In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Irish Short Story

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Critical Studies
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • The Oral Tradition
  • The 19th Century
  • William Carleton
  • James Joyce’s Dubliners
  • The Modernist Short Story
  • The Irish Short Story at Mid-Century
  • Frank O’Connor
  • Mary Lavin
  • John McGahern
  • Edna O’Brien
  • Short Stories by Women Writers
  • Short Stories from Northern Ireland
  • The Irish Gothic Short Story
  • The Late-20th- and Early-21st-Century Irish Short Story

British and Irish Literature The Irish Short Story
Heather Ingman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0087


The modernity of the short story as a form is complicated in Ireland by the long-perceived relationship with the tradition of oral storytelling, which is a connection that has often been adduced by scholars to account for the centrality of the genre in the Irish literary canon. Others have drawn a clear distinction between the copious and dramatic art of the storyteller and the tautness of the modern short story that makes use of irony, suggestion, and precision and is less interested in plot than in psychological exploration. The rise of Irish literary periodicals from the 1830s onward did much to promote Irish short fiction in its transition from the oral to the written form. However, in the 19th century an Irish tale could mean anything from a sketch, anecdote, or fable to a novella, travelogue, or even a three-volume novel. Yet during the course of the century writers began to pay intermittent attention to structure and psychological development in a way that foreshadowed the 20th-century story. The tensions between tradition and modernity, between the local and the foreign, are illustrated by George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903) where references to folklore mingle with influences from French and Russian writers. Moore paved the way for Dubliners (1914) in which James Joyce pioneered a method of unifying a collection through patterning and symbolism that would not be taken up again by Irish writers until the 1970s and 1980s, notably in the stories of John McGahern. Mimetic realism held sway in the work of Frank O’Connor, Seán O’Faoláin, and Mary Lavin, and in mid-century the short story came to be seen as the quintessential Irish literary form adapted to express the disillusionment of living in post-revolutionary Ireland dominated by social conservatism, literary censorship, and a puritanical religion. The recurrent tension between the short story as a transmitter of tradition and a form that encapsulated modernity shifted in favor of the latter when in the 1980s and 1990s it became clear that the short story’s ability to encapsulate fleeting insights allowed it to reflect times of crisis and change. Writers experimented with postmodernist techniques, and new themes entered the Irish short story concerning the social transformation in Irish women’s lives, the conflict in Northern Ireland, immigration, and the global commodification of Irish identity.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

May 1994 stresses the short story’s affinity with myth, folklore, and fable and regards it as reflecting archetypal patterns and eternal values rather than everyday reality. By contrast, Averill 1984 argues that the Irish short story is a modern art form that derived its techniques from late-19th-century Russian and French writers. She dates its appearance in Ireland to the publication of George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903) and associates it with mimetic realism. Averill gives detailed readings of stories by Moore, James Joyce, Seumas O’Kelly, Daniel Corkery, Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor, and Seán O’Faoláin. The essays in Kilroy 1984 go further back than Averill to include an essay by Schirmer on the 19th-century tale (see 19th Century) and further forward into writers of the 1960s and 1970s. Rafroidi and Brown 1979 remains valuable for its essays on writers often ignored elsewhere, such as Seumas O’Kelly, Bryan MacMahon, and the Northern Irish writers Patrick Boyle and Michael McLaverty. Ingman 2009 updates the discussions in Averill and Kilroy. She focuses on the development of the modern short story in Ireland arising out of the 19th-century tale and assesses the extent to which the retrieval of women’s short stories alters traditional accounts of the Irish short story. She moves the discussion into Irish short stories of the 1980s and 1990s. D’hoker and Eggermont 2015 is a valuable collection of sixteen critical essays on the Irish short story from the 19th century to the early 21st century, engaging both with the genre’s specific historical contexts and with its stylistic diversity. Malcolm and Malcolm 2008 also gives a more up to date, if brief, overview of the Irish short story and short introductions to some of the major writers. Definitions of the short story are notoriously elusive: the term can embrace fable, fairy story, ghost story, anecdote, sketch, tale, and novella. O’Connor 2003 (cited under Frank O’Connor) and O’Faoláin 1948 were influential in shaping readers’ expectations of the Irish short story of the mid-20th century and in distinguishing the modern story from the Oral Tradition. O’Connor argues that the short story prospers at times of social upheaval and therefore is suited to Irish life. He associates the form with loners, outcasts, and submerged population groups and regards its aim as the expression of human loneliness addressed to the solitary, private reader. O’Connor did much to establish the view of the short story as an epiphany in the realist mode. O’Faoláin associates the short story with allusiveness, irony and open endedness, and emphasizes that the modern short story differs from the tale or anecdote in exploring the psychology of human relations.

