Seán O'Faoláin O'Faoláin, Seán (Vol. 14) - Essay

John Francis Whelan


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

O'Faoláin, Sean 1900–

O'Faoláin, an Irish short story writer, novelist, critic, biographer, and playwright, is one of the foremost short story writers of the twentieth century. O'Faoláin spent his youth involved with politics and participated in the Irish Revolution of 1916–23. His stories deal with modern Ireland and its people; his lyrical prose evokes such Irish stereotypical characters as aging bachelors and priests without yielding to sentimentality. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Donat O'Donnell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The "realists" of today, although apt to revolt or grumble against the rule of the past, have also a powerful and often creative sense of tradition. In the case of Sean O'Faolain this sense is especially, perhaps morbidly acute. It has animated some of his best writing with the mass-emotion of living history; it has also often fallen like an antique blanket smothering the life out of the beings he has created. (p. 3)

His first two novels, A Nest of Simple Folk and Bird Alone, are situated almost entirely in the shadow of preceding generations; a penumbra of folklore and historical conjecture in which however the living figure of a hero is clearly visible.

As a story of family life, a "saga" in the Galsworthian sense, A Nest of Simple Folk suffers from a great hiatus by reason of the author's failure to interest himself in the personality of any member of the middle generation. As the story of the fate of an individual it fails for a similar reason; towards the end the central character, Leo Donnel, although physically active, declines from the status of protagonist into that of phenomenon, a vague enigma of a potential symbol. In fact his creator is tired of him and wants to get on to Denis, his grandson. This gap in interest, enough to kill the attention of most readers, spoils the novel from any point of view. And yet A Nest of Simple Folk is a memorable work; memorable as an instance of the power and passion of memory.

Bird Alone is, in a sense, less deeply sunk in the past than A Nest of Simple Folk. Its narrator, Corney, an old man telling the story of his childhood and youth, was born in the 1870's, a quarter of a century or so after Leo Donnel and before O'Faolain. But behind Corney, and dominating the early part of his story, is again the figure of his Fenian grandfather, old Philip Crane. Old Philip, perhaps because he is described as seen by his grandson, and not merely reconstructed, is far more vivid and convincing than Leo Donnel. (p. 4)

The most obvious feature that A Nest of Simple Folk and Bird Alone have in common is atavism. In both novels the significant figures are an old man and a boy; in each the old man is a being of power, an accumulation of rage and lust, and ex-Fenian and an ex-fornicator; and in each the boy, under the old man's influence, becomes an outlaw in the world of his parents. The old man is the vital center, and seems to drag the temporal center of the story back into the past along with him; the youth receives from him the radiations of history and begins to turn into something like him. So in Bird Alone, Corney, the narrator, in his own lonely old age, an outcast from his tribe, enters easily now into the tormented mind of the "ageing wifeless man" who dominated his youth. Just as the middle generations are virtually "skipped" in both novels, the middle years of life are also "skipped" in Bird Alone; Corney is a youth listening to an old man, and then, quite suddenly, he is an old man himself. What happens in between is not a gradual process but a fracture: the youth has broken with the environment and beliefs of his youth and with the middle-aged people who represent them. Nothing remains real except the old man and the forces that through him went to cause the break. (pp. 6-7)

[Corney] finds, however, a natural ally in his grandfather and a flag in the traditions which his grandfather represents. The Irish rebels of the nineteenth century, so regularly condemned by the Hierarchy, were inevitable heroes for the spirited son of a pious and "loyal" family. Prometheus and Faust were remote and tenuous symbols but the Fenian dead, for whom, in that treasured episcopal phrase, "Hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough," lived in the people's mind. In their names, revolt, that otherwise was doomed to futile isolation, found a way into the open, a fissure in the wall of acceptance. And even mightier than theirs was the name of Parnell, whose struggle not only against Church and State, but directly against the power of sexual prohibition made him the essential hero of rebellious youth. The sort of conversation that Joyce remembered in A Portrait of the Artist and of which O'Faolain captures the echoes in Bird Alone, the grown-up skirmishings about Parnell and purity and the priests must have been wildly exciting to hundreds of young minds. In young Corney's case, as no doubt in many others, such scenes helped, along with his grandfather's example, to establish a firm connection between the separate ideas of national, spiritual and sexual emancipation. As one name will be needed for this triple association we shall call it "parnellism" (as distinct from political "Parnellism"). (pp. 7-8)

