Book review: Sifting

IN Sifting, Mike Mac Domhnaill’s striking first short story collection, the present is tattooed with the scars and marks of the past. 

Uncle Ned and Other Stories

Mike Mac Domhnaill

Liberties Press, €12.99

Driving these narratives are recollections of people and random details dredged from bygone days, that make a sudden mockery of the notion of time and its passing. 

History, it seems, is constantly pressing against the surface of a world where little has changed since the time of the Famine, or the Black and Tans.

Some, the more abstract offerings, like ‘Writing for Joan’, ‘You Give Witness’, the impressive Famine workhouse re-imagining, ‘The Chalice’, and ‘Uncle Ned’ — which won RTÉ Radio’s Francis MacManus Award in 2013 — have a stream-of-consciousness feel that appears freewheeling and scatter-shot but which is in fact meticulously controlled, with each sentence and even each word laid down with great care and intent. 

Mac Domhnaill is an accomplished stylist, and these are among the pieces that boast the rhythms and musical lilt of prose poetry. 

They demand close reading, and reflection, because the meanings are not always immediately apparent, but they are well worth the extra attention, and mesh very well with the more traditional — and only slightly more straightforward — narratives.

‘Uncle Malachy’ paints, in three short diary entries, a portrait of a middle-aged priest, a man with a prodigious appetite for the comforts of easy living but who soothes soul and possibly conscience with the “cracked talk” of retiring from his teaching post to take up chaplain duties for the IRA, his head full of long-ago romance stories connected with the Flying Columns.

‘Felix’ unfurls memories of homosexual yearnings, and friendship, at a time and place when such identity was anathema.

And there is ‘Acquiescence’, a fine story that explores the clash of old ways and new: a young husband and wife, Tadhg and Kitty, have taken control of the wife’s father’s farm. The old man reads signs of storms in the behaviour of the crows and dung beetles, but Tadhg has no tolerance for such talk. 

Furthermore, he has plans to clear the top field of its Fairy Fort, which has lain untouched for generations, a suggestion that causes Kitty deep upset, for reasons of her own.

The book’s two most subtle and affecting stories are ‘Fog’ and ‘No Return’. ‘Fog’ recreates an under 12s hurling match organised between a local team and the volatile inmates of the nearby industrial school, where one of the village’s children, Timmo, has been sent.

 The story then leaps forward in time to Christmas Eve, when Timmo, now grown up, falls drunkenly into a river and is nearly drowned.

And in ‘No Return’, Brenny English meets an old flame, Gracey, in a local pub. She still looks good, though the years since their youth have not run smoothly for her. 

Now separated, and with a reputation for promiscuity, she opens up about her childhood of abuse. Brenny listens, longing to confess a similar experience of his own, but there is no room for such words.

The author has an obvious fascination with people, and an acceptance of their flaws and virtues, as well as an innate understanding of how lives connect and are drawn asunder.

This accounts for the many stand-outs among the 15 stories that comprise this collection. All share the deep connection to place and past and are pitched against the strictures of society; all are hunched by damage witnessed, overheard or borne. 

Most importantly, all boast the kind of authenticity that can’t be mimed, defined by slow, idiomatic dialogue and natural countryside repressions, the rage, violence and frustration of high hopes compressed and often beaten down into small lives. Sifting is a most impressive first collection.


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