Seán O'Faoláin

by John Francis Whelan

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 2683 words.)

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also "skipped" inBird 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 provincial life of Ireland.

The despair of A Purse of Coppers is unrelieved by any grandeur and the nearest approach to hope is contained in an unanswered question asked by the priest-narrator in the first story, "A Broken World": "What image of life that would fire and fuse us all, what music bursting like the spring, what trumpet, what engendering love …"

That O'Faolain has not answered this question is not surprising since history has not helped him. What is perhaps surprising is that he has continued to search history for an answer, digging deeper into the "racial mind" to find again the rebellious unity that Leo Donnel sought. His important biographies, King of the Beggars (1938) and The Great O'Neill (1942) develop and illuminate his half-mystical ideas of the nation….

[Come Back to Erin] is so lacking in momentum and in any centralizing element that it is difficult to give a coherent account of it. It differs from the other novels in being situated entirely in "the present" and being free from grandfathers. But the pressure that Denis and Corney felt, the pressure of the Church through the family, is there again, impalpable and inescapable like the pressure of the atmosphere. It does not suffice to unify action, but hinders the divergent wills of a number of unequally interesting human beings…. (p. 9)

Through the gaseous flickering irresolution of Come Back to Erin there emerges the same rock of contradiction that contorts the structure of the biographies. However much he wants to, poor St. John cannot "be Irish" without "being Catholic," and as he cannot be Catholic he kills himself, thus making himself as sure of Hell as anyone can be. For Frankie on the other hand, and perhaps for some of the other characters, a sort of Limbo is reserved. He is, of course, Irish in the parnellistic mode, aggressive, anticlerical and "collectivist." He does not practice his religion but apparently continues, in some special way, to be Catholic…. The parnellistic way out is no longer valid for either of the brothers. It is a side-road that, after a brief historical detour, eventually leads back to the main enclosure where "being Irish" and "being Catholic" are the same. (pp. 10-11)

[Teresa (1947), a book of stories,] reflects very much the same world as A Purse of Coppers did ten years before. The clergy are still dominant, artists are still frustrated. The "fusing image" longed for in "A Broken Wheel" has clearly not been found. It still is being sought, however, perhaps less hopefully, but in the same places. The longest story in the book, "The Silence of the Valley" concerns the death of an old cobbler in the Gaeltacht, and the revelation to a group of visitors that this story-telling cobbler and his wife represented not merely the old Gaelic world but a primitive source of virtue, the natural state of innocence before the fall of man. This cobbler—the earthiness of whose stories we know to have brought on him the castigations of the clergy—is a necessary hero in the mythology of "Delphic nationalism." He is in fact the incarnation of the "true" Ireland: an Ireland before the Fall and therefore before Christianity, an Ireland which is its own religion and does not contradict.

This idea of the "true" Ireland has ceased to be an inspiring myth and has become a source of confusion and irritation. When O'Faolain was still writing out of the experience of his youth romantic Ireland was not dead. It was natural for him, whose own youth had coincided and mingled with his country's successful revolt, to fuse subjective and objective, identifying his own inner experience with the Irish revolution. This identification, extending back into the penumbra which had helped to produce it, established itself as a general association; nationalism was the communion of youth, freedom was a word of one indivisible meaning, the Irish-speaking districts of West Cork were a pagan Arcadia. Within a limited historical field, a period, ending in the early 1930's—during which a powerful revolutionary tradition ran not only against the Crown, but against the Church also—this association was coherent and a source of power. But revolution is little more permanent than youth. The Ireland in which O'Faolain now lives and writes is [at the time of this essay], the least romantic and the least revolutionary of countries. It is one in which Church and State exist in absolute harmony, as inexpugnable bastions of the family. Here the parents of Corney or Denis could live secure, for there is no fissure at all in the wall of acceptance. Parnell's place has been taken by a line of pious and blameless patriots and rebellion has become a praiseworthy but concluded activity. Ireland is now a middle-aged country. Youth can take it or leave it—and often leaves it.

