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Part 1: Traces of Oral Tradition: Voices, Dialogues and Conversations

“Elemental and Plain”: Story-Telling in Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields

Eoghan Smith


Cet article explore la manière dont la tradition orale populaire et le naturalisme littéraire se mêlent aux nouvelles du recueil de Claire Keegan A travers les champs bleus (Walk the Blue Fields—2007). Il retrace le contexte culturel, littéraire et historique des nouvelles, suggère que le recueil n’est pas une critique sociale directe de la culture irlandaise, mais peut être lu comme une contribution indirecte à la tradition naturaliste irlandaise, notamment dans la manière dont elle perçoit ce moment historique que fut le Tigre celtique. S’appuyant sur l’analyse d’un certain nombre de nouvelles du recueil, l’article suggère que les éléments folkloriques de Walk the Blue Fields sont utilisés comme moyens d’échapper aux limites de la culture matérielle, offrant ainsi à la narration de nouvelles potentialités. Enfin, il montre en quoi la promesse d’une transformation personnelle, culturelle et sociale dote le recueil d’un sens esthétique.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Claire Keegan

Texte intégral

1The great Irish short story writer Seán Ó Faoláin once commented that twentieth-century “Irish writers are far less interested in the technique of writing than in the conditions of writing” (25). Though the Irish literary movement known as the Revival, led by W.B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory and J.M. Synge, and later rejected by its fiercest critic James Joyce, would help to produce some of the most brilliant works of modernism of the twentieth century, Ó Faoláin’s insight perhaps reflects a more general disappointment with the aesthetic evolution of post-Revival Irish writing. Forty years have now passed since Ó Faoláin made his observation, but it has proved to be an enduring one: that the literature produced in Ireland in the decades subsequent to the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 was lacking in radicalism, innovation and politically transformative power has been a common complaint. As Joe Cleary has explained, if twentieth-century Irish writing was notably de-energized, it is because the intellectual conditions of twentieth-century Ireland were inhospitable to the continued flourishing of modernism. If Irish writing appears to have frequently been devoid of radical aesthetic forms, the argument goes, it was because revolutionary thinking was often unavailable to the Irish intelligentsia in a society dominated by successively conservative governments and the overbearing influence of the Catholic Church. Consequently, Irish culture produced a pessimistic social and cultural environment which found expression in the stylistic limitations of literary naturalism, a style which would become dominant in Irish writing.

2On first reading, Claire Keegan’s 2007 collection Walk the Blue Fields can be made to fit relatively comfortably within the broad continuum of literary naturalism that has been the greater part of Irish short story writing from James Joyce’s Dubliners onwards. But her writing also draws on a pre-Joycean version of the Irish short story tradition that traces its origins to the Gaelic oral folk tale. This connection to the past is not without significance for a contemporary readership. The folkloric aspects of Walk the Blue Fields occasionally offers a glimpse of more mystical realms, predominantly feminine in character, beyond the rational boundaries of the material world. Anne Enright has succinctly described this merger of classic Irish naturalism and folkloric supernaturalism in Walk the Blue Fields as a “rural world of silent men and wild women who, for the most part, make bad marriages and vivid, uncomprehending children” and which is also a “pagan place … where healers and seers live in caravans, and actually do heal, and see.” What binds these two superficially contrary narrative modes—naturalism and supernaturalism—is a deep belief in the power of story—telling to defamiliarize the familiar. In Walk the Blue Fields, the story of contemporary Ireland, from the mid—1970s to the mid—2000s, is passed through the mouths of those who have lost faith, the lonely and the damaged, those who exist outside the boundaries of society, and eccentric mystics. And here another parallel can be drawn which emphasizes the importance of narrative as the recuperation of truth in Keegan: those who tell their stories in this collection are often a contemporary form of the traditional Gaelic story-teller, the seanchaí, the holder of folklore who told unlikely, mythical tales that both reminded a community of their collective identity and challenged the boundaries of belief.

