Romantic Ireland

Denis Donoghue

  • The Collected Stories of Sean O’Faolain: Vols I and II
    Constable, 445 pp, £8.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 00 946330 5

It is good to have the second volume of Sean O ‘Faolain’s short stories. The first brought together seven stories from Midsummer Night Madness (1932), 14 from A Purse of Coppers (1937), and 13 from Teresa, and Other Stories (1947). Now the second has ten stories from The Stories of Sean O’Faolain (1958), 11 from I remember! I remember! (1961), and ten from The Heat of the Sun (1966). In the Preface he wrote for the Penguin Stories of Sean O’Faolain (1970) he said that 30 stories were all he had to show, or all he was content to show, for more than thirty years of story-writing. One thinks, he said, of George Sand turning out volume after volume while never once neglecting a love affair, never missing one puff of her hookah. Well, no matter, O’Faolain has done many other things and written many other books besides his collections of stories. He has been, he is still, a man of letters, a novelist, biographer, autobiographer, historian, critic. But his short stories have a special place in the affections of those who care for good writing.

I should declare an interest, or a prejudice. I much prefer his later stories to his earlier ones. Many of the earlier stories sound as if they were written not only to charm the birds out of the trees but to show that one Sean O’Faolain could charm them out of the trees. The reader is forced to believe that life in Ireland was simpler, more beautiful, nobler then than now, that the people were a nest of simple folk, richly expressive, articulate, eloquent, that the grass was greener, the rain softer, the mackerel-crowded seas more mackerel-crowded than any seas a man of my age can describe. It may be true. It may be true. You’re born in Cork in 1900, you grow up with the new century and with a sense of an equally new Ireland. In the dawn of Easter Week, 1916, some youngsters, including O’Faolain, probably felt that it was bliss to be alive, even though Eoin MacNeill was countermanding Pearse’s orders and a revolution was dwindling into a revolt. Still, when Republicans were roaming through Cork and Tipperary shooting at the Black and Tans, it was possible to feel heroic. But it must have been hard to feel heroic in the Civil War and the years that followed its crimes. Yet O’Faolain’s early stories want you to feel that life in Ireland was a romance, and sometimes an epic. I have never been convinced. I’m an agnostic in these sentiments. I don’t believe that O’Faolain’s early luscious style represents his effort to be equal to the rich occasions he describes. I believe, rather, that the style came first, and demanded incidents, landscapes and sentiments fit for the style to live in.

O’Faolain may agree with me. In the Preface to the Penguin book, he says that as a young man he was very romantic, that his style took pleasure in such words as ‘dawn’, ‘dew’, ‘onwards’, ‘youth’, ‘world’, ‘adamant’ and ‘dusk’. I could extend the list, but it is already long enough to make the point that his early stories never say ‘colour’ if they can say ‘hue’, or ‘morning’ if they can say ‘morn’. He started writing seriously in 1927, several years after Prufrock and The Waste Land and Ulysses, but his taste was still that of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. University College, Cork, Daniel Corkery’s place, was probably slow to receive the good news from Eliot, Pound, Mann, Kafka. Valéry and Joyce. Yeats was inescapable, but there was nothing in Yeats to discourage a young writer from preferring ‘hue’ to ‘colour’. O’Faolain, living among words, chose for company the words he thought were already poetry. Looking back in 1970, he thought the most romantic of all his words were the ‘and’ and ‘but’ which he used ‘to carry on and expand the effect after the sense has been given’. The writer who luxuriates, he says, ‘goes on with the echoes of his first image or idea’. His emotions and his thought ‘dilate, the style dilates with them, and in the end he is trying to write a kind of verbal music to convey feelings that the mere sense of the words cannot give.’

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