Seán O’Faoláin’s (born February 22, 1900, Cork, County Cork, Ireland—died April 20, 1991) stories are varied. The earliest ones deal with the immediate political concerns of the Irish Civil War. Others use irony, although the irony tends to be gentle rather than harsh. O’Faoláin never merely mocked or made fun of his characters; there is always affection and sympathy for those he created. Another group of stories expose idealism or abstract principles. O’Faoláin had little use for such general principles; he was consistently on the side of the specific case and the demands of realism and life. The later stories deal with sexuality and relationships between man and woman, especially the problems of husbands and wives.
A few constants do exist, however, in the stories. O’Faoláin’s strength is in the portrayal and development of character and world. Each of his major characters fully exists in a well-defined environment. Ireland, as portrayed by O’Faoláin, is nearly a character in the story, and the limitations created by that world are significant. Whether it be religion or a narrow-minded social system, Ireland often restricts in various ways the opportunities for expression and a fuller and freer life.
The Old Master
“The Old Master,” from A Purse of Coppers, is an early story that punctures the claims of a character to a privileged position; it uses a sudden and surprising reversal to bring about its resolution. The use of irony in this story is direct and amusing, if not very sophisticated. The protagonist, John Aloysius Gonzaga O’Sullivan, spends his time mocking the provincialism and lack of culture in his small Irish town. He has a sinecure as a law librarian and refuses to practice law; he spends his time, instead, berating the locals for their lack of sophistication. He is “the only man left in Ireland with a sense of beauty . . . the old master deserted in the abandoned house.”
One day, the Russian Ballet comes to town, and he is ecstatic. A conflict arises, however, from the presence of the Russian Ballet. When O’Sullivan attempts to see a performance, he is stopped by men from the Catholic Church who oppose “Immoral Plays.” O’Sullivan holds his sinecure from the county council, and he can lose his job if he offends the Catholic Church. Therefore, he compromises and walks away from the door; he has apparently failed to live up to his ideals. He tries, however, to make amends by sneaking in the back way and reassuring the Russian performers that he is with them.
O’Sullivan returns to the front of the theater and is immediately involved in a march against the ballet company. If he is seen by the people at the courthouse, he will be ruined, but if he is seen abandoning the march, he may lose his job. He tries to resolve his conflict by escaping to an outhouse and cursing the local leaders, as he has done so often in the past. He remains in the outhouse all night and catches pneumonia from this exposure and soon dies. The people in the town had seen him earlier as a “public show” and only at his death did they see him as a “human being.” “The Old Master” is a typical O’Faoláin story. The unnatural idealism and pomposity of the main character have to be exposed. He is not mocked, however, for his fall; he has instead joined a fallible human community and rid himself of false pretensions.
“Childybawn” was published in The Finest Stories of Seán O’Faoláin, and it is a delightful study of the Irish character in which O’Faoláin reverses the usual view of the Irishman’s dominance by his mother. The story is simple in its structure, and its effect depends on a reversal of expectations. O’Faoláin is not really a comic writer in the traditional sense; in later stories, the humor is much more subtle and becomes a part of the story, not the only element as it is here. The plot begins when Benjy Spillane’s mother receives an anonymous note telling her that her son, fat and forty, is carrying on with a bank teller. Her strategy to retain the dedication and presence of her son is to remind him incessantly of Saint Augustine’s love for his mother, Monica. This has little effect until Benjy becomes seriously ill and begins to read religious texts and change his life.
Suddenly the relationship is reversed; the religious Benjy begins complaining about the drinking and excessive betting of his mother. His mother now wishes that he would get married and leave her alone. The climax of the story is another reversal, as Benjy returns to his riotous ways and finally gains the promise of the bank clerk to wed him. There is a five-year engagement until his mother dies. After all, Benjy notes, “a fellow has to have some regard for his mother!”
“Childybawn” is a comic story and plays on many Irish stereotypes. There is the dominating mother and the middle-aged son who worships his mother. O’Faoláin gives the story and the types an original twist when he shows what would happen if a middle-aged son actually behaved the way a mother wished him to behave. Mrs. Spillane realizes that she has not had a peaceful moment since her son took up religion; she longs for the old, irreverent, and natural relationship that works on conflict and confrontation.
The Fur Coat
“The Fur Coat” is a poignant story taken from The Man Who Invented Sin, and Other Stories. It is concerned with social class, a somewhat unusual area for an O’Faoláin story. Most of his characters seem to live in a static environment, and such social change in Ireland is very different from that in the earlier stories. The plot is very simple, since it emphasizes character rather than action. Paddy Maguire receives an important promotion, so his wife, Molly, immediately determines that she must have a fur coat to go with her new status. She immediately becomes defensive over such a purchase, however, asking her husband if he thinks that she is “extravagant.” The conflict grows between husband and wife as they discuss the fur coat, but it is really within Molly. Her own doubts about such a purchase are projected onto her husband, and they end up fighting, with her accusing him of being “mean.” The climax of the story comes when Paddy gives Molly a check for £150 and she rips it up. She wants the coat desperately, but she cannot afford it. “I couldn’t, Paddy. I just couldn’t.” The story ends with Paddy asking her why she cannot purchase what she most desires and receiving the despairing answer, “I don’t know.”