A Nest of Simple Folk is planned to show the apotheosis of parnellism in a moment of historical decision. The 1916 rebellion frees Denis from his family and at the same time justifies the life of old Leo Donnel. The young rebel and the old, and their private rebellions, are merged in the national insurrection (in which, of course, their creator took part, at a later stage). They thus break out of their loneliness and recover through patriotism the unity with the people which they are unable to keep in religion. For them, and for almost all O'Faolain's central characters, this unity, perhaps because it is so difficult to achieve, is profoundly important, a condition of spiritual life, almost a religion in itself.

The dynamic element is also strong in O'Faolain's early short stories. The first collection, Midsummer Night Madness, published about the same time as A Nest of Simple Folk, is in one sense a sequel to it since most of the stories concern the Black-and-Tan war and the Civil War. Because these stories stress the brutality rather than the chivalry of the "Troubles" and because some of them are fairly out-spoken about sex, they have been generally regarded as disillusioned and cynical or, by sympathizers, as coldly objective. Such views do not penetrate the surface, the impassivity of manner which thinly covers an excitement that is almost exultation.

The sad separateness of Bird Alone is also the predominant feeling in A Purse of Coppers,… but it shrinks into something more petty than Corney's stoicism. The protagonists of such stories as "The Old Master," "My Son Austin" and "A Born Genius" are all in their different ways artist-rebels and all are utterly defeated by the...

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Julian Moynahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

O'Faoláin is a virtuoso short story writer and teller of tales, an impressive historical biographer (of O'Connell, Newman, and Hugh O'Neill the second Earl of Tyrone among others), an urbane, learned and cosmopolitan travel writer, and a distinguished literary editor, critic and literary journalist who has written such works as The Vanishing Hero (1957) … which show a richness of original insight into the development of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel. Yet in his own creative practice he seems not to have got on with the task of novel writing all that well. (p. 19)

In his introduction to The Heat of the Sun, Stories and Tales (1966), O'Faoláin compares the novel to a giant aircraft carrier whose sole function is to launch a certain number of brilliant flights from the blank expanse of its flat deck. This seems a modern version of Poe's claim that there are no long poems, only short ones imbedded at intervals throughout such otherwise prosaic works as Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. However, one must not be misled by this comparison into thinking that O'Faoláin is only capable of short verbal flights…. Witness the magnificently sustained narrative performance of The Great O'Neill, the great narrative arches and edifice of A Nest of Simple Folk. (p. 20)

Henry James coped with the thinness of American social and cultural life by going abroad and by internationalising his literary concerns. O'Faoláin could have done the same thing. No one who knows his mind and talents will fail to recognise that he could have made a brilliant literary career in any of several countries, especially the United States and Britain. But he was drawn back to Ireland…. What was his reward? The Censorship Act of 1929. Would exile have been preferable? Perhaps it is time to get rid of this rather thrillingly Byronic term in the discussion of Irish literary dilemmas. It was appropriate when Stephen Dedalus considered his options at the end of the last century. But it had already outlived its usefulness by the early nineteen twenties when Joyce was established in Paris with a sufficiency of funds, a huge reputation, a circle of admirers and ready access to Ireland via correspondence, the habit of library research and an adequate public transportation system. In the modern world, writers are at home where they are…. Exile doesn't come into it. Let us emphasise then that O'Faoláin chose to tie his work as a novelist to the new, developing society of post-Treaty Ireland and that he encountered certain difficulties when this society developed, as he saw it, towards a condition of uniformity and conformism, towards a boring quality of life. (pp. 21-2)

[One] wonders why O'Faoláin as novelist pinned his hopes to Trollopian and Balzacian norms which were developed to render the more differentiated, dense, and complex societies of nineteenth-century Britain and France. Why has he not attempted something more exploratory and experimental in his novels, along lines established by Joyce and extended by such disciples as Flann O'Brien and the early Samuel Beckett? The parodies, internal monologues, and other formally 'decreative' devices and techniques of Ulysses effectively render Irish (or at least Dublin) amorphousness, while the works of the disciples, At Swim-Two-Birds and Watt in particular, carry the project further and update it as well. I suspect the answer is that O'Faoláin found the procedures of Joyce and his school too assaultive upon certain pieties and decencies of Irish life, and the impulse from which they proceeded too alienated. His choice was to be more constructive, by attempting in his novels a method of critical realism to some extent drawn from the example of the great Russian realists, who had managed to use the Balzacian novel—albeit transforming it in the process—to interpret a society and a national character very different from the French. This created some problems for O'Faoláin: Irish society was too unshaped for the method he wished to use; perhaps too the problem that his essential literary temperament, which is a lyrical and romantic one, illsorts with a method of critical realism. (pp. 22-3)

