Kevin Barry has published three novels and three volumes of short stories. I haven’t so far read any of the novels: their descriptions didn’t immediately make them sound like the kind of thing that would appeal to me, though the stories may ultimately persuade me that the longer fiction is equally worth my attention.

I’ve read the two most recent collections of short stories, Dark Lies the Island (2011 2012) and That Old Country Music (2020), one after the other though in reverse chronological order. Doing so has given me the impression that there’s a narrowing of range with the passage of time — and that this is not necessarily or entirely a bad thing. The later book contains 11 stories, as compared with 13 in the earlier one, and those 11 cover a more restricted geographical area than the previous book does: only one of the stories in That Old Country Music is set outside Ireland: “Extremadura (Until Night Falls”), whereas Dark Lies the Island includes stories set in Liverpool (and the train to and from Llandudno), London (Camden Town in “The Mainland Campaign” and Leytonstone in “Wistful England”) and Berlin. But even those stories set within Ireland are, in the earlier book, more widely dispersed: in one (“Wifey Redux”) we’re in Dun Laoghaire, then at Killary Harbour, Gort, County Galway (“The Girls and the Dogs”), Castlerea, County Roscommon (“White Hitachi”), on the shore of Clew Bay (“Dark Lies the Island”) and other places, less distinctly identifiable.

The stories in That Old Country Music tend to be restricted to a tighter geographical area. Most of them are set in the north-western corner of the country, in south County Sligo or adjacent places. This makes them all the more likely to appeal to me because that’s a part of the country that I was once very familiar with. I was born and brought up in Ballymote, which is mentioned in several of the stories, including “That Old Country Music” itself. In that story a pregnant 17-year-old sits in a van parked in the hills above Castlebaldwin, waiting for her lover (till recently her mother’s fiancé) to come back, having robbed the petrol station with a claw hammer. As it gets later and later, she imagines him in the holding cell in Ballymote Gárda station.

My birthplace turns up again in “Saint Catherine of the Fields”, in which a collector of “sean nós” songs, recovering slowly from love affair that he suspects may be his last ever erotic experience, discovers a rarity: an uncollected song that tells, over 42 verses and 12½ minutes, the twisted story of a couple who met and married in Lancashire and after several years came back to the north-west of Ireland, where they played a cruel game with a landless, inexperienced herdsman. The woman met the herdsman “on a fair day in the town of Ballymote” (p. 81). This must have happened in the late 19th or early 20th century, but I’m reminded of what “fair day” was like in Ballymote in the 1960s and early 70s. It happened once a month, as far as I remember, and the night before my father used to put out wooden barriers in front of the house to protect the building from the livestock who took over the streets. Once it was over, the streets would be covered in cow dung, which took a day or two to be washed away. We had the fair day off school but this wasn’t the boon it would ordinarily have been, as we were effectively confined to the house and back yard.

To get back to the story, the woman begins a sexual relationship with the herdsman she met in Ballymote, something he never imagined possible:

His world was now in a great tumult. This small, vivid, fair-haired presence in his life, and in his bachelor’s bed, was utterly unexpected — it must have been like a visitation from another world. He woke up within himself and not pleasantly. (That Old Country Music, p. 82)

In the meantime, the woman’s husband appears to be … “complaisant” doesn’t seem at all the right word; Barry says “indifferent” (p. 81), but that turns out to be equally misleading:

The Leitrim husband had been in collusion all the while. It was no more than a sport for them. The herdsman was an object they used to bring an excitement darkly to their own coupling. She fed the husband every last morsel of those afternoons. (p. 84)

When the couple inevitably have had enough of the game, their plaything is unceremoniously dropped, and this, the narrator tells us, “destroyed him” (p. 84).

The herdsman lived all his life in and around the Bricklieve Mountains. Like the Curlews, these are referred to (in the stories as in the locality) as “mountains” but in reality they’re no more than hills: the highest point in each is well under 500 metres. The hill of Keash, where the narrator of “Saint Catherine of the Fields” picks up the trail of the obscure singer Tim Jackson, is in the Bricklieves, just a few miles to the south of Ballymote.

As a child, I was fascinated by Keash, which has a series of ancient caves where can be found, as Barry puts it, “the remnants of elk, wolves, bear” (p. 53). He adds:

It was a place haunted by desperate mammals since the hills and mountains had cracked and opened — as the province of Connacht formed — a place with a diabolic feeling sometimes along its shale and bracken stretches; a darkness that seeped not from above but from beneath. (p. 53)

It’s on Keash Hill, in “Ox Mountain Death Song”, that a Gárda sergeant, in poor health and nearing compulsory retirement, summarily disposes of a vicious young criminal, himself already suffering from a terminal condition — and in the meantime travelling the country committing further crimes while fathering a new generation of similar troublemakers. At least, that’s how things seem to the sergeant.

