‘‘Seán O’Faoláin Special Issue’’, Cork Review (1991): Selected Contents

Seán OFaoláin
Julia O’Faoláin
Sean MacMahon
Val Mulkerns
J. J. Lee
Leon Ó Broin
Fergus O’Ferrall
Conor C. O’Brien

Seán O Faoláin, ‘Interview with Brian Kennedy’, pp.4-6. [On de Valera:] ‘He had no real interest in art. I don’t think he could spell the word. I don’t mean to be critical of him. You see he didn’t need to know anything about art. He only went to the Abbey once. He was from a rural generation. he had no time for art because he didn’t need it.’ (On Yeats:) ‘Yeats was the end of a generation, the whole Anglo-Irish thing - he was the last of them. He brought it to an end, a triumphal climax, a magnificent end. We would have to admit that.’ (On books:) ‘I’ve given up reading. I have all these books - take this one - Madame Bovary, I have no time for Flaubert any more. The modern writers are producing too many books and the motive is wrong. What do you think?’ (On being called a Catholic writer:) ‘That is very funny. I’m not a Catholic, I’m not anything in fact, I have no religion. How could I be a Catholic writer?’ (On his age:) ‘I’m at the stage of life when it has all come full circle and I don’t know if there is any point in it any more.’

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Julia O’Faoláin cites remarks of her father made on tape: ‘I began life ... as a dreaming, romantic revolutionary and fell flat on my ass, betrayed both by Ireland and the Empire [ref. to comics such as Gem and Magnet], both of whom I had been prepared, at different periods, to adore’ (p.8); records that Seán told her of his conversation with Garnett: ‘Garnett,’ he recalls, ‘said to me, “Now you must be the Balzac of Ireland”, and I thought: “All right, I must.” I was balmy, and so was he. Balzac was writing about a highly reticulated society and no such situation existed in Ireland. There was no social framework once the old Anglo-Irish one broke down - at least none that we could observe at the time’ (p.8); quotes first editorial of The Bell: ‘If you look through the first number you will see several things whose merit is not chiefly Art but Truth ...’, and comments: ‘The Bell was asking ordinary Irish people to help “stir ourselves to a vivid awareness of .. what we are becoming, what we are’; considers that O’Faoláin moved counter to the meta-fiction trend of Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which was based on ‘mistrust, not only of absolutes but of the objective world itself’ (Julia O’Faoláin); recounts a story in which someone gave his a whole deer, which he is advised to hang till it falls by Anglo-Irish friends, with the result that the maggoty carcass has to be buried; reports that he shook his fist at the God in whom he did not believe when Eileen died, and was being ‘pricked and maddened by the exquisite torments of a gerontophiliac tease’ within months. (p.13)

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Sean MacMahon, ‘Irish Campanology: Sean O’Faoláin and the Bell’: quotes first editorial: ‘any other equally spare and hard and simple word would have done; any word the minimum of associations’; of old symbolic words, ‘they are as dead a Brian Boru, Granuaile [.. &c.]. These belong to the time when we growled in defeat and dream of the future. That future has arrived and, with its arrival, killed them.’; editor professes the belief that a young and earnest Ireland ;knows that somewhere, among the briars and brambles, there stands a reality which the generations died to reach.’

Val Mulkerns cites correspondence with O’Faoláin, and also quotes editorial of First Issue (Oct. 1940): ‘All over Ireland 0 this is the expression of our Faith - there are men and women with things itching them like a gain stuck in a tooth. You who read this know intimately some corner of life that nobody else can know - a turn of the road, an old gateway somewhere, a well-field, a street corner, a wood, a handful of quiet life, a triangle of sea and rock that means Ireland to you - If you share it with all of us you will make this bell peal out a living message.’