3A central tension in Keegan’s work lies between the necessary freedom that story-telling offers, and the very society which has often sought to suppress unspoken truths, so that the act of writing itself stretches beyond the limitations of social observation towards an idea of art that is unbound by the “conditions” of writing. As Heather Ingman points out in her study of the Irish short story, Keegan “eschew[s] socio-cultural messages” and concentrates instead, “like McGahern, on the quality of seeing” (255). Although Ingman’s reading of Keegan may give the impression that Keegan is an aloof artist who is interested more in the illuminative processes of art than social comment, the idea of visibility which Ingman offers here is subtly important, because it suggests that writing is an important mediation between the internal world of the writer, and the external world which she lives in. But Ingman’s definition may be slightly readjusted. Although Keegan’s work does not directly engage in the kind of polemical writing that Ó Faoláin identified as characteristic of Irish writing in the mid-twentieth century, her work is nonetheless one of the most powerful portrayals of contemporary Irish life, in which social, political and economic transitions are obliquely registered as moments of opportunity and loss.

4In Frank O’Connor’s well-known formulation, the short story is suited to cultures which have experienced revolutionary upheaval; Walk the Blue Fields was published after a particular transformative period in Irish history. The most substantial social changes in Irish culture since the foundation of the State in 1922 began to occur at the beginning of the 1990s. That decade and the first part of the 2000s were years that saw a series of social and political transformations occur, such as increased secularization, social and legislative liberalization, economic prosperity, sustained net inward migration for the first time since the end of the colonial plantations in the seventeenth century, and closer EU integration. In 1990, the first female president Mary Robinson was elected, in 1993 homosexuality was decriminalized, and in 1995 Divorce was introduced. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement signalled an historic end to violent Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland with a new constitutional dispensation between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom based on the principle of consent, while the introduction of the Euro in 2002 helped to bring the Irish economy into the new currency union, accelerating an already rapid process of social and economic transformation. During these years, commonly known as the “Celtic Tiger,” Ireland was popularly imagined at home and abroad to have begun the process of emerging from a socially and economically backward state to a more progressive and modern one, culturally confident and flush with creativity.

5From the perspective of cultural vitality, in such moments of upheaval often the challenge for artists, as it was for W.B Yeats and Augusta Gregory, is to help facilitate the transition from one form of society to the next. While Keegan is not a writer who busies herself in making pronouncements on the state of Irish public life, something of this challenge is nonetheless present in her work. For instance, the position of the writer or the story-tellers in relation to tradition is one of the dominant questions in Walk the Blue Fields and in many of the stories in the collection; changes in the dominant order is an important theme. The opening story, “The Long and Painful Death” is the tale of a woman writer on the verge of her fortieth birthday, and who has rented Heinrich Böll’s former house on Achill Island. Suffering from writer’s block, and imagining herself an intruder, she is confronted by a conservative, male German professor, enthralled with a patronizing vision of a bygone Catholic, pre-Celtic Tiger, rural idyll of Ireland—“people here were poor but they were content”—and who finds her presence in the Nobel Prize winner’s house distasteful and improper (15). The confrontation between the two is rendered sinisterly comic, with the woman finally breaking her writer’s block by concocting a story in which a man—possibly the professor, possibly a former lover—will suffer from a long and painful death. Writing is power: the writer’s lack of reverence for the official narratives of the past offers a means through which an alternative, subversive dynamic of feminine authority may emerge.

  • 1 Frank O’Connor famously wrote in his study of the short story that “always in the short story there (...)

