Seán O'Faoláin 1900-1991
(Born John Francis Whelan) Irish short story writer, novelist, biographer, nonfiction writer, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism on O'Faoláin's works from 1984 through 2000. For criticism prior to 1984, see CLC, Volumes 1, 7, 14, 32; for an obituary entry of O'Faoláin, see CLC, Volume 70.
O'Faoláin, an important contributor to the Irish literary renaissance, wrote in several genres but is considered a master of the short story. His reform spirit and romantic idealism are evident in his tales of the Irish people during stormy political times.
Born John Francis Whelan on February 22, 1900, in the southern Irish city of Cork, O'Faoláin changed his name to its Gaelic form. His parents were British sympathizers, but O'Faoláin became enamored of the cause of Irish independence following the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Eventually, although he was not involved in violent activities, he joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and became its publicity director. In 1921 he earned a B.A. in English from the University College at Cork. After the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the defeat of the Republicans in 1923, he earned two M.A. degrees, in Irish and English, from University College in 1925 and 1926. Unhappy with Irish politics and the Catholic Church's negative attitude toward the Republicans, O'Faoláin received an academic fellowship and went to the United States to study at Harvard University. In 1928, he married Eileen Gould, an Irish woman and IRA comrade, with whom he later had two children. He earned yet another degree in comparative philology at Harvard in 1929 and taught at Princeton University and Boston College before returning to Ireland the same year. He taught at St. Mary's College in Middlesex, England, from 1929 to 1933. O'Faoláin continued to write in various genres, also founding and editing the Irish literary journal The Bell. After 1946 he devoted himself to purely literary work, including fiction, biography, criticism, and literary journalism. In the 1950s he embarked on several successful lecture tours in the United States, where he became a well-loved literary figure. O'Faoláin died on April, 20 1991, in Dublin.
O'Faoláin's first book of short stories, Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories (1932), grew out of his experiences during the Irish Civil War. His The Life Story of Eamon De Valera, (1933) Constance Markievicz (1934), King of the Beggars: A Life of Daniel O'Connell (1938), and The Great O'Neill: A Biography of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone (1942) all chronicle the lives of important figures in Irish history. During the thirties and forties he also produced a number of works of fiction, including the novels A Nest of Simple Folk (1933), Bird Alone (1936), and Come Back to Erin (1940), as well as several short story collections—The Born Genius (1936), A Purse of Coppers (1937), and Teresa, and Other Stories (1947). While balancing his editor's responsibilities at The Bell, O'Faoláin also published travel books and a work of history, The Story of Ireland (1943). O'Faoláin's literary output continued unabated during the 1950s through the 1970s with the publication of more travel books, a book of criticism, an autobiography (Vive Moi! ), and a number of collections of short stories—I Remember! I Remember! (1961), The Heat of the Sun (1966), The Talking Trees, and Other Stories (1970), and Selected Stories (1978). His final novel, And Again? (1979), tells the story of a man who is allowed to live his life over. O'Faoláin's last book was The Collected Stories (1980-1982).
Critics favorable to O'Faoláin have lamented the fact that many of his works are out of print, partly because he has not achieved the stature of other Irish authors such as Frank O'Connor or Seán O'Casey. Yet O'Faoláin has been granted an important place in Irish literature because of his depictions of the Irish revolutionary spirit, his evocative explorations of the psyche of the Irish people, and his skillful interweaving of Ireland's past and present. A number of critics have pointed to the way O'Faoláin incorporated his own experiences into his fictional characterizations in an attempt to define the human character in all its contradictions.
Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories (short stories) 1932
The Life Story of Eamon De Valera (biography) 1933
A Nest of Simple Folk (novel) 1933
Constance Markievicz; or, the Average Revolutionary: A Biography (biography) 1934; revised as Constance Markievicz, 1968
Bird Alone (novel) 1936
The Born Genius: A Short Story (short stories) 1936
A Purse of Coppers: Short Stories (short stories) 1937
King of the Beggars: A Life of Daniel O'Connell, the Irish Liberator, in a Study of the Rise of the Modern Irish Democracy (1775-1847) (biography) 1938
De Valera (biography) 1939
Come Back to Erin (novel) 1940
The Great O'Neill: A Biography of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550-1616 (biography) 1942
The Story of Ireland (history) 1943
The Irish (history) 1947; also published as The Irish: A Character Study, 1949; revised edition 1969; also published as The Story of the Irish People 1982
Teresa, and Other Stories (short stories) 1947; enlarged as The Man Who Invented Sin, and Other Stories, 1948
The Short Story (criticism) 1948
A Summer in Italy (travel essay) 1949
Newman's Way (biography) 1952; also published as Newman's Way: The Odyssey of John Henry Newman, 1952
South to Sicily (travel essay) 1953; also published as An Autumn in Italy, 1953
The Vanishing Hero: Studies in Novelists of the Twenties (criticism) 1956; also published as The Vanishing Hero: Studies of the Hero in the Modern Novel, 1957
I Remember! I Remember! (short stories) 1961
Vive Moi! An Autobiography (autobiography) 1965
The Heat of the Sun: Stories and Tales (short stories) 1966
The Talking Trees, and Other Stories (short stories) 1970
Foreign Affairs and Other Stories (short stories) 1976
Selected Stories of Seán O'Faoláin (short stories) 1978
And Again? (novel) 1979
The Collected Stories (short stories) 1980-1982
James F. Kilroy (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: Kilroy, James F. “Setting the Standards: Writers of the 1920s and 1930s.” In The Irish Short Story, edited by James F. Kilroy, pp. 95-144. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Kilroy offers an overview of O'Faoláin's short stories.]
If intelligence may be defined as the capacity to recognize equal validity in contradictory statements and the ability to recognize complexities and dilemmas, Sean O'Faolain is the most intelligent of Irish writers. Puzzles, human contradictions, and unresolved problems dominate his collections of stories over a career of more than fifty years, and the development of his literary craft may even be traced by considering the various ways in which he deals with the complexities of human experiences.
The son of a pious mother and a father who thought of himself as British, John Whelan very early learned to recognize and deal with what he regarded as irreconcilable differences in political convictions. Yet he also learned to develop and defend his own beliefs. At age eighteen, having become committed to the nationalist cause, he changed his name to its Irish equivalent, Sean O'Faolain. He enlisted in the Irish Republican Army, and after the treaty continued to serve on the republican side in the civil war. Thus, before he wrote his first published story, he had acted on his convictions, but had come to see how untenable for him were intense and simple political allegiances. Yet his disillusionment did not lead to cynicism or despair. When he found he could not wholeheartedly support nationalist causes, and later, when he had to face the objections of the Censorship Board and religious authorities to his works, he responded strongly, with conviction of the moral integrity of art and the importance of intellectual analysis. Most notably, as editor of The Bell from 1940 to 1946, he encouraged the open and thorough discussion of the most controversial topics of the day: nationalism, censorship, the language movement, and other political issues. Similarly, in his stories, he never shies away from controversy nor does he submit to sectarian or parochial views.
His first collection, Midsummer Night Madness (1932) conveys most vividly varied responses to the political and military events that had recently transformed Ireland. The confused atmosphere of the Troubles and of the Civil War are reflected in many of the stories. His own wartime experiences enabled him to describe the fear, dedication, and intimacy among conspirators in “The Bombshop”; and the vivid emotions of fright expressed in “The Fugue” surely comes from personal experience. Such stories even aspire to ambitious structural forms. “The Fugue,” for example, balances precise descriptions of nature with accelerated action in which a young rebel flees from British soldiers and with a lyrical interlude in which he meets and falls in love with a country girl. The story ends almost as it started, so that the musical form indicated by the title is accurate. Instead of presenting a consecutive plot, a single encounter between soldier and girl is placed between contrasting settings: the placid natural scene and the relentless threat of violence and death. These three planes are so juxtaposed as to reflect obliquely one another, with recurring motifs of loneliness pervading all. By the story's end, the three are harmonized, with nature depicted as both loving and destroying, resuming its “ancient, ceaseless gyre.”
