Frank O'Connor 1903–1966
(Pseudonym of Michael John O'Donovan) Irish short story writer, novelist, critic, editor, and translator of ancient Gaelic works.
O'Connor is often referred to as a master of the short story. An outstanding craftsman, he skillfully manipulates plot to bring his characters and stories to life. O'Connor is distinctly Irish in his settings and in his skill at "spinning a tale," but he is universal in his ability to capture those moments of crisis in the lives of ordinary people which transform them and ultimately change the course of their lives.
William Butler Yeats encouraged O'Connor and credited him with "doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia."
(See also CLC, Vol. 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
In ["Domestic Relations"] Frank O'Connor proves once again his extraordinary mastery of the short-story form. As always, the settings, the characters, the rhythms of the prose, are unmistakably—and delightfully—Irish. Yet, fundamentally, these are not Irish stories. O'Connor is concerned with those critical moments when the course of life is suddenly, often radically, changed, when nothing is ever quite the same again. In such moments as these it is the human condition that is illuminated.
Of the fifteen stories in the book, roughly half are concerned with childhood and youth, several are comic, and all are written with an acute, but always affectionate awareness of human vanity and weakness. The humor is superb….
Yet even when he is most amusing, O'Connor's eye is always focused on that experience which presently will transform the life of his character. The youth in "Daydreams" is a wonderfully comic figure but, by the story's end, his whole pattern of existence has been altered.
The stories in "Domestic Relations" are, I think, rather different in tone from some of O'Connor's earlier writings. There is none of that wild, primitive loneliness which found so immediate a response in the reader's heart. These tales are more controlled; a greater effort is required not so much to understand as to "feel" the importance of what has happened. A boy in school finds that the food parcels he thought were coming from his mother are being sent, out of pity, by the mother of one of his friends. There is nothing wild or primitive in this. Yet, ultimately, this boy's loneliness is both real and deep. It is a tribute to O'Connor's artistry that he can create a sense of scale even in this ordinary, familiar life we know.
In a sense, all this is to be expected. For Frank O'Connor, as both artist and craftsman, stands in the very front rank of modern story-tellers. And, beyond art and craft, what he has given us is an example of how amiably, how decently an understanding man can make his peace with life.
Richard T. Gill, "Moments of Change," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 22, 1957, p. 5.
Most of the stories in [Domestic Relations] appeared originally in the New Yorker, where they served to confound those who criticize that magazine's fiction as a monolithic agglomeration of memoirs of dull and surly childhoods…. Mr. O'Connor, to be sure, is fond of recalling his own childhood, but he does it with enough verve and enough sense of "story" to make it palatable. In many ways Mr. O'Connor is a natural New Yorker writer. He is urbane and witty and he instinctively avoids those shrill and harsh notes that—well, that wouldn't go in a humorous magazine is probably the most honest way of putting it.
Mr. O'Connor is so urbane, come to think of it, that one is hard put to explain why he is so splendid an artist. One is inclined to be a little suspicious of so much charm. And perhaps Mr. O'Connor does at times let his charm carry him a little further than his other talents would take him. But we cannot justly quarrel with what he chooses to use as a paddle so long as it gets him where he's going. All possible strictures aside, he remains a superlative story-teller.
The reasons for his excellence are most discreetly inconspicuous in his work. His stories are as unassuming and as effortless as across-the-bar or over-the-back-fence gossip. He admits to aiming consciously for this effect—of avoiding the "literary," the line that does not read aloud naturally and conversationally. This effort has resulted in a superbly clean and lean style, with none of the "poetic" passages, sentimental moralizing and melancholy posturing so dear to some Irish writers.
His stories move. When...
(The entire section is 681 words.)
The first volume of Frank O'Connor's autobiography (An Only Child, 1961) was the story of young Michael Francis O'Donovan…. That story began in the back lanes of Cork in 1903 and ended with the young man's release, courtesy of the Irish Free State, from an internment camp in 1923. This second, posthumous volume [My Father's Son] picks up the story at that point and brings it forward in time, though with no apparent regard for chronology, to the eve of the Second World War—or, to use O'Connor's own measure of his days upon earth, to the death of Yeats early in 1939. (p. 668)
Yeats is more fully sketched (it is by no means a full portrait) than any of the other figures whom O'Connor here assembles, and occasionally disassembles: AE, Robinson, Osborn Bergin, Geoffrey Phibbs and a dozen others whom he came to know as he made his way up in the world. This was the world of Dublin in the last years of the literary revival, very much a man's world and, as Joyce would have it, all too Irish.
The young provincial-turned-librarian … was eventually co-opted onto the board of directors of the Abbey Theatre, its great days already part of memory, and the last half of his autobiography is devoted in large part to still another account, more personally rancorous than most, of the feuds and infighting that went on in and out of the Green Room among assorted actors, directors, producers, poets and playwrights....
(The entire section is 402 words.)
At the time of his death in 1966, Frank O'Connor was generally regarded as an authority on the short story and one of the century's foremost practitioners of the genre. O'Connor's subjects are indeed many and varied; but a student of his entire canon cannot fail to be impressed with the extent to which he concerned himself with the Irish Revolution of 1916–1923. What is perhaps most surprising is that his interest in the conflict was not confined to his first book (which deals almost exclusively with it)—it was lifelong.
