Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2390
Michael Francis O’Donovan, using a variation of his middle name and his mother’s maiden name, wrote under the pseudonym Frank O’Connor. Although he published poems, plays, novels, translations, criticism, political and biographical studies, autobiography, and travel books, he is principally remembered and read today for his short stories. Collected Stories contains sixty-seven of the more than one hundred and fifty stories he wrote during a career of more than forty years. An impressive collection, the book contains many stories that rank among the finest in modern short fiction. Such dominant themes as innocence versus experience, naïveté versus sophistication, and the romantic (or ideal) versus the real view of the world are universal, but the locale of the stories is Ireland, and the flavor of Irish speech, life, and character suffuses the stories throughout the book.
O’Connor’s formal education ended at fourteen. Largely a self-taught writer, he learned his craft and developed his art through extensive reading (he was for a number of years a librarian), and through his experience of writing, of working with the Abbey Theatre, and of speaking on the BBC. He was an artist conscious enough of defects in many of his early stories to revise them—sometimes extensively—for republication. As critics have observed, the revisions often improved the stories but not always.
Biographical articles on O’Connor and his own autobiographical books, An Only Child (1961) and the posthumously published My Father’s Son (1969), have revealed what perhaps most of his readers have supposed, that many of his stories grew out of his own experiences. This is particularly true of the several stories in which young Larry Delaney is the protagonist. O’Connor’s frequent use of Cork as the locale of his fiction is natural, since his early life was spent there until he moved to Dublin as a young man. He came to know the capital well, but Cork remained what one critic has called “the epicenter of his fictional world.”
O’Connor was a younger contemporary of James Joyce and once visited him in Paris in 1927, but as a writer he was not attracted to such Joycean literary devices as stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue, and involved allegory or symbolism. He wished to picture a real world in which real Irish people lived their sometimes happy but more often lonely lives.
O’Connor experimented with the technique of narration in his stories, and his skill grew as he continued to write. He believed that story writing had grown too literary in modern times. Authors who developed their own recognizable and sometimes ingenious tricks of style or intricate technique called too much attention to themselves. Readers were too conscious that the author was telling the story when they read Henry James or Katherine Mansfield or James Joyce. The ancient Irish tradition of the shanachie or oral teller of tales was dying out. O’Connor symbolically illustrates this in one of the best of the Collected Stories, “The Story Teller,” a semipoetic tale of the death of a grandfather and of the sad recognition by one of his granddaughters that the old man’s marvelous tales were only tales. Fascinating as they were, they belonged to the world of magic, of romance, of poetry. There was no place for them in the real world of today.
It was possible, O’Connor believed, to reestablish the old relationship between the storyteller and his audience. This could be done in two ways: the story could be told by someone about another person or persons, or it might be told by a person who played a part, either large or small, in the action and was affected by what happened. There might even be a combination in which an unidentified “I” listened to a story by someone in the story itself. The listener might be influenced by or comment on the storyteller as well as the story.
The listener in “The Bridal Night” is acquainted with lonesomeness and sympathizes with those who suffer from it. When Mrs. Sullivan, the old woman with him, reveals that her only son has been in an asylum for twelve years, he is aware that she would perhaps like to tell about him. “I had no fear of trespassing on her emotions,” he says. “These lonesome people in the wild places, it is their nature to speak; they must cry out their sorrows like the wild birds.” Then the old woman tells of the last night her insane son spent at home and of the kindness of the young woman with whom he was in love, who shared his bed all night to quiet his madness. In the community, the understanding and appreciation of this kindness is shown by Mrs. Sullivan’s last remark: “Isn’t it a strange thing and the world as wicked as it is, that no one would say the bad word about her?”