6“The Long and Painful Death” offers an image of a woman who seizes an opportunity to fashion a new narrative of feminine power, and to release herself from the grip of patriarchal control. Subtle images of breakage and transgression are sprinkled throughout the narrative; the narrator twists fuchsia off the hedges; wandering sheep threaten to come through the shut gates of the house. Yet clever as the man’s impending demise is in “The Long and Painful Death,” the emergent feminine authority is carefully balanced by other themes that will help define Walk the Blue Fields as a whole: the emotional and sexual poverty of human relationships within a repressive Catholic, and superficially post-Catholic culture, intellectual immiseration through social and historical conformism, a McGahern-esque masculinity characteristically defined by its attachment to land, and its consequent ruin by nature, and a pessimism entailed in the enduring disunity between the sexes which results inevitably in the unsatisfactory empowerment of one over another. As the narrator of “The Long and Painful Death” succinctly remarks in an echo of Cork short story writer Frank O’Connor: “there was earth and fire and water on these pages; there was a man and a woman and human loneliness” (20).1 The potential failure to transcend environmental limitations is also emphasized by the collection’s structural design: just as Walk the Blue Fields begins with a story in which a woman goes to Achill Island off Mayo, the final story, “Night of the Quicken Trees” ends with an image of a woman leaving the mainland for the Aran Islands. Taken as a whole, this symbolic circular patterning of isolation suggests that those on the margins, the storytellers themselves, may reach for a space beyond the boundaries of social convention, but such spaces are perhaps themselves a psycho-social condition.

7In many of the stories in Walk the Blue Fields, the necessity of transition is externally registered, but often the making of personal transition proves traumatic. The final image of the second story, “The Parting Gift,” about a girl from rural Wicklow who has been sexually abused by her father and is emigrating for America, ends with the Eveline-like image of the girl locking herself inside the toilet of the airport, neither able to leave nor go. Such a story, which is set in any time between the mid-1970s and mid-2000s, is immediately suggestive of sexual abuse cases which have been a periodic feature of the Irish news cycle in recent years. The use of the second person narrator in the present tense hints darkly at collective complicity in her sexual ordeal and the ongoing trauma of memory. The nightmare scenario of endless psychological torment is further explored in “Dark Horses,” where the alcoholic farmer Brady, who has “drunk two farms” and lost his woman to a rival, dreams the same torturous dream every night; his personal emotional and social failure to which he is nightly doomed to repeat stands as a metaphor for the unspoken agonies of an irreparably damaged Irish masculinity.

8It has often been remarked that one of the peculiarities of the Celtic Tiger years is that in spite of the enormous changes that occurred in Irish life, no significant literary documentation of that moment was produced by an Irish artist. Ingman observes that Walk the Blue Fields evokes a “spare, quiet” Irish rural life which appears virtually untouched by the mass urbanization, both of the geographical space and of popular consciousness of the Celtic Tiger years (255). Yet, that these stories of marginal and isolated figures, who suffer from sexual and psychological damage, and most of all, irrepressible loneliness, should emerge at the peak of the boom in 2007, is hardly surprising. Keegan’s aesthetic obliquely traces historical and social patterning: although the concretization of the Irish landscape and monetization of Irish culture from the 1990s onwards is left directly unremarked, for example, it is the chauvinistic obsession with land-ownership which drives madness into characters such as Brady in “Dark Horses,” or the abusive father in “The Parting Gift,” both of whom would rather inflict suffering on themselves and others than lose money on their land. Nor is it surprising that in almost every story in Walk the Blue Fields, the final image is of departure. These departures suggest an un-readiness to accommodate the unveiling of destructive historical legacies such as sexual abuse, but also that figures who make visible such suffering are condemned to a life on the outskirts, often wilfully so.

9In this regard, Keegan’s work has resonance for another naturalist of a different era, J.M. Synge, who documented in the early 1900s the social quirks of the colonial twilight of Irish culture. Like Synge, who sought material not simply in the outer reaches of Irish rural life—the oppressive Wicklow Hills, West Kerry, Connemara, Mayo, and the islands—Keegan’s stories are often situated in the outlying realms, areas which are both economically remote from the urban heartland and places where in the imagination of these writers eccentricity flourishes. In his travel writing, Synge takes an interest in the displaced, the mad, and especially tramps, but he stresses that his interest has little to do with a fascination with “freaks.” Instead his outsiders are what he calls “variations” on the public and psychological norm, variations which have arisen through social decay and which are intensified by the oppressiveness of the landscapes that at every moment heap misery upon their already nervous characters (27). In one of his Wicklow essays, Synge tells us of a woman he meets who is “afeard of the tramps,” perhaps because the tramps are not only physically threatening, but also because they represent an image of social failure itself (30). Yet even though Synge is generally thought of as a key cultural revivalist, he also sought out the transitional spaces between life and death, whether that was social or cultural; he looked for those people who were living unconventionally, the tramps, the destitute, the mad, and extracted from the stories they told him final bursts of vivacity. In turn these people became symbols in his work of the existential extremities of Irish culture. In a similar vein Walk the Blue Fields explores these outsider figures who have also been thrown up in their own moment of transition, where one world is about to transform into another.

