- Seán O’Faoláin: Literature, Inheritance and the 1930s by Paul Delaney
Paul Delaney’s passionate analysis of Sean O’Faolain’s writing in the 1930s is not just a plea to reconsider the work of an early twentieth-century Irish canonical figure; it is also a text that positions Irish realism and biography, exemplified by O’Faolain’s writings, as philosophical discourses marking a significant historical moment. For Delaney, O’Faolain is more of a literary philosopher than a biographer or writer of fiction. Even when O’Faolain fails to give objective (or even accurate) information in his biographical writings, as Delaney presents it, he succeeds in epitomizing an Irish viewpoint refracted and fragmented by Irish colonial history. And, when he disappoints in his stereotyping of Irishness in his fiction, O’Faolain nonetheless powerfully critiques institutions that inhibit identity formation in post-Independence Ireland. Delaney splits his narrative into two parts, “Biography” and “Fiction,” suggesting, even in the outline of his own biographical reading of O’Faolain, that historical lives and the fictitious stories that surround them are unavoidably intertwined.
Delaney first turns to O’Faolain’s biographies, spending most of his time on King of the Beggars (1938), O’Faolain’s illustration of Daniel O’Connell’s life, and De Valera (1939), O’Faolain’s heroic biography (his second book on Dev). Delaney carefully weaves his reading of the troubled philosopher that he believes O’Faolain to be—one who in fact presupposes and epitomizes postcolonial critiques by Edward Said and Homi Bhabha—into a thoughtful explanation of the self-reflexive nature of O’Faolain’s biographical strategy. Neither King of the Beggars nor De Valera, in Delaney’s view, is an objective description of its subject’s life. Yet, each is a historical artifact, and as such, each helps to explain the hybrid and often oscillating narrative that encapsulates both O’Faolain’s life as an Irish intellectual living before and after Independence, and the self-mythologizing and struggle of the new nation.
Here, Delaney finds O’Faolain sympathetic, but disappointing: O’Faolain rejects the return to the Celtic past and the reinvigoration of the Irish language in favor of an achievable, but republican, modernity while also reinforcing innumerable biases that mark him as overly traditional and patriarchal, particularly his sometimes unfair treatment of gender and his resistance to experimental modernism. O’Connell and De Valera are the most heroic figures to draw O’Faolain’s attention. Delaney finds his depictions of female figures, including his flawed 1934 biography of the Countess Markiewicz and his depiction of female characters in his short stories, to be the most revealing when it comes to O’Faolain’s gender prejudices. Yet, he sees O’Faolain as forward-thinking while also pointing out that “any claim for O’Faolain’s progressive gender politics is complicated” because he [End Page 147] shared the concerns of the Irish feminist movement without directly criticizing the paternalistic aspects of the state.
Delaney’s emphasis on the treatment of gender in O’Faolain’s writing is appropriate and timely. Though gentle in his critique, Delaney uncompromisingly faults O’Faolain for the reinforcement of an Irish masculinity that limits and impairs a progressive national agenda—an act that O’Faolain himself seems to decry in his own biographies. Further, he provides information about the female figures whom O’Faolain misrepresents, often filling in the gaps of O’Faolain’s stories and providing corrections and revisions to misrepresented facts. Delaney’s strategy is consistent—he returns to O’Faolain’s gender biases time and again—and offers insight into the often contradictory position of Irish masculinity and male intellectualism during the early twentieth century. This is especially true in Chapter 3, “Iterations and Revisions: De Valera,” in which Delaney argues that O’Faolain’s representation of de Valera, while clichéd in its depictions of a stereotypical “Stage Irishman,” sought to expose how “this trait was rooted in a history of colonization and subservience, and was a defining aspect of the...