My MA dissertation (title to be determined) aims to locate Billy O’Callaghan, a contemporary Cork short-story writer, within the Irish literary landscape, both looking at the past and the present of the Irish short story. Most of his stories can be found in his three published collections, which are my primary source: In Exile (2008), In Too Deep (2009) and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (2013). These collections amount to a total of 54 stories, of which I shall select a few of the finest in order to provide a comprehensive and cohesive analysis of his work. To achieve that, a general overview of the history of the Irish short story and the directions that seems to be taking are necessary; thus I will be referring to two main sources: the collection of essays The Irish Short Story: Traditions and Trends (eds. Elke D’hoker and Stephanie Eggermont. 2014) and A History of the Irish Short Story, by Heather Ingman (2011). Previous to these, two major academic works on the Irish short story are The Irish Short Story : a Critical History (ed. James F. Kilroy) and The Irish short story (eds. Patrick Rafroidi and Terence Brown); however, these two books date back to 1984 and 1976, respectively. Therefore, although they might be occasionally used, the two more modern studies of the Irish short story shall prove more comprehensive and relevant for exploring the work of a contemporary writer.
The Irish Short Story: Traditions and Trends not only looks at the work of different authors who form the canon of the short story in Ireland but it also points to the different perspectives or approaches used for its critical discussion. Thus, it should help me decide what academic angle could be taken to explore Billy O’Callaghan’s stories. The focus of my dissertation is yet to be decided, however the main aspects I am interested in looking at are sense of place, the loss of a past, the re-imagining of memory, and the universality of the ordinary.
Being a contemporary Irish short-story writer, there is no critical work written on O’Callaghan yet, which is what makes my research exciting. The only secondary sources I will be able to use to support my arguments are a short review of his first collection published in The Hudson Review; reviews of his third collection (because it won the Short Story of the Year in the Irish Book Awards 2013, it is his better known book) – a review from The Irish Times, a review from the Irish Examiner and a review by fellow contemporary short-story writer Danielle McLaughlin, published in the Munster Literature Centre webpage, and a review by Writerful Books (Australia) -; and two interviews on writing – one made by Writing.ie and another one by Writerful Books.
Apart from these, Billy O’Callaghan has given a talk on creative writing, which was later published by Cork City Libraries and it is entitled Learning from the Greats: Lessons on Writing, from the Great Writers. This last text shall prove useful in tracing some major influences of O’Callaghan and identifying some writing techniques used in his short stories. Since there is no work on O’Callaghan itself, identifying his influences will be of key importance for answering many questions, as I will be looking at how certain theories about writers he admires apply to or differ from his work. Thus, I will establish comparisons between himself and some short story writers who have clearly influenced him. Most importantly, I will rely on interviews with Billy O’Callaghan himself for most of my research, since he has kindly offered his time.
O’Callaghan has published around ninety short stories in various magazines from Ireland, USA, Netherlands, India, UK, Australia, China, Canada, Hungary, Poland, Japan, Macedonia or Iceland. If we also take into consideration the variety of settings in which the stories take place, some initial questions arise: Is Billy O’Callaghan an Irish writer or a cosmopolitan, universal writer? Is he a writer of the city or of the country? Is he neither of them or all of them? The sense of place seems quite important in O’Callaghan’s work, who explores a contradictory sense of belonging. It would be interesting to see how similar his sense of place is to McGahern’s. Also, writing about the ordinary, the everyday, is an aspect at which O’Callaghan, in my opinion, excels. What is interesting about the ordinary is its universality, thus the use of setting will also be an important part of my dissertation. I shall prove that McGahern is the main influence of O’Callaghan and, therefore, critical studies of John McGahern will also be used to see how much can be applied to both writers, thus I will find useful texts such as Eamon Maher’s ‘The Local is the Universal Without Walls: John McGahern and the Global Project’, in Cultural Perspectives on Globalisation and Ireland (Oxford: Peter Lang. 2009). Nonetheless, it is clear that O’Callaghan’s settings are more varied and, as a contemporary writer he should be more affected by globalisation; therefore, more texts will be needed in the course of my research; theories of cosmopolitanism might be brought into play. Therefore, also from Eamon Maher’s Cultural Perspectives on Globalisation and Ireland, I will draw fromthe chapters ‘The Global is Personal’, by Tom Inglis, and ‘Contemporary Irish Fiction and the Transnational Imaginary’, by Anne Fogarty. Also by Fogarty, the chapter ‘A World of Strangers? Cosmopolitanism in the Contemporary Irish Short Story’, from The Irish Short Story: Traditions and Trends will be of relevance. However, I do expect to find more on what makes the local universal during the course of my research.