A similar but less comprehensive structure is seen in the title story, “Midsummer Night Madness.” The opening paragraph efficiently positions the narrator between two settings: the confining city and the open countryside. As he makes his way to Henn Hall, the symbol of the Anglo-Irish Big House, the narrator provides information on the house and its owner. Such formalized exposition marks the story as apprentice work, as do the attempts at foreshadowing. The narrator is inadequately defined, but Henn, awkwardly described as a hen, although dissipated and foolish, is presented in greater detail as a cowering fallen aristocrat. Set in contrast to him are the new men of the emerging middle class, Stevey Long and the rebels who have taken occupancy of Henn Hall. Finally, in the person of the tinker woman, Gypsy, the lowest class is represented. The contrast among these three, all occupying the same house, is sharp enough that the story could dispense with the long, contrived conversations between Henn and the narrator, which reiterate without amplifying the theme of class differences. The narrator seems disturbed, nearly frantic much of the time, so that his responses to Long and Henn are confused, rather than ambivalent. His self-conscious, literary expression reflects the absence of a clear focus to the story. Yet the story achieves real power through the superimposition of three classes: the faded aristocracy pretending to continue their genteel ways; the cruel young soldiers driven by patriotic ideals, but ignorant of history and confused in their goals; and the purely sensual tinkers, more worldly but hopeless. Gypsy's concluding evaluations of both Stevey and Henn contrast her desire for love with their political and social concerns.
A juxtaposition of love with nationalist feeling underlies most of the stories in O'Faolain's first collection, making them similar to much European fiction of the twenties and thirties; but while French and English authors tend to contrast personal relations with the inhumanity revealed in the First World War, O'Faolain and his compatriots naturally refer to the Irish revolution and even more vividly to the Civil War which followed. In “The Patriot,” the most technically ambitious story of this volume, the love of two young people, Bernie and Norah, is contrasted with the nationalist fervor of his former teacher, Edward Bradley. In a series of encounters among the three characters, the recent decline from revolution to civil war provides an oppressive contrast to the growing love of the couple. By the final episode, the newlyweds merely observe their enthusiastic nationalist friend and mentor as he passes on the street, but they do not join in the cheering. Yet the forces of love and patriotism are, even to the end, treated as equally compelling. The final picture of Bradley driving out of town shows him as no less passionate, dedicated, and attractive than he had been at his first appearance. In turning away from Bradley to his new wife smiling to him in the dark, Bernie chooses love; but neither he nor the narration denies the force of the call of patriotism. Because no moral conclusion is presented, the story's episodic form is justified: each incident brings love and patriotism into sharp contrast but not into conflict. The two impulses inspire different people and dignify them equally. Thus there is no scene in which the two impulses are set in direct opposition to each other; Bernie, who has become Bernard in the last episode, simply grows out of patriotism because of his experiences as a guerrilla and his discovery of love, whereas Bradley does not.
Apparently some of O'Faolain's Irish readers in the thirties bristled at his frank and unflattering treatment of the nationalist cause, or considered his descriptions of sexual relations dangerous to morals, for the book was banned by the Censorship Board. Edward Garnett's introduction to the collection, praising the stories but taking swipes at Ireland as “the most backward nation in Europe,” no doubt fed the suspicion of the book's first readers that O'Faolain was expressing antinationalist sentiments.1
By the time he finished his second collection of stories, O'Faolain had published biographies of De Valera and Constance Markiewicz and had begun work on his book on Daniel O'Connell [King of the Beggars, a Life of Daniel O'Connell], so his interest in Irish history had been even further developed. His first two novels had appeared, both treating the intense and destructive power of Irish society. At this stage of his life, O'Faolain seems to have expended considerable energy in asserting his minority stand in opposition to dominant or at least prevailing Irish social attitudes, and some of his alienation from society is reflected in the stories in A Purse of Coppers (1937). Here the language is more controlled and the tone less lyrical than in the first collection, and most stories center on tightly limited action, usually on a single episode. Attention has shifted from questions of the relations between social demands and human needs to a greater interest in isolated individuals. The first story in the collection, “A Broken World,” consists of a train-trip conversation among a priest, a farmer, and the narrator on the barren state of modern Ireland. The priest's pessimistic view that the structured society which has been overthrown has not been replaced by a world of shared values, what he calls “moral unity,” haunts the narrator and dominates the story. The imagery is that of Joyce's “The Dead,” with the snow a “white shroud, covering the whole of Ireland,” under which “life was lying broken and hardly breathing.” The narrator ends his account hoping for an image that could rekindle the world, a resurrection call for which we all wait, perhaps vainly. The story ends with a series of powerful questions and aspirations, expressed in striking images, making it resemble one of Yeats's poems looking toward a second coming or a resurrection from the dead. There is no substantive communication or interaction among the characters nor any resolution—only vivid impressions and a lyrical outburst at the end.
