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.

It was the ambitious half-poor – too well-off to be socialists, too poor to be contented with the limited opportunities offered by membership of the Empire – who made the revolution. Jack Whelan recast himself as Sean O’Faolain just as the Irish Volunteers were recasting themselves as the Irish Republican Army. The very Gaelicised form of his name, however, seems to carry an unconscious hesitation. In Gaelic, the ‘O’ should carry no apostrophe, and even Samuel Beckett, that least Gaelic of writers, instructed his printers to this effect when listing ‘O Faolain (no apostrophe)’ among banned writers in an article on censorship. For some reason, Jack Whelan gave his new nationalised self a half-Irish, half-English moniker that would become, with time, entirely appropriate.

Thus rechristened, O’Faolain did all the things an ambitious half-poor young man should do. He joined the IRA. He took to speaking Gaelic with a will. He spent his holidays in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area) of West Cork. He entered the dreamworld of racial and national purity, which, for an urban, Anglicised policeman’s son, was ‘like taking off one’s clothes for a swim naked in some mountain-pool’. As a release from his inherited ambivalences, romantic nationalism had an elemental appeal recalled in the raptures of An Irish Journey:

Nobody who has not had this sensation of suddenly ‘belonging’ somewhere – of finding the lap of the lost mother – can understand what a release the discovery of the Gaelic world meant to modern Ireland. I know that not for years and years did I get free of this heavenly bond of an ancient, lyrical, permanent, continuous, immemorial self, symbolised by the lonely mountains, the virginal lakes, the traditional language, the simple, certain, uncomplex modes of life, that world of the lost childhood of my race where I, too, became for a while eternally young.

The other side of that yearning for innocence, of course, was violence, since freedom from ambivalence requires a scouring out of impurities. O’Faolain took the hard-line, purist Republican side in the civil war which followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and Partition, becoming a bombmaker and propagandist. Most ironically, in view of his later heroic fight against censorship, he also acted as a censor on the Republican-controlled Cork Examiner. After de Valera, defeated, ordered his troops to dump arms, O’Faolain continued the war with words, as editor of Sinn Fein and director of publicity for the Party.

By 1924, when he returned to his studies at University College Cork, he sensed that the fight for a republic had ended in ‘total defeat’, but he was beginning, according to Vive Moi!, to identify the forces behind that defeat as ‘the combination of an acquisitive and uncultivated middle class and a rigorous and uncultivated church’. Somehow, over the next twenty years, he turned the worst aspect of his heritage – the provincial snobbery of a man who can use the word ‘uncultivated’ so freely – into a heroic mission: the establishment by cultural and intellectual struggle of a republic that could not be won in battle. Beaten by Church and bourgeoisie, he set about gathering the intellectual resources necessary for a rearguard action, waged this time in the name, not of purist political ideal, but of an increasingly urbane cosmopolitanism.

O’Faolain could easily have been co-opted by the new state: indeed, he tried hard to be co-opted – a factor that one tends now to overlook. Most of his generation of Republicans made their peace with the new state when de Valera split from Sinn Fein, founded Fianna Fail and took power through the ballot-box in 1932. Since O’Faolain was himself disillusioned with the militaristic nationalism of the rump Sinn Fein, he could easily have been a part of this final settling of accounts.

That he was not was largely the fault of the new establishment. He wrote a sycophantic biography of de Valera that he afterwards characterised as ‘shamelessly pro-Dev and pro-Irish propaganda’. And he canvassed for the job of professor of English at UCC, a job that would have made him a semi-official cultural ideologue of the new state. He tried to make himself acceptable to the governors of the University, including the Bishop of Cork and the farmer he canvassed in his field whose only question was: ‘A professor of English? Can you talk Irish?’ He was overwhelmingly defeated for the job by Daniel Corkery, who had the same Republican credentials but a much more potent neo-Wagnerian ideology of race and nationality. When his rather innocuous book of stories Midsummer Night Madness was banned in Ireland in 1932 for being ‘in general tendency indecent’, he was being pushed into exile, either internal or external. Though he lived in England for a while, and flirted with the idea of life in America or Italy, he chose internal exile, making himself into a loyal opposition, a patriot who accepted his country and stayed to change it.

If Ireland had no gulags and no psychiatric prisons, its apparatus of cultural control, imposed by Church and State, was informed by the same principles of revolutionary purity as Stalin’s and was no less rigidly imposed. Almost all the writers of any merit, including O’Faolain, were banned. As O’Faolain wrote in the Bell, the brave and brilliant journal which he founded and edited, writers were ‘being treated as harmless maniacs, which is the worst situation for a political prisoner, and in that sense, all intellectuals in Ireland could be considered as political prisoners.’ Even worse was the fact that the censors need not have bothered. Maurice Harmon lists the sales figures for O’Faolain’s A Nest of Simple Folk which was not banned: six copies in Cork, 12 in Dublin, five in Limerick, three in Galway.

The Ireland of the Forties and Fifties offered two models for the writers who stayed. One was the sleepy conformism of the Abbey and Radio Eireann. The other was the marginalised pub culture of Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, in which writers accepted their isolation and took refuge in drink, dark satire and glorious bouts of excoriation. O’Faolain was too much an intellectual rebel to embrace the former course, too much a personal conformist, wanting a nice house, a good income, sharp clothes and good schools for his children, for the latter. Instead he created his own model, that of the rational dissident, the Olympian critic who does not threaten society but who can remind it how foolish it will look in the future when most of its members are as intelligent as he is. It was, for him, the perfect balance between urbane snobbery and leftist dissent.