O'Faolain will neither take it nor leave it. He sees of course, and bitterly resents, Ireland's staid paternalism, symbolized for him principally by the literary Censorship Board, which has banned three of his books (Midsummer Night Madness, Bird Alone and A Purse of Coppers). In scores of articles and letters he has denounced this institution and the spirit behind it…. His stories, with their great and increasing emphasis on the frustrations and stagnations of Irish life, show his oppression by that spirit and his knowledge of its power. But in combating it, which he has done more fearlessly than any other writer living continuously in Ireland, he has relied emotionally on something that has lost its meaning in the new environment—the old anticlerical nationalism. The clear-cut attitude of Frank O'Connor, who can laugh both at the people and at what they believe, is not for him, since he believes in the people. Corney's feat of believing in the people without sharing their beliefs is one that cannot be maintained for long, and Come Back to Erin is evidence of a sense that an Irish nationalist must, if only indirectly, be a religious man. Thus, starting as irreligion, or at least as anticlericalism, the patriotic emotion leads back to religion again. This flight involves a difficult mental revolution. It is hardly surprising that Come Back to Erin is a confused novel…. (pp. 11-12)

O'Faolain is not regarded in Ireland as a Catholic writer…. Abroad, however, he is a Catholic; his books figure in the American Guide to Catholic Literature (though not always with favourable comment), and one of them, King of the Beggars, was actually a choice of the Catholic Book Club of America. The difference of opinion is not surprising. O'Faolain is a complex writer, and in any case it has long been a matter of doubt whether any novelist (or poet or dramatist) can be properly described as being in his creative function "Catholic." If we apply the strict test of edification, and insist, like Maritain, that the Catholic novelist should abstract himself from the sinfulness of his characters, and contemplate it, without collusion, from the "altitude" then O'Faolain fails. (p. 12)

O'Faolain … is parochial. He neither affirms nor denies anything of universal importance…. [But he does not present] the "nationalism" of Dostoevski or Yeats or even Stefan George, which was in each case the vehicle for a general idea, apocalyptic or messianic. O'Faolain does not believe in "Holy Ireland," or in an aristocracy or in "the descent into the ancient Blood." The archaic nationalism which shows itself in his novels and stories is free from all taint of generality. His stories are illuminating about Ireland; an anthropological entertainment to the curious foreigner, an annoyance and a stimulus to the native. To Ireland the stimulus is of great value; in a time of sleepy simulation O'Faolain's irascible and dissenting temperament has struggled, not without success, to preserve some honest intellectual life among his people. What he may have lost himself in that struggle we cannot know.

We know that once, in Bird Alone, he managed to move from particulars to the universal and to write a novel of real importance. Corney is ripped away from everything he had been bound to; from his home, from the sentimental religion of his boyhood and the patriotism of his youth, from Elsie, from his native city. In the end he is a naked man, helpless, confronted with the God of his father. If at that point he had made an Act of Faith, Bird Alone would have been hailed everywhere, even in Ireland (outside Cork), as a great Catholic novel, for the whole book would have seemed to move to this end. The fact that he said "No" seems to me to put the book on a much higher plane than that of edification: the level of truth. The old man would not assent because he did not believe; and his creator was not willing to make him believe in order to please the readers of the novel. The reality of the character emerges in the stubborn rejection. Bird Alone is about human fate, which is harder than fiction. (pp. 13-14)

It is almost superhumanly difficult to be a Catholic writer in a Catholic country; the pressure of a community varies inversely with its size; ingrowing nationalism destroys a writer's scope. O'Faolain has been a living example of the truth and interrelation of these three propositions. (p. 14)

Donat O'Donnell, "The Parnellism of Sean O'Faolain," in Renascence (© copyright, 1950, Marquette University Press), Vol. III, No. 1, Autumn, 1950, pp. 3-14.

Julian Moynahan

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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 be oblique and simple at the same time, the combination is not usual and might well become the subject of a novelist's investigation over a lifetime. It may be surmised that O'Faoláin understands that Irish people can be complicated and artful but may prefer, for reasons of a historical nature, to keep their complexity out of sight, or else only expressed in privileged communications with representatives of [the Catholic Church which he calls the new Ireland's] "one firmly outlined social institution"…. Joyce remarks somewhere that the first law of Irish moral life is omerta, the communal oath of silence sworn by Sicilians. Since O'Faoláin is himself part and product of that simple yet involuted, artless yet oblique, Catholic Irish community of the "cautiously silent" which came into its own after 1916, it was inevitable that his work with the novel—it is a genre, D. H. Lawrence reminds us, that thrives on indiscretion, letting a true state of affairs emerge even against the firmest censorship of the novelist himself—would not proceed smoothly or issue in copious productions. (p. 23)

There is a dialectic of liberation and constriction in the novels that has no happy issue. One way of focussing it would be to consider the figure of the policeman, in the novels themselves but first in O'Faoláin's life. As is well known, his father was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary at Cork, staunchly loyal to the British power and therefore inevitably in bitter conflict with his gifted Republican son from Easter Week onward. The oedipal struggle is normal and universal, but not often in literary history has the authority of the disapproving father been arrayed in such visible emblems of power and prestige…. O'Faoláin pere, or rather Constable Whelan, survives and flourishes in the new Ireland. It's just that the uniforms, along with the official source whence flows repressive legislation, censorship and moral censure, have changed. (pp. 23-4)

A Nest of Simple Folk, one of the few great novels of modern Irish literature and a deeply satisfying one as well, begins in the remote countryside of East Limerick in 1854 and ends in the city of Cork in 1916. It is full of pain … but it is also rich with fulfillment: the fulfillment of certain limited dreams and aspirations as three generations of a family perform the slow, impeded change from country to town to city that epitomises an important phase of Irish social history during nearly a century; and the larger fulfillment which is the successful outcome of a bitter and painful struggle against the British colonial rule from the era of James Stephens and the Fenians to the year and very day of the glorious Easter Rising.

