You’ll see in this photographs that I’m standing against a gray stone wall on a windswept day in the middle of an Irish field, with what are obviously the ruins of a monastery behind me.
Observant people might ask why the monastery is behind me, and I am holding a set of keys in my hand as if it were the bigger focal point. Here’s the story.
We kind of knew where we were heading, my friend Tama and I, and by this I mean we had a loose plan with regard to how we were going to spend the afternoon in Gort, Ireland. We’d been freewheeling across the countryside in a rented car the size of a match box, with its steering wheel on the right side, while we drove on the left of the two-lane road as if trying to best a test for dyslexia. Tama is a devout Catholic, who has a thing about historic churches, which is why we couldn’t have adhered to a plan had we had one. “Stop,” Tama would shout every time we spied one of the dim, ominous structures off in the distance. We’d scratch the gravel driveway and wander inside, our solitary footsteps crossing the marble floor in a tread- ye- lightly and humble yourself echo off the cavernous vaulted ceiling. We did this so many times that after yet another sweep inside a church, I’d take to wandering the halcyon graveyards to read the Irish tombstone inscriptions, while Tama would light a red votive candle and fall to her pious knees.
I thought I was alone in the yard when a voice came sailing from behind me. “Have you found your way to Kilmacduagh monastery?” it queried. I turned to find a young woman taking in my outlander attire of three quarter down jacket and rubber soled shoes. “It’s just up the road there,” she continued, pointing. “Just knock on the door of the middle house across the road and ask Lily for the keys.”
I was standing behind Tama when she knocked on the front door of a low slung house on a sparsely populated lane. Across the lane, placid fields of damp clover shimmered in the afternoon mist as far as the eye could see. On one verdant field, a series of interspersed ruins jutted in damp metal-gray; some without roofs, some with wrought-iron gates, and one in particular beside an impressively tall stone spire, which had two windows cut in vertical slashes above a narrow door raised high from the ground.
Immediately the front door opened, and a pair of blue water eyes gave us the once over with an inquisitive, “Yes?””Are you Lily? We’re here for the keys,” Tama said.”The keys, is it? Just a moment there,” the woman said, and after closing the door, she opened it seconds later and handed us a set of long metal keys. “Just slip them through the door slot when you’re through,” she said, closing the door with a quick nod.I can’t say there was any indication of which key went to what, among the cluster of gates and doors throughout the 7th century monastery called Kilmacduagh, but we figured it out. I was so tickled over the keys that I couldn’t get over it. “Is this weird?” I said to Tama. “We could be anybody. It’s not that there’s anything anybody could steal, but that’s not the point.” I could wax rhapsody over the hours we spent unlocking gates and pushing through doors in the eerie, hallowed grounds, but that’s not my point either. My point is that’s Ireland for you: a stranger offering directions without being asked, Lily handing over the keys like an afterthought, and Tama and I trolling the grounds of sacred space when nobody else was around. But suddenly a German couple appeared as we were on our way back up the lane. They looked at us wide eyed and queried, “What is this place?”
“It’s a 7th century monastery,” I said, “here, take the keys and slip them through Lily’s door when you’re through.”
I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Now that my book, ‘’Dancing to Irish Reel” is out, I’m being asked the inevitable question, “How much of the story is true?” Everyone who knows me personally knows I picked up and moved to the west coast of Ireland without much of a plan, and that I stayed for a year. Add that to the fact that the book is written in the first person, that the narrator’s interior monologues in the story are unabashedly confessional to the point of unnecessary risk. I’ve been told the book reads like a memoir, and for that, I can only say I’m glad because this was my intention. I can see why readers might think the entire story is true.
But writers make a choice in how to lay out a story, and in my case, I wrote the book based on the kind of books I like to read. I’m a one-trick pony kind of a reader. I want an intimate narrator’s voice with which I can connect. I want to know exactly whom I’m listening to, so that I can align with a premise that makes the story’s swinging pendulum of cause and effect plausible. The way I see it, there are always bread crumbs along the path to the chaotic predicaments people find themselves in, and although many are blind to their own contributions, when I read a book, I want to be the one who divines how the character got there.
What fascinates me about people are their backstories. Oh, people will tell you their highlights, but they rarely reveal their churning cauldron of attendant emotions; they rarely confess to carrying acquired fears. We all want to appear bigger than our own confusion, and the key word here is “appear,” because when it comes to faces, most people like to save theirs. This is the point I wanted to make in the story, but I also wanted “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” to be about discovery, so I started with a narrator who is a fish out of water: a twenty-five year old American ensconced in a specific culture she uncovers like the dance of seven veils. In the midst of this there enters an Irish traditional musician named Liam Hennessey. He is from the region, of the region, and therefore it can only be said he is because of the region in a way that is emblematic. From a writer’s point of view, the supposition offers the gift of built-in conflict, most poignantly being the clash of the male-female dynamic set upon the stage of differing cultures trying to find a bridge. And I can think of no better culture clash than America and Ireland. I say this because I happen to know to the Irish, we Americans are a bit brazen, that we have the annoying habit of being direct. But the Irish are a discreet lot, culled from a set of delicate social manners that seem to dance around everything, leaving an American such as me with much guesswork.
