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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Exploring the Irish Short Story

As the arrival of the early summer sun continues to shine, it does so on the start of the Irish cultural festival season. Already this year the hugely successful Cuirt International Festival of Literature brought record numbers to Galway for the week-long festival. Coming up next you could look at a myriad selection of locations hosting literary festivals. Yesterday saw the announcement of the line-up of the Dublin Writers Festival, one of the standout events of the summer. Cuirt, Dublin, Listowel, Ennis, Waterford, West Cork, wherever, these literary festivals have one common trait, that is the frontline presence of the short story. 

One of the headline events at the Cuirt Festival in Galway was a panel discussion on reasons as to why and how the Irish short story has undergone such resurgence of late. The panel was chaired by Anne Enright, editor of the recently published Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. She was joined on the panel by three writers who are featured in the volume, Kevin Barry, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and Phillip O’Ceallaigh. Those in attendance at Galway’s Town Hall Theatre were treated to readings from the Granta volume of Irish short stories by all on the panel. What really gripped the audience was the resulting discussion between the authors who seemed at such ease they may well have been seated at a kitchen table and not on a spot-lit stage.

The discussion raised some key questions that have been asked on more than one occasion of late when considering the current popularity of the short story in Ireland. Anne Enright teased at the ideas of tradition and of nationhood in Ireland. The panel discussed the idea of the novel being a form born out of and perfected by the society of the industrial revolution. It came later to Ireland for this very reason. The tradition in Ireland for telling stories was telling them in their oral form, their purest form: stories told for and to an audience. Eilis ni Dhuibhne really ignited this part of the discussion as she outlined her work as a folklorist and insights into the Irish oral tradition. Enright further added that as Ireland has had this tradition of oral communication, the short story has been an excellent medium to move this form from the oral to the written.

Discussion moved from short story writing to novel-writing and if the panel would consider working in this form in the future. O’Ceallaigh offered a considered but definite no. He outlined his affinity for the shorter form and how it offers a platform to write ‘the individual’, making more intimate a form than its longer cousin. Kevin Barry bucked this trend of course with the recent launch of his novel, City of Bohane. Barry’s Rooney prize-winning collection, There are Little Kingdoms has earmarked him as a truly original voice in the ever-growing stable of the Irish short story writers. Barry spoke of simply ‘knowing that feeling’ when embarking on a story whether it will stay within the short form or extend to a novel. Eilis Ni Dhuibhne mentioned the stress levels and self-doubting are considerably higher when writing a novel as it is just you and ‘this thing’ looking at each other for years at a time!

Barry also gave his ‘breaking news’ prediction on the return to popularity in the very near future of the novella. This form has lain lost between the short story and the novel in a literary limbo of late. The reason proffered by the panel as simply being publishers can’t sell novellas. Barry predicted that the arrival of the E-reader will make novellas a viable option again and will produce a new wave of great Irish works. Foster by Claire Keegan published in 2010 may add a lot of credence to Barry’s prediction.

Looking at Ireland’s neighbours, Enright moved on, there does not seem to be the same emphasise on short story writing in the U.K., she considered to the panel. Are these ‘small works for a small nation’? She offered further that short stories are symptomatic of a nation undergoing change and are more responsive to a people undergoing re-evaluation. While not fully getting to root of ‘the English question’ regarding the short story, the idea of tradition again arose, with the fact that Ireland is proud of its short story tradition and talks about its short story writers more so than any other nation. O’Ceallaigh was quick to add that the form is not a strictly Irish form and that he was hugely influenced by the Russian short story writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century American and Russian short story writers.

The discussion drew to a close with a consideration by all on the ‘long’ short story, such as which have been written by Colm Toibin, William Trevor and Frank O’Connor. Again the idea of the novella was raised as an answer but also the fact that Enright herself considered this point when editing the Granta volume of Irish Short Stories and considered the ‘long’ short story worthy of a volume of its own. That was enough to leave the audience perhaps considering more as they left the Town Hall Theatre as when they came in!

If the Irish short story is deemed a tradition owing to it being talked about as well as being read, it is sure to continue as a proud Irish tradition and a literary form that has something a little extra special to offer its readers.

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Posted by on April 28, 2011 in Books, Culture, Uncategorized

 

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The Fall-Out of Memories – Mercier’s ‘The Passing’ and ‘The East Pier’

“People around here just want to get on with their lives”, offers Steven, played by Andrew Connolly early in Paul Mercier’s new play The Passing, presented in reparatory on the Abbey theatre stage with his other new work The East Pier.  These two new ‘memory plays’ reflect on our contemporary Ireland, the unease and anxiety prevalent in its people and also ponders our connectedness to each other, or lack thereof.