[Something] must be said about O'Faoláin's ascription of artlessness and simplicity to Irish society and character. This becomes a puzzle when we notice that he simultaneously and repeatedly makes reference in his writings to "the obliqueness and involution of Irishmen". Although a character, like a short story, may...

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Frank Tuohy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Selected Stories] is great fun [and,] although O'Faolain himself has written of peasants and petits fonctionnaires, he approaches genius in his portrayal of Irish women. In half a dozen of these stories, where he allows himself enough space to escape from the professional knowingness of a story like "Two of a Kind", he brings the truth of a sexual relationship to life. "Lovers of the Lake", "Dividends" and "In the Bosom of the Country" are the calm triumphs of a writer who, having started as one whom Yeats would have called a "Cork realist", has transcended [provincialism] … without abandoning Ireland as his theme. After his years in the IRA, O'Faolain discovered that "the combination of an...

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Tom Paulin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sean O'Faolain called the art of which he is such a brilliant exponent "an immense confidence-trick, an immense illusion, as immense a technical achievement as the performance of an adept magician." O'Faolain wasn't actually attacking the short story, but he was insisting that its characterisation is always simple and undeveloped, and that we mustn't look for the depths and mysteries of personality in a literary form which can only make people "appear to appear." (p. 64)

Whether the way in which literary opinion turned unconsciously against the short story was due to this sense of its being essentially a cheat, it's difficult to say, but what is certainly true is that this most difficult art has...

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Gary Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sean O'Faolain is one of the last and unquestionably the greatest of that generation of Irish writers that emerged in the Irish Revolution of 1916 and following. During his writing career of nearly fifty years he has firmly established himself as one of the great story writers in English, and [Selected Stories of Sean O'Faolain] is sufficient to demonstrate his stature to the most critical reader. (p. 143)

His stories are typically dense, lush, complex, and rich—his is not an art of understatement. He has two major themes: what it means to be Irish, and what it means to be an Irish Catholic. O'Faolain is a loyal but critical Irishman; he is capable of denouncing Irish provincialism of both...

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John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sean O'Faolain's Selected Stories are taken from collections published between 1947 and 1976. Every one of the 17 is a splendid example of the master's art of storytelling. It is quite remarkable how quickly the characters come to life and engage our sympathies; after one page of a story you feel you know them as well as if you had read 50 pages of a novel. O'Faolain has the gift of capturing in one phrase or sentence a look, a mood, a relationship: a faithless wife in bed with her lover tells him that her husband 'reminds me of an unemptied ashtray'. No other Irish writer has analysed so shrewdly and yet so charitably, and presented so entertainingly, the 'incongruities and contradictions' in his compatriots.

John Mellors, "Exuberant Lies," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), Vol. 99, No. 2556, April 20, 1979, p. 510.∗

Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The hero of Sean O'Faolain's [And Again? is] … anxious to find a social role which suits his authentic self…. Robert Younger doesn't die—or at least he reaches the age of 65 and is then invited by 'Our Celestial Divinities' to live backwards until he enters 'the womb of Time' again…. The point, O'Faolain and the Divinities insist, is to discover 'whether what you humans call Experience teaches you a damned thing'.

Given the silliness of its plot, And Again? manages to be remarkably serious and sympathetic. When O'Faolain deals with the process of 'younging' he involves himself in rather feeble absurdities, but he wisely prefers to concentrate on his hero's effort to reconstruct his past. A few clues quickly lead him to the arms of Ana ffrench—with whom he discovers he's been having an affair for 20 years—and so to the heart of the book. Its main concern is with the domination of love by time. Hence the supernatural elements, which add a special poignancy…. (p. 471)

Andrew Motion, "Time Trouble," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2532, September 28, 1979, pp. 470-71.∗