No matter how they shake it, writers write about what they know, even if it has to be extracted from varying quadrants that have no good reason for being congealed. “Dancing to an Irish Reel” is a good example of this: it came to me as a strategy for commenting on the complexities of human beings inherent longing to connect—the way we do and say things that are at variance with how we really feel, in the interest of appearances, and how this quandary sometimes dictates how we handle opportunities in life. In my opinion, there is no better playing field on which to illustrate this point than the arena of new found attraction. I’m convinced the ambiguity of new love is a universal experience, and since the universe is a big wide place, and since ‘”Dancing to an Irish Reel” has something to say about hope and fear and the uncertainty of attraction, it occurred to me that I might as well make my point set upon the verdant fields of Ireland because everything about the land fascinated me when I lived there, and I wanted to take any reader that would have me to the region I experienced as cacophonous and proud: that mysterious, constant, quirky, soul-infused island that lays in the middle of the Atlantic, covered in a blanket of green, misty velvet.
Excerpt from “Dancing to an Irish Reel”
The distance between Inverin and Clifden is approximately sixty kilometers. It’s a visually inspiring hour-long ride through undulating midlands with grass as soft as velvet, gray stone walls that split the landscape, and bubbling intermittent streams as you glide along a two-lane road that cuts through a terrain devoid of street markers, stop signs, or any other indication the area has been previously trodden. There is little suggestion of civilization anywhere in sight and it is a quiet, unobstructed journey through the heart of Connemara with nothing in store, save for the destination of Clifden.
Driving into Clifden, one is abruptly thrust into the center of a thriving village that hosts an annual, three-day music festival wherein every pub door is invitingly open with signs outside announcing which Irish traditional musicians will be playing within the standing-room-only venues. A rudimentary chalkboard sat on the sidewalk outside of Mannion’s Pub with “Welcome Liam Hennessey” sprawled across in large, eye-catching cursive.
I followed Liam into the middle of a waiting crowd, which parted ceremoniously as he made his way to the old man seated against the wall across from the bar. Wind-tossed and toothless, the man sat on a battered wooden chair, tuning a fiddle and nodding his greeting while Liam opened his accordion case and settled in beside him. When a flute player joined them, the crowd fell into an anticipatory hush, ready for the music to begin. I stationed myself in front of the bar, minding my own business, but that soon became short-lived.
“Are you here with Liam?” asked a middle-aged man who was standing too close to me.
“Yes.” I took a step back.
“She’s here with Liam,” the man announced, turning to the man beside him.
“Ah,” the second man gasped, “she is, so!”
“Where did you get that blond hair on your head?” The first man eyed me.
“I brought it with me from America,” I said.
“She’s from America!” The man turned to the other man, his eyes opened wide.
“America indeed!” The second man drew in his breath.
“All I want in the world is for me brother to come in and see me standing here talking to you,” said the first man. “I wouldn’t care if a pooka came for me after that. Will you have a pint? Get her a pint, Tom,” he directed.
“Tom, make that a half-pint,” I said, trying not to laugh. I looked over at an obviously amused Liam, who smiled and winked as if to say he knew what was happening.
I looked toward the door and noticed an unusually small woman walking in with what appeared to be members of her family due to their similarity in stature. I’d met her in Galway before: she was a musician named Deanna Rader who played guitar and sang anything from Irish traditional music to her own compositions. I’d heard her sing in her low, husky voice a few times before, and because she was a friend of Declan’s, I’d exchanged pleasantries with her a few times as well. From the looks of things, she was in Mannion’s with her father and two sisters. She came smiling to my side instantly.
“Well then, you’ve made your way out here now, have you?” She looked up at me.
“I came here with Liam,” I said, grateful to know someone in the crowd.
“I knew you must have. So, it’s the two of you now, is it?”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d put it that way,” I said, diverting the implication. I couldn’t recall if I’d seen Deanna while I was out with Liam, or if she asked this because she’d heard people talking.
“You’re a long way from home yourself,” I said. “Is this festival a big deal?”
“Oh God, yes. People look forward every year. Luckily my parents live in Letterfrack, just up the road. I’ve been spending the last couple of nights with them. We’ve all come ’round tonight for the craic.”
“Well, it’s nice to know someone here,” I said.
