Whatever happened to Seán O’Faoláin?
In his lifetime, Seán O’Faoláin published eight volumes of short stories, four novels, three travel books, six biographies, a play, a memoir, as well as critical studies of long and short form fiction. At various times his work was both banned and a set text on school curricula. Scholars speak of him in revered tones. He was editor of, as Roy Foster puts it, “that essential journal” The Bell while, for Diarmaid Ferriter, he is one of Ireland’s “most influential writers”. He is also, nowadays, almost entirely out of print.
How did this situation come to be? Well, by his own admission O’Faolain wrote too much while, by the judgment of critics, he wrote too unevenly. Paul Delaney, a Trinity lecturer in Irish literature, addresses both concerns in this monograph as he attempts to demystify the “uncertain subject” of an author “whose work is often not read or deliberately misread despite his apparent canonicity”.
Delaney takes a particular interest in O’Faoláin’s writing during the 1930s, “a decade of international volatility and fear” which saw the rise “of one of O’Faoláin’s greatest but most ambivalent influences, Eamon de Valera”. It is a fruitful focus for the volume which allows great scope in showing O’Faoláin as a “deliberately interventionist” penman concerned with “exposing expedient myths” as well as “recording uncomfortable truths”. And certainly there were enough of both of those going around in 1930s Ireland.
While Delaney believes O’Faoláin’s “true métier as a creative artist was the short story” he does acknowledge that this was not the author’s only narrative vehicle. Thus this volume is split between interrogations of O’Faoláin’s work as a biographer and discussion of his earliest fiction. The texts examined range from the Corkman’s two biographies of de Valera (1933 and 1939) as well as books on Constance Markievicz (1934), and the still well regarded King of the Beggars about Daniel O’Connell (1938), all the way to his controversial novel Bird Alone (1936) and A Purse of Coppers (1936), a volume of stories intensely focused on the “repressive and power-driven” Catholic Church.
This bipartite division proves an interesting approach. Scholars might ordinarily have chosen to examine either the biographies or the fiction but Delaney, in acknowledging both but prioritising neither, draws the reader’s attention to the intriguing stylistic similarities between O’Faoláin’s dual modes. What becomes clear on the one hand is the degree to which the stories are an effort to construct “a narrative of the history of modern Ireland” while, on the other, the ostensibly objective biographies function as non-literary fictions, stories all told rather than shown.
Consider for instance the use of a genealogy in the 1933 historical novel A Nest of Simple Folk compared to the absence of “the many elementary features of good scholarship (such as footnotes, page references for quotations, and bibliographies)” in almost all O’Faoláin’s biographies. Both modes meanwhile foreground the importance of “inherited memories” and both declare their status as published texts with “references to questions of structure, genre, and writing,” or with “explanatory subtitles”.
Accordingly, the great achievement of Delaney’s volume is to place his subject’s work within an appropriate historical and historiographical context. O’Faoláin, he says, had a tendency to view Irish history as an exercise of “pronounced theatricality”. The independence years for him were a “struggle for personal as well as national and generational autonomy”. A veteran of the War of Independence, he took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War but his activities were limited to propaganda and some light bomb-making, experiences he would draw upon for his first collection of stories Midsummer Night Madness (1932).
Delaney’s investigation of the unease and sense of transience found these linked stories is a highlight of the volume, the point at which his drive to contextualise meshes best with his textual analysis. Characters in the collection, he points out, “are often depicted as on the run, as they flee from enemy soldiers and a law which is alien and unjust, but also from a part of themselves which has been sacrificed or put to one side”. The reader can immediately see connections with the “stress on transitional periods” throughout O’Faoláin’s many biographies.
Never hagiographic, the volume repeatedly draws our attention to the way O’Faoláin slyly used his re-writing of the past – just another story to the author – as a means of commenting on his present in terms of both events and ideologies. O’Faoláin’s fictions therefore emerge here less as slices of life and more as reflections of his thinking in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This is especially true in his reproaches to naturalism and his wariness of modernism, as well as the manner by which he demanded realism include a powerful sense of social commitment
Of course Delaney himself is primarily writing for a scholarly readership and so the general reader may at times find his style a little dry. That being said, he largely avoids off-putting, jargon-heavy academese, and many will find his discussion of the biographies – particularly O’Faoláin’s shifting opinion of de Valera – to be of interest. By contrast, however, the chapters of literary criticism unpacking the novels and short stories, insightful though they are, will likely appeal to a narrower audience.
Very much in keeping with mainstream critical discourse, Delaney does well to, if not slice, then at least untangle the Gordian Knot of his subject’s reputation. O’Faoláin, we are reminded, was all things to all readers: “a liberal pluralist, an opinionated chauvinist, a proto-revisionist, and a nascent postcolonial critic”. Today, however, he is mostly an object lesson in how a highly regarded author can simply vanish from public consciousness. Delaney’s book may not fully explain the latter, and occasionally it leaves the reader to connect the dots themselves, but it is exactly the kind of spark required to reignite scholarly interest in this neglected writer’s work.
Other posts you may find of interest:
- ‘Bridging the Gaps in McGahern’s Journey to Becoming a Great Writer’: My Irish Examiner review of Denis Sampson’s Young John McGahern.
- ‘Swallowing stout and feeling vaguely blasphemous…’: A review of Flann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies
Eds. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan, and Werner Huber.