Monday, August 15, 2016

Stories by English Authors: Ireland by Samuel Lover, et al.

Erin go blah
John Banim
This collection of Irish short fiction is part of the ten-volume series Stories by English Authors, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. Each of the books in the series focuses on a different setting, including volumes on England, London, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Africa, The Orient, The Sea, and in this case, Ireland. Thus, the complete title, Stories by English Authors: Ireland would lead one to believe that this is a book of Englishmen writing about the Irish. Contrary to that implication, however, all the authors included in the book are in fact Irish. Nevertheless, the collection does have a feeling analogous to, say, Yankee authors writing about the American South, in that the Irish authors included here tend to depict their own countrymen as bumpkins or “characters” who drink, fight, and talk funny. Most of the stories are bad jokes that are dragged out far too long.

Most of the authors are overly preoccupied with demonstrating how closely they can phonetically transcribe the Irish brogue into written text. This sometimes results in mangled prose that’s anything but a joy to get through. Samuel Lover’s “The Gridiron” is almost unintelligible. I know there’s supposed to be a joke here somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can find the punchline. In “The Lost Recruit” by Jane Barlow, the annoyingly overdone accent is accompanied by a stupid and pointless plot. A young man dreams of joining the army, but his mother won’t let him, so he wanders off and something totally unrelated happens to him that simply brings the tale to an abrupt halt. Equally dismal is William Carleton’s story “Neal Malone,” about a diminutive tailor whose greatest wish in life is to get into a fight, but no one will take him up on the challenge because everyone likes him so much. To add injury to insult, this unfunny premise is protracted into a story of almost novella length that takes up a quarter of the book.

The remaining three stories aren’t great, but they can’t help but compare favorably to the aforementioned. “The Rival Dreamers” by John Banim is a sort of ghost story with some good suspenseful scenes here and there. Once again, however, the primary focus is on capturing the local color of that Irish brogue, which only serves to confuse and obscure the narrative. An anonymous piece entitled “The Banshee” features the legendary screaming female spirit of Irish mythology. After a dull nonfiction intro explaining the underlying folklore, it segues into a horror story that’s not bad. The best entry in the book is thankfully also its longest. In “The Emergency Men” by George H. Jessop, a dispute erupts between tenant farmers and their aristocratic landlords. The workers storm the manor house in a violent attack. It’s a well-written and exciting thriller, somewhat reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s film Straw Dogs. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, however, when you realize that the story’s overall message is that the lower classes are troublesome riff-raff who will rise up like wild beasts against their masters if the blue bloods aren’t careful.

This is the third volume I’ve read in the Stories by English Authors series, and the worst one so far. After three books, I find this series inferior to its two sister series from Scribner’s: Stories by American Authors, published in 1884, and Stories by Foreign Authors, published in 1898. With this Irish volume, it’s difficult to understand the intentions of an editor who would assemble a collection of stories that mostly paint the Emerald Isle in an unflattering light. If you’re hoping for a good introduction to 19th-century Irish literature, this isn’t it.

Stories in this collection
The Gridiron by Samuel Lover 
The Emergency Men by George H. Jessop
The Lost Recruit by Jane Barlow 
The Rival Dreamers by John Banim 
Neal Malone by William Carleton 
The Banshee by Anonymous

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