  • Averill, Deborah. The Irish Short Story from George Moore to Frank O’Connor. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984.

    Argues that the Irish short story is a modern art form that dates from George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903). Close textual readings of the stories of Moore, James Joyce, Seumas O’Kelly, Daniel Corkery, Liam O’Flaherty, Seán O’Faoláin and Frank O’Connor.

  • D’hoker, Elke, and Stephanie Eggermont, eds. The Irish Short Story: Traditions and Trends. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2015.

    Opens up and updates critical debate on the Irish short story by investigating national and international influences, highlighting unexpected strands, and recovering the work of writers neglected in the standard literary histories.

  • Ingman, Heather. A History of the Irish Short Story. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511770418

    Traces the development of the Irish short story from the 19th century to the early 21st century. Ingman looks at the material circumstances surrounding publication of Irish short stories, as well as recent critical thinking on the form. Highlights women’s contributions to the form that have often been overlooked in the past.

  • Kilroy, James, ed. The Irish Short Story: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

    Groundbreaking and still valuable collection of essays on a wide range of short stories, from the Anglo-Irish Big House, Moore and James Joyce, writers of the 1920s and 1930s, Mary Lavin, and Bowen. The chapter on the contemporary Irish story (pp. 169–215) contains discussion on many writers, including a fair representation of women.

  • Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander, and David Malcolm, eds. A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444304770

    Wide-ranging study from 1880 to the present. Overview chapters on the Irish short story 1880–1945 (pp. 51–64) and since 1945 (pp. 249–260). Separate chapters on James Joyce (pp. 65–73), Frank O’Connor (pp. 211–220), Liam O’Flaherty (pp. 221–226), and Elizabeth Bowen (pp. 236–244). Reliable, if brief, general introductions to these authors are included.

  • May, Charles E., ed. The New Short Story Theories. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1994.

    Not specifically on the Irish short story but an indispensable collection with many insights into the form from Poe onward that can be applied to Irish writing. Contributors insist on the flexibility and modernity of the short story and its distinction from the novel through its preoccupation with universal and archetypal truths.

  • O’Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. Cork, Ireland: Cork City Council, 2003.

    Originally published in 1963, this is an influential, somewhat waspish and often controversial general study of the short story. Includes chapters on Irish writers Mary Lavin (pp. 140–147) and James Joyce (pp. 74–84) but is ambivalent about their achievements and reserves his greatest admiration for Turgenev, Chekhov, and Babel.

  • O’Faoláin, Seán. The Short Story. Cork, Ireland: Mercier, 1948.

    Like O’Connor, O’Faoláin looks at the short story from the point of view of a practitioner as well as a critic. Gives technical advice for the short story writer on openings and endings and authorial intervention. Argues that the short story is a more personal genre than the novel and therefore suits Ireland’s individualistic society.

  • Rafroidi, Patrick, and Terence Brown, eds. The Irish Short Story. Gerrards Cross, UK: Colin Smythe, 1979.

    Dated but still valuable for essays on authors not much discussed elsewhere, such as Bryan MacMahon (pp. 263–273), Patrick Boyle (pp. 275–287), and Michael McLaverty (pp. 249–261). Also contains an essay by Declan Kiberd on Oral Tradition (pp. 13–23).

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