10One reason why the Celtic Tiger did not produce a distinctive literature was that finding a form which could ably accommodate the transformations of recent Irish history proved challenging. The innovation that Keegan introduces in Walk the Blue Fields is to recover the mystical aspects of the folk tale at the very moment that Ireland became enthralled to the concrete. This mysticism is not alternative to materiality, but charged by it. The question of whether the Irish short story actually emerged from the remnants of the Gaelic oral tradition is vexed. James Kilroy has argued that “the influence of oral tradition is neither wide nor deep” on the Irish short story when considered against the effects Russian and French writers have had on it (5). Yet as editor of the Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, published in 1991, William Trevor included seven folk tales to indicate that the short story in Ireland should be considered as having its origins in the oral folk tradition. This question is relatively unimportant, however. Since the Gaelic oral folk tradition has now largely perished as a living cultural activity, Keegan, like other Irish short story writers such as Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, simply uses the lingering folk memory of that tradition as a mythical structuring device, which is radically other to the rationalist limitations of modern culture.

11In the magnificently conceived story “The Forester’s Daughter,” Keegan acknowledges the recuperative power of the oral folk tradition by making her character Martha Deegan a revered, local seanchaí, who uses her position as public story-teller of wondrous and fear-inducing tales to expose publicly the more prosaic reality that she had a child by a man other than her husband. Set in the mid to late seventies (money is scarce, the oil crisis is in full swing, there is a reference to an ABBA record), “The Forester’s Daughter” reinvents the oral tale by offering a modern folk story of marital breakdown and personal unhappiness. Martha has three children: two boys—one a boy who will leave the land as soon as he is old enough, and who never features in the story, another, who is simply called the “simpleton,” and a third, the eldest, a girl, the product of a single sexual experience with a salesman, of which her husband—the forester of the title—knows nothing. The title is ironic; the girl is, of course, not the forester’s daughter. In “The Forester’s Daughter” Frank O’Connor’s differentiation between the short story, which is dictated by form, and the folk tale, which is dictated by an audience, is collapsed and then self-reflexively amalgamated into a single story-within-a-story structure.

12The story centres on a dog that Deegan, the forester, steals for his daughter. It is through the dog that the bitterness of the family’s dysfunction is played out. Martha is sure that the dog will break the girl’s heart, and Deegan eventually returns the dog to its rightful owner as a cruel punishment for his wife’s transgression, which inevitably upsets the child. A brilliantly clever narrative device in this story is that Keegan gives the dog, appropriately named Judge, his own free indirect narrative, which allows Keegan to shift the narrative perspective away from the human and into a sceptical, distanced narrator: “Judge is glad he cannot speak,” we are told. “He has never understood the human compulsion for conversation: people, when they speak, say useless things that seldom if ever improve their lives. Their words make them sad. Why can’t they embrace each other” (84).

