Storiescarved fromunderbelly ofoursociety
PAUL O’REILLY’S DEBUT COLLECTION OF NINE SHORT STORIES IS AN OUTSTANDING READ
THE Irish have a long and celebrated relationship with the short story. We love a good story, and we cherish a good storyteller. It has been instilled in us for generations; we have romantic imagery of the village storyteller, going from cottage to cottage, telling tales by the night’s fire.
The craft of a good yarn is in our DNA. We love stories that challenge us, that make us think, stories that are both of its time and timeless. The great storytellers, inadvertently or otherwise, can sense which way the wind is blowing in society, and can react accordingly. They are in step with the zeitgeist.
Which brings us to Enniscorthy author Paul O’Reilly’s latest body of work, a collection of nine short stories entitled ‘The Girl Missing From The Window’. At times achingly beautiful, at times thought provoking in its bluntness, Paul has delivered nine stories that tap in to many of the modern day issues that hang over Irish society.
Immigration, loneliness, teenage suicide, sexual guilt, old age are all dealt with great authority and sensitivity. A common thread running throughout the nine stories is the parent-child relationship, either front and centre like in ‘I Wish MacGowan Hadn’t Written That Song’ or indirectly in the title story ‘The Girl Missing From The Window’. But, as Paul admits, this parent-child theme is not something he deliberately set out to do.
‘When the publishers took it on, we were very much concentrating on finishing the nine stories, and once we got those done and edited, then it was like, how are we going to market this, what’s the angle? And so it was only around then I started thinking what have they all got in common, and I think it is very much family-centric stories. They kind of alternate between father and child, mother and child, or that triangle,’ said Paul.
The opening story, ‘What Rose Did’ is a powerful story that deals with teenage bullying and suicide, told not through the eyes of the victim, but through the eyes of the mother of a teenage girl who is accused of bullying a girl who has killed herself.
The story is extremely uncomfortable in parts – it gets under your skin as it reaches its chilling climax. Paul admits that it was the real-life teen suicides of Ciara Puglsey and the Gallagher sisters Erin and Shannon in 2013 that inspired the story.
‘It’s a horrible situation to be in, because she (the mother) is really in conflict. Obviously she’s disgusted by it, but it’s also her daughter. I work in software, and I’m always keeping an eye on Facebook and Twitter. And it’s just scary,’ said Paul
‘It was the Pugsley and Gallagher suicides that inspired that story. They were the sparks. It was around that time then that a second Gallagher sister committed suicide, and that completely galvanised the country. It made everyone aware and that was such a strong impact on everyone. But the easy thing would be to tell the story from the victim’s point of view whereas I think, we definitely need to try and understand the other side of it. Why are the bullies the bullies?’
Like many in Wexford, Paul has been directly touched by suicide, and openly admits that this was at the forefront of his mind during the writing process.
‘There was a suicide in the town when I was in my teens,’ said Paul. ‘He was a fine chap, a good boxer, and he just killed himself, and it was absolutely devastating. He lived three doors up from me. So that’s always been in my mind. And my own cousin, Mark O’Reilly, committed suicide in the Slaney around 1998 and he was only 21 or 22 or something. And he had lost his father so it was kind of a domino effect. ‘
The town of Enniscorthy features heavily in ‘I Wish MacGowan Hadn’t Written That Song’, one of the earliest stories Paul ever completed. It deals with a young local man on his last night in town before he immigrates to America – again a situation all too familiar with families today. What makes the story so touching is rather than the young protagonist enjoying a few pints on his last night, he sneaks out of the pub (Toss Kavanagh’s, according to Paul) and enjoys a tender moment with his mother in the kitchen,
drinking tea and eating doorstep brown bread sandwiches.
The scene is achingly beautiful in how it is written – the mother’s impending sense of loneliness rings clear. ‘ Why are you leaving
before Christmas,’ she asks? Paul’s own story, from a creative point of view, began in the early 1990s, when he began writing songs inspired by the likes of Christy Moore and Jimmy McCarthy. An accomplished lilter like his late father, Paul competed with some success at All-Ireland Fleadhs.
About 13 years ago at an Enniscorthy Drama Festival, the staging of plays by Billy Roche (The Belfry), Martin McDonagh (The Lonesome West) and Enniscorthy’s Andy Doyle (There’s Something About Roses) lit the fuse for Paul to get writing, and subsequently wrote three plays.
From there, and through his involvement with the ‘Scalta Media’ initiative with Eamonn and Niall Wall, Paul honed his craft, and after five years of flirting with a novel – which he made considerable progress with – he turned his attention to the short story format in 2010.
The result is a collection of short stories that deal with ordinary life, but are in no way told in an ordinary way and will inevitably strike a chord with the reader in some shape or form.
‘I’m an only child…’ reflects Paul. ‘So I think perhaps many of the children (in the book), they don’t talk that much to siblings, or they might be only children. So it’s only in hindsight that you realise that some of my own life and experiences end up in the stories.
‘I would have been very close to my own father and mother. My mother is still alive but she is quite ill. And there would have been a lot of bereavements in our family, on my mother’s side. And that all feeds into the compost.’
Enniscorthy author Paul O’Reilly; INSET: his new collection of short stories, ‘The Girl Missing From The Window’.