A similar view of human loneliness is presented in “Egotists,” in which an Irish sailor, stopping at a motor camp in Texas, meets a professor and his niece, and a French priest. Each tells about his or her life, revealing profound loneliness and longing for the unattainable. As in the previously mentioned story, the brief conversations bring no persons or views into conflict, and the story ends with a striking natural description of a silent, mysterious night. To some extent the self-absorption and personal dreams of the various aliens isolate each from the other, as the title indicates. Likewise, in “Discord” a newlywed couple visiting a Dublin priest observe his loneliness and pettiness, and realize their own isolation from each other. The young wife feigns innocence and cheerfulness, thus regaining some share of contentment for them both, but her recognition of discord constitutes the story's climactic event. The isolation and alienation treated in many stories in A Purse of Coppers are presented in vivid detail, particularly through a few evocative images: snowy landscapes, barren deserts, buried crypts, and similar settings. But the stories do not progress beyond depiction, making them resemble in this regard romantic lyric fragments.
In O'Faolain's next collection, Teresa and Other Stories (1947), fuller narratives are provided, and more complex subjects than alienation and loneliness are raised and examined. In “The Man Who Invented Sin,” a curate objects to the quite innocent fun of a group of monks and nuns studying Irish in the Gaeltacht. But years later the effect of his moral judgment is still felt, as one of the participants concludes, “It's not good to take people out of their rut, I didn't enjoy that summer.” O'Faolain's already established skill in character portrayal and the economy of incidents are enriched by going beyond such personal emotions as loneliness to considering the consequences of human actions. In the title story, Teresa, a wide-eyed, enthusiastic nun on a pilgrimage to Lisieux believes she must renounce the world by becoming a Carmelite in order to become a saint; discouraged from that, she eventually leaves the convent and marries. When she returns to visit the convent with her husband, her sense of alienation and loneliness is strongly expressed, as she tells him, “You will never know what I gave up to marry you!” As though loneliness is inevitable, she realizes how irrevocable her decision has been, and her husband sees how separated they are from each other. Teresa's reasons for wanting to join the Carmelites are made clear enough: she had wanted to become a saint. But her decision to abandon that and to leave the convent is motivated by much more complex impulses. Attempts to interpret such decisions and their consequences are central concerns of O'Faolain's stories at this stage, expanding the narrative structure of the stories and making the tone more subdued and reflective. In “Lady Lucifer,” three men rowing on a river casually discuss the problem of distinguishing pride from humility in human actions; this leads one of them, a doctor, to tell about a nurse who had married a wealthy man who soon proved psychotic. His account of the nurse, called Lady Lucifer, seems to have little to do with the peaceful boat trip which frames it, nor with the purported issues of pride and humility. But there are subtle connections among the narratives, such as a pair of female characters, the nurse and the woman at the lock house where the three travelers rest. In the contrast between those two women, one idealistic but dissatisfied, the other contented and humble, the question of how to distinguish pride from humility is explored.
