Stories of my Youth by Ethel Rohan

This will be my first time to participate in the Cork International Short Story Festival. Also the first time I will read my work and teach a fiction writing workshop in Ireland. A lifelong friend and my brother and sister plan to attend my reading, another first. It’s huge to me to read and teach in Ireland and at the Cork International Short Story Festival in particular. I’ve a true sense of coming home and full-circle.

As a girl growing up in Dublin’s Northside, one of the first stories I remember having a deep affect on me is Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (1888). It begins:

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.

It’s a haunting fairy tale that centers on such themes as loss, seeing, duty, sacrifice, and betrayal. The full text is here.

Think how uncanny it felt to me then, all these years later, to read the following [excerpted] blurb for my story collection, Cut Through the Bone:

These stories create a sense of loss in the reader, an ache, but thankfully they avoid dull cynicism. Instead, they bear witness to the difficulty of living for oneself while sacrificing for others. In one story a woman pleads, ‘I’m here though? Tell me I’m here.’ Ethel Rohan’s stories are like testaments to all the women and men who’ve asked the same thing of the world. Those folks remain unseen to most, but this truly talented artist isn’t blind.

— Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine

Another story that stands out from my youth is Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” (1931). It ends:

Noble says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.

This harrowing story also centers on loss, seeing, duty, sacrifice, and betrayal.

The third story that spoke to me as a teenager in a profound way was James Joyce’s Araby. The yearning and disappointment are palpable and deeply resonate. It ends:

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

The full text can be read here.

Those stellar Irish stories that influenced me as a child and captured my imagination have stayed, and continue to inspire me today. As an emigrant, it’s fascinating to me, too, that the three stories above also center on the lure of distant places. I’m blessed to have lived two lives: The first in Ireland and the second in America. I write from both selves, but at my core I am fiercely Irish. Everything that comes out in my writing is colored by my Irish childhood. For, to borrow from O’Connor, “anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about.”

All this said, I applaud the Festival’s shift away from the old guard and its dedication to and championing of the best in contemporary short fiction. Ireland and her people are hurting, reeling yet again in its displacement and disillusionment. Yet whenever the odds are stacked against us we always harken back to the heart of ourselves and our unique language, arts, history, culture and legacy. We pull ourselves back up and raise our voices. We are a force. I don’t think it’s too grand a statement to say that stories have always played a critical part in Ireland’s psyche and salvation. Our best stories order our chaos, light up the dim and the dark, and show us who we are. Show us how to go on.

Ethel Rohan will be reading on Friday, 16 September with Alison MacLeod @ 4pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

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1 Comment

Filed under Irish writers

One response to “Stories of my Youth by Ethel Rohan

  1. I read all of those stories as a teen and hadn’t thought about any of them for some time – thanks for the reminder! Will make it a mission to reread them before the festival starts.

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