13Judge’s gratefulness for silence is offset by his understanding that the human act of communication for telling the truth can also be a disturbing emotional weapon. The neighbours who come to listen to Martha are often so disturbed by her stories that her husband has to often drive them home. Unlike Judge, who cannot speak, Martha is transformed in the story into a symbol of the artist who is compelled to speak. It is as if this revelation of truth in the folk tale is both compulsive and harmful: the sheer power of Keegan’s work comes not from the celebration of the artist’s revelation of truth, but from the fact that there is a compulsion to uncover the truth, whatever the cost. In such moments, the power of story can be crushing or liberating, and the ending of the story emphasizes this dual aspect of story-telling. When the neighbours come in and ask Martha for a story, she tells them the story of her marriage and the conception of her daughter by the salesman, effectively repeating the story that we have just read. But on the second telling, the story is told publicly; Martha’s story is transformed from a private, secret affair into public knowledge. Once the truth has been admitted there seems no need to maintain superficial appearances. Deegan admits to himself he has always known about the girl and he stops going to mass, because there is no sense in keeping up the pretence.

14“The Forester’s Daughter” demonstrates that once a story becomes the possession of the public, fiction ceases to be simple fiction and attains the quality of truth. The final scenes in the story are of the “simpleton” burning down a model of the family house that he has been building, which in turn set fire to the actual family home. This chilling image of an entire facade going up in flames signifies the devastatingly, unstoppable power of revelation. It also, perhaps, can be read as a metaphor for cultural upheaval in modern Ireland. Although the story is set in the seventies, it acts as a premonition for the challenges of the Celtic Tiger; when one narrative replaces another, what is put in its place? As the house burns, the “simpleton’s” final chilling lines of “who cares, who cares?” might be read as an expression of concern for what happens when an entire society collapses once its facades have been torn down at the same time, as the necessity of unburdening oneself from the past is indicated by Martha’s public revelation.

15At the core of the image of destruction in “The Forester’s Daughter” is a crisis of belief, a crisis which is more apparent in the title story, “Walk the Blue Fields.” In Declan Kiberd’s terms, the difference between the short story and folktale is one between credibility and incredibility; a distinction which Keegan exploits by using the conventions of the story within the story, or incredible folk tale within the credibility of the short story form. The oral tradition in Keegan’s work reminds the reader of an important, lost cultural practice; it is also part of the war against time and of the unknowability of total reality. “Walk the Blue Fields” exploits the incredibility of the folk tale by testing both the contemporary reader’s willingness to believe, and by extension, the extent to which story-telling can maintain social power. In this story, a Celtic Tiger fable about the limits of conviction in a society which has lost trust in its religious identity, the central character is a priest who not only struggles with his faith after an unknown affair with the bride, but who has himself lost the faith of the community. “Walk the Blue Fields” must surely rank as one the most accurate portrayals of an Irish wedding in Irish writing—all drunkenness, packaged rituals and forced jokes—while also displaying the sharp ear Keegan has for the vibrant joviality of modern Irish life. In a brilliantly ironic utilization of Frank O’Connor’s definition of the short story as “the literature of submerged population groups,” the once all-powerful Irish clergy are now a marginalized faction in the post-Catholic Ireland. The priest himself has broken his vows of celibacy and is secretly in love with the bride whose wedding he has officiated at. “Walk the Blue Fields” depicts an emotionally incapacitated society which has retained the superficial trappings of ritual but none of the faith that once underpinned it. As in “The Forester’s Daughter,” everyone knows the truth, but none will speak it directly: “we all know the white cloth is aisy stained” remarks one of the wedding guests snidely to the priest (46). As in McGahern, ritual without belief becomes a kind of cultural entrapment through which the individual perishes. Yet, the need for faith is not completely abandoned: the community, which disparages Catholicism, has opened its disenchanted heart instead to a Chinese healer who lives in a caravan on the outskirts of the town, and who has replaced the priest as the village mystic.