Keash, where the sergeant brings the young Canavan’s life to a slightly premature end, is (as I’ve said) in the Bricklieves, not the Ox Mountains of the story’s title, but are “no more than a forty minute haul” away (p. 53). Unlike the Curlews or the Bricklieves, the Ox range, to the west of the county, is considered to be made up of genuine mountains, though not very impressive ones, being barely 150 metres higher than the hills to the east and south. This landscape is deceptive, with its “mountains” that could easily be taken for hills. It looks gentle and unthreatening but in reality it’s surprisingly harsh.

In another of the stories, “Old Stock”, the reader is told:

It was the lungs, in either case, that would cart them off. The lungs and the dampness, I suppose. Here’s a very old joke —
Cause of Death: the west of Ireland. (p. 60)

The substance of this joke, cast in more sombre terms appropriate to the occasion, is something I heard from more than one person when my father died at the age of 53 in 1970. It had indeed been his lungs which had made him vulnerable.

I said above that the earlier book covers a wider range than its predecessor; I meant primarily the geographical range over which its stories are set. It’s also true, and perhaps not unconnected, that the stories in the earlier book show more variation in how successful they are. There are several stories in Dark Lies the Island that are every bit as satisfying and accomplished as those in the more recent volume. The ones I have in mind are “Fjord of Killary”, “Beer Trip to Llandudno”, “Doctor Sot” and the title story. But there are some that seem to me to work rather less well.

“Wifey Redux” is based around the tired — and never very funny — old trope of the father who is unable to cope with the dawning perception that his seventeen-year-old daughter is suddenly an attractive young woman who is drawing the attention of the local young men — and is no longer under his control. Of course, this being a story by Kevin Barry, the author introduces a few complications.

The father, who narrates the story in the first person, presents his family life as having been idyllic and fortunate, though it’s clear that he’s leaving out some significant details. When he starts to go off the rails over his daughter’s relationship with young Aodhan McAdam (who has his own problems, including the recent discovery that he has Type 1 diabetes), his wife asks him if this isn’t starting to look like a breakdown type thing again (Dark Lies the Island, p. 17), implying that something like this has happened before. But whatever it was, we’re not going to hear about it from this narrator.

Another of the less compelling stories is “The Girls and the Dogs”, whose narrator, having been involved in the importation of a lethal batch of crack cocaine, had to leave Cork in a hurry and, with nowhere else to go, ended up in Gort, County Galway. There, he found himself at the mercy of a self-proclaimed follower of Aleister Crowley who locked him in a squalid, decaying caravan for days on end without food or water, in an attempt to force him into a complicated sexual relationship with two sisters. The narrator eventually managed to break out of the caravan — or was he just hallucinating? — only to find that he had nowhere else to run to.

The immediately following story, “White Hitachi”, features a petty criminal, trying to avoid the father of a fifteen-year-old girl whom he had sex with in a petrol station toilet, and to keep his much younger brother, who has just been released from prison, out of trouble. It’s implied that the young brother, TJ, may be suffering from some mental illness. He periodically gets nosebleeds, has a quick temper and isn’t very good at staying out of trouble. The reason he had been in prison was that he’d stolen an SUV belonging to the wife of a policeman.

Patrick had had a bad feeling about Tee-J around that time. The daft child had a black-moon look about the eyes and Patrick reckoned if the Teedge wasn’t held safe behind bars, he was going to be toes up on a slab with the hair parted wrong. So he turned his own brother in and felt so like it was off a film he almost heard the music strike up on the soundtrack. (p. 151)

So, Patrick wants them both to go straight, but first they need money. There’s a load of dodgy DVDs in the van, and Patrick would like to get paid for them. He does, though not as much as he’s like, and in the process ends up with 77 rocks of crystal methamphetamine to sell. It seems that the harder Patrick struggles to get TJ out of the criminal life, the deeper in they’re both drawn. The story ends on a suggestion that Patrick’s own optimism is the factor that makes it harder for them to escape.

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the bleak hopelessness of these stories that make them less satisfactory than some of the others. Rather, it’s that they don’t have conclusions: they seem unfinished. The reader has a sense that these characters are trapped in situations that can’t continue for much longer, that must be very near to a crisis, yet we can’t imagine how they’re going to end.

