Kissing the blarney goodbye

On St Patrick's Eve, Antonia Logue considers the new sophistication of Irish short-story writing
It is over a decade now since the critic David Marcus's influential Literary Review article on the Irish short story. "Understandably," he wrote, "British publishing houses don't often bring out story collections by new Irish writers - perhaps a good thing, for when they do their marked preference is for the kind of short story they think Irish writers should write... generally the most pretentious, neo-Celtic mystification, and semi- poetic effusions."

Much has happened in 10 years - besides a current zest for young, potentially fashionable Irish writers in British publishing houses, that paddywhackery cuteness Marcus refers to has almost completely disappeared in the contemporary Irish short story; witness the recent first collections by Colum McCann, Mary Morrissey, and Phillip MacCann, each of which were potent salvos of fierce originality.

Of the three most recent collections to emerge, Frank Ronan is perhaps the most established, with three novels preceding this volume of stories. Like many before him, the territory he marks in Handsome Men Are Slightly Sunburnt (Sceptre, pounds 8.99) is the idiosyncratic entrapment of relationships, and his take on them involves a variety of perspectives; the kid with the pregnant girlfriend and homoerotic urges, the widow whose life is refocused by a friendship with a gay couple, the married man who develops a habit of laughing at nothing in order to gain control of his marriage.

Ronan narrates his tales with an almost bemused displacement, gaining most currency when he abandons the glibness of his ironic musings, and instead wends his emotive prose through stories such as ``The Sticky Carpet" or "The Last Innocence of Simenon'', each one a consummate meander thorough sexual confusion and loneliness. Ronan is a soundbite writer, too easily lured into the one-liner ("You might as well take up with someone with whom you can have decent sex between the battles, so that the entire exercise isn't a waste.") Few devices hide lack of talent as effectively as irony, and Ronan desperately under-sells himself in invoking it; few of his peers can match him when he writes, without acerbic adornment, of love, especially between men.

The notion of an Irish literary diaspora is hardly a new one: the writing emigre is virtually a genre of its own. Michael Collins fits oddly in its encompass, having lived in Chicago since a teenager, but writes as if his life has never moved beyond the local pub. The Feminists Go Swimming (Phoenix, pounds 8.99) is a curious mixture: a style so arrestingly visual it hijacks the reader's concentration, dazzling with the energy and originality of the language; but the content is perplexing. Characters emerge like mummified stereotypes, as in ``The Drinker'', in which the sound of "the background thunder of steel kegs rolling into the cellar" is the central character's favourite "apart from the slow, almost silent whispering suck of stout being pulled by a barman and then left to sift into blackness. If there was a heaven, it had a small bar that never closed, set down near the sea." Ah begorrah, if it wasn't for his youth you'd swear he'd been script-associate on The Quiet Man.

Collins writes with what the critic Tim Pat Coogan once referred to as "a consciousness of being Irish rather than the consequences of it", and while no one ever demands that any writer exclusively explore the "consequences" of their nationality, this long-distance awareness of Ireland as a country of men worn down by tired women, of the smell of whiskey and taste of defeat, suffocates the simple brilliance of his language.

The publicity paraphernalia that accompanies Mike McCormack's debut collection Getting It in the Head (Cape, pounds 9.99) makes much of the fact that he worked in a butcher's shop until recently (until he got his advance presumably). The images of gristle and blood-under-the-nails suits this collection. In "Thomas Crumlesh", McCormack lays on a viciously inventive parody of the pretensions of the art world, with a character who gradually sheds his major limbs and organs for his art. It may sound chronic, but in the reading it gives Ian McEwan and Edgar Allen Poe a run for their money.

The title story explores the relationship between two brothers, one a drifter, one a dangerously precocious child. "Oestrogen" offers us a young Irish farmer newly arrived in Dublin to grow breasts via female hormone pills, before heading back to Mayo to convert his inheritance into an ostrich farm. "The Angel of Ruin" is the story of a student working in America at a perilously decaying chemical plant, and becoming obsessed by it, by its symbolism and its evil.

Decay and ruin seep through this book, driven by some of the finest prose to have emerged in over a decade. The Irish short story is thriving, and in the hands of writers like McCormack it can only continue to.