Dublin Tales, edited by Paul Delaney and Eve Patton

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Reviewed by Harriet

If you gave me a choice between a collection of short stories and a novel, I’d choose the novel every time. I suppose it’s something to do with wanting to get my teeth into something, knowing it’s going to keep me going for a while. But despite that personal preference, I have huge admiration for the short story form, which at its best can be superb. So, as I really enjoy Irish writing, I was happy to get a copy of Dublin Tales for review. 

There are seventeen stories (or should I call them tales?) in this volume, ranging in date from 1906 to 2022. Some of the authors were familiar to me, others I’d never heard of. Two of the stories were written, and are published here, in the Irish language, together with an English translation by their authors. Each story has a colour photo to go with it, and the book contains full and helpful information about the writers as well as publication details. So it’s an attractive and useful book, but what of the stories?

In the introduction, the compliers of this anthology tell us that they have deliberately sought out ‘fresh stories, resisting the temptation to turn to the predictable or the pre-packaged’. For this reason, some of the best known Irish writers don’t appear here. Instead, they follow the procedure of an ideal anthology, in which:

established and emerging writers can be placed in generative company, forgotten works can be recalled, contemporary stories can be showcased, lesser-known tales can be given prominence, and celebrated texts can be re-energized as they are placed in new or surprising contexts.

Perhaps the most celebrated text here is ‘Two Gallants’ by James Joyce, taken from his 1914 collection The Dubliners. I knew this story quite well, but I’d never encountered William Trevor’s 1986 ‘Two More Gallants’, in which Joyce’s boastful, ultimately pathetic Lenehan and Corley reappear in the reminiscences of Heffernan and Fitzpatrick. The story plays nicely with past and present, with fiction and ‘real life’, and leaves the two men no more admirable than Joyce’s characters. I was familiar with Mary Chavelita Dunne, whose early New Woman fiction appeared under the name George Egerton, but not with her story ‘Mammy’, the first in the anthology. Here the eponymous central character, the madam of a Dublin brothel, asks for a priest to come and give the last rites to a dying girl; when the message comes that the priests are forbidden to visit the house, she picks the girl up bodily and carries her to the vestry:

‘A-a-h! By God, if Christ would not come to the sinner, I am a strange one to bring the sinner to Christ! Well, I’ve done my part, now you do yours. That will bury her.’ She had taken a roll of one-pound notes out of her pocket as she spoke and laid them on the table. Something bright flashed from her lashes as she turned to the outer door and the servant of God held it respectfully open for the daughter of the Magdalen to pass.

The history of the city of Dublin can be followed through the pages. Mary O’Donnell’s fine story ‘The Black Church’ (2018), tells a story of the Easter Rising of 1916 through the eyes of a small child; Liam O’Flaherty’s ‘The Sniper’ (1926) is set during the Irish Civil War of 1922-3; in World War Two, potential air raids are discussed by two fashionable women in Elizabeth Bowen’s  1941 ‘Unwelcome Idea’;  and Val Mulkern’s ‘Four Green Fields’  (1978) evokes the decades long history of the Troubles in a story about a loyalist bombing in 1974.  As the chronology of publication dates moves forward to more recent years, the city’s multiculturalism becomes evident: in Melatu Uche Okorie’s  2022 ‘Arrival’, a newly arrived Nigerian woman travels from Belfast airport to North Dublin to meet her future husband for the first time; the central character of Mirsad Ibiševi´c’s ‘The Emigrant’ (2022),  is a young refugee from Bosnia grappling with life in a new country; and Miss Moffat, in Ní Dhuibhne’s 2020 ‘Miss Moffat Goes to Town’ is phased and confused by the multicultural speech she encounters. 

If you’re looking for the fine writing often associated with Irish authors, there are plenty of examples, perhaps especially in the earlier stories: Joyce, of course, and Trevor, Brendan Behan’s 1962 ‘The Confirmation Suit’, Elizabeth Bowen. But the standout here for me was James Stephens’ ‘A Rhinoceros, Some Ladies, and a Horse’  (1946). Apparently part of an unfinished, unpublished autobiography, this is a joyful, playful story of a young Dublin lad who gets a job in a theatrical agency.

One of my bosses was thin, and the other was fat. My fat boss was composed entirely of stomachs. He had three baby-stomachs under his chin: then he had three more descending in even larger englobings nearly to the ground: but, just before reaching the ground, the final stomach bifurcated into a pair of boots. He was very light on these and could bounce about in the neatest way. He was the fattest thing I had ever seen, except a rhinoceros that I had met in the Zoo the Sunday before I got the job.

The editors describe this story as ‘almost acrobatic in its verbal dexterity’, and it’s hard to argue with that, as it bounces about (like the fat boss) between the lady – one of the clients of the agency, celebrated for her skill at the splits – who takes a fancy to the boy, who hides under the table whenever she turns up, the rhinoceros, who may like apples, causing the boy to steal one from the horse… and so on. I’d never heard of Stephens, who born in 1880, but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on his ‘dark urban fairy tale’ The Charwoman’s Daughter, and the ‘genre-defying comic novel’ The Crock of Gold, both published in 1912, and both of which are available on Kindle for ridiculously low prices.

All in all then, a lot of pleasure to be had here. I’m very glad to have read it.

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Harriet, one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books, is very proud of her rather distant Irish ancestry.

See also our Shiny reviews of other collection in this series: Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon.

Paul Delaney and Eve Patton, ed.s, Dublin Tales (Oxford University Press, 2023). 978-0192855558, 336pp., paperback.

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