Sean O’ Faolain, a Dubliner, is known through his writings as a sympathetic yet realistic interpreter of contemporary Irish life. His latest book, The Finest Stories of Sean O’Faolain, has just been published under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint. For a deeper understanding of Mr. O’ Faolain and of the problems confronting Irish writers, ice have turned to JOHN V. KELLEHER,Associate Professor of Literature at Harvard. Mr. Kelleher is of Irish descent and a frequent traveler in Ireland.
by JOHN V. KELLEHER
THAT Sean O’Faolain is the most distinguished living Irish writer is a true statement, but uninformative. In a small and somewhat intermittent literature “most distinguished living writer” is apt to be as dubious a term of praise as “the family beauty ” —which may mean much or may not. A better description is that given by a young Texan reporter who interviewed him recently in Houston: “Mr. O’Faolain is a tall, erect, handsome Irishman who wears two pairs of glasses.”
He does not wear both at once, but he does characteristically look at things two ways, as a susceptible romantic and as a cold-eyed realist always inquiring after facts and causes. This brings up a third short description, “first man of letters in Ireland today,” as his publishers often refer to him on book jackets. He is eminently the man of letters — creative writer, essayist, critic, editor, biographer, pamphleteer, and literary journalist — and he is also the first Ireland has ever had, or the first to do the whole job. He undertook the work twenty-five years ago, uninvited and unencouraged, fully aware of what he was getting himself in for; and the only intelligible explanation for his action is that he was then, and is still, the most confirmed romantic born in Ireland this century.
His first book, the collection of short stories called Midsummer Night Madness, came out in 1932. He was then thirty-two years old, had a wife and child, and was earning his living as an English teacher in a normal school outside London. Edward Garnett wrote the preface for the book, alternating between praise of O’Faolain and rage against Ireland, which, Garnett growled, ranked somewhere below Bulgaria on the literary map of Europe, He knew; he was from Ireland himself. There on the one hand was the new Irish state, culturally a desert and apparently intent on even greater aridity. And here was yet another young Irish writer, of delicate talent, with the richest feeling for the Irish landscape in every mood and weather, a rebel, a scholar, a Gaelic speaker — who had to depend on the English to publish what he wrote so poignantly about a country that did not give a damn for his like. “How typical!”
As if to corroborate something about the title of his book, O’Faolain thereupon decided to go back to Ireland. He had been away six years, three in England, three in America, where he had been a Commonwealth Fellow at Harvard and had taught for a term at Boston College. Meanwhile he had kept in close touch with his native land, especially through A.E. and Frank O’Connor, and he had no sentimental illusions about the cultural scene he was re-entering. He couldn’t have had. Between 1921, when he had graduated from University College, Cork, and 1926, when he had left for Harvard, his experience of post-Revolutionary Ireland had been, to say the least, intimate. He had been a publisher’s commercial traveler, with the south and west of Ireland for his territory, and had not shot himself. During the Civil War of 1922-23 he had taken the Republican side and had served successively as a bomb maker, a guerrilla, director of propaganda for an I.R.A. division, and finally, for a few weeks in Dublin, as acting director of publicity for the whole Republican movement.
That was an unsettling experience. “For the first time I met our leaders, and I said to myself, ‘My God, is this what we’ve got!’” And again:
Though I was then about as ignorant a young man as you could find in the length and breadth of Europe ... I had gumption enough to see, that if what we all knew between us about society or politics, in any intellectual sense, were printed consecutively it would not cover a threepenny bit, and that all we ever said, or ever published, with hardly an exceptional article, was . . . propaganda without any guiding concept. In that year I woke up.
He was always waking up, but at the time there was not much for him to wake up to. He taught for a while at a secondary school in Clare, till one morning a teacher with whom he roomed sat up in hod, rubbed Ids gray thatch, and said, “Well, Sean. Today I’ve been twenty-five years on the job. Think of that!” Sean thought of it and quit. He went back to Cork, took two M.A.’s, in Irish and English, edited a small political-literary weekly, walked and talked with Frank O’Connor, who was now county librarian, wrote incessantly, and finally escaped.
