I remember vividly the first book of short stories that ever came my way. I was a teenager, on holiday from London, accompanying my mother on a trip to her childhood home in Dunlewey. The cottage was empty. Her parents had died decades earlier; their ten children had all emigrated and made their lives elsewhere. My uncle used to come for the summer when his children were young, but now he rented it to a judge from Dublin who came for occasional fishing trips.
A neighbour from the village kept the key for my uncle, and as the judge was not in residence he came with us so my mother could look inside the place where she grew up. Paddy Maire Mor was an old man then, but he would have witnessed the sadness of death and emigration that my mother's family had gone through, and he was aware of her feelings as she moved through the little cottage. As if to distract me from her melancholy, he drew my attention to a shelf of paperbacks by the door, and urged me to take one. I hesitated, not wanting to deplete the judge's holiday reading, but Paddy was insistent.
I have the book beside me now: "The Sphere Book of Modern Irish Short Stories", published in 1972, edited by David Marcus. I remember reading the stories from start to finish, an indiscriminate consumer of pages, unaware of the reputation of many of the writers. Some resonated with me at the time. I knew that Liam O'Flaherty's 'Going into Exile' described an American Wake like the one my mother remembered in the cottage in the 1930's when her eldest brother and sister emigrated, and I could recognise the tensions in Edna O'Brien's 'Cords': a daughter at home in London with a mother ill-at -ease there.
It's only now I recognise how this book was a launching pad for my enthusiasm for the Irish short story. In years to come, I sought out collections by Michael McLaverty and Brian Friel, having grown to love their stories in this collection. It was here I first read John McGahern, in an unforgettable and strange portrait of his father called 'The Bomb Box'.
I've returned to the stories over the years, and it's only recently that some have yielded their riches to me. Elizabeth Bowen's 'A Love Story; 1939' stands out now, but left my younger self unmoved. How could I have overlooked Mary Lavin's 'Happiness'? I joyfully rediscovered its complexity and emotional power during a recent browse, and it sent me on a quest for more. I'm delighted that I could order 'Tales From Bective Bridge' from Faber Finds, and even happier that it has just been delivered.
The book I acquired so long ago is still spurring me on and leading to new discoveries and pleasures.