In terms of thematic analysis, memory seems to be the main unifying trope of most stories. O’Callaghan’s characters are perfect examples of how we are shaped by our past and how we dwell on our memories. To look at these aspect I will have to draw on studies of memory and psychoanalysis. What I expect to find is a way of looking at the past that differs from that of previous Irish writers. Irish society is, oftentimes, described as obsessed with its traumatic past and this is could also be said of Billy O’Callaghan’s stories. But to what extent? How do the individual characters look at their past? Is it a romanticised nostalgia or is it part of a healthy process of reconstruction? Do they mourn the past or do they embrace change? How does this backward look of O’Callaghan differ from that of previous writers? To begin by comparison, I expect to draw from Dermot McCarthy’s John McGahern and the Art of Memory (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010); however, I do hope to find much more on representing memory during the course of my research (essays on the fiction of Sebastian Barry have proven helpful for this before). Here, theories of identity construction will also come into play; who are we in relation to our past? Are we defined by our past actions or are we free from them?
Looking at what different critics and approaches have to say about a variety of Irish short-story writers will help me see what applies and what does not apply to O’Callaghan, thus drawing affinities and disparities between his work and that of his precursors (i.e., Moore, Joyce, O’Connor, O’Faoláin, O’Flaherty, MacLavery, McGahern, etc.). In addition, in order to establish some comparisons between O’Callaghan and his contemporaries, I shall read some of the most recent collections of Irish Short stories, such as The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (ed. Anne Enright) or Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories (ed. Kevin Barry). Ultimately, I expect to be able to conclude whether O’Callaghan is continuing a tradition or doing something new. Is he continuing with McGahern’s concerns or does he belong to a new kind of writing? Is he looking backwards or to the future? And why? So far, I do believe he is in-between generations; he is closer to McGahern than to Kevin Barry or Colin Barrett. Thus I aim to explore how far those similarities go.
Although I do not expect to find many affinities between O’Callaghan and Frank O’Connor, referring to O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: a Study of the Short Story seems inescapable, especially in an Irish context. However different their styles might be, it is certainly true that O’Callaghan’s stories use the lonely voice of the individual. Therefore, Noel O’Reagan’s MA thesis ‘Lonely voices: submerged population groups in the contemporary Irish short story’ should also prove helpful.
Finally, a book that will certainly be of help in establishing where O’Callaghan’s work stands within the Irish literary tradition will be Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland: the Literature of the Modern Nation (London: Vintage. 1996). Although it covers too broad a subject, it will be helpful as a guide that will direct me to more specific concerns within the field of Irish studies.
I intend to use the databases available to me through the Boole Library website, such as JSTOR, Academic Search Complete or ProQuest, along with the search engine Google Scholar and webpages such as Youtube or Billy O’Callaghan’s webpage and blog.
The literature identified so far in this review will surely open the way for further research and will help me narrow down and deepen the focus of my dissertation in a short time. There is so much to be done about a writer whose work has not been explored before; the difficulty is deciding where to begin and what to put aside.
What does it mean to be Irish? It means we drink too much, swear too much, shout at the telly (especially when there’s sport on), love Taytos, have at least nine cups of tea a day, talk about the weather all the time (but none of us own a rainjacket!), have the Irish mark (left shoulder, two dots) and at least two scars from where we picked at our chicken pox, squirm whenever someone pays us a compliment (“this jacket? I got it in Penneys for a tenner“), love pub quizzes, love curry chips, love Fr. Ted, secretly wish we could win the Eurovision just one more time, think RTE is shite (but still watch it), think the Rose of Tralee is shite (but still watch it – but only because our parents have it on!), think Winning Streak is shite (it is – but still watch it when one of the neighbours is on!). We don’t like boastin’ though so I can’t tell you that we’re great craic, fierce loyal, give heaps o money to charity and wouldn’t see ya stuck if you were havin a rough time of it. ‘Cause if I said all that you might think I was gettin’ up meself like!
Sample exam questions:
Write a speech in which you argue for or against the necessity to protect national culture and identity.
Imagine you have a friend in another country which is considering the introduction of a ban on smoking in public places. Write a letter to your friend advising him/her either to support or not to support the proposed ban. In giving your advice you may wish to draw on the recent experience of the smoking ban in Ireland.
Write a personal essay in which you explore your sense of what it means to be Irish.
You have been elected President of Ireland – write the first speech you would make to the Irish people.
Write a letter to Martin Mansergh in which you outline your response to his view of young Irish people.