Dublin Tales (City Tales)

Image of Dublin Tales (City Tales)
Release Date: 
January 26, 2024
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Most of the stories in Dublin Tales show off Irish literature at its best: overflowing with feeling, humor, and insight.

Oxford University Press’s City Tales series has touched down in nearly a dozen international burgs, including Barcelona, Berlin and Paris, but when it comes to cities that are suffused with the spirit (and ghosts) of literature, few can compare with Dublin. As immortalized by James Joyce, Roddy Doyle, Lorna Peele, Frank McCourt, and many others, the city itself is as three-dimensional a character as any human who has stepped foot on its streets, and Dublin Tales honors its multifaceted nature with an expansive collection of 17 stories.

Editors Paul Delaney and Eve Patten set themselves an ambitious task, moving chronologically from the mid-19th century up to the present day, mixing in writers both celebrated and obscure while exploring every inch of Dublin’s historical, physical, and emotional geography, from war-torn eras to modern gentrification. Happily, most of the stories in Dublin Tales show off Irish literature at its best: overflowing with feeling, humor, and insight.

While certain thematic motifs echo throughout the collection (as one would expect), Delaney and Patten also draw direct parallels between tales, as pairs of stories duet with each other. George Egerton’s “Mammy” chronicles an evening of squalor with emphatic gusto, as the burning of a whiskey distillery is mirrored by the death of a prostitute, while Joyce’s classic “Two Gallants” documents a night of debauchery in more glancing, winsome fashion. Meanwhile, William Trevor’s “Two More Gallants” provides a sardonic update to Joyce’s story, as a scoundrel of a student gets back at a pompous Joyce scholar by pretending to know one of the characters from “Two Gallants.” And in case we didn’t get the hint, literary romanticism is torn to shreds in Kevin Power’s acerbic “Catastrophe,” in which a struggling writer meets his idol, only to learn the age-old adage that one should never meet one’s heroes.

Likewise, differing viewpoints on war are offered in Liam O’Flaherty’s clipped, urgent “The Sniper” and Elizabeth Bowen’s gentle comedy of manners “An Unwelcome Idea”: the former hits home on a personal level as free-staters and Republicans are caught in an ambush, literal brothers shedding each other’s blood, while in the latter, two middle-aged friends gab during a shopping expedition while the calamities of World War II hover just beyond the sunny atmospheres of their lives. Mary O'Donnell’s “The Black Church” approaches war from yet another perspective, as the tumult of the 1916 Easter Rising is seen through the eyes of a young girl who’s obsessed with dolls and scrumptious baked goods even as Dublin burns around her.

Many of the collection’s more memorable entries are finely etched character studies. Brendan Behan’s “The Confirmation Suit” uses a relatively mundane problem—finding nice clothes to wear for confirmation—as a launching pad for a moving coming-of-age story that touches on poverty, pride, and heartbreak. In John McGahern’s “Sierra Leone” and Val Mulkherns’ “Four Green Fields,” tenuous love affairs and friendships are rocked by world events, whether it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Troubles right at home. Caitlín Nic Íomhair’s “Relentless (Cíocras)” takes it a step further, as a married man having a tryst with a woman ends up stranded in her apartment due to a COVID lockdown, their forced communion poising them on the edge of something more permanent and potentially dangerous.

Naturally, no Irish collection would be complete without a dose of humor, and Dublin Tales contributes two beauts. James Stephens’ “A Rhinoceros, Some Ladies and a Horse” is a bawdy, rollicking tale of humans, animals, stolen apples, and mispronunciations of the word bosom, while Dara Ó Conaola’s “In a Pickle (I nGleic),” translated from the original Irish for the first time, sees a man sent to prison for talking back to a statue of Daniel O’Connell, the former Lord Mayor of Dublin—a legal nightmare that one can imagine Kafka dreaming up, if Kafka got good and soused beforehand.

Modern Dublin’s more multiethnic and multicultural outlook finds its way into Caitlín Nic Íomhair’s “Miss Moffat Goes to Town,” in which an elderly resident is both fascinated and repelled by the rough-and-tumble street life she observes in a single bus ride, with the singing of an Eastern European passenger injecting a moment of bliss. Melatu Uche Okorie’s “Arrival” greets the city from an immigrant’s point of view, as a Nigerian woman arrives to meet her fiancé in person for the first time, only to strike up a bittersweet not-quite-flirtation with the driver who transports her to Dublin.

With only one exception—Mirsad Ibisevic’s “Emigrant,” a short, sweet and unconvincing romance between a Bosnian refugee and an Irishwoman—Dublin Tales is blessedly blarney-free. As the authors burrow into the psyches of their characters, they burrow into the soul of Dublin, unveiling a city fueled by passions and divisions, where physical and emotional scars take their toll, yet life goes on. The collection concludes with Caitriona Lally’s “Tramlines,” which is less a narrative than a tour of an ever-changing urban landscape, criss-crossing boundaries between neighborhoods and classes, as new geographies await exploration. Like “Tramlines,” Dublin Tales looks forward and backward, serving as an excellent primer on where Dublin (and Irish literature) have been, and where they’re going.