William Tomory has called attention to O’Connor’s repeated use of a narrative voice which “speaks from within the community in its accents, with its sentiments, biases, and errors of judgment on occasion.” This may be seen in the beginnings of several stories:Even if there were only two men left in the world and both of them saints they wouldn’t be happy. One of them would be bound to try and improve the other. That is the nature of things. (“Song Without Words”) Everyone was sorry after Sam Higgins, the headmaster. Sam was a right good skin, one of the decentest men in Ireland, but too honest. (“The Cheapjack,” earlier entitled “The New Teacher”) It’s extraordinary, the bitterness there can be in a town like ours between two people of the same family. (“The Luceys”) Against the Gussie Leonards of the world, we poor whores have no defenses. Sons of bitches to a man, we can’t like them, we can’t even believe them, and still we must listen to them because deep down in every man jack of us there is the feeling that our own experience of life is insufficient. (“Don Juan’s Temptation”)
These beginnings introduce the plots of the respective stories. Two monks, in “Song Without Words,” silently tempt each other into forbidden activities at a monastery where communication is permitted only by signs. Then, hiding under their habits the physical evidence of their sins, they go off at the end of the story “to confess their guilt to the Prior.”
Sam Higgins, the headmaster in “The Cheapjack,” makes the grievous error of reading to his class a diary he has found which reveals an unsavory love affair between one of the women teachers and the new teacher from Kerry, “Cheapjack” Carmody. The resulting scandal causes Higgins to resign and leave town forever. The unnamed speaker who has told the story returns, at the close, to the opinion of Higgins he has expressed at the beginning: “Poor Sam! As decent a man as ever drew breath but too honest, too honest!”
Shopkeeper Tom and politician Ben, of “The Luceys,” are brothers. Tom has a son, Peter; Ben’s son is Charlie. Peter gains a reputation as a scapegrace and is criticized by Ben. After gambling and losing money he has embezzled, Peter flees, joins the air force under an assumed name, and dies. Tom, who has deeply resented Ben’s earlier criticism of Peter, refuses to shake hands with Ben when he comes to offer sympathy. Charlie has none of his father’s stubborn, unforgiving nature, and as the years pass he maintains his close friendship with his uncle. When Ben is slowly dying, Charlie pleads with Tom to shake hands before death takes his brother; but Tom again refuses because, years before, he had sworn he would never shake Ben’s hand and he will not break his word.
Gussie Leonard, the Don Juan of “Don Juan’s Temptation,” is a local stud who prides himself on the ease with which he makes his conquests. Thinking he has failed to convert a “country town” girl to the pleasures of love, he uncharacteristically feels himself “a brute for trying to deprive her of her illusions.” When he finds her waiting at his door, though, he judges he has been through “a really terrible temptation” and he is grateful to his guardian angel for looking after him. The story’s bitter closing comment repeats the sentiment which began it: “Sons of bitches! That’s what they are, to a man.”
O’Connor’s ambivalent views about the Catholic Church in Ireland are evident in many of his stories about priests. He was repelled by the venality, the ignorance, the stupidity, and the occasional vengefulness or cruelty of some priests. Yet he appreciated the dedication and admired the common sense and the love toward their parishioners that others displayed.
Sometimes priestly concern for the moral welfare of the careless young is treated comically, as in “The Shepherds,” where Father Phelan and Father Devine get two local girls run off a French ship on which they have been dallying with sailors. Communication is difficult between the French captain and the Irish priests, only one of whom speaks a little school French. At one point the worldly captain mistakenly assumes that one priest wants one girl removed because she is his mistress.
Comedy also appears in “The Sentry.” Father Michael catches an English sentry with onions stolen from his garden. Angered by the soldier’s lies, Father Michael hits him. The sentry later confesses his theft to an officer, who visits Father Michael. The priest now lies, trying to protect the poor soldier who has deserted his post; but the officer sees through the lies and cordially invites Father Michael to dine at the soldiers’ mess, perhaps on some of his own onions!
Understanding and compassion for the violent emotions of young people is seen in “First Confession,” whose principal theme is the contrast between honesty and hypocrisy. Young Jackie confesses to having planned to kill his grandmother and having attacked his sister Nora with a knife. The young priest then confesses to Jackie that he has wanted to kill many people but has lacked the nerve. Pious Nora enviously watches as Jackie and the priest leave the church together eating candy. She concludes that being good does not pay after all.
