The Best of Frank O’Connor edited by Julian Barnes

by John Boland

In an essay published five years ago, Julian Barnes observed that since Frank O’Connor’s death in 1966 “a respectful forgetting has settled over him,” and it’s true that in the last four decades his books have not been much read or his name often evoked  – this despite the fact that in his lifetime he was the most celebrated of  Irish short story writers, his fame as great in America as it was here.

So this handsome Everyman hardback, running to 670 pages and featuring almost fifty of his stories, along with poems and extracts from his autobiographical and other non-fiction books, is very welcome, especially when so lovingly assembled by Barnes, who also offers not only an appreciative introduction but informative prefaces to its eight sections, too.

O’Connor, who was born as Michael O’Donovan in Cork in 1903, performed what he called “odd jobs” for the nationalist cause in the War of Independence and then took the republican side in the civil war, but from early on he was a writer rather than an activist and achieved a degree of fame on the publication of his first book of stories, Guests of the Nation, in 1931. As his reputation grew (aided by Yeats, who made him a director of the Abbey Theatre), he moved away from Ireland, first to England and then to the United States, where his stories found a regular home in the New Yorker, which paid enviable amounts of money to its preferred authors.

Indeed, his association with that august magazine often came to be used against him, some of his Irish critics (or begrudgers) belittling his stories as having too much of a New Yorker “feel” to them – polished, urbane, whimsical and somewhat guileful in their “folksy” designs on the reader. But what’s bracing when rereading them now is how well their alertness to local custom, social behaviour and psychological truth has endured, even in such anthology-friendly stories as Guests of the Nation, My Oedipus Complex, First Confession and The Genius.

His two autobiographical books, An Only Child (1961) and My Father’s Son (1968) hold up very well, too, as does The Backward Look (1967), adapted from talks on Irish literature he gave in Trinity College, while I’ve a special fondness for his two discursive books drawn from rambles around Ireland, Irish Miles (1947) and Leinster, Munster and Connacht (1950), in which his talent for skewering is as  notable as his gift for celebration – Callan in Co Kilkenny is dismissed in the first of these  books as “a bad place for a cup of tea…I was never so glad to get out of any place,” while in the second it’s become “a wretched, dreary hole on the road to Fethard”

Such forthrightness also marks his observations on Irish writers (Barnes includes telling pen-portraits of  Yeats and George Russell and a persuasively sceptical assessment of Joyce’s “genius”) and his fury at a repressive nation “ruled by fools and blackguards,” but the O’Connor most esteemed by this volume’s editor is the “oral prose writer” who had “an intense awareness of human loneliness,” who “listened, took notes but did not judge” and who wrote his stories, as he said himself, “for the man and woman down the country who reads them and says ‘Yes. That is how it is. That is life as I know it’.”

Barnes has done a fine job in restoring the reputation of a writer who, to our shame, has been “respectfully” forgotten.

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