‘…there is light and shade, social realism and personal tragedy, sexual awakening and an uncertain future.’
—Cathal Póirtéir on the new short story collection by Colm Ó Ceallacháin
by Cathal Póirtéir
Colm Ó Ceallacháin’s second collection of short stories offers readers another chance to encounter a fresh voice in Irish writing.
His first volume, I dTír Mhilis na mBeo, was published in 2017 and introduced an imagination that was fresh, urban and contemporary, often featuring young protagonists on the fringes of regular life.
The nine stories in his latest collection, for the most part, remain modern in their settings and concerns, sometimes set in Ireland, sometimes overseas.
The various characters are often as unreliable as narrators as they are as people. They share their lives and stories with varying degrees of honesty, self-deprecation and an understated sense of humour.
I think anyone who has read twentieth century Irish literature will particularly enjoy Ó Ceallacháin having fun with literary tradition in the story Fiche Bliain faoin bhFód, which ignores the injunction to writers of Irish to avoid tales of turf and poteen.
There are clever allusions to authors like Myles na gCopaleen, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Ciarán Ó Nualláin and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, and walk-on parts for Breandán Ó Beacháin, Patrick Kavanagh and various incarnations of Brian Ó Nualláin.
While the author doesn’t tinker with intertextuality in other stories, there is interplay between the unhappy circumstances in which the characters find themselves and how they view or explain their predicaments.
This is certainly not a collection where readers can expect happy endings—and sometimes, but not always, the characters deserved no better.
Ré na bhFathach
In the title story, Ré na bhFathach, extreme deference to a long-term strong-man leader impinges on the wedding celebrations of a young couple because only the General’s birthday can be celebrated on that day.
Friendly hints to cancel the wedding gradually become more threatening as heavies intimidate the couple into abandoning their plans.
Happy that they have compromised enough with an intimate private ceremony on the quiet, they are taken aback when they discover that the authorities have become aware of their actions, and are on their way to enforce their edict.
An Chéad Chaibidil
An Chéad Chaibidil is an intriguing tale of tentative first love between an adventurous young woman and a stay at home young man, advised by a benign drop-out neighbour to seize the day.
As with many of the stories, there is light and shade, social realism and personal tragedy, sexual awakening and an uncertain future.
Leiviatan features a young girl with mental health problems, tiring of the repetition of her Sunday school teachings but still spreading the good word for her religious community’s leader.
While she wants to protect her mother and make her smile, her struggles with her own life make that look unlikely.
You will be Pore involves a school teacher whose life and relationships dissolve in a sea of drink and uncertainty. When he thinks he has found life-long happiness with a wealthy wife he adores, she leaves him for another man.
He manages to find an attractive female tenant to move in to the house his wife has left him, but as his wife commented, he always had trouble with women and his fondness for drink ensure that his bad luck doesn’t change.
Buíon dár Slua is the story of a mother worried about her only son who has gone to the Middle East to work as a bodyguard.
When he fails to respond to calls, her worries increase and she accepts help from a would-be suitor to fly with her there to make inquiries about her son.
The reader knows early on that the son has been recruited to take part in a radical armed movement and his request for a large sum of money is his buy into active service. The mother discovers the truth when it is too late to help her son.
Scandanavia is the backdrop to another failed relationship and a personal tragedy. Scoil an Chogaidh introduces us to an Irishman whose marriage has failed and whose ex-wife has gone to Canada.
While working in a call-centre he discovers an ex-girlfriend from an earlier undisciplined life is due to give a talk to a conference on realising hope (there’s an irony there).
He heads off to find her and we discover what has passed between them and how he betrayed her. Shame makes him belatedly regret his earlier actions but rather than confront the truth he tries to satisfy himself with his self-delusion.
This is a very readable collection with a variety of characters, situations and themes.
There’s an unpredictability in how the stories develop and finish, a slightly jaundiced look at how people view themselves and an acceptance that some of them may deserve the troubles they find themselves in.
Cathal Póirtéir has specialised in researching, presenting and commissioning Irish interest material in various radio formats and in books, including history, literature and folklore in Irish and English, as well as current affairs and drama.