The novels that follow A Nest of Simple Folk are much less satisfying, much less fulfilled and fulfilling, and these begin and end with, and centre upon the city of Cork. On a simple view of O'Faoláin's longer fiction, one might surmise that it is a good thing to go to Cork but not to remain there. It is, therefore, more than a little surprising that all of O'Faoláin's novels should be so tied to his native city, especially since his short fiction, and of course his literary and travel pieces, range far and wide across the rest of Ireland and the entire civilised world. But it is equally surprising, since there is that tie in the novels, that Cork should be presented as such a clog and restraint on the adolescent aspirations and romantic hopes and dreams of a Denis Hussey or Corny Crone. With the somewhat older Frankie Hannafey the situation is scarcely improved, if we consider that the city contains on the one hand the police spies and detectives whose business it is to betray him and hunt him down, and on the other the gloomy family house on Morrison's Island in whose attic room he lies hidden for weeks at a time, as if already in prison, and where his mentally afflicted mother suffers her cyclic bouts of mania and melancholia.

Nevertheless, one must add that, on the evidence of the novels, O'Faoláin's quarrel with Cork, like his quarrel with post-Treaty Ireland as a whole, is a lover's quarrel…. [Note that young Denis, in A Nest of Simple Folk] comes to see that the city which he had heretofore beheld as "builded of light and loveliness", is in fact "dark and tawdry, old and deformed." His reaction to this shattering discovery is not to scorn, or to plan an escape to greener pastures, but instead to search the city until he finds some vista or image that will redeem it from its sad decay…. (pp. 26-7)

To save his city from its own isolate shabbiness and provincialism, [Denis] associates in his imagination a bit of Cork with the splendid and glamorous "Tuscan tower" of Italian medievalism and humanism—the tunnel in the passage working like a tunnel in time—and the link is not entirely specious, for there is the historic and inevitable connection between the Catholic culture of Ireland, including Cork, and the Latin culture of continental Europe. (Denis is doing imagistically and naively what O'Faoláin himself was to do in argument when he maintained in The Great O'Neill that Ireland would have joined the system of Counter-reformation Catholic Europe, instead of remaining isolated and cut off, if only the Earl had succeeded in his rebellion, becoming the first real king of a unified Catholic Ireland.) (pp. 27-8)

Regardless of what happened at Kinsale in 1601, the city and its associated deep water port of Cobh do lie open to the ships of the world. Why is the city yet so stagnant and isolated? Why, if the novelist in O'Faoláin remains so attached to Cork, can he do so little to liberate it from itself?

I suppose a large part of the answer must lie in the sad realities of the city's, and of Ireland's, history…. [In Come Back to Erin, Frankie] sees the entire port as a sort of open wound through which Ireland bled the victims of the Famine by the hundreds of thousands.

This sense of Cork's and the entire country's past, mingling with Frankie's distaste for present Irish developments—Come Back to Erin is set in 1936—makes for a dismaying vision altogether. To the extent that it was O'Faoláin's vision as well, one understands why he never again attempted a novel that took its setting from his native place. It remains something of a mystery why that decision has entailed his giving up novel writing altogether. (pp. 28-9)

Julian Moynahan, "God Smiles, the Priest Beams, and the Novelist Groans," in Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies (© Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies), Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 19-29.

Frank Tuohy

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[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 acquisitive middle class and a vigorous and uncultivated church meant that the fight—for a republic as I understood it—had ended in total defeat". The effects of this defeat are everywhere in the present collection, which covers the period since the Second World War.

In fact, one of the great qualities of O'Faolain's writing—remarkable in itself in a writer born in 1900—is its close connection with contemporary life. It is not part of his method to avoid contingent fact and place his reliance on the eternal verities—though it has been characteristic of Irish writing from Yeats to Beckett and beyond to do so….