In contrast, “Ernestine and Kit” is extremely bleak but it clearly comes to an end — a horrific, brutal one. The opening tone suggests that this is going to be an amusing tale of mistaken first impressions. The title characters are two women in their sixties. They drive around the countryside in their “neat Japanese car” (p. 77), being careful to obey the speed limit — until they need to make a quick getaway. They comment disparagingly on the negligence, appearance and presumed moral laxity of the parents they pass on their journey. They appear entirely benign, or at least harmless, if a touch censorious as might be expected of women of their age and presumed religiosity. (Kit makes the sign of the cross as she imagines one mother drinking by the pool table in the “dank” back room of a pub: p. 78.)

In fact, they’re on the hunt for a young child to snatch. When they try to grab a little girl named Allie, and Allie’s brother raises the alarm, Kit immediately knows what to do.

The mother’s desperate scream was signal enough for Kit to pinch viciously at the pup fat at the back of Allie’s knees, causing the child to shriek and cry. The pinch was Kit’s procedure in such an emergency: upset in the child would justify the ladies’ intrusion. (p. 84)

The women pretend that they had found Allie in a lost and distressed state and had been taking her to look for officialdom. The fact that Kit follows an established “procedure” indicates that this isn’t their first attempt to kidnap a child. Have any such attempts ever succeeded in the past? And, if so, what became of their victims? There’s a hint at the answer to that question a little earlier, when Ernestine is getting ready to approach Allie:

Ernestine slipped a tube of wine gums from her bag and as she moved her smile was warmed by her desire to have the child’s heat — if briefly — in her life. (p. 82)

Why only “briefly”? Having failed to get away with Allie, the women cross the border into Northern Ireland and in the Enniskillen branch of Asda they get lucky, coming away with a “monstrously burbling infant” (p. 87). At first, the two women are delighted with their catch, but their enthusiasm quickly fades. The child, they quickly conclude, is no angel. He appears wall-eyed, he smells unpleasantly and he’s bursting out of a cheap Asda Babygro. Kit wonders:

“Could it be an itinerant we have on our hands?”
“Oh Jesus Christ, a tinker child!”
“Ernestine, what I’d say to you now …”
“I know, darling.”
“Do you?
You’re right, darling.”
“I am! The likes of this … thing isn’t worth the effort nor the risk.” (p. 89)

As I said, the conclusion to the story is horrific and brutal. Cruel though it is, though, I find that more satisfying than the inconclusive bleakness of a story like “The Girls and the Dogs”. Yet I wouldn’t go so far as to say that inconclusiveness is generally detrimental to whether a story is felt to “work” or not. One of the most intriguing stories in Dark Lies the Island is “Doctor Sot”, which concerns an aging alcoholic general practitioner who buys 8 naggin bottles of Jameson at a time in Tesco, and carries several in his satchel. Most of his patients, all but the very elderly, have departed to other practices.

The doctor sees that some new age travellers or crusties have moved onto a nearby mountain, Slieve Bo. Noticing that one of them is a beautiful, unworldly young woman, he volunteers to visit their camp as part of an impromptu outreach scheme. The reader assumes — well, this reader assumed — that he’s infatuated with the young woman, whose name, he learns, is Mag, and that he’s going to make a fool of himself over her.

It turns out that the doctor is plagued by hallucinations, which he sees in mirrors and in open stretches of sky, so he avoids looking at the sky, and all the mirrors in his home are either removed or covered over while he is there. There’s a suggestion that these hallucinations may not be the result of his excessive drinking so much as the reason for it, in that he’s drinking to distract and protect himself from the hallucinations. It seems that most people locally are aware of the doctor’s problem and are tolerant of it; in particular his wife, who is unperturbed to hear that he has wrecked their car on top of Slieve Bo, and that it won’t be coming down again.

The doctor appears to get something from Mag but I’m not able to say what. On meeting her face to face, he immediately recognizes that “the serenity of her smile … was that of a psychotic” (p. 128; ellipsis added). She draws “great winged creatures” and what look like mathematical equations. Immediately before meeting her, he has looked into a mirror in the caravan where he has been waiting, without seeing any hallucination:

He crept up on it, carefully, and found that it was clear — no malevolence — and he backed away. He crept up on it again and still it was clear — no malevolence — he backed away. He crept up a third time and a figure appeared in the mirror but there was no malevolence — it was his young woman, outside. (pp. 127–8)

The doctor seems to gain some of Mag’s serenity, but is that necessarily a good thing, and can it be expected to last? The story is inconclusive, but no worse for that.

Editions: Dark Lies the Island, Vintage paperback, 2013; That Old Country Music, Canongate hardback, 2020. Ellipsis is original except in one instance, where I’ve added it.


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