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Frank O’Connor Studies

Frank O’Connor’s Interior Voices

by Prof. Michael Steinman
Nassau Community College, New York

Imagine a contemporary short story: the main character, her clothing and accessories itemized as well as described, sits in her explicitly named automobile, drinking a particularly identified beverage or smoking a brand-name cigarette, heading down a named street in an identified city… Admittedly caricature, but it exemplifies the way some writers indicate the presence of Literary Realism. To those who expect such displays, a Frank O’Connor story presents a spare landscape. One could not reconstruct Cork from his stories, nor could a reader define the world through the objects for sale in it. It was a conscious choice; O’Connor was interested in other matters. William Maxwell recalled,

It used to amuse and interest him that when we were considering an early draft of a story together, I would ask what the furniture was like, or what the inside of the house looked like. “Oh, Lord,” he would exclaim. “don’t ask me that!” And he couldn’t, in fact, tell me. If he was writing a story, he would place a house in its street, and that street in its surroundings, and then he would do the front garden, and then, having delivered the reader at the front door he went blind at the very moment the door was opened, because now there were people, and the people were talking, and it was a matter of getting the voices right. (Michael/Frank 144)

“Getting the voices right” required that a character – involved in a story or narrating it -- be given a distinctly individualistic voice. In a 1959 Paris Review interview he pointed out that he was fascinated by

the cadence of their voices, the sort of phrases they’ll use, and that’s what I’m all the time trying to hear in my head, how people word things – because everybody speaks an entirely different language… I cannot pass a story as finished unless I know how everybody in it spoke, which, as I say, can go quite well with the fact that I couldn’t tell you in the least what they looked like. If I use the right phrase and the reader hears the phrase in his head, he sees the individual. (“Writers at Work” 169)

As a result, O’Connor’s stories – perhaps echoing an oral tradition – have an emotional vividness, a quiet intensity, because they are inhabited by what seem to be real people with distinctive voices, their language as carefully crafted as if their author had remained a lyric poet. It is not by accident that he titled what became his hour-long presentation for the fledgling Irish television network in 1962, “Interior Voices.”

O’Connor in RTÉ documentary – Interior Voices – “How did I become a writer...” (Movie)

O’Connor in RTÉ documentary – Interior Voices – “The first story of mine...” (Movie)

To give a sampling of the many voices O’Connor carried in his head, here are the opening passages from seven of his stories: “Peasants,” “Orpheus and his Lute,” “The Custom of the Country,” “The School for Wives,” “The Cheat,” “Masculine Protest,” “Don Juan (Retired).”


When Michael John Cronin stole the funds of the Carricknabreena Hurling, Football and Temperance Association, commonly called the Club, everyone said ‘Divil’s cure to him!’ ‘’Tis the price of him!’ ‘Kind father for him!’ ‘What did I tell you?’ and the rest of the things people say when an acquaintance has got what was coming to him. And not only Michael John but the whole Cronin family, seed, breed and generation, came in for it; there wasn’t one of them for twenty miles round or a hundred years back but his deeds and sayings were remembered and examined by the light of this fresh scandal. Michael John’s father (the Heavens be his bed!) was a drunkard who beat his wife, and his father before him a land-grabber. Then there was an uncle or grand-uncle who had been a policeman and taken a hand in the bloody work at Mitchelstown long ago, and an unmarried sister of the same whose good name by all accounts it would have needed a regiment of husbands to restore. It was a grand shaking-up the Cronins got…

Orpheus and His Lute

Du holde Kunst…

‘The changes in this city — !’ said the old man, and then paused as though overcome.

‘What changes?’ I enquired.

‘Ah, well,’ he concluded in a shocking anti-climax, ‘'tis God’s holy will.’

‘But what are the changes?’ I persisted.

‘What are the changes? Isn’t it change enough for anyone that the two things the people were fondest of under the sun, the two things they’d give body and soul for, are after falling into disrespect?’

‘And what are they?’

‘What else but porter and music? — Sometimes it was the music got the upper hand and sometimes the porter, but the one and the other were in every bit of sport and mischief there was. Did I ever tell you the story of the Irishtown band?’

‘You did not.’

‘Well, now ’tis a little story worth telling just to show you the sort of windfalls that pass for musicians nowadays. In those days—I’m speaking of fifty years ago—every parish had a band, and some had two bands and even three bands, but the Irishtown band was the best of the lot. There wasn‘t a man in it that wasn‘t born and reared as you might say between bar lines, and every one of them would drink Lough Erne dry. That was a well-known fact: a man wouldn‘t have a chance of being taken in that band unless he could do something remarkable in the way of drinking, and it used to be said of a certain notorious cadger—one, Daaza—that after a band promenade or a procession, with respects to you, he could get blind drunk on the emptying of the instruments.

