Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 November 2016
The Irish Short Story Mid-Century
Two writers, Frank O'Connor and Seán O'Faoláin, played an important part in establishing the short story as the quintessential Irish literary form in the middle of the twentieth century. The previous chapter highlighted O'Faoláin's influential role as editor of The Bell (1940–6), which gave him the opportunity both through his comments on the short story form and through publishing such authors as Frank O'Connor, Bryan MacMahon, James Plunkett, Mary Lavin, Sam Hanna Bell, Mary Beckett and Michael McLaverty, to mould the Irish short story of this period. O'Faoláin's views on what the modern short story should be were incorporated into his study, The Short Story (1948), where he endeavoured to distinguish the modern short story from the loosely structured tale of oral tradition by associating the short story with concision, irony and open-endedness and stressing that the modern short story differed from the tale or anecdote in being chiefly ‘an adventure of the mind’. In his view, the modern short story achieved its best effects through suggestion and implication: the influence of Chekhov on the Irish short story was still much in evidence.
O'Faoláin's own stories from this period, in Teresa and Other Stories (1947) and The Finest Stories (1957), display an uneven application of his theories of what the modern short story should be doing: rather than focusing on psychological exploration, many of them are taken up by satirizing aspects of Irish life. Frank O'Connor described Irish literature in these years as being ‘diverted’ by the realities of Irish life, and stories such as ‘The Man Who Invented Sin’ express O'Faoláin's barely contained resentment against the claustrophobic nature of Irish life and the role of the Catholic Church in hampering individual fulfilment. The comedy of a story such as ‘Unholy Living and Half Dying’ does not disguise the fact that mid-century Ireland is as much a place of stagnation and paralysis as it was in the stories of Moore and Joyce. In ‘Lady Lucifer’, three representatives of the intelligentsia, a priest, a bank clerk and a doctor, debate whether they should stay in a country where so many lead lives of quiet despair.