16Like the town people who are only superficially Catholic, the priest is haunted by the absence of God. To overcome his crisis of faith brought about by the memory of his love affair, the priest too goes to visit the Chinaman, who is reputed to have the power to cure ills. The final extraordinary scenes of the story are of the priest being massaged by the Chinaman until he purges the priest of his guilt, kneading him until the name of the bride he has lost comes flying out of his mouth in a moment of inexplicably strange therapy. These moments, which transform the story from a commonplace observation on the emotional repressions of small-town Catholic secrecy into a wondrous folk tale of magic healing, suggest perhaps that a more fuller, and irrational, existence may be found beyond the limitations of institutionalized religion. Yet in “Walk the Blue Fields,” the incredible folk-tale elements of the story are momentarily overturned by a Joycean petty economic exchange. While the priest pays the Chinese healer with the money he has earned for the wedding—perhaps ambiguously hinting at some sort of personal redemption, perhaps not—the grubby psychology of the priest is exposed. As he walks home, his final, bland epiphany that “God is nature” surely delineates the limits of his spiritual horizon. And yet, there is perhaps some offering of hope here: in speaking her name, the priest has, as if in confession, purged himself of guilt. Like Martha in “The Forester’s Daughter,” speech alone is curative. Remembering his affair he “feels no shame,” signalling perhaps that the communion of natural world and religious devotion may find some as yet undefined, but unashamed, accommodation (58).

17The final story of the collection, “Night of the Quicken Trees,” is most explicitly written as a folk tale full of wondrous events, stretching the boundaries of credibility beyond any other story in the collection. Opening with a quotation from an Irish fairy tale, “Night of the Quicken Trees” is self-consciously a contemporary folk tale, incorporating a large variety of folk superstitions, and opens in the style of a seanchaí’s recitation. The story seamlessly combines many of Keegan’s Celticist and contemporary motifs: premonitions and dreams, fertility, immersion in natural world, folkloric phrasing, fortune tellers, sexual relationships, priests, eccentricity, loneliness, and secret or hidden histories. The story is of a superstitious post-menopausal woman, Margaret Flusk, who moves into the house of her dead cousin, a priest, who had impregnated her years ago under a magical quicken (rowan) tree. She destroys his furniture, performs a superstitious ritual of nightly urination on the grass outside the house and, after finding herself suddenly fertile again, subsequently embarks on an amorous adventure with the lonely next door neighbour bachelor named Stack, who sleeps with his pet goat Josephine. Josephine, like other animals in Keegan’s stories, has her own narrative. Margaret herself is a kind of healer: the townspeople go to her for traditional remedies (such as putting the hind legs of a frog in the mouth to cure a toothache). One night, after a dream, Margaret breaks down the walls between their houses with a sledge hammer and after becoming pregnant by Stack, leaves him to begin a new life on the Aran Islands with her son.

18At the core of this story, like so many of the stories in Walk the Blue Fields, is a question of gender confrontation. The re-awakening of Margaret’s fertility is, of course, a symbol of rebirth that suggests the resurgence of a powerful femininity submerged under the patriarchy of twentieth-century Clericalism on the one hand and patrilineal land ownership on the other. As with “The Long and Painful Death,” there is an opportunity here to be freed from the burdens of history and to be revitalized. Margaret stands as an irrepressible image of feminine resurgence. But this resurgence does not find its home on the mainland, but in the margins, on an island. That these islands are the Aran Islands is significant: for so long in Irish culture, the Aran Islands had been the spiritual home of an authentic Gaelic culture, and were particularly fetishized by the revivalists seeking Gaelic pre-Christian primitivism at the turn of the twentieth century. Like so many of Keegan’s characters, Margaret ultimately departs. If “Walk the Blue Fields” holds out the possibility of communion, then “Night of the Quicken Trees” is a little more ambivalent. Heading for Aran with her son in a rowing boat, while Stack stays on the mainland, is perhaps the most obvious pointer in that direction. And “Night of the Quicken Trees” ends not with the embrace of Margaret’s journey to Aran, but with Stack reminding himself to buy a bag of cement for the broken wall and vowing never to go near a woman again.

