(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Seán O’Faoláin’s stories are varied. The earliest ones deal with the immediate political concerns of the Irish Civil War. Others use irony, although the irony tends to be gentle rather than harsh. O’Faoláin never merely mocked or made fun of his characters; there is always affection and sympathy for those he created. Another group of stories expose idealism or abstract principles. O’Faoláin had little use for such general principles; he was consistently on the side of the specific case and the demands of realism and life. The later stories deal with sexuality and relationships between man and woman, especially the problems of husbands and wives.

A few constants do exist, however, in the stories. O’Faoláin’s strength is in the portrayal and development of character and world. Each of his major characters fully exists in a well-defined environment. Ireland, as portrayed by O’Faoláin, is nearly a character in the story, and the limitations created by that world are significant. Whether it be religion or a narrow-minded social system, Ireland often restricts in various ways the opportunities for expression and a fuller and freer life.

“The Old Master”

“The Old Master,” from A Purse of Coppers, is an early story that punctures the claims of a character to a privileged position; it uses a sudden and surprising reversal to bring about its resolution. The use of irony in this story is direct and amusing, if not very sophisticated. The protagonist, John Aloysius Gonzaga O’Sullivan, spends his time mocking the provincialism and lack of culture in his small Irish town. He has a sinecure as a law librarian and refuses to practice law; he spends his time, instead, berating the locals for their lack of sophistication. He is “the only man left in Ireland with a sense of beauty the old master deserted in the abandoned house.”

One day, the Russian Ballet comes to town, and he is ecstatic. A conflict arises, however, from the presence of the Russian Ballet. When O’Sullivan attempts to see a performance, he is stopped by men from the Catholic Church who oppose “Immoral Plays.” O’Sullivan holds his sinecure from the county council, and he can lose his job if he offends the Catholic Church. Therefore, he compromises and walks away from the door; he has apparently failed to live up to his ideals. He tries, however, to make amends by sneaking in the back way and reassuring the Russian performers that he is with them.

O’Sullivan returns to the front of the theater and is immediately involved in a march against the ballet company. If he is seen by the people at the courthouse, he will be ruined, but if he is seen abandoning the march, he may lose his job. He tries to resolve his conflict by escaping to an outhouse and cursing the local leaders, as he has done so often in the past. He remains in the outhouse all night and catches pneumonia from this exposure and soon dies. The people in the town had seen him earlier as a “public show” and only at his death did they see him as a “human being.” “The Old Master” is a typical O’Faoláin story. The unnatural idealism and pomposity of the main character have to be exposed. He is not mocked, however, for his fall; he has instead joined a fallible human community and rid himself of false pretensions.


“Childybawn” was published in The Finest Stories of Seán O’Faoláin, and it is a delightful study of the Irish character in which O’Faoláin reverses the usual view of the Irishman’s dominance by his mother. The story is simple in its structure, and its effect depends on a reversal of expectations. O’Faoláin is not really a comic writer in the traditional sense; in later stories, the humor is much more subtle and becomes a part of the story, not the only element as it is here. The plot begins when Benjy Spillane’s mother receives an anonymous note telling her that her son, fat and forty, is carrying on with a bank teller. Her strategy to retain the dedication and presence of her son is to remind him incessantly of Saint Augustine’s love for his mother, Monica. This has little effect until Benjy becomes seriously ill and begins to read religious texts and change his life.

Suddenly the relationship is reversed; the religious Benjy begins complaining about the drinking and excessive betting of his mother. His mother now wishes that he would get married and leave her alone. The climax of the story is another reversal, as Benjy returns to his riotous ways and finally gains the promise of the bank clerk to wed him. There is a five-year engagement until his mother dies. After all, Benjy notes, “a fellow has to have some regard for his mother!”

“Childybawn” is a comic story and plays on many Irish stereotypes. There is the dominating mother and the middle-aged son who worships his mother. O’Faoláin gives the story and the types an original twist when he shows what would happen if a middle-aged son actually behaved the way a mother wished him to behave. Mrs. Spillane realizes that she has not had a peaceful moment since her son took up religion; she longs for the old, irreverent, and natural relationship that works on conflict and confrontation.

“The Fur Coat”

“The Fur Coat” is a poignant story taken from The Man Who Invented Sin, and Other Stories. It is concerned with social class, a somewhat unusual area for an O’Faoláin story. Most of his characters seem to live in a static environment, and such social change in Ireland is very different from the earlier stories. The plot is very simple, since it emphasizes character rather than action. Paddy Maguire receives an important promotion, so his wife, Molly, immediately determines that she must have a fur coat to go with her new status. She immediately becomes defensive over such a purchase, however, asking her husband if he thinks that she is “extravagant.” The conflict grows between husband and wife as they discuss the fur coat, but it is really within Molly. Her own doubts about such a purchase are projected onto her husband, and they end up fighting, with her accusing him of being “mean.” The climax of the story comes when Paddy gives Molly a check for £150 and she rips it up. She wants the coat desperately, but she cannot afford it. “I couldn’t, Paddy. I just couldn’t.” The story ends with Paddy asking her why she cannot purchase what she most desires and receiving the despairing answer, “I don’t know.”

“The Fur Coat” is a social story as well as a character study. The sudden rise in class and position leaves Molly between the old ways that have sustained her and the new ones that she cannot embrace. O’Faoláin has found a new subject for Irish fiction. The focus is no longer the enduring and unchanging peasant but an urban middle-class character who must deal with changes in his or her social position and personal life.

“The Sugawn Chair”

“The Sugawn Chair,” from I Remember! I...

(The entire section is 2907 words.)