Monday, October 19, 2020

Seán O' Faoláin - community, 'nation', Ireland and Ulster

I am sure there are people out there with PhDs in the subject matter I'm about to paddle into in this post. Perhaps they can forgive these amateur ramblings.

Over the past year I have come across a series of references to Seán O'Faoláin (1900–1991). I had never noticed him or his work at all until these came along. He seems to have been enigmatic, influential and unorthodox.

According to his page on Wikipedia and some other sources he was the publicity director for the IRA during the Irish Civil War. This was an unexpected twist as all of those specific references to him, and his writing, are superb and ideologically pretty much where many of my own inclinations are too. This is a fascinating piece about him; like all of us, he changed his mind about things and circumstances as life went on. 

Canadian academic Donald Harman Akenson, in his often overlooked yet critically important 1979 book Between Two Revolutions; Islandmagee, County Antrim, 1798–1920, which was written as a result of his living on Islandmagee for some years, quotes O' Faoláin in the brilliant Preface (which I plan to post here in full soon) –

There's a laser-precise insight if ever there was one – 'local communities' and 'local consciousness' are more important than the 'nation state' or 'national culture'.

In his huge 1949 biography of Sir James Craig, entitled Craigavon Ulsterman, St John Ervine quotes from O' Faoláin's second biography of Eamon De Valera (the first in 1933 was 'almost sycophantic'; the second in 1939 which is online here was 'more critical than romantic') –

O' Faoláin and Ervine knew each other - both were members of the Irish Literary Academy which was founded in 1932 by WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, as were Helen Waddell, Sean O'Casey and Douglas Hyde among others. From a search on the British Newspaper Archive it seems that their paths might also have crossed at the BBC.

Two of Seán O'Faoláin's early books were banned by the Irish Free State's censorship-happy government for 'indecency' - Midsummer Night Madness (published 1932) and Bird Alone (published 1936). 

O' Faoláin also came up in a fascinating conversation I had recently about the life and work of Sam Hanna Bell. The 33 year old Bell's essay 'This We Shall Maintain' was published in O' Faoláin's renowned literary arts journal appropriately entitled The Bell, in a special Ulster edition in 1942. The story would later appear in Sam Hanna Bell's début collection Summer Loanen in 1943. O' Faoláin's editorial introduction to this edition is a great read, a fulsome praise of "... this new Ulster of ours ... Belfast is a city of mixed grills and double whiskies ... I am in danger of losing my head as well as my heart to Ulster." 

I have just a few editions of The Bell, from the 1940s. In July 1941 there had been what I think was the first 'Special Ulster Number'. Look at the list of contributors, but it's O' Faoláin's own editorial which is the standout article, so I've posted every page below. More to follow...  

Below is the summary biography on the back cover of his 1947 book The Irish –