In the blurb on my US edition of Sean O'Faolain's last novel, And Again? (1979), he is described as "the greatest of Ireland's living novelists". Hyperbole comes with the territory, of course. Even so, this claim now seems beyond the bounds of ordinary exaggeration.
So far as I know, no new editions of O’Faolain’s novels or short stories have appeared since the 1980s. The work of the contemporary with whom he is so often bracketed, Frank O’Connor, is easily available, including, for example, in the prestigious Everyman series. But O’Faolain’s fame as a creative artist has waned to a point of near-invisibility.
It is not a fate he deserves, but, in respect, he has only himself to blame: O'Faolain the artist is now overshadowed by O'Faolain the public intellectual. His epic courage, skill and sheer endurance in holding open a space for critical thinking in the decades when the Irish State was at its most narrow-minded and inward looking seem more important than what his alter ego in And Again? calls the "plenitude of tiny depth-giving brush strokes" that are the business of the writer of realist fiction.
Brad Kent’s superb selection of 55 essays (about a third of O’Faolain’s total output) is likely to deepen the shadow cast by his witty, learned, vigorous and wonderfully engaged journalism over his more imaginative output of stories and novels.
In the last essay collected here, a self-portrait from 1976, O’Faolain complains that “I had to spend half my working life beating the pavement between one lamp-post and another like a tart, trying to earn enough money to support my beautiful goldenhaired mistress, my beloved duck and darling, my exigent Muse”. His Muse may not have thanked him for his efforts: it is striking that he did not produce a single novel between 1940 and 1979, and the energy he put into his polemical journalism is surely a major factor in this long hiatus.
However, posterity will surely feel grateful. The essays – for The Bell (of which he became the founding editor in 1940), for TS Eliot's Criterion, Cyril Connolly's Horizon, HL Mencken's The American Mercury and many of the other leading journals of the mid-century Anglosphere – were certainly written with an eye to making a living. But if they are a form of prostitution, O'Faolain is a very high-class escort.
The greatest trauma
As an Irish polemicist, O’Faolain’s passions are essentially parricidal. He had some experience in figurative father-killing, having rebelled against the whole world of his loyalist father, a Catholic member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, to become an ardent nationalist. In that self-portrait, he describes the Easter Rising as “the greatest trauma of my life”. But he went on to kill at least two more fathers: his great mentor in Cork, the critic and writer Daniel Corkery; and his own one-time political hero, Éamon de Valera.
One of the centrepieces of the book is O'Faolain's long demolition of Corkery, which appeared in The Dublin Magazine in 1936. He writes of how, as young man, he was enamoured of Corkery's stories of the Irish revolution – until, that is, he joined it himself: "The more we saw of revolution, the less we liked Corkery's lyric, romantic idea of revolution and revolutionaries."
This is very gentle indeed compared with his assaults on Corkery's Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (1931), which he compares to Nazi thought, and on The Hidden Ireland (1924), from which he plucks examples of prize eejitry and sprinkles them with drops of acid. A line is being drawn between O'Faolain and all the absurdities of official cultural nationalism, of which Corkery was the chief propagandist.
This is only a warm-up for his assault on de Valera. The grudge is again personal: just as Corkery had been an intellectual exemplar for his young self, Dev was the Chief whom he followed into the Civil War, in which O’Faolain served as a Republican bomb-maker and propagandist. In his 1945 attack on his lost leader, he admits to having once admired de Valera “this side of idolatry” – without mentioning that he had, in fact, written a hagiographic book about his hero.
O’Faolain’s rage is the anger of deep disappointment: he genuinely believed that the coming to power of Fianna Fáil in 1932 would herald radical change. In its absence, his essay acknowledges Dev’s political skills but eviscerates his “passion for being cruelly wronged” and his idealisation of the life of the small farm: “when he tries to form his ideal image of life he sees something so dismal that beside it the Trappist rule of Mount Melleray is a Babylonian orgy.”
He has a particularly brilliant take on Dev’s claim to discover what the Irish people were thinking by looking into his own heart: “those searchlights which he turns on his heart have some very well-timed blackouts.”
Class, not society
O’Faolain, in 1945, was already noting that, behind the Civil War rhetoric, Irish politics had melded into a mush: “our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political ideas at all.” His main contention – far ahead of its time in terms of its underlying analysis – was that the Irish revolution had been essentially a putsch in which the urbanised sons of the strong farmers had come to power: “It was not a society that came out of the maelstrom. It was a class.”
To some extent, it is unfair to concentrate on O’Faolain’s analysis of Irish affairs, such as his attacks on censorship, on the hypocrisy of Irish-language policy, on the “self-kidding exceptionalism” of Irish nationalism, and on the “throwing of yet another stone on the cairn erected, stone by stone . . . on the grave of an adult, informed, intellectual Catholic conscience.” He is also tremendously enjoyable on Dickens and Thackeray, on Shaw and O’Casey, on Roger Casement and Wolfe Tone, on religion and art.
Still, it is a remarkable achievement to have hammered out the material of one’s own political dilemmas, made molten by the white heat of rage at personal disappointments, into shapes as hard and enduring as his best Irish polemics.
Even his Muse, if she is wise, might acknowledge that she had, in O’Faolain’s urge to tell his truths about the country he had fought to bring into existence, a worthy rival.
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times. Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, which he edited, is published by the Royal Irish Academy