Put simply, these are works for our time. However, they are not strictly of our time. The Passing and The East Pier share themes and ideas that are a continuation and extension of the themes Mercier has explored from the mid-1980s with his play Wasters, where he examined the disinterested youth of a generation of young Irish that were experiencing mass emigration. Here, Mercier presents a suburban middle-class, those who were cloistered in commuter-belt housing estates but today find themselves lost and very much alone socially, politically and economically.

To say these works are ‘recession plays’ or to label them as a direct comment on banking crises would do them a severe injustice. The dreaded words of recession, banks or bonds are never mentioned. That is not what Mercier is getting at here. He says himself “The Passing and The East Pier may be set in contemporary Dublin, amid the wreckage of a bust economy and a visionless future, but “events like the banking crisis, or whatever, happen every day. We’re either flush with [money] or we’re not. These events have been happening since I first began writing in the 1980s. The times then were challenging too. . . Yes. Ordinary life continues regardless of the economic circumstances.” (Mercier in conversation with Sara Keating, IT) Mercier is exploring the fallout of these crises and where they have been felt hardest and that is in the homes of Irish families.

The Passing is set in one such family house that has ceased to be a home.

The Passing. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre

The Passing. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre

Catherine enters the home of her childhood and in the process sets off the alarm, she is like an intruder in her own home. We learn that this house has been vacant for some time and is about to be placed on the market. A series of meeting with her siblings ensue, each by chance, none arranged and none of the meetings are that of siblings on good terms. Anthony Lambe’s set is a through-section of the house, from ground floor to roof chimney and allows the audience a vantage point into the private lives of families, usually kept within the walls of their home. Liam, played by Peter Hanley, is the son who stayed at home and who watched his parents grow old and eventually die. He is the executor, a powerful position to hold in a society where the holder of property has previously been the winner.

This is also a key point which Mercier teases at: a house loses any sense of being a home when it is treated solely as ‘a property’. Negative equity should mean less to those who bought a home to live in, be at home in and not to sell or hold simply as a commodity.

Catherine is brilliantly played by Catherine Walsh, one of the best performances you will see this year.  The ‘passing’ implied in the play’s title is played on many levels: the death of father and previous head of this household, the breakdown of the family as members move away and the ‘passing’ of the house itself into the hands of strangers, which Catherine frantically and desperately tries to prevent.

Mercier really hits some excellent notes in this play. In one of the final scenes, where Catherine talks with the neighbour Steven, they discuss how ‘year after year homes give birth to extensions’, they battle with hedges, trees, fences, boxing each other in and moving neighbours further away from each other, retreating back into their ‘improved’ houses.

We never quite learn exactly why this house has such a powerful connection to Catherine given that she ‘abandoned’ it some long years back. This, aligned with the fact that we never fully know enough about the original reasons for Catherine leaving her home or for the lack of communication between her and her siblings do leave gaps in the story. It is still an intriguing piece and forces a revaluation of the current state of Irish community, family and social standings and sets about a point of reconciliation for a new Irish society.

The East Pier is the second new play by Mercier staged at the Abbey. The audience are brought to the lobby of a pier-side hotel in Dublin’s south coast. The decor of Anthony Lamb’s hotel is aged but clean, worn and now tacky and out-dated. It perfectly accentuates the passing of time from when the hotel was a hub of life and social meetings instead of present day when not even staff are present. These sea-side hotels were once booked-solid for summer getaways but this of course was before the norm of exotic foreign holidays.

Kevin, a plainly suited business-man enters, slightly nervous and waiting for someone. Jean, soon follows. She is also suited in the garb of the successful business woman. It quickly becomes evident these two have a connection and a story that goes far beyond a chance business meeting.

Idle chit-chat is exchanged, job titles, services, husbands, wives, children, the usual ‘elevator talk’ to pass a moment.

Don Wycherly. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre

Soon, Jean and Kevin are talking about past encounters that one or either remembers while the other can’t recollect. Mercier masterfully controls this outpouring of experience and memory. His direction keeps the dialogue flowing as one delves into their memories of school, youth, summers, debs, embraces, walks and ideas of elopement. While the other might not always remember the exact details, the place or people present, the key is Kevin or Jean have never forgotten each other. Blanks in memories give way to floods of emotions and remembered embraces. Were these deliberately forgotten however?  The fractured lives of this couple and their changed directions mean things seldom follow the path they envisage.

Don Wycherly has been one of the consistently brilliant actors anywhere in Ireland over the last number of years and this is to be no exception. He carries his devotion to his children, to his business and his clients with an innate vulnerability. Andrea Irvine also excels as she portrays Jean who is visibly hurt by Kevin in a former life. There is genuine connection between the two, albeit in the face of years spent apart and spent wondering.

Paul Mercier has done something extremely interesting here. By working with memory and recollection he has ironically created two pieces that deal with the present. He presents Ireland as it stands today, broken, lacking guidance, stung and struggling in the fallout from its memories of happier times.

