Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 November 2016
The Nineteenth-Century Tale
Any account of the Irish short story would be incomplete without some reference to its predecessor, the nineteenth-century tale. The 1800 Act of Union stimulated English interest in this part of their empire and depictions of Irish life and customs, collections of folklore and travelogues, often presented in quasi-fictional form, became immensely popular in the first decades of the nineteenth century. However, just as the Irish state had still to come into being, so the Irish short story had yet to stabilize as a genre. ‘Tale’ in the nineteenth century could mean anything from a brief sketch, anecdote or fable to a novella or even a three-volume novel. Much of the short fiction in this period was used for extra-literary purposes as Protestant and Catholic writers were propelled by their anxiety to defend and explain the Irish to the English and to record the beliefs and habits of Irish peasant life before they vanished forever. Under pressure from the turbulent times in Ireland, the realistic framework of the fiction often collapsed into gothic or melodrama, sentimentality or didactics.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century Anglo-Irish writers like Maria Edgeworth and Anna Hall published tales designed to instruct English readers in an understanding of the Irish way of life, essential if the Anglo-Irish were to govern Ireland effectively. Their didactic, though lively, tales were thus implicated in the imperial project. Other writers from the Protestant tradition, such as Thomas Crofton Croker (Fairy Tales and Legends of the South of Ireland, 1825) and Samuel Lover (Legends and Stories of Ireland, 1832), drew on oral storytelling and Irish folklore for the amusement of their English readers. Lover aimed to reproduce the lively tones of an Irish storyteller but undermined this by framing it with the voice of an educated, highly condescending narrator.
Catholic writers John and Michael Banim took exception to these portrayals of the Irish peasant as buffoon. In their Tales of the O'Hara Family (first series, 1825) they aimed for serious portraits of contemporary rural hardship and thereby came nearer to bringing a national literature into being.