Old Swords and Other Stories

by Desmond Hogan

“Follow me down to the place beside the garden and the wall, Follow me down to the space before the twilight and the dawn” – Van Morrison. In the long gone days of the Irish Press’s New Irish Writing page forty years ago Des Hogan’s talent first caught attention and in Trinity Lecturer Heather Ingman’s ‘A History of the Irish Short Story’ he is referenced alongside McGahern and Trevor as being one of the important practitioners of that most difficult craft though then his stories were more conventional in form and more immediately accessible. This collection gathers together pieces that have recently appeared in magazines, and a new piece Oystercatcher (A coastal wading bird) where the writing is a tour de force of incident, irony, poetic imagery; Furry clusters of spikenard in the earth, gum on myrrh-tree trunks, cedars, lilies; fields of opium poppies; blue mosques; dromedaries–post-camels; karakul – the Persian lamb – sheep with dark curled fleece; playing polo with a headless calf; dog fights; bodies on biers; women in blue burkas – full-length hooded garments; some with shawl on head, the folds of which they hold; men in sheepskin coats and Ali Baba turbans and shoes; lapis lazuli; the white spotted deer; Parnassian butterfly, translucent white wings with dark markings, red and yellow spots on hind wings. Hadn’t Bagoas played his harp of tortoiseshell and boxwood with ivory keys for Alexander the Great in this land?

It switches from Tralee to Afghanistan and back to Tralee and the empty promise outside Funland. In ‘The Hare’s Purse’ he deals with the 1957 deaths of Fergal O’Hanlon and Sean South who died in the aftermath of a raid on Brookeborough police station in Co Fermanagh. His method is to present facts and their juxtaposition and accumulation tells the story. This technique is very effective here, though not so in other pieces, like the title story, where it outstays its welcome. Des does hours of research and most times it pays off. He has a lot of trouble keeping his bicycle safe. He is interested in Premiership Soccer teams, Italian Painters, Rock and Movie stars, Irish Showbands, social outcasts and the ever present Travellers. His ‘Party Piece’ gets two mentions; about the time he was accused of something or other at a Dublin party. I suppose we all have obsessions.

What is great about him though are the dazzling set piece sentences. In one of the other highlights Little Friends Ailve is described thus – She finished at the Sorbonne, returned to Kerry, but not before, like St Gobnait, she showed her legs, making love to American GIs with skin felted like the wild raspberry, hair blonde as canary grass, who had the mock orange of Idaho or the flowering dogwood of North Carolina embroidered on their uniforms; Japanese tourists who wore Jean-Paul Sartre jackets; not to mention wealthy Parisian bachelors who wore glove-fitting jeans, in apartments on the boulevard des Italiens, avenue de L’Opera, boulevard Montmartre. Like Van Morrison and Aidan Higgins, Des Hogan follows his crazy muse without compromise.

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