For a few years there, we Irish had delusions of financial grandeur. We were rich -- or so it seemed -- and our Celtic Tiger economy was the envy of much of Europe. Then came the credit crunch. The American economy came down with a nasty strain of flu, and ours caught double pneumonia. In the past six months, the news coming out of Dublin, that deflated boomtown, has been generally dreadful. That's why it was heartening to read a recent speech by Colm Toibín, one of the writers featured in this noteworthy anthology, in which he insisted that "the image of Ireland ... which is more enduring and embedded, more serious and influential, comes from [literature]" -- "the slippery news that stays news."
In other words, Irish developers may not be the Masters of the Universe they thought themselves to be (or we thought them to be), but Irish artists have achieved mastery worth talking about. In her introduction, Booker Prize-winning novelist Anne Enright asserts that "this collection ... asks" -- unabashedly -- "why Irish writers excel at the short story." Her theories, which build upon the lyrical ideas of master practitioner Frank O'Connor, are sensible and sensibly tentative; she avoids adopting any dogmatic stance that would narrow the receptiveness of an editor or reader to stories not written in the classic mode exemplified by O'Connor or some of the other older writers on display here, such as Elizabeth Bowen or Sean O'Faolain.
Consequently, her selections are savvy, sometimes surprising, and almost always satisfying. Eugene McCabe, a writer whom many American admirers of Irish literature may never have even heard of, is represented here with a tour-de-force story titled "Music at Annahullion"; it may be the last word in rural gloom. Colum McCann's beautifully plotted "Everything in This Country Must" is tragic in the true sense of the word, and one of the best stories written about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Toibín's contribution is "A Priest in the Family," which, thanks to an inspired choice of point of view, gives us an unexpected perspective on the scandal-tainted Irish Catholic Church.
Time and again reading this collection I was reminded of the bold words a young James Joyce wrote to a London publisher who was wavering over the publication of "Dubliners": These stories constitute "a chapter in the moral history" of a country. Joseph O'Connor's "Mothers Were All the Same," for example, not only archives the atmosphere of the 1980s London-Irish world but also reveals the heartbreak behind some young emigrants' presence there.
That and many of the other two dozen stories on offer here make Enright's collection a robust representation of the real wealth of Ireland.
Robert Cremins, author of "A Sort of Homecoming," teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.