot issue in 1981) she felt that she had come "from the Third World to some dotty Fourth World consisting only of Ireland."
"Many of Ben Forkner's selections for Modern Irish Short Stories give a similar impression. Does a dotty society tend to encourage the producton of superior brief fiction? Think of Eudora Welty's South, of John Cheever's exurban Connecticut, of John O'Hara's central Pennsylvania. As forcing beds for short stories these eccentric American worlds served their readers well. But surely none is a patch on Cork, Dublin, Belfast -- or the unnamed Shannon estuary town of the surest, funniest yarn in this book, Sean O'Faolain's "Falling Rocks, Narrowing Road, Cul-de-Sac, Stop."
O'Faolain was born in 1900. His fourth and latest novel appeared when he was 79, and he remains a strong figure on the Irish literary scene. This story, one of the very large number he has published since his first collection appeared in 1932, is from Foreign Affairs , which came out in 1976.
Along with Frank O'Connor (1903-1966) and Mary Lavin (1921-), O'Faolain is so important a figure in the development of the short story in Ireland, and in English literature, that one can only regret Forkner's (or perhaps his publisher's) decision not to include more than a single selection from the work of each of these three. Possibly it must be considered necessary, from the historical point of view, to reprint once more certain classics (George Moore's "Home Sickness," Joyce's "The Dead") familiar from O'connor's standard Modern Irish Short Stories (Oxford) and other readers and anthologies. And it may be justifiable, again on the basis of literary history, to include such essentially unsuccessful stories as Yeats' "The Twisting of the rope" and J. M. Synge's "An Autumn Night in the Hills." But why pick "Poisson d'Avril," so much less representative of Edith Sommerville and Martin Ross' superb -- though still in Ireland resented and hard-to-find -- stories rather than any one of a number of others, including O'Connor's better choice, "Lisheen Races, Second-Hand," from the three volumes of Experiences of an Irish R. M . (1899, 1908, 1915).
This cavil may be challenged on the grounds of personal taste, as may my sense that "Killachter Meadow," a surrealist treatment of mad spinster sisters by Aidan Higgins (1927-), doesn't work. But if it is good to find Lavin's truly haunting "Happiness" here, however muchone may have wished for additional examples of this writer's quiet veracity, there can be few who know Kate O'Brien's work who will not be disappointed to find nothing at all by the author of "A Difficult Question," also ommited by O'Connor but wisley included among the best short storied in editor Daniel Green's Modern Library An Anthology of Irish Literature (1954).
A later female O'Brien, Edna (1930-), is represented in Forkner's book by "The Creature," a story that slips too abruptly away from its pity-evoking central character to the author's characteristic self-concern. Yet another O'Brien, Flann (1911-1966), born Brian O'Nolan in County Tyrone, novelist and journalist (under further pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen), also appears among the more contemporary shorty-story writers in this collection. Forkner's choice, "The Martyr's Crown," is a tidy little tale with an O. Henry ending.
Benedict Kiely (1919-), a Northern-born Dubliner, wellknown in the United States as a campus lecturer and in Ireland for his apperances on TV as well as for his writing, is represented here with the well-crafted title story from his 1973 collection, A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly. Eugene McCabe (1930-) in "Cancer" writes about two brothers, one dying, the other one bitter that "he's dyin and sleeps twelve hours of the twenty-four, eats, smokes, walks, and for a man used never talk much, he talks the hind leg off a pot now, make your head light to hear him . . . I take two of them sleeping caps every night since he come home, and never close an eye. I can't keep nothin' on my stomach, and my skin itches all over; I sweat night and day. I'll tell you what I think: living's worse nor dyin', and that's a fact." The artful thing about this story is the manner in which such talk is counterpointed by vengeful Orangeman's conversation in a pub and the weary questioning by a British Army patrol of the well brother going to the hospital to visit the sick. The illness becomes a metaphor for the larger cancer of the Troubles. John McGahern (1934-), also writes movingly in "All Sorts of Impossible Things" about a man dying and a friend surviving.
In all, Forkner, who teaches English and American literature at the University of Nantes in France and is a participant, with a just-completed book on James Joyce, in the thriving Joyce industry -- one part of the Irish economy that shows no signs of recession -- has chosen 26 authors for this volume. Alongside their richness, his own introduction, unfortunately, seems a poor thing, neither as analytical nor, conversely, as celebratory as it might be. To balance its pedantic tone, however, there is a hyperbolic preface by Anthony Burgess, whose grandmother was a Finnegan from Tipperary. With these 26 writers, he says, "you will be in the presence of Ireland, the most fantastic country in the world and perhaps the only country that can be regarded as a custodian of unchanging human truth."