An Irishman’s Diary on writer and broadcaster Francis MacManus
Accomplished man of letters
Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Francis MacManus, who died suddenly 50 years ago on November 27th, at the relatively young age of 56, made a major contribution to Irish writing and broadcasting during his lifetime.
It is unlikely that his novels continue to be popular and his name is probably best known now for the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition, which RTÉ radio established 30 years ago.
He was born in Kilkenny in November 1909, the eldest of five children. His father died when he was just nine and his mother was left to raise the family. He was educated locally at St John’s, the De La Salle Brothers’ School and the Christian Brothers’ School. He won a science scholarship to UCD but deferred it and instead studied to be a primary teacher at St Patrick’s Training College, Drumcondra. His reason for doing this was that his mother’s health was precarious and he opted for teaching to support his younger siblings.
He taught for 18 years at the Christian Brothers’ School, Synge Street, Dublin. During that period he contributed many talks in both Irish and English to Radio Éireann, as well as doing feature programmes and documentaries for the station. He also began his creative writing while teaching.
In the 1930s, he had a trilogy of history novels published, in which the central character is the 18th-century Gaelic poet, Donncha Rua Mac Conmara. The novels’ titles were Stand and Give Challenge (1934), Candle for the Proud (1936) and Men Withering (1939). His fellow novelist and broadcaster Benedict Kiely described the trilogy as “the most notable historical novel written by an Irishman in our times”. Men Withering won the Harmsworth Award of the Irish Academy of Letters for the best Irish novel of the year of its publication.
In a foreword to the first novel in the trilogy, MacManus wrote: “It is not an essay in history, of which I have been very sparing; still less an essay in biography, of which we possess but rags and tatters; and again still less an essay in Gaelic literary criticism. It is an attempt to present the lives of a few people, as I have conceived them, of the hidden Ireland.” (He would have taken the latter phrase from the title of Daniel Corkery’s famous study of 18th-century Gaelic poetry, published in 1924.)
Another trilogy quickly followed, this one set in the Ireland of his own time and looking at the struggles of ordinary people and how land hunger and historical forces affect their lives. This House Was Mine (1937) features an exile who returns to the ruins of his family home and recalls the past; Flow On, Lovely River (1941) tells the story of a schoolteacher’s frustrated love for the daughter of a village drunkard, and in Watergate (1942), a daughter returns from America to her family farm to find it falling into decay.
His most popular novel, The Greatest of These, followed a year later; it was reprinted four times in four years, such was its popularity. Many readers may recall it from the old Leaving Certificate English syllabus, where it was an optional novel for many years. It portrays sympathetically a Catholic bishop, who tries with success to reconcile an embittered priest. The book describes the clerical life in a sensitive manner.
MacManus joined Radio Éireann in 1948 and became its director of features. He began the very valuable Thomas Davis Lectures series in 1953. Some of the series’ contributions were published as books, including The Yeats We Knew (1965), edited by MacManus, in which Padraic Colum, Francis Stuart, Monk Gibbon, Ernest Blythe and Austin Clarke shared their memories of Yeats; The Irish Struggle 1916-1926 (1966), to which MacManus contributed a chapter entitled “Imaginative Literature and the Revolution”, and The Years of the Great Test 1926-1937, which MacManus also edited and to which he contributed “The Literature of the Period”.
He also wrote two biographies, Boccaccio (1947) and St Columban (1963), as well as short stories, essays and plays, and he contributed to many newspapers and magazines, including the Bell, the Irish Monthly, the Capuchin Annual, the Irish Press and the Sunday Press.
MacManus was a Catholic novelist and defended writing from that point of view in a number of articles, one of which made a case for Catholicism and realism in fiction: “Behind and infusing all the seeming tumult and turmoil, the apparent aimlessness and quivering pain, there is spiritual reality, the background of Being whereby things are thrown into significant relief.”