Father Fogarty appears in a number of the priest stories. In “The Frying Pan,” Tom and Una Whitton, unhappily married, discuss their problems with Fogarty. On one occasion Una kisses him passionately and calls him “Darling!” Yet at the end Fogarty “knew that the three of them, Tom, Una, and himself, would die as they had lived, their desires unsatisfied.” Considine, the retired teacher who is Father Fogarty’s acolyte in “The Teacher’s Mass,” is ill but wishes to continue and die “in harness,” and he does. Fogarty completes the Mass alone and walks by the body, “carrying his chalice, and feeling as he walked that some figure was walking before him, slowly, saying good-bye.” In “The Mass Island,” Fogarty himself dies and is taken to a small island where he had wanted to lie. His night funeral is illuminated by car headlights and the blinking lanterns of many mountain people who have come to join their beloved priest at his grave.
Several O’Connor stories, including one of his most famous, “Guests of the Nation,” grew out of his involvement in the Irish conflict with the English and among themselves, often called “the Troubles.” As a teenager, he joined the Irish Republican Army in 1918 and he was interned later as a rebel by the Free State government until his release in 1924. Through this experience, his youthful nationalistic ardor became tempered by a recognition of the callous cruelties of war. “Guests of the Nation” is narrated by Bonoparte, one of three young Irishmen guarding two English prisoners with whom they chat and play cards. The atmosphere is friendly. When word comes, however, that four Irish prisoners have been shot, one guard, Donovan, orders that the Englishmen be taken in the dark to a bog and shot in retaliation. This is done and Bonoparte says as he ends his story: “And anything that ever happened to me after I never felt the same about again.”
“The Martyr” is told by an officer to a listener as they stand by a grave which is decorated each year with a wreath. He has learned through bitter experience what young Frank O’Connor (Michael O’Donovan) had learned. “That’s the curse of civil war,” he says. “No matter what high notions you start with, it always degenerates into a series of personal quarrels, family against family, individual against individual, until at last you hardly mind what side they’re on.” The story illustrates this assessment after the execution of an ambush-killer and the prison murder of the prisoner who revealed his identity. The officer knows that Hartnett was not killed trying to escape but that he was shot by the man who captured him and who felt entitled to shoot his prize.
The best known of O’Connor’s more than a dozen Larry Delaney stories is “The Drunkard,” a comic masterpiece. O’Connor’s father, like Larry’s, was subject to alcoholic sprees, the first drink leading finally to violence or stupor or both. “Drink, you see, was Father’s great weakness,” says Larry early in the story. He accompanies his father to a pub after they have attended a funeral. His mother has sent him along as a restraining influence, and the reader expects Larry to protect Delaney against his weakness. Instead, while the garrulous father chats with a friend, Larry tastes his unwatched pint of porter, dislikes it but continues, begins to feel exhilarated, then dizzy and nauseated, and he follows through the stages of drunkenness Delaney has known so often, including singing and cursing on the way home. Arriving there sober but publicly disgraced by his boy, Delaney is hysterically berated by his wife, who ignores his protestations of innocence and with shining eyes praises Larry: “My brave little man! . . . You were his guardian angel!”
Collected Stories is a rich Irish feast, seasoned with laughter and love and plentiful enough to serve again and again to readers who return to the table.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53
Business Week. October 19, 1981, p. 14.
Library Journal. CVI, July, 1981, p. 1443.
Nation. CCXXXIII, October 24, 1981, p. 417.
National Review. XXXIII, August 21, 1981, p. 965.
The New Republic. CLXXXV, October 21, 1981, p. 35.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, September 20, 1981, p. 3.
Newsweek. XCVIII, September 7, 1981, p. 73.
Saturday Review. VIII, October, 1981, p. 85.
Time. CXVIII, October 5, 1981, p. 92.
The Wall Street Journal. CXCVIII, September 21, 1981, p. 34.
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