A taste of the new staples on Irish menu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 1993, 12:00am

STATE OF THE ART, Short Stories by the New Irish Writers, edited by David Marcus (Sceptre, $122).

THE staples of an Irish writer's literary diet - famine, fighting, soil, sin and sex - have been replaced by an altogether different menu of cities, bombings, discos and safe sex.

Irish writers have been acclaimed worldwide for their short stories since early this century, but State of the Art offers readers a taste of Ireland over the past 25 years, as seen by a new generation of writers.

The book is devoted to the stories of those whose work did not begin to appear until the late 1960s and so much talent has grown from Irish soil that only those who had, by early 1991, published at least one collection of short stories were included by editor David Marcus.

The authors of stories in this richly varied collection draw on the fundamental changes in the pattern of Irish life from the late '60s onwards.

Inspiration comes from the economic shift from agriculture to industry, the migration from the country to the city, the arrival of television and a new era of education opening the hearts and minds of the people, and the effects of women's liberation on the perception of social and sexual issues.

The reign of terror of the religious teachers described in novels such as James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is replaced by tales of urban school and university life, while stints looking for work in Britain or Europe are the modern day alternatives to starvation-forced exile to America.

Particularly loud and clear in this collection is the voice of Irish women.

In Ireland, Catholicism is at the root of everyday life, and the two subjects most people identify with the religion are the church's blanket ban on abortion and any form of contraception other than the rhythm method.

Both subjects are tackled in stories such as Emma Cooke's A Family Occasion and Maeve Binchy's Shepherd's Bush.

Lesbian love and the reaction of men and women to women dancing together at a Friday night country dance is the subject of Mary Dorcey's A Country Dance, and an issue large in most women's minds, obesity, is brilliantly examined in Anne Enright's FatgirlTerrestrial, describing the life and loves of a fat woman who ''could never find herself a public man . . . the fact that she was fat might have something to do with it [though she had no trouble scoring]''.

This is a taste of some of the flavours of Ireland contained in this collection and there are plenty of stories worth sampling.