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Writer Mary O'Donoghue. Photo: James McNaughton.

Tales of transit in ‘The Hour After Happy Hour’

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A HANDWRITTEN message from one Clare author to another has proven to be both a mystery and an inspiration for writer, Mary O’Donoghue.

The North Clare woman, who is to launch a new collection of short stories in the coming days, met Tuamgraney’s Edna O’Brien in Boston at a public reading event in 2011. More than a decade later, Mary is an established writer herself, and still fondly wonders about a message from Edna which remains undeciphered. “Edna was just marvellous and she signed my book, and, to this day, there’s one little part of her message to me that I can’t read,” Mary explained. “She has lovely copperplate handwriting and I’ve shown it to a number of people, but there’s one little part that we’re never sure what that says. I kind of like not knowing what that is. The book has an even more mysterious quality for that reason. I’m an ardent fan of Edna and of her work. The books in the recent years have been amazing.”

Mary is a much-published writer, with two poetry collections from Salmon Poetry and Dedalus Press; and a novel entitled Before the House Burns, from Lilliput Press. Her latest short story collection The Hour After Happy Hour, is published by Stinging Fly Press, with some of the stories previously appearing in literary magazines and journals. Now resident in Tuscaloosa in Alabama, Mary and her husband James return to Ireland in the summer, and this year sees Mary launch the collection in Dublin and Galway. 

A native of the parish of Kilkeedy, on the edge of the Burren, Mary attended secondary school in St Joseph’s Convent in Gort where her love of English was fostered by a favourite teacher, Eileen Mulkerrins. She graduated from the University of Galway with a BA and an MPhil and has lived in the United States for just over 20 years, in Massachusetts and Alabama, teaching writing and literature.

As a writer, poetry was Mary’s first calling. She trained in its techniques and has also translated the work of other poets, including Louis de Paor, Seán Ó Ríordáin and Colm Breathnach. Her translations are published in several dual-language volumes from Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Bloodaxe Books, and Yale University Press. Mary believes that translation keeps her in conversation with a language she’s ever in danger of losing, but always fighting to retain. 

The move to prose and short fiction was a gradual one. “I became increasingly drawn to prose to trying to write prose,” she said. “I started to take short fiction very seriously as a form and a craft. So, I think poetry then kind of became quieter in me. And also, I think, I realised that there are other poets that just are better poets. I decided to leave it to the better artists and to see what I could do in fiction.”

The discipline of the short story was also an attractive, but challenging prospect. “It’s probably that lack of closure that I’m drawn to. If there are only five or 10 pages, in which to achieve an ambitions, or to explore a theme, then I think it makes the form more resonant after the ending. It makes it more mysterious, because not everything can go in. I really like the compression of the form. I think a lot of writers would would say that.”

Mary’s skill with language is also something that transfers from poetry to prose. “I think I have tried to bring the same economy with language to my fiction,” she said. “Poetry asks you to put a lot of pressure on language. I also kind of lift up my sentences and fiction and ask if they can withstand the test of a poetry line.”

Precarity and time are among the themes in the stories in The Hour After Happy Hour. “The title,” she explains, “comes from a line in one of the stories, ‘We arrive the hour after Happy Hour’. I wanted to have something a little oblique. It came to mind because of the significance of this particular time. There’s the sense of having missed out or, perhaps, saved yourself from something. There is a suggestion of disappointment as well. Fiction likes disappointment. Short fiction, in particular, really likes disappointment and things going a little bit wrong, not disastrously wrong – just enough to reflect the real disappointments of life.”

Written over the course of a decade, the stories are also connected by themes of “transit, limbo states, immigration and exile”. One of Mary’s personal favourite stories, written before the pandemic, is set, presciently, in the online environment. “I like the resonance that that story continues to have,” she said. “After Covid, I was looking at it and realised it means something different now. It looks at how things can go wrong online and it challenged me to figure out how to manage characters, I really enjoyed that as an exercise in managing speakers.”

The story also features a host of characters from academia, a world with which Mary is very familiar, as a professor of English at Babson College “I’ve always taught college-level writing, like the composition, and research, writing, and then also creative writing,” she said. “I teach fiction writing and literature classes as well. This past Spring, my teaching changed, in in really, really rich way, because I taught for a semester at Villanova University. I was the Heimbold Board Chair of Irish Studies, so I got to teach much more in my wheelhouse and it was a bit of a homecoming.”

A strong supporter of independent publishing and literary magazines, Mary is proud to hold the position of senior fiction editor at the Boston-based AGNI. This literary magazine has been going strong for 50 years—an incredible length of time in publishing. At AGNI Mary seeks out and champions experimental fiction, underrepresented writers, and sterling sentences. She also believes in what she calls ‘journeyperson’ writers—writers who have been in the game a long time but perhaps gone quiet; she wants to bring them in from the cold. 

Mary is married to the Irish modernist scholar James McNaughton, who teaches at the University of Alabama, and she is stepmother to fifteen-year-old Niamh. They make their home in Tuscaloosa in Alabama. Together they return to Ireland each summer, taking in Clare, Galway, Antrim, and many points between.

The Hour After Happy Hour was published on July 4, and is available in paperback and as a limited-edition hardback. The Galway launch takes place in Charlie Byrnes on Saturday, July 8, at 6pm. 

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