Story collection shows the subtle side of novelist MacLaverty; Secrets, by Bernard MacLaverty. New York: Viking. 130 pp. $13.95.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that all but a handful of the masters of the modern short story in English are either Irish or American, or a combination of the two.

Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon - Frank O'Connor once tried to explain it by arguing that the short story thrives only in cultures containing what he called ''submerged population groups,'' and Ireland certainly has its fair share of these - the short story has continued to flourish in contemporary Irish writing. The older generation that brought the Irish short story international recognition in the 1940s - Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, and Elizabeth Bowen, for example - has given way in recent years to an impressive group of new writers like John McGahern, William Trevor, and Aidan Higgins, who have more than carried on the tradition.

Bernard MacLaverty is known chiefly in the United States for his two novels - ''Lamb'' (1980) and, more notably, ''Cal'' (1983), a book that takes as its background the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and received a surprising amount of critical acclaim. But MacLaverty started with the short story; his first book was ''Secrets'' a collection of stories published in Ireland in 1977 and now being brought out in the US.

The MacLaverty who emerges from these stories seems rather different from the author of ''Lamb'' and ''Cal.'' Both novels depend heavily on strong narrative lines leading to startling and violent conclusions, but the stories are more subtle, more delicate affairs. In them plot is played down, and characterization , setting, and theme are sketched in with a decidedly impressionistic hand. Although a number of these pieces never get beyond the stage of a sketch, the collection does contain several stories that should earn MacLaverty a place in the same league with the more widely known short-story writers of his generation.

Many of these stories take place in Belfast, MacLaverty's birthplace and the setting for ''Cal.'' They are not, however, political stories; they tend to focus on ordinary people caught in lives of quiet desperation or pathetic fantasy - housewives whose marriages and families have stranded them in domestic frustration, drunkards looking in a bottle for relief from hopelessness, an unmarried schoolteacher who tries, unsuccessfully, to get over the death of his mother by finding a girlfriend, a maiden aunt whose youthful love affair survives only in a tattered bundle of yellowing letters.

The protagonist of perhaps the best story, ''Between Two Shores,'' is somewhat typical in recognizing that his life has somehow gone astray. Working in England and making periodic visits to his family in Ireland, he has been unfaithful to his wife, and, as a result, has contracted syphilis. The story is told with characteristic economy. It takes place on the boat to Ireland, and the final paragraph, describing the boat's arrival, exemplifies MacLaverty's ability to use imagery to convey feelings of hopelessness and of fear: ''Objects on the shore began to become distinct through the mist. Gasometers, chimney-stacks, railway trucks. They looked washed out, a putty grey against the pale lumps of the hills. Cars were moving and then he made out people hurrying to work. He closed his eyes and put his head down on his arms. Indistinctly at first, but with growing clarity, he heard the sound of an ambulance.''

Working in a tradition shaped by Joyce's ''Dubliners,'' MacLaverty does manage at times to get out from under Joyce's shadow, and, by absorbing Joyce's vision and style into his own art, create short stories that explore what one character in a MacLaverty story calls ''the lines in the spectrum between pity and sympathy.''

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