Claire Keegan's stories have won many awards: Antarctica, was a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year and earned her the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Walk the Blue Fields won the Edge Hill Prize.
Mary Leland is a Cork-born journalist. She has published two novels and a book of short stories.
Molly McCloskey is the author of two collections of short stories and a novel,
Protection. She has won several awards for her short stories, including
the RTE Francis MacManus Award.
Eoin McNamee's first book, the novella was
shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize. His novels include
Resurrection Man (1996), The Blue Tango (2001), The Ultras (2004) and
Kathleen Murray's stories have appeared in the anthologies The Incredible Hides in Every House and These Are Our Lives and in The Stinging Fly. She was the winner of the Fish Short Story Prize 2006/07 and is working on her first collection of short stories.
Susan Stairs lives in Dublin and is a student on the MA in
Creative Writing programme in UCD. She is a graduate of NCAD and has
written extensively about Irish art.
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takes my hand in his. As soon as he takes it, I realise my father has
never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me
go so I won't have to feel this. It's a hard feeling, but as we walk
along i begin to settle and let the difference between my life at home
and the one I have here be."
Reviewed by Tania Hershman
is a rare thing for me to find half the stories in an anthology
astonishingly good. But then this slim volume of the prize-winning
stories from the 2009 Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award only contains six
and they have all been judged "winners" so perhaps the odds were
However, reading an anthology of "winners" can colour the reading
process. These stories have already been set at the top of a pile by someone. Part of me wants them to be truly exceptional - and another part of me says, Well, just because someone thinks you're great, doesn't mean I have to. So, this book already has a great deal to contend with before it's even opened
I began reading without looking at the judge's comments on each story,
for that would have made the situation even more difficult. I wanted to
come at it with as little baggage as possible, apart from the
unavoidable "winner" label. I started with the first prize winner, Foster,
by Claire Keegan, about whose writing I had heard so much, but whose
stories I had yet to read. So there was more baggage already. I like to
note how long a story is before I begin, and the third item of
"baggage" came in the form of its 54 pages. I have been reading mostly
very short stories and tend to balk at the lengthy ones.
This makes it sound as if I had set myself up for disappointment, and
perhaps I had, but let me not waste more space without saying this: I
read this story on the train and when I finished, I had to stop myself
from crying. Weeping on public transport is not my style. This is a
very quiet story, told with unbelievable control and immaculate pacing,
and it was only when I reached the last page did I understand just how
powerful it was. A second read confirmed this. I don't say this
lightly, but Foster - the story of a girl whose overwhelmed parents pass her for a summer
to a grieving, childless
couple while they prepare for the arrival of yet another
baby - is as close to a perfect story as I have read, and I read a
Foster - from which the quote
at the top of the page is taken - is a story that ressembles a set of
Russian dollls, so much is contained within: childhood, families, Irish
life and culture, bereavement, dysfunction, tenderness, belonging and
identity. it does not use flashy devices or overwrought language to
surprise and move, because Keegan has no need to. I will be re-reading
this story often, trying to examine how she does what she does so
The five shortlisted stories are very different from one another.
Kathleen Murray's beautiful Storm
Glass weaves together present and past tragedies, storms both
real and metaphorical that a family must weather. Using a first person
narrator who knows things she couldn't know about events that happened
before she was born, this is an eerie yet wholly convincing tale. She
is as precise in her language as Keegan, never wasting words:
"I think they never put these scenes together, my mother and father in
all their years of talk. It's a shame. It would have made her laugh: the
thought of him sweeping eels up the main street while she was counting
lambs."Murray's story involves ageing parents, broken families, and death, as does Mary Leland's Living in Unknown, but in a very
different vein. Leland's main
character, Ursula, has an 80-year-old father on the edge of dementia
who recites poetry and sings to her, and it seems as though what he
sings is not random:
"As she left she heard her father open a upstairs window. He shouted
after her, as if in farewell: 'Will the glory of your nearness fade as
the moonlight fades in a veil of rain? Can I forget you or will my
heart remind me how much I want you back again?'"
This is a story that
mixes a hint of the magical and the mundane, as does Eoin McNamee's The Road Wife, which takes the
reader into the world of long-distance truck drivers. A chance
encounter with a Russian girl who offers "services" to the truckers
spurs Coyle on to theft and then obsession with Nadia, who is not what
Molly McClosky's narrator in her Kenya-based story This isn't Heaven also finds that
the woman he is obssessed with is not how he had imagined her:
had that kind of awe. She had grown up in a house where on the
mantel...was a grainy photo taken in Yola, in northern Nigeria, in the
late sixties. It was of her aunt, a Sister of Mercy... What impressed
her was the paradox of this small, gentle woman who was unafraid of
deprivation, or the smell of rotting flesh, or the superstitions that
The narrator imagines Marie to be a similar kind of saint, but finds that she is only too human in the end.
I enjoyed the last story in the book, Susan Stairs' The Rescue, immensely. Where Keegan doesn't employ mystery to ensnare her reader, Stairs
uses this to great effect with an opening paragraph that is wilfully
and wonderfully open to misinterpretation:
"He's in. The push was easy. Though it's the first time, it's familiar.
The smell excites. Like birth or death, cut and cure. The good and bad
of everything in equal measure. How it should be. He pants like a beast
in the black, insides heaving with dread and command. And her."
This is a tale of adolescent love and angst, which could have been
cliched, but Stairs weaves it skilfully, moving between
her two protagonists as we slowly discover what is going on. The ending is
both shocking and affecting.
Although Molly McCloskey's This isn't Heaven takes place in Kenya and Eoin McNamee's The Road Wife is set around Europe, I felt that The Rescue is
the least "Irish" of these stories, with a more universal feel to it.
However, all of the six stories are thrilling in their transfer onto
the page of the linguistic Irish musicality.
Says the judge, Richard Ford:
"I wasn't trying
to find the most Irish story
in the bunch but rather to find what seemed to be the most excellent
one....But I must say that reading these thirty stories leaves me with
the unexpected impression that your regulation-grade Irish man or woman
might just be able to write a pretty decent short story in his or her
I can only concur, and add that Claire Keegan is clearly already in a
league of her own. For once, I agree whole-heartedly with the judge.
These are prize-winning stories that do not disappoint.