Seán O'Faoláin 1900–
(Born John Whelan) Irish short story writer, novelist, biographer, autobiographer, editor, nonfiction writer, journalist, dramatist, and translator.
O'Faoláin is considered a master of the short story. Although he has been one of Ireland's most outspoken reformers, his love for his country and admiration for its people are evident throughout his work. O'Faoláin depicts the Irish with compassion, humor, and irony. As he said in an interview with his daughter, author Julia O'Faolain: "Everything I write is [romantic]. But I know too that I have to put in—that my only hope of sanity and balance is to put in—irony. Irony is the one element that saves me from being soppy." O'Faoláin has, in both his fiction and his nonfiction, documented much of the history of twentieth-century Ireland, often basing his works on his own experiences as an active participant in important events.
Born in Cork, O'Faoláin was the son of parents who aspired to the British middle-class way of life. For many years O'Faoláin also followed this ambition until, as an impressionable adolescent, he witnessed the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Abhorring the brutality of the British, he soon found himself in sympathy with the proponents of an independent Ireland. He studied Gaelic, changed his name to the Gaelic variant, and joined the Irish Volunteers. His subsequent experiences in the Irish revolution of 1919–21 and as director of publicity for the Irish Republican Army during the Irish civil war led to a fervor of loyalty and patriotism. O'Faoláin was disillusioned and disappointed when the war ended with a humiliating defeat for the IRA.
While in his teens, O'Faoláin underwent another experience which affected his work. His home was located near the Opera House; many of the actors and actresses lodged with the Whelans. O'Faoláin was fascinated by what appeared to be the exotic life of the theater and, with stage passes from the lodgers, he often attended performances. In 1915, he saw an Abbey Theatre performance of Lennox Robinson's The Patriot. Until then, all the dramas he had seen were about English life. The Patriot depicted life in an Irish country town, and the realistic setting and characters touched O'Faoláin. As he wrote of Robinson's work: "It brought me strange and wonderful news—that writers could also write books and plays about the common everyday reality of Irish life." Although O'Faoláin's first works were romantic and exotic, he later began to write about "common everyday Irish life" and never abandoned that subject.
The first collection of O'Faoláin's stories, Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories (1932), are highly romanticized accounts of the Irish war of independence and civil war. Although the censorship board in Dublin banned the book, O'Faoláin was elected to the Irish Academy of Letters, whose members included George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats. In his later collection, A Purse of Coppers (1937), O'Faoláin tempered his romanticism somewhat; he later wrote: "I hope a certain adjustment and detachment shows itself in the stories…." O'Faoláin was indeed successful in this attempt, for critics often cite this book and the following collection, Teresa and Other Stories (1947; published in the United States as The Man Who Invented Sin and Other Stories), as examples of O'Faoláin's "more mature" style—compressed, subtle, ironic, and subdued.
In 1940, O'Faoláin founded an Irish literary journal, The Bell. It was his belief that Ireland, now cut off from England, needed to establish its own culture and standards. In this periodical O'Faoláin included articles on fashion, theater, and other social and cultural topics, and he encouraged and assisted new writers in contributing to The Bell. Even though it was often sold under the counter, the journal became quite popular and O'Faoláin edited it until 1946.
The mixed reception of his books and of The Bell exemplify O'Faoláin's status in Ireland. He has faced constant derision and contempt while also finding a small number of sympathizers. As Julia O'Faolain has written: "Seconded by very few liberals, Sean pitted himself against an alliance of patriot prigs whose ideal society was to be protected from free speech or foreign ideas." In many areas of his life O'Faoláin has been dedicated to the creation and preservation of Irish culture. As evident in the recent publication of The Collected Stories of Sean O'Faolain (1983), his aims are the same in his works of fiction—subtle, compassionate depictions of the everyday concerns of Irish life.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 12; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.)