The natural descriptions in this and many of the stories in O'Faolain's first three volumes resemble the lyrical passages in Turgenev's stories. As in A Sportsman's Sketches, a narrator provides commentary and even judgments. Instead of presenting a complex plot, the stories tend to focus on one or a few episodes, which reveal incongruities in human experience, discrepancies between human aspirations and actions, or contrasts between nature's order and man's ambitions. Alienation is a recurrent theme, conveyed by employing a narrator who reports on behavior that he does not adequately understand; yet there is very strong sympathy for characters, particularly for the lower classes. Furthermore, in this third volume may be discerned a shift toward another literary model, Chekhov, whose stories deal with more intellectual questions in which the complexities of human actions are more extensively explored, and personalities investigated in greater depth. Both Turgenev and Chekhov reduced plot to a minimum, and both tended to contrast idealizations with actual life. But the narrative angle of Turgenev, that of a concerned but relatively uninformed reporter, differs from Chekhov's more immediate, scientific portrayal, one suggesting superior knowledge, if somewhat less emotion.
“The Silence of the Valley” is the first of O'Faolain's stories to bear a strong resemblance to Chekhov's works. Five guests in a hotel in the Gaeltacht pass the time in casual conversation, while in a cottage nearby the wake of an old cobbler is held. Speakers in both places express concern for the passing of old ways, but the pleasure-seeking hotel guests and the county folk seem worlds apart. All around them nature, the silent valley, overshadows and reduces them, so that their words sound feeble and trivial. The vacationers go to the wake and even watch the funeral, but they never come to understand the primitive life which reminds them of their isolation. Although one of the hotel guests, a young man who has apparently come to learn Irish, praises the simple folk life, he cannot reconcile that nostalgia with his hope for seaplanes on the lake and increased tourism. In fact, the group of hotel residents represents the modern world, concerned with efficiency and novelty, which is displacing the simple country world of religious faith and tradition; yet the modernized world itself is already under threat of annihilation. The atmosphere at the end is dark; although it is May, it feels like autumn, says one, but the American provides the more fitting term: the fall, the end of a world. Contrasting this depressing atmosphere is the story's final ambiguous statement. When the American soldier predicts tomorrow will be another fine day, the red-haired Scots girl who has been the most alert, vocal, and responsive of the guests replies, “Yes … it will be another great day—Tomorrow.” But the narrator adds: “And her eyebrows sank, very slowly, like a falling curtain.” The ending, in its expression of hope despite overwhelming defeat, resembles that of Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters. The silence of the valley, marred only by noises from the farmhouses on one side and the hotel on the other, is eternal and irresistible, reducing all human concerns to trivial sounds.
By mid-century, O'Faolain had earned recognition not only as an accomplished literary craftsman, but as a social commentator on Ireland. His books on Irish history and contemporary society, his frequent contributions to English and American periodicals, and his forceful arguments in the Bell made him a well-known but controversial figure. He even took on the Irish puritan attitudes toward sex and marriage, which had resulted in later marriages and...
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Richard Bonaccorso (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Bonaccorso, Richard. “Nationality and Beyond.” In Seán O'Faoláin's Irish Vision, pp. 41-72. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Bonaccorso discusses O'Faoláin's place in the Irish literary renaissance, his attitudes toward revolutionary thought, and his connections with other well-known Irish writers.]
Patriotic, cultural, and social Ireland are O'Faolain's thematic resources, both as creative writer and social critic. That he and his literary contemporaries should concern themselves with the matter of Ireland is not surprising, given the inheritances of a literary renaissance and a political revolution. O'Faolain's...
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Thomas E. Kennedy (essay date spring 1988)
SOURCE: Kennedy, Thomas E. “Seán O'Faoláin's ‘The Silence of the Valley’.” Critique 29 (spring 1988): 188-94.
[In the following essay, Kennedy argues that “The Silence of the Valley” is primarily a story that celebrates the continuity of life in all its varieties.]
The man (who nearly fifty years ago) had heard Seán O'Conaill (the Kerry shanachie) describes such sessions in this way: “The people (before the peat fire) were so quiet, you could hear the snipe in the bog, and he not far from quiet his-self.”
(Lawrence Millman, Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of...
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Ben Howard (essay date spring 1992)
SOURCE: Howard, Ben. “Seán O'Faoláin: 1900-1991.” Sewanee Review 100, no. 2 (spring 1992): 298-99.
