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  • The Irish Schoolboy Novel
  • Ciaran O'Neill (bio)

Some men never recover from education.

Oliver St. John Gogarty1

In his 1965 autobiography, Vive Moi! Seán O'Faoláin recalled a Sunday morning ritual from his childhood in Cork City. His father, a member of the local Royal Irish Constabulary, would lead Seán and his brothers to Wellington Barracks, where they would join the loyal citizens of Edwardian Cork in saluting the church parade of the local British Army regiment. O'Faoláin remembered a connection he once had made, listening faithfully to "God Save the King" at his father's knee:

When the drums rolled and the brass shook the air I could hear the sabre clash, the hoofbeats, the rifle fire of all the adventure books I had read—Mainly Henty's: The Dash for Khartoum, With Kitchener in the Soudan, One of the Twenty-eighth, Under Drake's Flag.2 [End Page 147]

O'Faoláin was not alone among Irish writers in his exposure to G.A. Henty's many empire adventure stories.3 Generations of Irish boys and girls had by then sat enthralled, reading of the exploits of well-mannered wanderers fresh from public schools, as they colonize and civilize out among the farthest reaches of the British Empire. These adventure stories were the lineal descendants of the "schoolboy novel," a genre that owes its existence to the phenomenal popularity of an 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's Schooldays, based on life at the famous English public school in Rugby. The passing of progressive legislation in the 1870s, the Forster Education Act of 1870 in Britain, and the Intermediate Education Act of 1878 in Ireland helped create over one million new places in schools across Britain and Ireland.4 An increasingly literate youth audience, in turn, was targeted by cheap periodicals, such as The Boy's Own Paper (1879–1967). By the close of the nineteenth century, this genre was firmly established and its formula had altered to reflect the expansionist rhetoric of British society, allowing offshoots based on young adulthood and imperial adventure, such as those contained in the Henty novels of Seán O'Faoláin's youth. For Irish nationalists of the revival period, such as Padraic Pearse and Douglas Hyde, the consumption of these distilled tales of imperial power by Irish youths was at best corrupting and at worst invidious and anti-Irish.

Ireland has its own set of much neglected schoolboy novels. Aside from James Joyce's seminal work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), few have received any critical attention, due in many cases to small print runs. This article is an attempt to rescue the Irish schoolboy novel from its relative obscurity. Although the quality of some of the novels may well be debatable, they nevertheless provide us with a rare and valuable glimpse at the reality of school life for Irish boys in the nineteenth century. The Irish form of this popular genre experienced three main phases from its birth in 1895 to its decline (along with that of the English schoolboy novel) in the 1930s. The earliest of the schoolboy novels, written while Ireland [End Page 148] was united with Britain, all reveal a distinct British cultural influence, the infamous "West Briton" tendency.5 In contrast, those written in the first decade of the Irish Free State mark the emergence of Cúchulainn as an important icon of heroic boyhood that provided an apparently ultra-Irish alternative to Tom Brown and his public school politesse. Finally, toward the end of what is considered the heyday of the schoolboy novel, a more critical and radical form emerged in the 1930s, hugely influenced by Joyce's A Portrait and best understood in relation to the Bildungsroman tradition in Ireland. All schoolboy novels are essentially novels of youth, of childhood, and of personal growth—providing authors with something of an ideological clean slate on which to forge a new national identity. As the Irish novels were published in a period often referred to as the "birth" of modern Ireland, it is possible to see them as a forgotten record of...


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