REVIEW by Susan McKeever in Dublin Review of Books
Galway Stories: 2020, Alan McMonagle & Lisa Frank (eds), Doire Press, 288 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1907682735
In his introduction, joint editor and novelist Alan McMonagle describes this rich, rounded collection as “an anthology of and about place”. It is in fact much more than an anthology: it evokes the unique spirit, atmosphere and salty tang of the eponymous western city and county perched on the windswept edge of the Atlantic. The twenty short stories travel between neighbourhoods of Galway city and county, from the city centre to Salthill, from Killary to Barna, inland to Ballinasloe and offshore to Inisbofin, one of the few places in Ireland where you can still hear the rasping kerrx-kerrx call of the endangered corncrake. It is published by Inverin-based Doire Press to celebrate Galway’s year as European Capital of Culture, with American-born publisher Lisa Frank as the other co-editor.
All writers have some connection to Galway: they are either from there or have lived or worked there for a spell. There is an informative piece by historian Tom Kenny leading into each neighbourhood story (or clutch of stories), complete with black and white photographs by Róisín Flaherty. For example, readers will learn that Ballinasloe in east Galway was once host to the biggest cattle mart in the British Isles (and is now home to the biggest horse fair in Ireland). The Ballinasloe story, Nuala O’Connor’s Futuretense®, tells of Maria, who works in Naas copywriting hammy perfume descriptions for a distasteful boss … who has skin the same “mottled, churlish pink as a cow’s udder”. I revelled in the corny perfume descriptions with names like K9®, “with its Irish Setter-shaped flasque … rugged, faithful, true”. She’s summoned home to Ballinasloe by her mother to bury the family dog; her father has taken to the bed.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Arena recently, Patrick McCabe affirmed his strong connection to Galway, saying the place evoked two things for him: “the beat of a bodhrán and the horizon”. Indeed, his contribution, “The Galway Spike”, a metaphysical journey of one Bartle Conneely, is written in beat poetry style, bringing to mind the mesmeric beat of this traditional drum, such a prevalent sound in pub seisiúns throughout the county.
In “Malachi Dreams in a Cupboard”, June Caldwell tells the story of a man in a bit of trioblóid (Irish is peppered throughout the Gaeltacht-based tale) who regularly retreats to a cupboard for solace. He’s unemployed, he can’t get his new wife pregnant, and blood tests have just revealed he’s a leprechaun. Questions are asked by the genealogists at the door – did he have “an affliction with giddiness mixed with a short temper? Halitosis and headaches”’ Somehow the way Caldwell writes it, our disbelief is suspended … he is small after all (otherwise he wouldn’t fit in a cupboard).
Set in the city centre, Alan Caden’s “Socrates, in His Later Years” installs us on a barstool at Mick Taylor’s pub on Dominick Street for the day. Former philosophy scholar Socrates arrives there daily at 11 am, clad in a “stinking black trench coat”. There he stays (or shakes) all day, counting on free pints from various regulars – until he is simply never seen again, neither in the pub, nor in the whole of Galway. The barman and narrator conveys his regard and fondness for the shaking Socrates, carefully and conscientiously pulling him his first pint of the day as if creating a work of art; watching him “with the fascinated guilt of a dealer about to make a sale”.
Micheál Ó Conghaile’s “Father” or “Athair” (printed in both English and Irish) sees a son coming out to his elderly, widowed father on the family’s small dairy farm in Conamara. There’s beautifully observed, understated emotion from the father as he comes to terms with a fact he simply cannot comprehend: “And what about Jimí Beag’s daughter Síle? … Weren’t you going out with her a few years ago?”
James Martyn Joyce’s “Angel Hands”, set “in a backstreet food place off Shop Street”, draws us into the world of amateur boxing with its echoes of “spit, stale sweat, stiffened snot and … knuckle blood”. By no means a boxing fan, I was riveted from the opening line by the writing. I learned that a boxer who has “angel hands” has hands that protect and guard, keeping danger away, akin to a guardian angel.
In the Clifden story, “Lemonade”, we enter the life of a fifteen-year-old girl working as a waitress in her granny’s café in the Connemara town. The feelings the teenager experiences are well-pitched: it’s a tough summer, with her mother gone into a home for early dementia and everyone trying to cope as best they can. But she’s young and resilient, and “a calm delight surges through her” when she takes to the waves on her bodyboard after leaving work. Later, the first stages of a fumbling romance with visiting French teenager Oscar allow Audrey some hope for the summer that stretches ahead.
An infographic map illustrated with stylish, monochrome symbols by Tríona Walsh at the end of the collection points readers to exactly where each story is set; it’s a satisfying exercise to flip back and forth to see the locations as you read the stories. There are even bed-and-breakfast and restaurant listings complete with phone numbers, making this much more than simply a collection of Galway stories. In times to come readers may well want to make a pilgrimage to the places covered in the collection; the handy tourist information will mean they can stay a few days.