Philip MacCann

Born:
  • Manchester, England
Publishers:

Biography

Philip MacCann was born in Manchester, England in 1966. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin and studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia where he was taught by Malcolm Bradbury. He was British Council Writer in Residence at the Swedish University in Finland and in 2000 he won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for an essay about Finland entitled Paradox in Paradise. His first book, The Miracle Shed (1995), a collection of short stories, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and MacCann was named in The Observer newspaper's list of '21 Writers for the Twenty-First Century' published in 1999. He is a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers including The Guardian, Prospect and The Spectator and his short stories have been published in many anthologies as well as in journals and magazines including Granta and the New Yorker. He is currently working on a new book.

Critical perspective

In the mid-1990s Philip MacCann emerged as one of Britain’s most original writers, a talent to watch.

His debut collection of short stories, The Miracle Shed (1995), seemed to break new ground in the UK (where the short story has been historically regarded as an apprenticeship form), immediately securing MacCann’s status as a mature, fully-fledged voice with what the Times Literary Supplement called ‘implicit philosophical and political integrity’.

However, MacCann’s precocious literary talent remains untested fifteen years on, with his output limited mainly to occasional journalism and essays, most notably his prize-winning article, ‘Paradox in Paradise’ (2000), which is based on his time in Finland. Trawl through the internet and you could be forgiven for thinking that MacCann has turned his back on a literary career. Yet, MacCann’s distance from publicity and the promotional machine would appear chosen, rather than enforced. Either way, his early short stories remain critically neglected, all but forgotten by the academy, and this is regrettable, because these stories have unquestionably stood the test of time.

The Miracle Shed brings together MacCann’s new and previously published fiction from the early 1990s, works that first appeared in high-profile magazines and collections on both sides of the Atlantic, from The New Yorker to New Writing. These transatlantic publications are symptomatic of MacCann’s international perspective. As Jason Cowley noted in an early review of The Miracle Shed for The Independent: ‘[MacCann is] a trenchant critic of Irish nationalism, [and] has written scathingly of the failure of many contemporary Irish writers to see beyond their own local identities and introverted anxieties.’ It is this outward-looking perspective, his impatience with the insular, that connects him with a long literary tradition of exiled or alienated Irish writing epitomised by James Joyce.

Like Joyce’s own debut collection of short stories, Dubliners, MacCann’s The Miracle Shed exploits the brevity and economy of the short story form in a way that elevates prose to the level of the poetic. Here is the opening of one of his most memorable stories, ‘Tender’:

'I just recently have cut through Hardwicke Street. A person can’t just forget this inner city. I was on my way to my pal’s place and I cut in. Stay with me. A person in the first place says what comes to them, those things that make up their lifestyle, like walking down Hardwicke Street one evening for something to do. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t looking for something to love. That’s not me. This slum was wearing the blue-black punched out by the lamps, but with a dignity that I can believe is the start of poems. Pearliness.'

MacCann’s distinctive voice combines the spiritual and the worldly, the physical and psychic, abstraction and realism in a way that jars the reader out of complacency, defamiliarising an otherwise familiar urban scene. In the lines above, the subliminal violence of the inner city is also rendered tender, it is aestheticised and made beautiful. Belfast and Dublin heighten the sensations of MacCann’s narrators, inducing in them a form of synesthesia whereby colours smell, and smells are coloured. MacCann is a modernist at heart: in each of his stories, plot is subordinate to psychological impressionism, mental associations, and stream of consciousness.

The heroes and anti-heroes of The Miracle Shed are marginal, dispossessed or powerless figures living on the peripheries: the slums, ghettos and waste lands of inner city Ireland. In ‘Grey Area’ a boy is taken to a high-rise flat and abused by a paedophile. The aimless young men of ‘Tender’ go in search of artificial highs on the outskirts of a wasted Belfast. In ‘The Miracle Shed’ the homeless young characters work at a fairground to fund their daily fantasies of a better world, an otherworldly universe. In all of these stories the title of Frank O'Connor’s pioneering study of the modern short story springs to mind: The Lonely Voice (1962). O'Connor, himself a renowned Irish short story writer, argued that the short story form shared a strong affinity with what he called the ‘submerged population group’:

'The short story has never had a hero … What it has instead is a submerged population group – a bad phrase which I have had to use for want of a better. That submerged population changes from writer to writer, from generation to generation … it does not mean mere material squalor, though this is often a characteristic of the submerged population groups. Ultimately it seems to mean defeat inflicted by a society that has no sign posts, a society that offers no goals and no answers … Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo … the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent’

In ‘The Miracle Shed’ the drifting characters who move into a beach lock up (the shed of title) are the embodiment of this submerged group. Trace is a homeless kid who was previously drawn into strange sexual acts with her sister. The background of the character they call Restless One is never divulged, but clearly self-evident. Cy is a Zen convert, obsessed with repairing a clapped out 2CV. Cosmo is a friendless figure, old before his time. Together these eccentrics inhabit a society without goals or answers, their daily lives are directionless, and overshadowed by a sense of imminent apocalypse. Yet there is something more than what O'Connor calls ‘defeat’ about their daily lives. There is also a dignity, and tenacity, an ability to dream, that offers the possibility of hope and redemption in the future. MacCann is more than what Jason Cowley suggests - a writer ‘of only one tone: a furious morbidity’ – rather his writing displays what the Antoni Gramsci would have called ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’.

Dr James Procter, 2010

Bibliography

Brandon Book of Irish Short Stories
The Miracle Shed
Winter's Tales 11
Winter's Tales 10
New Writing 3
First Fictions
New Writing 1

Awards

2000
Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize
1995
Rooney Prize for Irish Literature