[In the following essay, Howard offers a brief tribute to O'Faoláin on the occasion of his death.]
In one of Sean O'Faolain's late stories, entitled “The Human Thing,” an expatriate Irish priest must decide whether to grant a Catholic burial to an apostate—a parishioner who sent his wife and children away and then lived with his lover for five years. After much vexation the world-weary priest agrees to perform the funeral. “Did I do the right thing?” he asks the narrator. “You did the human thing, Father,” the narrator replies.
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Pierce Butler (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Butler, Pierce. “Revolution and Afterwards.” In Seán O'Faoláin: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 11-19. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
[In the essay, Butler traces the developing realism of several of O'Faoláin's early short stories.]
O'Faolain's first collection, Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories (1932), is concerned primarily with the experience of war. The stories are set in the Ireland of “The Troubles,” the War of Independence that culminated in the infamous Anglo-Irish Treaty that partitioned the country and the subsequent Civil War, from which the pro-Treaty faction emerged the victors. In spite of the seriousness of his...
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Pierce Butler (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Butler, Pierce. “The Demands of Memory.” In Seán O'Faoláin: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 84-92. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
[In the following essay, Butler discusses the increasing attention O'Faoláin gives to nostalgia and memory in his later short fiction.]
With the publication of I Remember! I Remember! in 1962, O'Faolain was at the height of his powers as a writer. He had overcome the disillusionment he felt in the aftermath of the Civil War that threatened to limit his work. He had reconciled himself to the state of modern Ireland by looking at it in a historical perspective and by drawing his inspiration from the native tradition...
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Michael Neary (essay date winter 1995)
SOURCE: Neary, Michael. “Whispered Presences in Seán O'Faoláin's Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (winter 1995): 11-19.
[In the following essay, Neary explores the ambiguities in O'Faoláin's depictions of the Irish psyche.]
When Seán O'Faoláin describes “The Bell” as the name chosen for the journal of Irish literature he edited, he brushes aside the word “Bell” as unimportant. In the first issue he says, “Any other equally spare and hard and simple word would have done; any word with a minimum of associations” (5). Later he continues, “All our symbols have to be created afresh, and the only way to create a living symbol is to take a naked...
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Benedict Kiely (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Kiely, Benedict. “Sean O'Faoláin: A Tiller of Ancient Soil.” In A Raid into Dark Corners and Other Essays, pp. 124-33. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Kiely presents an overview of O'Faoláin's writings, emphasizing the timeless nature of his observations on humanity.]
Sean O'Faoláin's First Book appeared in 1932 when the author was the same age as the century. It was Midsummer Night Madness, a most notable collection of short stories, and it immediately placed the author among the Masters in Ireland, or in any country or age you care to think of, a position that he held and steadily fortified over the years, as...
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Alf MacLochlainn (essay date spring-summer 2000)
SOURCE: MacLochlainn, Alf. “Corkery's Advice to a Young Writer.” Eire-Ireland 35, no. 1-2 (spring-summer 2000): 219-25.
[In the following essay, MacLochlainn focuses on a dispute between O'Faoláin and his former mentor Daniel Corkery, using a letter from Corkery to Art Ó'Riann to illuminate Corkery's views on modern Irish literature.]
Patrick Maume's life of Daniel Corkery1 appeared when Maurice Harmon was already correcting proofs of his biography of Sean O'Faolain,2 neither scholar obviously having had the advantage of the mature opinions of the other. That is a pity, as Corkery and O'Faolain have become handy pegs on which to hang...
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Arndt, Marie. A Critical Study of Seán O'Faoláin's Life and Work. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001, 290 p.
A chronological, bio-critical study of O'Faoláin which emphasizes his inner conflicts over his Irish heritage.
Harmon, Maurice. Seán O'Faoláin. London: Constable, 1994.
“Seán O'Faoláin, An Irish Master of the Short Story, Is Dead at 91.” New York Times 140, no. 48578 (22 April 1991): B12.
O'Faoláin, Julia. “A Snug and Needy Place: Modern Ireland, the Church and Seán...
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