‘Walk The Blue Fields’ by Claire Keegan

Beneath the still surface of Claire Keegan’s stories there is often a darker or surprising or shocking element. This story is no exception. While I nearly went with the story, ‘The Ginger Rogers Sermon’, from her debut collection, Antarctica, which shares similar qualities, I instead settled on the titular story of her second collection. It is difficult to describe what happens without giving too much of the story away. Only to say that, told in clear, vivid, and unaffected prose, it is an achingly beautiful and melancholy story that lingers long in the memory and the heart. A story about love and faith, disappointment and regret, and as it draws to a close, the hope of restoration and peace.

Collected in  Walk The Blue Fields, Faber, 2007

‘Men and Women’ by Claire Keegan

There is a timelessness to Claire Keegan’s stories which makes them reminiscent of fable. I find the mythological feel to her work surprising, given the specificity of her prose and its attention to detail. She writes very powerfully of the gap separating children and adults and the lack of understanding between men and women. Her awareness of these gaping openings and where they occur, how they are made manifest, is what distinguishes this story. It is narrated by a young girl who wants to be big. ‘Big’ means licking the nibs of special pencils and sitting behind the wheel of a car while someone else opens the farm gate. For now, though, she is the one opening gates. At a dance at the local village hall she watches her father slow dancing with a neighbour “like slowness is what he wants” and she struggles to understand the strange atmosphere that gathers between her parents as a result – “like when a cow dies and the truck comes to take it away”. By the end of the evening she is not the one opening the gate and she is one step closer to being ‘big’.

First published in Antarctica, Faber, 1999)

‘Quare Name for a Boy’ by Claire Keegan

Christmas is an excellent way of testing a character. The in-built structure of Christmas, with its romantic and familial expectations, its association with heavy drinking and the anti-climax and nostalgia many readers will remember from childhood, means it is a festival that serves the short story well. Claire Keegan’s first collection Antarctica makes strong use of Christmas and New Year in the stories ‘Quare Name for a Boy’, ‘Men and Women’ and ‘Love in the Tall Grass’. Her writing is very precise and takes the reader right inside a way of life, right to the heart of a character and their particular seasonal agony.

‘Quare Name for a Boy’ is a post-Christmas story, a memory of an unconventional Christmas during which a couple had a six-day fling “to break the boredom of the holidays”. The story takes place when the woman, who lives in England, returns to Ireland to meet the man in a pub and tell him that she is pregnant. Her memories of their time together at his mother’s house are wonderfully atmospheric:

I wore nothing but your mandarin-collared shirts that came down to my knees, your thick brown-heeled football socks.

She sits up in the night and listens to cars passing through the slush. The story carries an entire country’s history of sexual relations inside it: “Irish girls should stay home, stuff the chicken and snip the parsley,” but the narrator is unwilling to snare the man like a fox and live with him “that way”. She doesn’t want to look into his eyes “years from now and discover a man whose worst regret is six furtive nights spent in his mother’s bed with a woman from a Christmas do.”

The tension builds as the “green wood hisses in the grate” and the man carries their drinks “like a man carrying the first two bucketfuls of water to put out a blaze in his own stable”. This is a story about Ireland’s future, too – the narrator doesn’t want to be the woman “who shelters her man same as he’s a boy. That part of my people ends with me.” Equally, (spoiler alert) there will be “no boat trip, no roll of twenty-pound notes, no bleachy white waiting room with women’s dog-eared magazines.” Published in 1999, it is especially moving to read this story in 2018 – a year in which Irish people voted to repeal the eighth.

First broadcast on RTE. First published in Antarctica, Faber 1999

Chosen by Hannah Vincent. Hannah is a novelist and playwright. Her first novel, Alarm Girl, was published by Myriad in 2014 and her second, The Weaning, was published by Salt in 2018. She teaches Creative Writing on the Open University’s MA and life writing on the Autobiography and Life Writing programme at New Writing South.