THERE were a few changes to note when he returned to Ireland in 1933. DeValera had just led the Republicans into office, where they were to remain uninterruptedly for sixteen years, at first cheered hopefully by O’Faolain, later hammered by him. Intellectual tone was now being set by the literary censorship, established in 1928; and for a kindly welcome-home the censors banned Midsummer Night Madness. More to the point was that the one magazine that could have printed his work, A.E.’s Irish Statesman, had folded in 1930, with the simultaneous lapse of A.E.’s energies and his American backers’ money. Of course O’Faolain expected all this. He knew that he would have to write for English and American papers; and since he already had a reputation in London as that sort of editor’s delight who can be counted on for better work than he is paid for, he knew he could support himself. His earnings, though, would inevitably be slimmer and his fame smaller than what he might have gained had he stayed in London and not chosen to identify himself with the literature of a country that now seemed resolutely receding from the attention of mankind.
The reason for his return was very simple. He had no choice. His romanticism was always the decisive element in his personality; it was fixated upon Ireland; and it translated itself emotionally and intellectually as patriotism, a concern for tradition, and the urge to express the unexpressed potentialities of his own people.
The same, of course, would be true of any other Irish writer. Where O’Faolain differs is in the peculiarly exact balance of his personality. In his creative writing his romanticism almost always dictates his subject. At that point an equal and opposite force, his realistic intelligence, comes into play and proceeds to deal with what it would newer have chosen of its own accord, so that the quality of his work is determined by this double intransigence of emotional awareness and questioning mind, which, because neither can surrender, must somehow be reconciled. The reconciliation is not an easy process. The stories that best illustrate it are very quietly written, but behind them lies a great deal of other, more turbulent writing, historical, critical, and polemic, in which the principles that underlie his comment upon life and upon Ireland are tested and defined. Through this other writing, too, his exasperation is given healthy positive discharge. If he is one of the few Irish writers who have not suffered from the pip, it is because his nature impels him to get plenty of exercise. Abroad he interprets Ireland and defends her. At home he kicks her soundly and often where long experience tells him it will do her most good. For that the nearest vantage is obviously the best .
Naturally enough a large portion of the work he has addressed directly to Ireland is unknown here and will remain unknown. From 1940 to 1946 he edited The Bell, a monthly dedicated to two radical principles, the need to encourage Irish writers and the need to pay them. During the war years The Bell and the Saturday literary page of the Irish Times were the only means of publication and payment open to most of the writers; and O’Faolain was the only editor to whom the beginner could submit his manuscripts and look for advice. It would be pleasant to record that his efforts saved Irish literature. Unfortunately its state now is worse than it was then. But though O’Faolain published little else of his own during those years, he did produce piecemeal in his articles and editorials the fullest analytic description of contemporary Ireland, and of its strengths, faults, and derivations, ever given. More than anything else these writings, close in manner and approach to the best eighteenth-century pamphleteering, justify his title as first Irish man of letters. They are all forceful, witty, and thoroughly informed. Reading them, however, one can understand why the leaders of Irish life never felt any need for a man of letters in the first place. At least, not this kind.
Whether or not his American readers ever see this side of his work, and it is most unlikely that they should, it has a direct influence on what they do see. He is fond of quoting Newman’s “It is the whole man that moves.” O’Faolain moves with sureness because he has worked out and defined the understanding of Ireland to which his romanticism first impelled him. What makes humane sense in the quiet Irish chaos is an aid to perception anywhere —for proof see his Italian travel books, where the poor of Naples are the Cork poor of his own boyhood, and his excitement over E.C.A.financed redistribution of land in the latifundia is both heightened and tempered by recollection of the Irish land wars. Also this search for understanding explains the outward peculiarity of his bibliography, for it has repeatedly driven him aside from what might seem the normal line of his development. Between 1933 and 1940 he published three novels, three various valuable failures. They fail, that is, as novels; as Irish literature, as examples of how some aspects of Irish life can properly be handled, they are first-rate. After each novel he wrote a biography. Two have been published here, King of the Beggars (1938) and The Great O’Neill (1942), the lives of Daniel O’Connell, who created the modem Irish democracy in the nineteenth century and won Catholic emancipation, and of Red Hugh O’Neill, native leader in the Elizabethan wars, who was at once the last Gaelic king and the first modern Irishman. The biographies are attempts to discover through history some answer to the problems that had foiled him in the novels. In one aspect they are successive backward projections of ascertainable continuity with the hope of calculating the present hidden directions of Irish life, assuming that these do not just go round and round. Otherwise they are a means of seeing just how a great figure does establish himself within the Irish limits and break through them.
