‘Men of Destiny, After Jack B Yeats’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir aka Nuala O’Connor

Nuala O’Connor, who also publishes as Nuala Ní Chonchúir, is one of 56 Irish writers who wrote responses to artworks in the National Gallery of Ireland Collection for this book. Building on the intense, tense feel of the original image, she imagined a whole world for the painting she chose. Jack B Yeats painted Men of Destiny in 1946. It’s a ghostly kind of painting, but also rich with a stark contrast between the fiery red-orange-yellow of sunlight hitting the land and the shoulders of the men, and the deep, dark blue of the sea below and the sky above. Ní Chonchúir’s story begins with a line that could serve as an open-ended, one-sentence description of the painting: “July, with its pressing light, its high note of optimism, was ending.” She brings us from the outline of the men walking on the pier to the fateful sound of two unexpected gunshots, and she does it in just three pages without missing a single step.  

First published in Lines of Vision, Irish Writers on Art edited by Janet McLean, Thames & Hudson, 2014

‘Consolata’ by Nuala O’Connor (aka Nuala Ní Chonchúir)

A young woman takes her boyfriend back to her rural childhood home where her mother is now living alone after her father’s death. The animalistic details – her mother “snuffling after me like a resolute badger”, her partner “like a pet while he sleeps” – bring a physicality to the story that extends to the sense of place. In the graveyard she reflects that “the ecology of this place is sewn into me”. As she passes through ‘the black crosses to the yew tree’ and slips under its “umbrella” we learn that the reason for this connection is not fond memory but bitter betrayal. What I admire most about this story is its calm humour as the narrator returns from the “pantomiming” pretence of her past to the present in which “we drink, talk and ponder it all until the April sun drops behind the orchard and is gone.”

First published in Joyride to Jupiter, New Island Books, 2017. Available online in Granta here

‘The Egg Pyramid’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

This flash story is, for me, a perfect example of the use of the second person, addressing “you” directly. “There are things you can do when your husband sleeps with your sister,” is how it begins. This story is not funny. It is disturbing and visceral, about love, family, and, obviously, betrayal. It doesn’t go where you think it is going to go, as all the best stories don’t. It draws you in, you are right there with her and “the pain that pinches like a body brace”. You may find you are holding your breath for the entire time it takes you to read 500 words, which feel like a universe.

First published in the Dublin Review of Books (2011), included in Of Dublin and Other Fictions (Tower Press, 2013) and available to read online here