That the snobbery persisted is confirmed by Maurice Harmon’s revelations about his attitudes to the education and marriages of his children, Stephen and Julia. Stephen is hardly mentioned in Vive Moi! and Harmon reveals O’Faolain’s frightful treatment of his son; his insistence that he should not mix with children from their village of Killiney, ‘whose language and ways are more colourful than admirable’, that his education should give him the instincts of a ‘Catholic Irish gentleman’, and indeed that he should grow up to be a ‘decent, Irish, clean gentleman’. For all his public cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism, he objected to Stephen’s marriage to an Englishwoman he considered to be ‘socially inferior’, and to Julia’s marriage to a Hispanic-American man. Such pomposity does something to undermine O’Faolain’s critique of the Irish state, making it impossible not to see his damning of its ignorance as being motivated at least in part by an ersatz Brahmin disdain for the great unwashed.

The marital infidelities unveiled in the posthumous edition of Vive Moi! – long-running affairs with the writers Elizabeth Bowen and Honor Tracy and the American socialite Alene Erlanger – add to the dishonesty of his public image. Yet O’Faolain’s claim to heroism lies not in any righteous constancy but precisely in his inconsistency. Faced with the insistence of the official culture on the homogeneously Gaelic, Catholic and rural nature of Irishness, O’Faolain’s ambivalences, contradictions and even hypocrisies embodied a subversive doubleness. It was easy to ignore or dismiss the drink-sodden bohemianism of the pub poets, recasting them as eccentrics, making Kavanagh, for instance, into a lovable ‘character’. But O’Faolain’s veneer of petit bourgeois respectability – the charm, the snappy clothes, the self-conscious urbanity – made his rigorous intellectual critique much more challenging. It would be very easy to construe his life as a series of hypocrisies – the Catholic adulterer, the democratic snob, the rebel who kept a careful monthly record of his earnings from glossy magazines – but it would be very untrue to the cost involved in living as an independent man in a totalitarian culture.

As a writer, he had all the romantic dreams of immortality. But to stay in Ireland and to be a political force, he had to sacrifice them to the task of seeking to describe a barely-formed Society. He and Frank O’Connor started out with the essentially nationalistic ambition of being Irish Gorkys or Turgenevs, honest explorers of a given national reality. But, as O’Connor subsequently wrote in the Bell, it became clear to them that even this destiny could not be theirs because the society they had chosen to depict had neither the depth nor the breadth of Russia in the 19th century. In Ireland, according to O’Connor, ‘the moment a writer raises his eyes from the slums and cabins, he finds nothing but a vicious and ignorant middle class, and for aristocracy the remnants of an English garrison.’ It is no accident that both O’Faolain and O’Connor failed as novelists and composed most successfully in the minor keys of the short story. ‘Even today,’ confessed O’Faolain in Vive Moi!, ‘there is no such genre as the Irish Novel.’

There was, however, nothing minor about his political writing, and much more than any politician he stands as the intellectual architect of the Irish democracy that is now finally coming into its own. With a handful of allies – Hubert Butler, Peadar O’Donnell and Owen Sheehy Skeffington – he virtually invented civil society in the Republic, standing up to sectarianism and censorship, insisting on an inclusive democracy, challenging stereotypes of the Northern Protestants, reminding Ireland that it was a part of Europe, constantly debunking notions of cultural and racial purity. It was fitting that he lived on beyond his own time to see the election of Mary Robinson as President in 1990, for he had done more than anyone else to formulate and maintain the ideals which she embodied.

‘After all what is a memory?’ asks the alter ego narrator of O’Faolain’s last and most interesting novel, And Againx?, and answers: ‘A ghost telling half-lies.’ The ‘half’ is appropriate to a man from the half-poor revolutionary class who chose to live in the half-world of the state he helped to found, and it is still difficult to tell in either of these books which half is true. Vive Moi! is an inner history of a life that was often intensely public. It is charming, discursive, intelligent and urbane and, as such, consonant with the civilised persona which he invented for himself. It needs, however, to be supplemented by a life that goes beyond that hard-won persona to both the private pain of its creation and the public pressures that made its maintenance so necessary.

Maurice Harmon’s is the first stab at the task and is a valuable collation of information. What is most fascinating about it, however, is the way startlingly bald assertions keep poking up through the surface of the accepted O’Faolain persona like springs through a comfy old sofa. While Harmon sometimes challenges the version of events in Vive Moi!, he remains largely its prisoner, so that most of the book is governed by O’Faolain’s chosen public self. But every so often, an astonishing sentence breaks through, without warning, explanation or cited source: ‘Once, in exasperation, Sean threw [his mother] down the stairs and broke her leg.’ ‘He regarded himself as bisexual.’ He ‘had a homosexual experience’. Either these statements are true, in which case the whole book needs to be rewritten and a new and more tortured O’Faolain needs to be revealed, or they are not, in which case they are a bizarre excursion into fiction. Unfortunately, since the statements appear without explanation, elaboration or confirmation, the reader is in no position to judge.

Such assertions are particularly odd in a biography that is otherwise dutifully academic and devoid of what O’Faolain called ‘that plenitude of tiny depth-giving brush strokes that marks off the first rate portrait from the shallow blur’. Maurice Harmon seems loath to emphasise any one fact over another, so that the central heating in O’Faolain’s house is given as much weight as the beginning of his adventure with Elizabeth Bowen.

Perhaps such oddities and failures are inevitable. Dissidents, with their necessary evasions and unfathomable duplicities, need to be seen from a distance. And we Irish, groping towards an achieved democracy, are still struggling to become O’Faolain’s contemporaries. It will be easier to write his life when he is well and truly dead; which is to say, when his agenda for a confidently pluralist society has been fulfilled. For the moment, his best memorial is his vibrant afterglow in the country that became, in the end, his own.