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J. J. Lee, ‘The Irish’, in Cork Review, ed. Seán Dunne [“O’Faoláin Special Issue”] (Cork 1991), p.66-67: quotes, ‘a pioneer effort ... a creative history of the growth of a racial mind; or one might call it a psychological history; or, if the term were not far too large and grand, a story of the development of a national civilisation’; ‘all our histories are nationalist, patriotic, sentimental’ [excepting Edmund Curtis], and fail to answer the question, ‘what has this event or that contributed - with whatever racial colouring is no matter - to the sum of world civilisation?’; ‘Norman gift’; Lee notes the ‘audacity of the enterprise’ (p.66.) First edn. preface outlines sections: ‘in the first section I describe the raw material of the Irish nature of “genius”; in the second, how intelligence began to burgeon under stress; in the third the five representative types which have branched from these origins - the peasantry, the Anglo-Irish, the rebels, the priests and the writers.’ Lee comments: ‘he remained an ideal who, rather than succumbing to corrosive cynicism as he watched the bright dawn of independence darken into a murky grey, transferred his idealism from the political to the cultural arena. But his disillusionment distorts his judgement on the role of the political in national development. ... [“]A history of Ireland with the politics left out” inevitably distorts perspectives not only on the political but on the non-political also. The political experience must be firmly integrated into the totality of the national experience.’ Refers further to the artificial distinction drawn by many writers between physical force and Constitutional traditions (p.67.) Quotes: ‘only one positive and creative thing came out of the last wreck of Gaeldom: Ulster as we know it.’ Lee comments: ‘Long before the current controversy about revisionism, O’Faoláin was a constructive revisionist.’ Quotes O’Faoláin’s rejection of the ‘nationalist concept, almost wholly a political concept, of Ireland always on the defensive against foreign enemies’, and the conclusion: ‘If Ireland has endured much, and has in the long view of history as yet learned little by experience and that slowly, she had learned. She will, painfully, learn more.’

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Leon O’Broin, ‘Just Like Yesterday’, memoir of O Faoláin’s meeting with Frank Duff, O Faoláin Special Issue, ed. Seán Dunne, Cork Review (Cork 1991), p.77-78; based on experience as professional editor of Maria Legionis; this encounter, concerned with censorship and the church, led to the formation of a short-lived society called Common Ground.

Fergus O’Ferrall (‘Christian Sensibility and Intelligence: The Witness of Seán O Faoláin’), pp.79-84 [quoting extensively from Vive Moi, A Summer in Italy, and Newman’s Way, with ftns.]; cites O’Faoláin’s condemnation of the Irish Catholic Church’s ‘mystical contempt for common actuality’, and its revelling ‘in the liquefaction of common life, the vaporisation of the moral into the mystical, the veiling of the natural in the fumes of the supernatural, always at the expense of failing to develop the character of men as social animals’ (in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man’; quotes Patrick Corish, ‘The Irish have only slender traditions of philosophical humanism, much less of a secular humanism. What humanism they are capable of is rooted in religion. It is in some ways a daunting thought that the real elements of pluralism in Ireland may well be the confessional churches; but if it is so, there is nothing to be gained by a refusal to face it.’ (The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey, Dublin 1985, p.258).

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Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘Memorial Address’, quotes end of first editorial of The Bell: ‘whoever you are then, reader, Gentile or Jew, Protestant or Catholic, priest or layman, Big House or shall house, The Bell is yours’; O’Brien deduces the courage of this statement from the date and the apparent imminence of a Nazi victory in Europe; cites also a GAA pamphlet: ‘From certain Continental movements we have much to learn. As a fact, the temper of our movement, and the energy and daring of it, have more in common with them than with those nearer home.; and another, ‘We cannot allow film-making to remain in the hands of the Jews, the eternal enemies of Christianity’ (1942); O’Faoláin wrote of ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ pushing her bitter red nose into the den, the unburiable corpse’ (The Bell, Nov. 1945); quotes the last O’Faoláin editorial, entitled ‘Signing Off’: I have, I confess, grown a little weary of abusing our bourgeoisie, Little Irelanders, Tartuffes, Anglophobes, Celtophiles et alii hujus generis.’ ‘Our task has been more that of cultivating our garden than of clearing away the brambles’; It is one thing to have a noble vision of life to come and another to have to handle what has come.’ Note in ‘Pride in the Language’, an additional contribution, O’Brien notes that the memorial service was unattended by any govt. ministers; ‘we do read the writers who write in the language we habitually use, but we don’t feel much collective pride in them. Their collective product is denominated “Anglo-Irish Literature”. We are unlikely to feel warm towards anything labelled “Anglo-Irish”. [...] The Gaelic Revival failed to persuade the Irish people to speak Irish. But it did succeed in something. It succeeded in securing the lip service of the great majority of the elected representatives of the Irish people (in this Republic) [...] We forget that our people chose to become English-speakers, of their own free will, at a time when they could have gone on speaking Irish had they chosen to do so. [...] it is a curious condition and one cannot be a healthy one psychologically speaking. and it is this condition, I believe, that accounts for the complete absence of our parliamentarians from the Memorial Service for Sean O’Faoláin. [&c.]’

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