“The Fur Coat” is a social story as well as a character study. The sudden rise in class and position leaves Molly between the old ways that have sustained her and the new ones that she cannot embrace. O’Faoláin has found a new subject for Irish fiction. The focus is no longer the enduring and unchanging peasant but an urban middleclass character who must deal with changes in his or her social position and personal life.
The Sugawn Chair
“The Sugawn Chair,” from I Remember! I Remember!, is a perfect example of O’Faoláin’s gentle irony; the story pokes fun at the illusions of an ideal rural life with economy and humor. O’Faoláin seems dedicated to exposing the various illusions that are endemic in Ireland. The chair, as the story opens, is abandoned and without a seat in the attic of the narrator. He associates the chair with memories of a yearly sack of apples that would be delivered, smelling of “dust, and hay, and apples.” The sack and the chair both signify another world, the country.
The chair also has a history. It was an object of comfort in which “my da could tilt and squeak and rock to his behind’s content.” One night while rocking, his father went through the seat of the chair, where he remained stuck and cursing, much to the amusement of his wife and son. The father decides to repair his chair with some straw that he bought in a market. He enlists the aid of two of his country comrades. They soon, however, begin to argue about the different regions that they came from in rural Ireland. These arguments subside, but a new argument erupts about the type of straw needed to repair the chair. One claims that this straw is too moist, while another says that it is too short. Finally, they abandon the project and return to their earlier pursuits.
The story ends with the father symbolically admitting defeat by throwing a potato back into the sack and sitting on one of the city-made “plush” chairs. The Sugawn chair remains as it had been, shattered without a seat. The narrator comes upon the chair one day when he is cleaning out the attic after his mother has died. It recalls to his mind not only the country smells but also his mother and father embracing and “laughing foolishly, and madly in love again.” “The Sugawn Chair” modulates its irony at the very end, so that the mocking at the illusions of an ideal rural life are tempered by the real feelings and memories that they share. O’Faoláin is by no means a James Joyce who fiercely indicts the false dreams of his Dubliners. O’Faoláin has a place even in his irony for true affections and relationships.
“Dividends,” from The Heat of the Sun: Stories and Tales, is a more ambitious story than many of the earlier ones, and it shows both a greater tolerance for the foibles of the characters and a subtlety in structure. Its primary subject is the clash between principle and reality, a favorite O’Faoláin theme. The story begins with the narrator’s Aunt Anna coming into a legacy of £750. The narrator advises her to invest her legacy in secure stocks, so that she will receive a steady income. An old friend of the narrator, Mel Meldrum, arranges the transaction. The conflict arises when Aunt Anna sells her shares and continues to demand her dividends from Mel. Mel finally gives in and pays her the money, even though it is against his principles.
In order to resolve the dispute, the narrator is forced to return to Cork from Dublin. He finds that Mel is very well situated, with a country cottage and a beautiful young girl as a servant. Mel reveals that Aunt Anna has sold the shares not for a chair and some Masses for her soul but for a fancy fur coat. Mel now refuses to compromise and pay Anna her dividends. This intensifies the conflict as the narrator urges Mel to be his old self and take a chance on life, abandon his principles, pay Aunt Anna the dividends, and marry the young girl. Mel, however, is unable to change; if he marries the girl, he may be unhappy; if he pays the dividends, he is compromised and is no longer his ideal self.
Mel resolves the problem by abandoning his relationship with the young girl and hiring Aunt Anna as a servant. He will remain logical and consistent. The ending of the story, however, is not an indictment of Mel’s principled consistency but a confession by the narrator that he has done something terrible by demanding that Mel remain the Mel that he had known as a boy at school. He had “uncovered his most secret dream and destroyed it by forcing him to bring it to the test of reality.” He also has been narrow-minded in demanding a consistency of character and exposed a life-giving illusion no less than Mel had. “Dividends” is a complex narrative and a psychological study of how characters live upon illusions rather than principles. There is no neat exposure of illusions as in “The Old Master” but instead an unmasking of those who are all too eager to uncover dreams.
“Hymeneal” is a story from O’Faoláin’s latest period, and it is one of the fullest explorations of marriage, as O’Faoláin scrutinizes the relationship between husband and wife. “Hymeneal” covers the many years of a couple’s marriage, but it focuses on the period of retirement. It is one of O’Faoláin’s best-plotted stories, with a sudden and surprising reversal. It begins peacefully, detailing the enduring relationship of a married couple, Phil and Abby Doyle, who have been rooted in one spot in the North Circular section of Dublin. They have lived in this section for some thirty-five years. Phil, however, is to retire in a year, and he knows that Abby needs some help with the house, but he cannot afford it on his pension. He then decides—without consulting his wife—to sell their house and move to West Clare, where he can hire a servant and have the peace and time to write the book that he has been planning to write for years, which will expose the Education Department and Ministry.
