Limerick born author Kevin Barry published his first collection of short stories, There are Little Kingdoms, earlier this year. The collection subsequently won the Rooney prize for Irish Literature. Available to buy in Limerick from O Mahonys, Easons or from book website
Irish writing for all its sparkle has tended to excel in certain types of form and content with vast swathes of the Irish experience remaining under-written. Kevin Barry’s powerful collection of stories leaps into two of these voids. It’s hard to believe now that it was still relatively unfurrowed ground when Patrick Kavanagh saw the poetry in “steaming dung hills” the 1920s, given that two thirds of the population lived there. Or that the people of the West of Ireland were such an oddity to Synge and his fellow cultural revivalists. With a few notable exceptions the Irish have continued to write from within The Pale. And coming from a small non-descript town east of the Shannon it is easy to think there is nothing to write about. Is that also why the naughties have been so badly neglected? Are we just too close to them, or with their lifestyle stores, roadworks and beauty salons are they also inherently prosaic?
Although a couple are set in Limerick, the strongest stories deal with these blandest of times in small, dull towns. Not only are the characters original and engaging but he finds the misery, humour and mystery in them. He gives us “site farmers”, “disco Guinness”, student parties after a night at “Sex Kitchen” and swingers that are turning their hand to organic farming. Inevitably booze-soaked, the stories capture exquisitely a kind of dystopia where the values of the past run headlong into present day norms taking refuge in meaningless sex, inferior drugs and eerie monotony. It is in the small asides that the real humour emerges – Edward who was stretched by the car and tractor to get into Templemore (before the shortage of course), Kelleher’s pub just shy of a third alcoholic to keep it in business, Foley, sacked from Texaco after seventeen years because they started fucking around with croissants and Dennis who found life very hard because you couldn’t take a spanner to it. Most effectively of all he gets the geography of south midlands towns, the “nothing-much and unimpressive streets”, the ribbon development and dreary establishments such as “hair affair” and the “uptown grill”.
The sheer force with which new and easy money came hot on the heels of what seemed like interminable recession means it has often not blended well with people who grew up with different expectations. Those most affected by this were those that had least to begin with, and the story of modern Ireland is therefore not about aspiring suburbanites. Rural Ireland still carries with it the ways and traditions of the past that cannot thankfully be converted into apartments. There are Little Kingdoms gets the subtly of this collision across.
Above all, the stories are hilarious. With a nod to Flann O’Brien it is a relief to see that the tradition of self-deprecation and satire is alive and well. This collection is for dipping into and savouring, as they don’t come like this very often.
Eilis Ni Leathlobhair