19Like so many of the characters in Walk the Blue Fields, Stack does not have the imaginative capacity to think beyond his immediacy and ultimately, perhaps, the return to an elemental world in Margaret’s departure for the Aran Islands suggests that those tattered remnants of half-alive Gaelic Irish culture offer only a consolatory imaginative space. Yet just as these modes of narration—the folk tale and the short story—are not in competition with each other, so too are the mythical and the material conjoined as the sum total of existential possibility. For this Walk the Blue Fields is a remarkably balanced piece of work, which holds the idea of transition from one state to another, the balance between opportunity and loss. Stack, we are told, always knew that Margaret would leave, but “he couldn’t judge her, not even when she had taken his son’s hand and rowed away with strangers. They were, after all, divided by nothing but a strip of deep salt water which he could easily cross” (180). For his part, in the metaphor of his preparations for the onset of winter, Stack recognizes that the loss of his son to this strange woman brings to his mind eventual death, and the death of all his kind. In an echo of “The Long and Painful Death,” Stack reflects that his own death would be a long way off: “winter was coming …although he was no longer young his near future was a certainty” (180).

20The promise that is held open for Stack is to make a transition should he wish to; unlike many of her naturalist predecessors, choice for Keegan is always there, even though the cost may be great and Stack resolves never to go near a woman like Margaret again. That death hovers around the edges of the final story is significant, because even though his death is not imminent, the image suggests that those who fail to make necessary transitions—to cross the water—will eventually stagnate and perish. But even the choice has its limitations: Margaret too is condemned to reside in a world of the almost-dead. The Aran Islands, the ideal of cultural purity and Gaelic authenticity beloved of the Revivalists has long since ceased to be a mythical space radically alternate to modern materiality and is instead a ready-to-hand, reified image of the Irish tourist trail. Margaret’s journey towards Aran is a journey towards a derisory, near-exhausted ideal.

21For the use of the oral folktale in this way, Keegan is a significant contemporary Irish short story writer because nothing, perhaps, encapsulates the gaudiness of the Celtic Tiger years better than the monetization of traditional Irish culture. Nonetheless, Keegan’s reinvigoration of the short story with aspects of the folk tale as a contemporary eccentricity, offers a mode of story-telling which is freed from the naturalist limitations of social commentary. As a folk story of Ireland in the early twenty-first century, “Night of the Quicken Trees” carries tremendous cultural resonance, because the wondrous is absorbed into the naturalist tradition as a cultural peculiarity, and its once-imagined spiritual power potentially disentitled. And there is tremendous power in these stories: the extraordinary challenge that Keegan makes in Walk the Blue Fields is that those who become prisoners of materiality—of the past, of the land, of society, even, perhaps, of an ideal, such as Brady in “Dark Horses,” the father in “The Parting Gift,” or Deegan in “Walk the Blue Fields”—will stagnate and ultimately die a long and painful death. And yet, it is impossible not to look at Margaret’s departure for the Aran Islands out of the corner of the eye: the final image in “Night of the Quicken Trees,” of Margaret and Stack departing each other and moving towards realms of the half-living, can be thought of in JM Synge’s terms as an intimation of the sharpening of existence in the state before death, a variation of life through which art attains its value as eccentricity, rather than the antics of the freak.

Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern IrelandA History of the Irish Short StoryWalk The Blue FieldsThe Irish Short StoryThe Irish Short Story: A Critical HistoryThe Lonely VoiceThe Short StoryTravels in Wicklow, West Kerry and ConnemaraTrevor, William. The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories.


1 Frank O’Connor famously wrote in his study of the short story that “always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society…as a result there is in the short story…an intense awareness of human loneliness” (19).

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Eoghan Smith, “'Elemental and Plain': Story-Telling in Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields”, Journal of the Short Story in English, 63, Autumn 2014, 57-68.

Référence électronique

Eoghan Smith, « “Elemental and Plain”: Story-Telling in Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 63 | Autumn 2014, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 21 juin 2018. URL :


Eoghan Smith

Eoghan Smith completed his PhD at NUI Maynooth and currently lectures in English at Carlow College, Carlow, Ireland. He has published on Irish Studies, including articles on John Banville, Samuel Beckett, and Irish modernism and philosophy. He is the author of John Banville: Art and Authenticity, Reimagining Ireland Series (2013).

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