The Intrusive Apostrophe

Fintan O’Toole

  • Sean O’Faolain: A Life by Maurice Harmon
    Constable, 326 pp, £16.95, May 1994, ISBN 0 09 470140 7
  • Vive Moi! An Autobiography by Sean O’Faolain
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 377 pp, £20.00, November 1993, ISBN 1 85619 376 4

When, in 1941, Sean O’Faolain wrote to the Irish Times to protest about the ‘miserable fees’ paid by Irish radio for talks by Irish writers, he inadvertently set in train the most nightmarishly savage satire in that paper’s history. O’Faolain’s letter, and the response to it from the impoverished rump that constituted the Irish intelligentsia, led to the foundation by him of WAAMA, the Writers Artists Actors Musicians Association, a short-lived trade union for workers whose services were not exactly regarded as essential. WAAMA inspired the Times columnist Myles naGopaleen (the novelist Flann O’Brien) to an extended fantasy that raised the dilemma of the artist in post-Independence Ireland to Swiftian heights of terror and disgust.

In O’Brien’s vision, WAAMA, seeking work for the horde of unemployed ventriloquists on its books, hits on the idea of hiring them out to stupid theatregoers as escorts for opening nights. The ventriloquists, suave and cultured, will save the ignorant arriviste of the new middle class from embarrassment by carrying on a conversation on both sides of the foyer loudly enough for the wise and witty comments on the play to be overheard. The scheme, however, goes wrong when unscrupulous ventriloquists embark on a campaign of blackmail, threatening to utter not merely social solecisms but downright insults unless they are given large amounts of cash. Soon, the foyers of Dublin are ringing with curses and jeers and the veneer of civilisation crumbles.

Sean O’Faolain was the butt of this joke, but it stands as a curiously appropriate emblem of his career. As a writer and an intellectual in the new Irish state that he helped to create, O’Faolain could have had a pleasant enough time as an official ventriloquist, a cultured voice in which a narrow, insecure society could hear its own thoughts spoken in a posher accent and a more civilised tone. He started out in precisely this role, as a propagandist and French-polisher of the knotty wood of de Valera’s Ireland. But he became, for a time at least, a deep embarrassment to the new rules, an utterer of insults and denunciations all the more dreadful because they were spoken so suavely.

As a writer of fictions, Sean O’Faolain’s status has remained much as he himself judged it in 1956: ‘about the same as some minor metaphysical poet: to appear in anthologies’. His importance is broader and more directly political. Maurice Harmon’s biography and O’Faolain’s autobiography, reissued posthumously last year with new and revealing material, would, for instance, make interesting reading just now in what used to be called Eastern Europe. The strange, perhaps ultimately incomprehensible mixture of dissidence and collusion that marks the careers of so many intellectuals in Stalinist societies, now so harshly judged, might be viewed a little more sympathetically with O’Faolain in mind. His example reminds us that lies, evasions, ambivalences, failures of courage, are just as much the weapons of dissidence as are the more glorious attributes of forthrightness and inflexibility.

To be properly a dissident, you must first be a believer. Sean O’Faolain started out as a classic example of the class that came to power in the Irish revolution of 1916-23 – the upstart petit bourgeois nationalists who elbowed aside the would-be political élite that had been constructing itself as a ruling class in waiting. He was born in Cork in 1900, the son of a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary and a pious countrywoman. It was a perfect breeding-ground of deep ambivalences: living in poverty but having a father who felt himself to be a representative of the British Empire, having a mother who pissed into a cup in the kitchen but told him not to talk to ‘blackguards’, meaning those who were more obviously poor. Growing up amid what he calls in Vive Moi! ‘this half-grey life of the ambitious half-poor’, O’Faolain was, and should have remained, a perfect nationalist revolutionary.

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