“My sister came out to sing tonight. Would you mind asking Liam if she could give us a song?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll ask him when they take a break.”
“They probably won’t do that, so you’d be waiting for ages,” Deanna said. “You’ll just have to lean over and ask, like.”
“When?” I asked.
“How about now?” she said.
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” she smiled sweetly.
I looked over at the musicians, who were in full swing. There was no way I was going to butt in, even though Deanna kept standing there looking up at me expectantly. Just then, a man at the bar stepped forward enthusiastically. He leaned into the musicians circle, grabbed Liam by the arm, and shouted loudly, “The young lady here wants to give us a song.” With that, the music came to a screeching halt, and a whirlwind of preparation commenced. Liam leaned over and whispered to the two musicians beside him, instruments were set down, a microphone was raised, a path spontaneously cleared, and into the arena stepped Deanna’s sister. It was like the infamous scene of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy.
There was a hush in the room as all eyes riveted upon the girl. She stood all of five foot two, but within that minuscule framework there was a lot going on: thick, raven hair fell in loose waves across her forehead and down her back. Large green oval eyes slanted and squinted catlike beneath thick, dark lashes. Turn by turn, her eyes focused and held one man in the room after another. She stood with her right hand on her hip and her voluptuous weight shifted to the left. With great histrionics, she crooned out a song in the Irish language I’d never heard before.
When she finally stopped, she sashayed over to Liam, totally aware everybody was watching. With grand theatrics, she threw both her arms around his neck and kissed him square on the mouth, nearly knocking him over with her forward advance. All hands in the room clapped loudly, wolf whistles erupted, and a few eyes turned my way.
“I imagine you’d have something to say about this passionate display,” said Deanna’s father, who had materialized beside me.
“Not really,” I said. “Do you?”
“You have to watch that one is all. She’ll be the death of me one day, he said, cocking his head toward her.
“I hope not,” I said.
“No harm done then?”
“No harm at all,” I said.
Dancing to an Irish Reel is available where books are sold!
It’s daunting to think that no matter how I review this exceptional collection of short stories by Billy O’Callaghan, I will never adequately express my full sentiments, for how to articulate that O’Callaghan is simply the best writer I’ve come across in ages? His short stories are a treatise on the human experience, the impressionable psyche, the vulnerable human heart. He crafts his stories with the fluidity of a wave that builds slowly, crests, then turns in on itself after enveloping sight and sight unseen. To read The Boatman and Other Stories is to read a master at his craft. You’ll be swept away by the rich detail and nuance of commonplace in the hands of this powerful storyteller. I cannot recommend this collection hardily enough. Read it, treasure it, then do as I did and put it in pride of place on your bookshelf.
Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: In Exile (2008, Mercier Press), In Too Deep (2009, Mercier Press), and The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind (2013, New Island Books, winner of a 2013 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award and selected as Cork’s One City, One Book for 2017), as well as the bestselling novel The Dead House (2017, Brandon/O’Brien Press and 2018, Arcade/Skyhorse (USA)).
His latest novel, My Coney Island Baby, was published by Jonathan Cape (and Harper in the U.S.) in January 2019 to much acclaim. Read more about it on the Books page.
Billy’s latest short story collection, The Boatman and Other Stories was released in January 2020 and released in the U.S. on April 28.
Billy is the winner of a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for the short story, and twice a recipient of the Arts Council of Ireland’s Bursary Award for Literature. Among numerous other honors, his story, The Boatman, was a finalist for the 2016 Costa Short Story Award, and more than a hundred of his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in literary journals and magazines around the world, including Absinthe: New European Writing, Agni, the Bellevue Literary Review, the Chattahoochee Review, Confrontation, The Fiddlehead, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Kenyon Review, the Kyoto Journal, the London Magazine, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Salamander, and the Saturday Evening Post.
I read O’Callaghans short story, A Death in the Family, which is included in The Boatman and Other Stories when the prestigious Ploughshares published it as a Kindle solo, here https://amzn.to/2xnqma2
I reviewed A Death in the Family by writing:
It is such a gift that Ploughshares avails this short story here on Amazon. I cannot recommend this story enough, for I consider Billy O’Callaghan the most important literary figure to arrive on the scene in ages. O’Callaghan can take any simple premise and infuse it with deep-seated, soul-stirring insight, and A Death in the Family is just such an example. His use of language is so personal that it shows us our own humanity, in this evocative, finely wrought story. Read this story and be lulled by O’Callaghan’s laser-sharp gift of Irish nuance, character, and place. And when you’ve finished, do yourself a favor and read his debut novel, The Dead House.
Here is my favorite quote on O’Callaghan’s writing:
“I know of no writer on either side of the Atlantic who is better at exploring the human spirit under assault than Billy O’Callaghan.”—Robert Olen Butler