See www.abbeytheatre.ie for further details.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Abbey Theatre, Culture, Theatre

 

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Cuirt Festival brings books, talks and grenades to Galway

The Cuirt International Festival of Literature got off to a strong start in its Galway home yesterday. Events are taking place city-wide and taking place until Sunday. The Festival, officially launched by playwright Thomas Kilroy is in its 25th year and is showing no signs of slowing up after its quarter century.

Cuirt Festival 2011

The Town Hall theatre is just one venue that will be a hub of activity for the week. Things kicked off with a talk with authors Paul Murray and Dermot Healy. Healy’s new novel Long Time No See has been getting a considerable deal of extra attention of late owing to a spat based in the letters page of the Irish Times on various opinions on opinions of Healy’s book. Healy has kept his council on this matter and last night’s talk along with the excellent Paul Murray got focus back on the writing.

In the Town Hall Theatre studio space Tara McEvitt’s play Grenades was playing to a sell out crowd. Winner of the P.J O’Connor award for the radio version of the play, McKevitt presents a stark yet touching portrayal of family, relationships and death in the North of Ireland still reeling in the grip of sectarian violence. The soundtrack is fantastic with true classics from Thin Lizzy and the Undertones, linking the innocence and care-free youth of Nuala and Oran Kelly, who proudly sport the badges of their favourite bands on their denim jackets. They do not so openly display their religion or political beliefs, Nuala, particularly is bewildered by the presence of a gun in her granddad’s shed. Her childhood is shattered suddenly as physical and metaphorical grenades are lobbed into her life and take with them those she loved most. Nuala is brilliantly played by Emma O’Grady is this solo performance piece presented by Mephisto Theatre Company and will definitely be a highlight of the Cuirt Festival week.

Grenades - Mephisto theatre company

For a radio version of the play click here and enjoy: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/drama/

Wednesday’s festivities sees what promises to be a great insight into two leading current female playwrights, Nancy Harris and Stacy Gregg. Both have staged new works (No Romance, Harris) or will stage new works (Perve, Gregg) at the Abbey Theatre. Both authors will discuss their new works with Dr. Patrick Lonergan who lectures in NUI Galway and author of many works such as Theatre and Globalisation: Theatre in the Celtic Tiger Era.

Gerbrand Bakker adds a prestigious international flavour to teh Cuirt Festival. Bakker was awarded the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in June 2010 for The Twin, his first novel published in English, beautifully translated from the original Dutch by David Colmer.

A personal highlight takes place this Friday, 5pm, at Charlie Byrne’s bookshop where Kevin Barry will launch his new novel, The City of Bohane. Barry’s debut novel, following on from his excellent debut collection of short stories, There are Little Kingdoms, has just been released and will be a test of the young writer’s jump from the short form to the novel. His style, themes and language make Barry stand out with huge excitement.   It promises to be an exceptional story and an interesting evening in conversation with the writer.

Barry features again on Saturday in a panel discussion on the short story in Irish writing entitled Granta: the Irish Story. The distinguished panel includes Booker prize winner Anne Enright who edited the recent Granta Book of Short Stories, Phillip O’Ceallaigh and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne. The short story has undergone a major renaissance and rejuvenation in recent years and when better to discuss how and exactly why this has happened is with a new generation of award-winning short story writers. The panel discussion takes place at Druid Theatre at 1 pm.

Of course these selections are just some highlights from an incredible week’s line-up. Tickets are still available from the Festival Box Office at the Town Hall Theatre. www.tht.ie For a full programme of events see http://www.cuirt.ie/

I will keep you posted on as many events as possible over the course of the week. Get your diary out and start filling! Galway is known as a city of festivals and there can’t be a better way to get things rolling that with Cuirt 2011!

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2011 in Books, Culture, Uncategorized

 

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‘Drama – ‘Tis Personal’: A New Documentary

The new ‘Different Voices’ series of documentaries on Newstalk Fm radio got off to a very entertaining start this weekend. Drama, tis’ personal followed the ‘Anvil players’ group from Kilmallock Co. Limerick on the gruelling national amateur drama festival circuit. The candid and open documentary recorded the fortunes of the group as they took their production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ through rehearsal to opening night at Festivals in Kildare, Cavan and Cork with the hope of qualifying for the holy-grail destination of Athlone for the All-Ireland Amateur Drama competition. The All -reland festival in Athlone has been attracting the best of Irish national drama since the 1950’s and rightly has a reputation as being fiercely contested by all attending. The competitiveness behind the good-natured national drama festivals which lead to qualification for Athlone is legendary. Getting to Athlone is in itself a nerve-wracking battle. The passion of those involved in the Anvil Players, particularly the director John McGrath makes for terrific radio. The programme is as engaging as a work on the stage itself. Do have a listen:

http://media.newstalk.ie/podcast/23477/

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in Culture, Limerick, Theatre

 

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