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Home Uncategorized Discovering Shan Bullock

Discovering Shan Bullock

Patrick Maume
The Awkward Squads and Selected Short Stories, by Shan Bullock, Turnpike Books, 160 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-0957233645 Before Eugene McCabe and John McGahern, Shan Bullock (1865-1935) wrote of the provincial hardships, religious tensions, and father-son conflicts of small farming society in the borderlands of South Ulster and North Leinster. Bullock has always had admirers, such as the late Benedict Kiely and the folklorist Henry Glassie, but his full significance has not been recognised, partly because most of his works had only small print runs and are difficult to obtain. He lamented in private correspondence that he was caught between the English, who were not interested in Irish stories, and the Irish reading public, who were not interested in literary fiction. Bullock’s books came out of copyright in 2005, and Turnpike Books are trying to make them more widely available in handsomely produced paperback reprints with a succinct and useful biographical note. After reproducing Bullock’s last and most powerful novel, The Loughsiders (1924), in 2011, they now give us this selection of short stories from his three collections, The Awkward Squads (1893), Ring o’ Rushes (1896), and Irish Pastorals (1901). It might have been better to have given the selection a different title to avoid confusion with the first collection, and Irish Pastorals, generally regarded as the strongest of the three (Glassie calls it one of the finest literary depictions of rural decline), is represented here only by the grim and powerful story “The Herd”; but since Irish Pastorals is built around a group of interlocking stories concerning various types of hard labour undertaken at the different points in the cycle of the small farmer’s year, it might have been difficult to excerpt. To a considerable extent, however, this selection provides a microcosm of Bullock’s work, which centred on re-examining and recreating the rural and small town Fermanagh of his youth by implied contrast with the London suburbia where he spent his adult life as a civil service clerk (supplementing his income with journalism, including a regular literary column in the Chicago Evening Post, where he expressed his admiration for George Gissing). Bullock is best appreciated when several books are read together; characters such as the cunning loughside farmer Henry Marvin and the brutal ex-militiaman Terry Fitch (both of whom feature in the title story of this collection) reappear in several of his novels, and subtle social gradations of farmer and labourer are indicated throughout the oeuvre. The rest of this review will provide…

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