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.