The Revolution consisted of first a war of independence with the British, and then a bloody Civil War between the diehard Republicans and those less adamant Irishmen who were willing to accept British Dominion Status as the Irish Free State. It was the formative milieu of a new generation of writers, of whom the most distinguished were Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, and O'Connor. All three men fought on the Republican side in the Civil War, but soon relinquished their political ideals; later they wrote stories and novels dealing with their experiences as soldiers. Their disgust with the War and the violent narrow-mindedness that encouraged it led them to criticism, satire, and at times invective. O'Connor shared his generation's critical outlook, but his contribution to the literature of the Revolution is unique in that his detachment manifested itself principally in comedy. Politics and revolution, subjects which have always made Irishmen curse, made O'Connor laugh. (p. 108)
A revealing parallel is to be found in the Russian Revolution, and in the short stories of the writer whom O'Connor claims as the "man who has influenced me most," Isaac Babel. Babel's stories are not comic, of course, but there is in them the same sense of detachment, of being a scholarly outsider, that characterizes O'Connor's view of the Irish Revolution. (p. 109)
O'Connor's greatest debt to Babel is apparent in his first book, Guests of the Nation …, his only collection of stories to center upon the Irish Revolution. These pieces are among the first works of fiction that O'Connor wrote, and in some ways the book is disappointing. When he was assembling a selected edition of his stories in the early fifties, he included only one story from Guests, stating flatly in the preface that he finds the book inferior. Such an attitude toward one's early work is not uncommon, however, and need not be taken as altogether justified. Many of the stories are, to be sure, clumsy efforts, but others are as fine as any he ever wrote. The book was...
(The entire section is 1066 words.)
[Some] of O'Connor's public experiences, first in the guerilla war and then in the Civil War, serve as a clear inspiration to some sixteen stories, most of which appear in his collection Guests of the Nation. In these stories, he argues the meaning of these experiences, seeking to express, artistically, the reaction of his countrymen to the agonies at the birth of their nation.
This collection, O'Connor carefully notes, was originally written "under the influence of the great Jewish story teller Isaac Babel," by which, he means, of course, Babel's Red Cavalry. Yet that O'Connor, who read widely in European literature, should, of all authors, come under the influence of Babel is not, on...
(The entire section is 1879 words.)
The violence and idealism of the events of 1916 to 1923 created in Ireland a mood of national hysteria. At least that was the voice heard by O'Connor trying to capture those events in prose six years after. In fact, the two extremes between which Guests of the Nation vacillates are hysteria and melancholy, between thoughtless act and numbed thoughtfulness. Benedict Kiely detected in these stories a "genuine bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn-to-be-alive romanticism," an adolescent enjoyment of the guns, the ambushes, the flying-columns. Indeed, this hysterical romanticism swirls across the surface of all but the last four stories.
"Jumbo's Wife," "Alec," and "Machine-Gun Corps in Action" are examples...
(The entire section is 1820 words.)
The earliest story in The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland goes back to 1926; the latest—"The Grip of the Geraghtys"—is the one O'Connor was working on when he died. What's immediately striking about all of them [in this group of previously uncollected stories] is a kind of narrative vigour and flamboyance; no more than two or three are downcast and restrained, and even these have wrought-up moments…. The title story's exuberance is tempered with ruefulness: it presents a child's view of faction-fighting and the sorry predicament of a cornet-player tormented by opposing loyalties—to the band, and to his political leader.
It is a characteristic device of O'Connor's to avoid emotional...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
Frank O'Connor belongs with William Carleton, Sheridan Le Fanu, James Stephens, George Moore, Somerville and Ross—Irish writers who achieved their greatest distinction with their short stories…. What is it about this fictional form that so profitably attracts the Irish? Since the work of Frank O'Connor lies at the very heart of the modern story in Ireland, it is a question that may at least be dwelt upon before turning to [his Collected Stories]….
[The short story] is the art of the glimpse; it deals in echoes and reverberations; craftily it withholds information. Novels tell all. Short stories tell as little as they dare. (p. 1)
[It] has often been said that the Irish...
(The entire section is 610 words.)
O'Connor was never at home in [the 20th century]. He read Proust, Lawrence and Joyce, but with the admiration that is consistent with suspicion and a determination to go his own way. Modernism interested him as something to keep well way from. He distrusted every technique except the ones he inherited from the 19th-century masters and, according to his own light, practiced. He never doubted that reality was what his eyes and ears told him it was. He did not think that memory and imagination were one and the same, but he has little time for any form of imagination that could not be verified by paying attention to what people did and said.
O'Connor tried his hand at nearly every literary form, but he...
(The entire section is 723 words.)
Attempting to explain the Irish affinity for the short story, critics have been overly fond of the shanachie. Thus the potato-headed condescension from Charles Poore decorating the jacket of Frank O'Connor's Collected Stories: "One of the great Irish storytellers…." Not so. Though O'Connor often read his stories over Irish national radio, he was one of the great Irish story writers, a compulsive and even finicky craftsman who put a ten-page tale through thirty or forty drafts before letting it escape him, and that for only a moment or so. Rather like Auden endlessly tinkering among his poems, O'Connor took each major republication of his work as a chance to sneak in yet another revision. There...
(The entire section is 710 words.)