The earlier stories are fizzy with images, reminding one a little of the poems of MacNeice or W. R. Rodgers. Later the style grows calmer: its transparencies bring out the connection with Turgenev—O'Faolain's first novel was called A House of Simple Folk. But it would be wrong to think of O'Faolain as merely continuing a traditional technique. His narrative can contain complexities worthy of Nabokov. In "An Inside Outside Complex" he copes beautifully with such recent obsessions as mirror-images, role-playing and identity crises, without at all compromising the humanity of his two lovers, a middle-aged faker of antiques and the lady dressmaker he marries.

A story like "Lovers of the Lake" shows how different the major concerns of these stories are from any equivalent in America or England. The chief characters exist for themselves alone, outside class hierarchy or social group…. [As] always with this writer, the conflict between religion and the personal life is treated with admirable even-handedness: a poor young woman, who has had six children in six years, comes out of confession saying: "God bless the poor innocent priest, I wish I knew as little about marriage as he does", and returns to her husband with renewed ardour.

I look forward to returning to this and other stories in this collection. In the meantime, we must celebrate a writer to whom old age has brought no diminution of wit, style or force of attack.

Frank Tuohy, "Evidence of Defeat," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3961, February 24, 1978, p. 236.

Tom Paulin

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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 recently begun to emerge from a long winter of neglect…. That sweet, subtle, teasing art has returned from its exile in triumph—and it has returned to remind us that silence, exile and loneliness were often (though not always) what it was about, and that we should no longer view those qualities as being necessarily reductive and limiting. (pp. 64-5)

The socially marginal is the setting of "Admiring the Scenery" where three teachers stand on a little railway platform in the middle of a vast stretch of bogland. (p. 65)

Concealed behind the story's ostensible subject—three men sharing an anecdote about an eccentric character—there is another level of experience, and it is in the recognition of this hidden subject that we receive that formal pleasure which is one of the essential qualities of every good short story. It's as though the story casts a shadow which is the untold story of Hanagan's miserable love-affair. And it would be quite unfair to say that O'Faolain is a conjurer making flatness seem three-dimensional, because what we admire here is both his technical skill and the feeling of depth which he creates. His ending is not an empty trick.

In this element of formal pleasure, which is one of the results of its disciplined tightness, the short story resembles the sonnet, and like the sonnet many short stories playfully invite the reader to notice and share their technical self-consciousness…. One of the many joys of O'Faolain's work lies in noticing the play of hidden allusion and commentary in it. In "I Remember! I Remember!" he aims a clever joke at naturalism as well as giving an example of a typically Irish mnemonic tyranny. In "Of Sanctity and Whiskey" he pays oblique tributes to Browning and James in this tale of a proud and cunning cleric sitting for an alcoholic portrait-painter, and in "The Faithless Wife" and the variously clever "How to Write a Short Story" he knocks his detested Maupassant, while in "Something, Everything, Anything, Nothing" he returns to James and Browning. It is like glimpsing a series of sophisticated conversations in a literary heaven of witty spirits.

O'Faolain is a great story-teller, who can be wry, dreamily otherworldly, sensuous, ascetic, sad and funny. (p. 66)

Tom Paulin, "Evidence of Neglect," in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. L, No. 6, June, 1978, pp. 64-71.∗

Gary Davenport

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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 the nationalist and religious genres, but unlike Shaw he denounces it from within: he lives in Ireland and he remains a Catholic. His chief allegiance is that of many other Irish writers, including Joyce, whose Leopold Bloom gave it a convenient name: "life for men and women." And these stories are full to bursting of life. Landscape provides much of this richness—especially the fecund landscape of his native Cork: low thick clouds, endless rain, sodden earth. And the characters who live in this environment partake of its sense of being outside time. In "The Silence of the Valley" the death of a cobbler is simply no match for the life force generated by his friends and relatives—the Brueghelian atmosphere of eel-roasting, singing, and whisky-drinking that surrounds the funeral is the real power here.

And there is another power, one which is woven inextricably through Irish life—the Church…. From the first O'Faolain detested the sort of arrogant provincialism that is sometimes associated with Irish Catholicism, but he embraces the faith joyously at its human level. Catholic theology—invariably from the layman's viewpoint—is a major preoccupation with him, and his affection for the subject is visible in the good-natured comedy that often results. He is of course not a comic writer in the way that Frank O'Connor was, but when he does turn to comedy his mastery of the mode is impressive. I am thinking particularly of "Angels and Ministers of Grace," which ranks with the best of O'Connor's comedies of Irish Catholicism. (pp. 143-44)

Gary Davenport, "Reviews: 'Selected Stories of Sean O'Faolain'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 143-44.

John Mellors

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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

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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.∗


O'Faolain, Seán (Vol. 1)


O'Faoláin, Seán (Vol. 32)