Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1931 – Guests of the Nation, by Frank O’Connor

The Cork writer’s stark story compresses into a small frame the bitter truth of conflicts everywhere: if you get to know someone, it gets hard to kill them

The title story of Frank O'Connor's landmark collection Guests of the Nation became a template for the tragic intimacy of violence in the Troubles, from Brendan Behan's The Hostage to Neil Jordan's The Crying Game.

Two working-class English soldiers, held as hostages by the IRA, become, as the opening line has it, “chums” with their Irish captors. But if the British execute four IRA prisoners as planned, those same captors will have to shoot the soldiers in cold blood.

Stark, quiet and apparently simple, the story, told by a young IRA volunteer, compresses into a small frame the bitter truth of conflicts everywhere: if you get to know someone, it becomes hard to kill them.

The narrator’s brilliantly naive final statement sums up the transformative personal consequences of violence: “And anything that happened me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

The story exemplifies O’Connor’s deft balance of traditional form and challenging content. It seems matter of fact, even naive. Yet it contains a fierce rebuke to the romanticisation of violence in the militant strain of Irish nationalism. The narrator is known only by his nickname, Bonaparte, a parody of Napoleonic military glory.

The IRA man who insists on the executions is called Jeremiah Donovan, the actual name of O'Donovan Rossa, the Fenian eulogised by Patrick Pearse. The name of the shadowy figure Feeney recalls that whole Fenian tradition. Less subtly handled, indeed, the story might have seemed as shocking an assault on national pieties as Seán O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars had been. But O'Connor was a master of subtlety.

Born Michael O’Donovan in working-class Cork in 1903, O’Connor was greatly influenced by his primary-school teacher, the writer and nationalist Daniel Corkery.

He began his own literary career in the wake of the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929, which would create what the Anglo-Irish writer Robert Graves later characterised as “the fiercest literary censorship this side of the Iron Curtain”.

This was the irony of the new Irish state: established in the name of a distinctive and vibrant Irish culture, it set about banning the work of most of the writers who expressed that distinctiveness. Most Irish writers had to follow the great modernist James Joyce to continental Europe or cultivate American audiences. O'Connor did the latter – Guests of the Nation was first published by Atlantic Monthly, and he was later championed by the New Yorker – but he kept a foot in Irish respectability.

It was hard to paint O'Connor as an exotic subversive. He had been an ardent nationalist and served on the republican side of the IRA in the Civil War. (Guests of the Nation was inspired by a conversation he overheard among fellow republican prisoners.)

He knew (and translated) Irish. He avoided eroticism and any open challenge to orthodox morality. He wrote, moreover, in a style that seemed to ignore Joyce’s revolution in fiction: he described himself accurately enough as a 19th-century realist. The voice in his stories, humble and accessible, often seemed to come directly from the oral tradition. Yet O’Connor never purveyed a soft charm or an easy sentimentality about Ireland.

He published 200 stories over 30 years, forming a mosaic of lower middle-class Catholic life in the new Ireland. The stories in Guests of the Nation set the prevailing tone: knowing, affectionate and wry but also emotionally complex and full of a quiet anguish. The intimacy and sociability of the Irish world he etches in such fine detail serves often merely to underline the intense loneliness of his central figures. Those figures are not, though, artists or intellectuals.

O'Connor, more than anyone else since Joyce in Dubliners, gave fictional life to the ordinary, unremarkable citizens, young and old, of a reasonably dull little state. He showed that each of those lives has its own drama and dignity.

You can read more about Frank O'Connor in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography; see