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...
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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...
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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 generation of Irish writers began its work around 1930, overlapping by a few years the later careers of several Literary Renaissance figures. Augusta Gregory died in 1932, George Moore in 1933, AE [George Russell] in 1935, Yeats in 1939. And, though so vigorously separate in life, Joyce seemed to have joined that elder generation by his death in 1941. O'Faolain met his literary elders when they were ageing legends; he and his contemporaries were imbued with their aura, and came to know their art intimately.
Those earlier writers were mostly Anglo-Irish Protestants, rooted in the established ruling class. Those who were born Catholic, like Moore and Joyce, had closer ties to the aristocracy than to the peasantry. Though...
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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 Ireland. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977, p. 6.)
People bred on noisy times might find it hard to hear what Sean O'Faolain's silent valley has to tell us. Indeed, the tone is quiet, the voice remote, the sound muted as the opening paragraph's ghost-like echoes of the waters falling from the mountain face above. One must withhold even the “plash of … oars,” listen: “These tiny muted sounds will awe and delight … by the vacancy out of which they creep. …”
This opening paragraph is more than scenic detail; it is a key to the story's technique—how it is written, how it must be read: the inner ear must cock, the rowdy plash of expectation pause, the eye must not glide unthinking over the words, for...
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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.
It is a characteristic moment—and a characteristic response. Over the course of his long career Sean O'Faolain cast a cool but humane eye on church and state, politics and economics, history and religion. His prodigious wide-ranging oeuvre includes biographies of Irish national heroes, a social history of Ireland, literary criticism, novels of provincial life, eloquent polemics, and some of the most hard-headed, poignant, and incisive stories in modern Irish literature. An ironic realist and committed internationalist, he viewed his “old, small, intimate, and much-trodden country” in a global perspective its shams and delusions in a clear and analytical light. In his biographies of Daniel O'Connell, Hugh O'Neill, and Eamon De...
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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 subject, the tone of the stories is predominantly romantic and lyrical, as though O'Faolain were suppressing his anger and disillusionment in favor of a celebration of youth and the rugged beauties of the Irish countryside.
The narrator of the title story1 is an idealistic young revolutionary sent out of Cork City to censure Stevey Long, a local IRA commandant whose battalion has been mysteriously inactive. His errand is a grim one, but as he cycles out of the city his mind is on other things: the peace and quiet of the countryside and the prospect of encountering the Protestant landowner Henn, a notorious womanizer, whose house Stevey has commandeered. He finds Stevey more interested in the charms of a young...
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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 of storytelling. As an Irish writer living in Ireland, he had found a literary stance that enabled him to do justice to the complexity of his feelings about his native land. This is the moment he chooses for what must certainly have been a hazardous undertaking: a painstaking examination of the forms of nostalgia.
The narrative voice is central to this undertaking. [Maurice] Harmon describes it as “comfortingly friendly and open, moving along the surface of the story in a deceptively artless and casual manner … it suits the narrator in its unhurried pace, its pausing for small and apparently irrelevant ideas and feelings; essentially it is his conversational manner … it brings in the omniscient author under the...
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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 thing and clothe it with new life, new association, new meaning, and with all of the vigour of the life we live in the Here and Now” (5-6). He might just as well, in the editor's note, be striking the keynote for modern Irish short fiction (including his own) by depicting the building of something powerful from something spare, or from the unadorned details characterizing the Irish short story since George Moore. What sharply distinguishes O'Faoláin's writing, however, is not his creation of large worlds from spare materials, but his location of these spare materials in characters' memories, in the dimly perceived personal and national histories characters must reconstruct if they are to establish identities. In a sense, O'Faoláin's...
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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 you may readily see for yourself by consulting the fine three-volume edition of his collected short stories.
Forty-plus years ago when I was attempting, with great impertinence, to write about his short stories, I came up with something like this:
It is not easy to find an exact description for O'Faoláin's mastery of the short story. There is easiness and grace, and a preference for the significant moment which can frequently be the contemplative moment, and more important for O'Faoláin, or for any other wise man, than the platform called Plot or the unreality called a Central Character. Life, O'Faoláin has always maintained, has no central characters, and life flows through his...
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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 tracts in an ongoing disputation about insularity versus cosmopolitanism in modern Irish culture.3
Corkery gave O'Faolain a copy of The Hidden Ireland, his first monographic work of criticism, at Christmas 1924, when it was, so to speak, hot off the press. In this work, Corkery lauded the eighteenth-century Munster poets writing in Irish. O'Faolain, troubled by what he saw as Corkery's excessive praise for these poets and concerned that the book would be a bible for Gaelic revivalists, accused The Hidden Ireland of a narrow identification of modern Ireland with “a cowed Ireland, a land of poverty.” He pointed instead to the classical, scholarly Ireland he had discovered through the works of Kuno...
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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 O'Faoláin.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5060 (24 March 2000): 16.
A sketch by O'Faoláin's daughter outlining his relationship with the Irish Catholic Church and his attitudes toward civil liberties.
Caughron, Thomas Marshall. “Childhood and Adolescence in the Experience of Three Irish Men of Letters: Seán O'Casey, Seán O'Faoláin, and Michael O'Beirne.” In Yearbook (Claremont Reading Conference), pp. 192-208. Claremont, Calif.: 1986.
A chapter from a Claremont University reading conference proceedings report.
Donoghue, Denis. “Romantic Ireland.” London Review of Books (4-18 February 1982):...
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