The Irish Quarter
1875 to 1918
I have not yet been to Galway, Ireland but I do not think you would find another city of its size on the planet that has produced so many great writers, among them Seumas O'Kelly. I have previously posted on his "The Weaver's Grave", "The Rector", and "The Wayside Burial" and his tremendously fun to read story about a cousin of the leprechaun, "The Shoemaker". In his 1917 collection, Waysiders there are ten short stories. I have already posted on three of the stories in Waysiders and it is my plan now to read and post on all of them. I do not know if any of his work is much read besides "The Weaver's Grave", included in William Trevor's Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories but I really enjoyed the story I read this morning and I think his work lets us see an older Ireland, maybe one that never quite existed. I also want to post on this story because Tinkers the old name for Irish Travellers, play a central part in the story. I first got interested in Irish Travellers through reading some of the short stories of the great contemporary Galway writer, Desmond Hogan. I also recently read "The Tinker's Wedding" by John Synge and I am starting to try to understand the part of tinkers in Irish literature. Last week I acquired an ebook of the complete poetry and plays of W. B. Yeats and I scanned it for the word "Tinker". It comes up 41 times. I am now starting to see the work of Hogan through his use of Travellers as partially proposing an alternative non-centrifugal view of Irish history with travellers as iconographic figures in this history. If no one has ever done it, an interesting book could be written about the role of Tinkers/Travellers in Irish Culture. The highest number of Travellers are to be found in the Galway area.
The stories of O'Kelly are all based on old Irish legends and yarns. He is fully in the tradition of the Irish storyteller. The central character of the story is Festus Clasby, a fine figure of a shop keeper. Everybody from miles around comes to buy from this store, he extends long credit and he takes long profits in return. It is a lot of fun to learn of the importance of the local shop owner to the rural people. The story gets very exciting when a tinker comes in his shop offering to sell his a wonderful pot he has made, with a special diamond notch that he says he marks all his work with. It is great fun to see the shop owner and the tinker bargain back and forth and we get a good sense of the joy the people in the story took in verbal proficiency.
Then the real fun of the story starts when a Tinker woman, the tinkers in the story are portrayed as loud and boisterous, maybe beyond the pale of proper behaviour, and says the pot is not the property of the man selling it but belongs to her brother. Now things start to get crazy when a number of Travellers all come in the store and start arguing with Festus over the fair price for the pot and seemingly ready to fight each other. At the end of the story Festus finds a good bit of his inventory has disappeared along with the Travellers and his pot and the money he paid for it. It seems the whole thing was a well practised flim-flam routine.
"The Can with the Diamond Notch" is a really fun story. William Trevor says that O'Kelly's work is a transition from the traditional Irish yarn to the modern short story.
What are your favorite older Irish short stories?
The Reading Life