The conflict between Phil and Abby develops quickly. She hates the isolation of West Clare, especially since it means moving away from her Dublin-based sister, Molly. Phil is also unhappy, although he refuses to admit it. He does none of the things that he has talked about for years; he does not fish or hunt, and he makes no progress on his book, although he continues to talk about it. Phil talks incessantly about exposing the department, where he has worked for such a long time, and the current minister, Phelim Quigley, the husband of Molly, Abby’s sister.He sees Phelim as the perfect example of a man who has sacrificed principle to sentiment and convenience. When Phelim refuses to fire a teacher who drinks and quarrels with his wife, Phil Doyle is outraged at this lack of action. The book will reveal all.
The plot turns when Phelim Quigley suddenly dies in a car crash and Phil and Abby return to Dublin to console Molly and set her affairs in order. Phil assigns himself to work alone to sort out Phelim’s papers. In those papers, Phil finds a number of surprising documents that alter his life. First of all, he finds that Phelim has acquired a decent sum of money and has recently purchased Phil’s old house in Dublin. He then finds a sequence of poems that Phelim has written about his love for Abby rather than his wife, Molly. Phil is enraged at this soiling of his own love for Abby. Phil changes once more, however, when he comes upon some letters of Abby to Phelim that tell of Phelim’s advice to Abby to stick to Phil and not divorce or leave him. Phelim also praises Phil’s great ability as a civil servant; it is just those rigid qualities, however, that have made it so difficult to live with him. The whole tone and attitude of the last part of the story changes. The weather changes from stormy to sunny and clear. Molly announces that she would like to rent the Dublin house that she and Phelim had bought recently to Phil and Abby. Phil has become more accommodating. He will abandon his book and his inhuman principle for a fuller and less rigid life.
O’Faoláin’s fiction shows clear lines of development. The early stories that focus on the Irish Civil War are filled with bitterness at the failure of leaders to live up to the republican ideal. They also tend to lack the smooth narrative surface, and some, such as “The Patriot,” are quite simple and undemanding in their structure. The collections that followed showed an increasing mastery of the shortstory form. They also avoid the simple structure and tiresome bitterness at the failures of ideals. “The Old Master,” for example, shows an exposure of ideals that can deepen a character’s humanity.
By the time of I Remember! I Remember!, O’Faoláin had mastered the short story; the stories from this period demonstrate a subtlety of characterization, plot, and theme that was not found in the earlier works. In addition, O’Faoláin changes his attitude toward the world of his fiction. He now was able to distance himself and find amusement in the dreams of his characters, as “The Sugawn Chair” makes clear. The last phase of O’Faoláin’s development can be seen in the stories of The Heat of the Sun: Stories and Tales and The Talking Trees, and Other Stories. He began more fully to investigate the place and role of sexuality in Ireland. Stories such as “One Man, One Boat, One Girl” and “Falling Rocks, Narrowing Road, Cul-de-Sac Stop” are humorous explorations of human relationships. The Irishman’s fear of women is handled with grace and sympathy, while at the same time acknowledging its absurdity. One other aspect of human relationships in O’Faoláin’s fiction needs to be mentioned. “Hymeneal” is a haunting portrayal of marriage in which the main character’s illusions are punctured so that he might re-create and strengthen his relationship with his wife.
Play: She Had to Do Something, pr. 1937.
Anthology: The Silver Branch: A Collection of the Best Old Irish Lyrics Variously Translated, 1938.
Novels: A Nest of Simple Folk, 1933; Bird Alone, 1936; Come Back to Erin, 1940; And Again?, 1979.
Nonfiction: The Life Story of Eamon De Valera, 1933; Constance Markievicz: Or, The Average Revolutionary, 1934; King of the Beggars: A Life of Daniel O’Connell, 1938; An Irish Journey, 1940; The Great O’Neill: A Biography of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550-1616, 1942; The Story of Ireland, 1943; The Irish: A Character Study, 1947; The Short Story, 1948; A Summer in Italy, 1949; Newman’s Way, 1952; South to Sicily, 1953 (pb. in U.S. as An Autumn in Italy, 1953); The Vanishing Hero, 1956; Vive Moi!, 1964.
Bonaccorso, Richard. Seán O’Faoláin’s Irish Vision. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
Butler, Pierce. Seán O’Faoláin: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Davenport, Guy. “Fiction Chronicle.” The Hudson Review 32 (1979): 139-150.Doyle, Paul A. Sean O’Faoláin. New York: Twayne, 1968.
Hanley, Katherine. “The Short Stories of Seán O’Faoláin: Theory and Practice.” Eire- Ireland 6 (1971): 3-11.
Harmon, Maurice. Seán O’Faoláin. London: Constable, 1994.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Neary, Michael. “Whispered Presences in Seán O’Faoláin’s Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Winter, 1995): 11-20.