Bound in one volume, George O’Brien’s two memoirs The Village of Longing and Dancehall Daysgive readers a spirited, essentially good-humored, unromantic rendering of what it was like for a sensitive and creative young man to grow up in and apart from family and place, the family being adopted and the place being rural Lismore, near Waterford, Ireland. Like James Joyce, who recorded a similar struggle in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), O’Brien had to contend with the strain and tug of emotion so many young Irish people experience when confronted by the emotional and mental constrictions imposed by clan ties, nation, and religion.
Ultimately the young O’Brien—or Seoirse, as he is called here—chose to escape the nets of rural Ireland with its hurling matches, priestly hoverings, and narrow conformity in speech, thought, and dress, a decision neither simple nor painless. He knew that, while much would be gained by leaving Lismore’s provincial ways, so too would he jettison valuable things—the connections with relatives and friends, the cozy sense of place, and a familiar pattern of life would be forever lost. Ireland, however, is the mother of exiles; she cannot afford to keep her most ambitious and questioning sons and daughters, who, like O’Brien, must find jobs and recognition in either England or America.
Much pain is mixed with the exile’s elation at having eluded the harshness of Irish life, and the tension experienced by all restless, talented emigres finds a remarkable voice in O’Brien. He initially offers readers the day-to-day details of life in Lismore—all those petty triumphs and disasters that shape childhood—experienced by a boy who, having lost his mother (she died) and his father (he went to find a teaching job in Dublin), is sent to live with his grandmother, Mam, and his Uncle Georgie and Aunt Chrissy. Then, O’Brien records gradual increase in the boy’s awareness of the great world outside Lismore, brought on by contacts with his father, items broadcast on the radio, and rare glimpses of celebrities such as American dancer Fred Astaire, a visitor to the village at the behest of the Duke of Devonshire, whose castle dominates Lismore.
Readers unacquainted with provincial Irish lore stand to learn much about the routines of rural Irish life from O’Brien, although one could not call the family he depicts in any way “typical,” given the highly individualistic personalities of the people portrayed. Though his writing could be termed poetic prose, it is poetry of the mundane and everyday, depicting dinners, hurling matches, disputes, vistas, landmarks, shops, and streets without sentimentality or overstatement. The Lismorians are mostly manual laborers like Seoirse’s Uncle Georgie, opinionated, practical, resourceful, yet naive and narrow.
Here is nationalistic Ireland at its most fervent pitch, a place where only Catholics are true Irish, Protestants and Jews being “foreign” and therefore to be shunned. The mythos of Lismore, like that of all rural Ireland, has to do with exploits of star hurlers, the bards of ancient times, the heroes whose military prowess eventually led to Irish freedom from hated Britain, and the purity and beauty of Irish women. The result is a uniquely Irish outlook which is well described in O’Brien’s memoirs. Nevertheless the young protagonist is far from being seduced by the Ireland-for-the-Irish sloganeering and posturing he encounters so frequently.
Seoirse feels special—different, set apart from his football-loving, narrowly patriotic, philistine compatriots. Mam, on the other hand, and, to a lesser extent, Georgie and Chrissy, are proponents of Church, village, and country, an outlook Seoirse finds repellently narrow and life-denying, yet at the same time, curiously attractive because safe.
Yet Seoirse cannot, for all his efforts, be the ordinary village “Mike” he at times wishes he could be—a man not unlike Georgie, crude, vibrant, conventional, unthinking, deaf to the siren calls of art and learning. The sense of being an outsider is joined to his growing sense of needing more psychic space in which to develop talents he finds he possesses—preeminently the talent to express himself in writing.
For mentors, he finally finds he cannot turn to anyone in Lismore, since they are too provincial in outlook and too complacent to boot. Thus, the reader sees Seoirse’s need...
(The entire section is 1812 words.)