Introduction

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O'Faoláin, Sean 1900–

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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

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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...

(The entire section contains 6348 words.)

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