Book Review: The Dolmen Book of Irish Christmas Stories ed. Dermot Bolger

The Dolmen Book of Irish Christmas Stories

Edited by Dermot Bolger
The Dolmen Press 1986, 164 pp.

The Dolmen Press has, for many years, been the saviour of Irish poetry. Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin and the wonderful bilingual collection, An Duanaire, were both first printed by this company. This anthology of short stories is a commendable addition to their oeuvre. However, I do have indulge in a little surly observation that some aspects of the book are disappointing.
The cover is a mess. It’s a black and white photograph of a snow-encrusted doorway. Fair enough. Then, in clear red lettering, we’re informed that it’s the Dolmen Book of. Below that, in illegible green capitals, it says Irish Christmas Stories. Even when you know what it says, it’s difficult to read. No information is given about the writers. Most were known to me but some were not. No information on the sources of the stories or individual copyrights. And then, the text itself is rife with typos. ‘Witress’ for ‘waitress’; ‘loittle’ for ‘little’ and so on. This is just careless and all the more annoying for being so easily avoided.
That said, this is a fine collection. There are twelve stories, some by well-known authors; others are more obscure.
Whimsical Beasts by Aisling Maguire is a bizarre little story -- an allegory, really. A young woman is kept a virtual prisoner by an older man in an apartment in a high-rise in the city. He smokes himself to death to provide the foil-paper from his cigarette packets that she uses to make origami figures. When he dies, she leaves.
Christmas Morning by Frank O’Connor is probably the best known of the stories here and the first appearance in the book of the recurring motif of the abusive, drunken Irish husband. O’Connor is never so good as when he’s seeing the world through the eyes of children.
No Fatted Calf by Anthony C. West is a very strange story -- deliberately so. On Christmas Eve a man, returned from exile, is making his way through a snow storm to his sister’s house ... I’ll say no more in order not ruin the story, but it does deal with moral concerns and guilt -- two of West’s recurring themes.
Two of a Kind by Seán O’Faoláin is a story about unreliable narrators -- perhaps including the narrator of this story ...
The Time of Year by William Trevor stood out for me as the best story in the book. The denouement of the story, in lesser hands, could have seemed cynical or cold but, in fact, is deeply humane and consoling. A superb piece of writing -- but it is William Trevor, after all.
Father Christmas by Michael McLaverty is a also little bit of an oddball. When I finished it, I remember wondering if it was meant to be comic. It seems always on the edge of turning into one of those Irish misery stories of uncommunicative marriages and disappointed lives -- and yet, it seems quite tender in the end.
Apaches by Pat McCabe or, as he later became known, Patrick McCabe. Here we see some of McCabe’s fascination with the inner, imaginative world and how events in the real world are interpreted and interact with those imaginings. This same spooky world can be seen is his well-know novels The Butcher Boy and Winterwood. perhaps in others, too, but they’re the only ones I’ve read.
Another odd story but a good read. Someone, though -- either the writer or the narrator -- needs to learn that a prairie dog is not a dog!
The Journey to Somewhere Else by Ann Devlin is more contemporary in feel. Only some of it is set in Ireland (in the 1950s) and the present action is in France. I felt this was a short story that wanted to be a novel and I could have done with more filling out of some details. Still, a haunting tale.
Finegan’s Ark by James Plunkett somehow reminds me of Ivy Day in the Committee Room by James Joyce. The chat, the stories and the petty politics pervading small lives. Amusing and a little dark.
A Present for Christmas by Bernard MacLaverty. I read this story years ago in his collection call Secrets and was greatly taken with it. It is by turns grim and hilarious and you find yourself rooting for the protagonist while, at the same time, pitying him. A very spare economical piece of writing.
Curtains for Christmas by Brian Lynch. Lynch is better known as a poet and this story left me perplexed. It seemed a weirdly visual, slapstick piece if work. Hard really to tell who’s who or what is supposed to be happening or what it’s all supposed to mean. I kept getting the uncomfortable feeling that a joke was being told that I was unable to follow ...
Christmas by John McGahern is a tale of self-imposed disappointment and a boy propelling himself into an embittered adulthood interspersed with scenes of high hilarity. McGahern is one of the greats and this story is another standout in the collection.

The Irish have long been famous for their short story writers -- Joyce, Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor -- and this book is a reminder of the power of the genre. It’s a good and satisfying collection and editor Dermot Bolger has done a fine job collecting these stories.

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