The Irish Quarter
A History of the Irish Short Story by Heather Ingman is a very well done work of literary history with a lot to teach readers like me without academic training in the history of Irish literature or the short story. The best way to learn about the history of the Irish short story is to read a lot of them. There are several good anthologies. Once you have read a lot of Irish short stories then read a lot of America, Russian, French and English short stories. Once you have done this, go back and read some more. When you are done with this I would say your first secondary work on the short story should be the brilliant but flawed The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor.
Ingman did a very good job of explaining how the Irish short story became such a dominating literary form. She says, as does pretty much all who write on the short story, that Edgar Alan Poe was the first writer to produce self-consciously atristic short stories without a primary didactic purpose. The first Irish short story writers, people like William Carleton and Maria Edgeworth were caught in a cultural and economic dilemma. They were committed to the Irish but they were educated as if they were English and the audience for their stories was much greater in London than Dublin or Galway. She also talks about writers like Edith Sommerville and Violent Martin (AKA Ross Martin) who wrote stories which seem on first glance to be making fun of the Irish as buffoons who need an English magistrate to run their lives for them. Ingman does a good job, and for what it is worth, I think she is right, of explaining that there is a lot more depth in their stories than this. She talks about William Carleton as a transition figure from works in the tradition of the story teller with a primarily moral purpose to George Moore whose The Untilled Field she tells us marks the start of the modern Irish short story.
She talks about the role that magazines, which began in Ireland in the mid 1830s, had in the development of the Irish short story. This parallels exactly the development of the Australian short story sixty years later. William Trevor has said that the short story was a dominant literary form in Ireland because the Irish did not have a large enough body of people with the leisure time and the education to read long novels whereas the English did have these conditions which explains why the novel dominates in England and the short story in Ireland. The exact same conditions prevailed in Australia up until after WWI and you see a similar domination of the literary world there by short stories published in two magazines.
Ingman goes on to explain how The New Yorker's willingness to publish and pay top money for short stories came to shape the Irish short story in that writers wrote stories they thought the editors of the magazine would like. It also imposed length requirements. This same need to satisfy the requirements of magazine editors, especially those of The Hindu Times, shaped the modern Indian short story.
Ingman covers all of the big name writers. I think what I most found edifying in the book was the account of the transition from the 19th century short story to the modern era story. What I liked best about the book was the many reading ideas I got from it. I already have in mind an idea for a project for Irish Short Story Week Year 3 set to start March 1, 2013. Elizabeth Bowen wrote seven stories set in Ireland and I think I will do a series of posts on them. Ireland was neutral during WWII while Bowen was deeply committed to the English side and spent the war years in London. Ingman spends a lot of time in the book dealing with the question of the Irish identity of Irish short story writers.
I think anyone with an interest and at least a starting level of erudition in the Irish short story will enjoy and profit from this collection. I would classify it as sort of half way between a pure academic book and popular history. If I lived in Dublin I would love to take a class or two from Professor Ingman.
Author Auto Biography
Adjunct Professor, School of English, Trinity College
I originally taught in the French Department in Trinity College, Dublin before going to Hull University where I researched and taught twentieth-century women’s writing. Since returning to Ireland in 2000, my publications and teaching have been mostly in the area of Irish women’s writing. I am particularly interested in inter war women’s fiction, Irish women’s short stories, the theme of nation and gender in Irish women’s fiction, the mother-daughter relationship in twentieth-century women’s fiction, and in the theme of spirituality in women’s writing.
I participated in a five-year project supported by the British Academy, European Intertexts, studying women’s writing as part of a European fabric. I have published numerous articles on women’s writing in periodicals such asThe Year’s Work in English, Irish University Review and Irish Studies Review. I have reviewed for academic journals and regularly give conference papers on aspects of women’s writing. Authors covered include Virginia Woolf, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Brennan, Elizabeth Bowen, Jennifer Johnston, Rose Macaulay and George Egerton. I have supervised Ph.Ds on women’s writing and been external examiner for Ph.Ds in Hull University and the University of Miami. I have been invited to give two plenary lectures on Irish women’s writing at international conferences in 2012.