He did not find the answer to his problems as a novelist because his chief dilemma was half his own. He was not satisfied with either of the two obvious solutions to conflict in an Irish novel, frustration or the emigrant ship. His first novel had evaded the issue by ending with the outbreak of the Revolution, but that was only an evasion because he knew when he wrote the book that the Revolution had not produced the answer. His two later novels end upon compacted frustration. Reading the third, Come Hack to Erin, one has the feeling that after laying down his pen O Faolain began kicking the manuscript around the room. He had sent his main character abroad to learn about life as it is lived outside the parish, and had then brought, him back only to find that in the parish there was no possible role for a man no longer parochial. In other words, as a novelist he was beaten not by lack of talent — he has always had talent to spare and fling away — but by his too great demand upon a society intimate, homely, compact, and too rigidly narrow.
That brings us to his short stories. His collected stories have just been published, twenty-seven of them; and for the first time the whole of his personality is represented in one book. So are many aspects of modern Ireland, hitherto unsung, for in the short stories he has freer and wider range than he could ever achieve in the novel. A novelist is always somewhat limited by representative society — what cannot he presented as representative must be explained, and explanation, if it be the least taste sociological, always injures art. In wider societies this is not so much of a problem: nearly anything goes because nearly everything does. In Ireland, since independence was won, the aristocratic big houses have gone or have become irrelevant and the traditional peasant life, always the Irish artist’s deepest resource, has all but withered away, so that the representative range is now bounded by the small farmer and the strong farmer and, in the cities, by the lower middle-class and the middle middle-class. There are many exceptions, to be sure, but all are individual, none typical. In the short story the writer is under no such limitation. The focus is almost always on character, any character in any context. As his collected stories show, O’Faolain has taken freest choice of both.
In his later stories he has chosen themes that would never have occurred to his youth. He is no longer distracted by Ireland. In his middle years his motto was “See the facts and understand the picture.”Having seen and understood, he now favors a maxim from Baudelaire, from the realism of that great romantic: “Every man who does not accept the conditions of life sells his soul.”And he would add: every woman and every nation and every writer. So he writes now with much more of easy verve and play of humor, and with sharper judgment than ever upon all that, in the name of romance or purity or safety, refuses life and the responsibility of living and loving. This judgment emerges most surprisingly in his stories about women — surprising because so stunningly unsentimental. He likes women; he is one of the few Irish writers who really do; but he insists on regarding them as people and therefore as responsible. Hence his stories “Teresa” and “A Letter,” about two lovely girls, two lovely evaders of life, either of whom, though for very different reasons, could do with a swift kick. Or there is the sweet old Irish mother in “Childybawn,” Mother Machree incarnate, a honeymouthed old bat with saw teeth. Or, on the other side of the ledger, the little girl in “The Trout” who discovers the sweet taste of courage, or the wife in “The Fur Coat” who realizes with a shock that her youth is gone when, after years of privation too busy for discontent, she finds that she has lost the ability to spend a bit of money on herself.
Yet now, as at the beginning, his work yields into another dimension that cannot be measured or be dealt with by firm acceptance — his sense of the ineffable hidden heart that is the source of all Irish loyalty and romance. Two stories can give the direction: the very early “Fugue,” whose theme is the young rebel hunted on the hills in every generation, and “The Silence of the Valley,” which circles continually closer to a single tremendous event, the death of an old cobbler in a mountain valley in West Cork. In that story everything is presented and nothing is explained. One does not explain the recognition of wonder.
When O’Faolain was twelve, and as yet an unalloyed romantic, he was plagiarizing so successfully from Robert Louis Stevenson that several of his tales were printed in the Cork Examiner. A career of graceful triumph was before him. But a year later he went one night to the theater to see the Abbey players in Lady Gregory’s .Jackdaw. There he saw something that shocked him. On the stage was a table, and on the table was a red and white checked tablecloth exactly like the one in the kitchen at home; and in a flash of wonder he realized that you could write about the life that merely lay around you. After that nothing came easy.