Claire Keegan: Ireland’s Leading Short Story Writer

claire keeganI was lucky enough to attend a seminar a few years ago with the amazing Irish short story writer Claire Keegan. While I was studying in Ireland, she gave our group a crash course on “timing” in short story writing. It was the most brilliant and concise teaching I’ve ever received.

When we concluded the day, she left us with a great encouragement. “Meet all kinds of people,” she said. “It really does have a civilizing effect because people will tell you things about yourself from their perspective. It’s an act of love, really.”

Claire, author of the collections Antarctica and Walk the Blue Fields, has a short story in the most recent New Yorker. “Foster” won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Read a slice of it below:

Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford toward the coast, where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot August day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh, where my father lost our red shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew, where the man who won her sold her not long afterward. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes. I shake the plaits out of my hair and lie flat on the back seat, looking up through the rear window. I wonder what it will be like, this place belonging to the Kinsellas. I see a tall woman standing over me, making me drink milk still hot from the cow. I see another, less likely version of her, in an apron, pouring pancake batter into a frying pan, asking would I like another, the way my mother sometimes does when she is in good humor. The man will be her size. He will take me to town on the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pick stones and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields. I wonder if they live in an old farmhouse or a new bungalow, whether they will have an outhouse or an indoor bathroom, with a toilet and running water.

An age, it seems, passes before the car slows and turns in to a tarred, narrow lane, then slams over the metal bars of a cattle grid. On either side, thick hedges are trimmed square. At the end of the lane, there’s a white house with trees whose limbs are trailing the ground.

“Da,” I say. “The trees.”

“What about them?”

“They’re sick,” I say.

“They’re weeping willows,” he says, and clears his throat.

Read Foster by Claire Keegan (The New Yorker, 15 February 2010)

9 thoughts on “Claire Keegan: Ireland’s Leading Short Story Writer”

  1. I am an admirer of Claire Keegan’s writing but I’m finding your heading a bit difficult to deal with.
    As far as is known, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien are still writing their fabulous prose in short story form.

  2. I was exultant to find a story by Clare Keegan in The New Yorker a week or two ago. For a good few years of my history I believed theirs was the best fiction published in the U.S. Then came the workshops and trendy stories that had no shape, no characters I could care about – storytelling no more and I despaired. Is Keegan’s magnificent story a signal of a significant change in the editorial policy of The New Yorker? Pray that it’s so.

  3. I saw claire last night at the cuirt festival in galway eire. When she gets caught by the humour in her own work, it cracks me up. She has an amazing sense of timing in her writing and her readings. I rushed home to finish reading foster in new yorker. I carried unease throughout the story about kinsella, today i have decided it reflects how I or we have become suspicious of men around children in the last few decades and I feel deeply sad at how good men have been left to carry such a burden and at the huge cost to the rounded experiences of all the worlds children. I am left with the feeling of missing important signals versus a lynching. wish i could do that in a short piece of work.

  4. I just read ‘Foster’ this afternoon and didn’t want it to end. I grew up in Ireland, having left in the early eighties. The story took me on an extraordinary trip back to my own childhood. The very rare long hot summer, getting dressed up for Sunday mass, and my granny and grandad’s house up the lane with their very own well… I even stayed with them while my mother was in hospital giving birth to my younger brother! It was a joy to read this powerfull story and to look back on my own memories and remember the feeling of unconditional love from my grandparents .

    I think Petal’s blusing may have been due to her realizing, however subsconsiously, that maybe she had betrayed her mother by having feelings… affection or love, for John and Edna? Her mother no doubt sense this shift as well.

    I loved all the characters in the story and ‘felt’ for each of them. The father who just couldn’t help himself, his wife who did her best with what she had, and the Kinsellas who had lost so much but still had so much to give.

    I’m already looking forward to revisiting ‘Foster’ as the days and weeks so by and taking delight in reading each and every word again!

  5. I agree with Alanna. I think the “secret” is that Petal almost drown while in their care. Since they had just lost their son to drowning and people were “blaming” them for their son’s death, it would have been even more of a scandal to find out that Petal had also nearly drowned in the well.

    I’m not sure about the blushing. Victoria may be correct. That the blushing was Petal’s sensitive nature and her mother’s response is somewhat a “don’t get above your betters” class response.

    I really love the image of Kinsella helping Petal learn to run faster and faster. First, because it’s probably something he did with his son. And second because he’s teaching her to challenge herself against herself, rather than being shaped by those around her.

  6. I don’t have contact for Claire. But she’s doing readings in the States right now. She was in Maryland reading earlier this month. You can always try contacting her through her publisher by emailing the Editorial Department at Grove Atlantic.

  7. I came across your site in searching out more of Claire Keegan’s work. I adored this story and she’s a new favorite writer. To address the comment above, I thought the ‘secret’ was either the drowning of the Kinsella boy or her transferral of affection towards the Kinsellas, or both.
    The blushing may have simply been a way to show the girl’s sensitive nature, or her sense of propriety in a rough family. I didn’t read anything ‘troubling’ into the story, other than her own father’s distancing of her and the fact that there were so many other children that she never got much attention.

    Thanks for posting about your seminar. Is there any way to contact Keegan to express admiration and appreciation of her work?

  8. What is your interpretation of the secret that the girl is keeping at the end of the story? Her mother’s intuitive observation that something happened and the girl’s blushing over the mother’s nursing of the infant in front of Kinsella suggest that something very troubling has occurred. I found this a very powerful, muted story, more powerful because of its ambiguity and understatement.

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