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Opinion The Bell - the almost-forgotten Irish literary journal that 'took on the sacred cows'

Phyllis Boumans writes about why the literary journal The Bell was so important to Irish writing.

THE BELL WAS founded in 1940 by Sean O’Faolain, who was its first editor. It is regarded as one of Ireland’s most important literary and cultural magazines of the 20th century.

Its first issue included contributions from Flann O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Patrick Kavanagh and Jack B Yeats. Over the course of 14 years – Peadar O’Donnell edited the publication from 1946 to 1954 – The Bell had different subtitles, including A Survey of Irish Life, A Magazine of Creative Fiction, and A Magazine of Ireland Today, reflecting the breadth and variety of its concerns.

Now, one of Ireland’s leading 21st century literary magazines, The Stinging Fly has selected 18 stories from The Bell and asked 18 contemporary writers to respond to them. The anthology was published on 1 February.

The Bell is most often remembered as, as Edna Longley put it: “that bracing journal that took on all Irish sacred cows”. It was indeed a fairly progressive and liberal magazine, that sought to counter the conservative, Catholic and Irish Ireland rhetoric that monopolised public discourse in the first decades after independence, and it fought passionately against censorship. But the magazine also had important literary ambitions.

Editor Sean O’Faoláin wanted to fashion the country with a new literature, that befitted the new and independent modern Irish state. In a letter to Frank O’Connor, as they were discussing the founding of The Bell, O’Faoláin wrote: “Bit by bit we can spread ideas, create real standards, ones naturally growing out of Life and not out of Literature and Yeats and all that.”

The short story played an important role in this literary revitalisation project: for O’Faoláin, the short story was the genre best suited to capture Irish life as it actually was lived as an antidote to the idealism and woolly romanticism he felt had long been the dominant mode of writing in the world of Irish letters; “a short-story has chosen to lift some particular and special experience out of the maze of life for close diagnosis”, he wrote in one of his editorials.

He wanted the real stuff, Irish lived experience, “the stuff that is alive and kicking”, as he put it. In a letter to James Plunkett he complained of the number of sentimental stories he received – stories that had little to do with the carefully observed and personally felt reflections of daily Irish life he called for – “you wouldn’t believe how many stories about fiddlers I get,” he wrote.

The Bell had a particular view as to what the short story in Ireland should look like; one that it often imposed on its contributors. For O’Faoláin, the short story was a modern art, far removed from the tale tradition, the conventions of which he thought were primitive: as we become more sophisticated, he argued – in a somewhat patronising tone – we want to go a little deeper.

Short stories

The magazine particularly targeted aspiring writers who would have been more susceptible to O’Faoláin’s interventions and were thus more likely to imbibe them. In a series of essays called “The Craft of the Short Story”, O’Faoláin instructed his readers how to appreciate the art of the modern short story, and encouraged writers to adopt modernist techniques such as suggestion, compression, ellipsis.

In his “New Writers” series, he provided instructive commentary on the stories selected for publication. “Preserve a sense of irony,” he’d say, or “note how every detail is carefully observed and well directed towards its object.”

If O’Faoláin paid more attention to the form writing should take, his co-editor Peadar O’Donnell was more interested in the civic uses of literature; and encouraged writers to shed light on those aspects where the modern state failed to deliver; this view of the role of the writer particularly found resonance with James Plunkett, one of The Bell’s top contributors; they often met at Bewley’s to discuss Plunkett’s stories.

Though at times, O’Donnell’s literary views appeared somewhat incompatible with the way the short story was practised in The Bell; the way it favoured the unexplained, the undidactic, the inconclusive.

Still, inclusion in The Bell was the fastest route to literary recognition for Irish short story writers at that time. Bryan MacMahon, Mary Beckett, Val Mulkerns and James Plunkett in particular benefited much from the mentorship they received through The Bell; and the magazine proved instrumental in framing the short story as a realist and Irish national genre, one that dealt specifically with Irish lived experience, and questions of identity and nationhood; a very normative understanding of the genre of course, one that has in recent decades been broken open to allow for more diversity and more voices.

The Bell published more than 200 short stories throughout its lifespan, 18 of which are included in The Writer’s Torch anthology. The stories we selected each in their own way reflect the short fiction published in The Bell.

In our selection, we tried to raise the ratio of women writers. In spite of The Bell’s inclusive and progressive credentials, it was an uncongenial place for women writers – out of the roughly 220 stories it published, only 30 were by women. The editors were clearly less willing to perform their roles as cultivators of new talent typical of periodical publication when it came to women apprentices.

The women who did make it into The Bell, often already had a number of publications to their name. It is clear that the bar was raised for women, and as a result, many of their stories were of exceptional quality. In addition to Mary Beckett, Mary Lavin and Mulkerns, we also included stories by Margaret Barrington, Kate O’Brien, Olivia Manning Robertson and Elizabeth Bowen.

These stories are not only interesting for the light they shed on a largely forgotten archive of texts; or for the light they shed on mid-twentieth-century literary culture at large. They are also given new relevance and resonance through the responses of our 18 contemporary writers.

The Writer’s Torch is available in bookshops now,

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