The Custom of the Country

One fine moonlight night Ernest Thompson, the English fellow, asked Anna Martin to come away for a week-end with him. Ernest was a fellow she had been doing a line with for close on a month ; a tall chap with smooth oiled oak-coloured hair and a curiously raw, beefy face that went all off into points.

‘That’s a grand idea, Ernie,’ she said in her eager way. ‘I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll go to Glenamullen and the Frawleys will put us up.’

‘Put us up?’ said Ernest in surprise. ‘But I don’t want anyone to put us up.’

‘What do you want so?’ drawled Anna in the accent which her mother said was like a wind up a flue.

‘I want to make love to you,’ said Ernest boldly.

‘Go on !’ cried Anna with a sinking heart. ‘And what do you think you’re doing now?’

‘Don’t you want me to make love to you?’ he asked earnestly, seizing her by the wrists and looking deep into her eyes.

‘Ah, Ernie,’ she cried distractedly, trying to pull herself free, ‘if I did a thing like that I could never respect myself again.’

‘And why not?’ asked Ernest indignantly. ‘I love you and you love me, or at least you say you do. What possible objection can there be? It would be different if you were going to have a baby.’

‘Ah, God, Ernie,’ she cried, losing the last shred of her wits at the very thought of such a possibility, ‘I couldn’t, I couldn’t, and that’s all about it.’

The School for Wives

The real trouble with love is that people want contradictory things out of it. Like Jimmy Maguire and his wife. Jimmy was a tall thin fellow with an eager face, and in his younger days he used to be something of a Don Juan. There was a little group of them - the Doctor, Con Bishop, and two or three other bachelors - and they were all out for a good time. They used to go shooting and fishing, and one year, I remember, they took a house in Clare. The things that went on! Any excuse for a party, and it didn’t much matter to them where the party was to be - Limerick, Galway, or Cork, what was it, after all, but a day’s outing? Jimmy was the most reckless of them. They would be returning to Dublin from one outing when he would hear of a party somewhere else, and decide they ought to crash it. The Doctor, who shared a flat with Jimmy, lived in a continual state of alarm at what Jimmy would do next. Jimmy would do anything if the mood struck him, and, whatever he did, the Doctor was swept protesting into his orbit.

The Cheat

The only thing that distinguished Dick Gordon from the other young men of my time in Cork was his attitude to religion. As an engineer he seemed to feel that he could not afford to believe in anything but the second law of thermodynamics: according to him, this contained everything a man required to know.

For years he courted a girl called Joan Twomey, and everyone expected he would marry her and settle down, as most men of his kind do. Usually they are of a serious disposition and settle down more easily than the rest of humanity. You often see them in their later years, carrying round the collection bag at twelve o’clock Mass, and wonder what has happened to all their wild dreams of free thought and social justice. Marriage is the great leveller.

But Joan’s mother died, and she had to do the housekeeping for a father and two younger sisters, so she became serious too, and there was no more reckless behaviour in the little seaside house they rented in summer. She was afraid of marrying a man who did not believe in anything and would probably bring up his children the same way. She was wrong in this, because Dick was much too tolerant a man to deprive his worst enemy of the pleasure of believing in eternal damnation, much less his wife…

Masculine Protest

For months things had been getting difficult between Mother and me. At the time we were living in Boharna, a small town twenty miles from the city - Father, Mother, Martha, and I. I had managed to put up with it by kidding myself that one day Mother would understand; one day she’d wake up and see that the affection of Dad and Martha was insincere, that the two had long ago ganged up against her, and that I, the black sheep, the clumsy, stupid Denis, was the only one who really loved her.

The revelation was due to take place in rather unusual circumstances. We were all to be stranded in some dangerous desert, and Mother, with her ankle broken, would tell us to leave her to her fate. Dad and Martha would, of course, leave her, with only a pretence of concern. I could even imagine how Dad would look back regretfully, with his eyebrows raised, and shrug his shoulders, as much as to say that there was nothing he could do. But I, in my casual way, would simply fold my hands about my knees and ask listlessly, ‘What use is life to me without you? It’s all very well for Dad and Martha; they have one another, but I have only you.’ Not a word more! I was determined on not having any false drama, any raising of the voice. I was never one for high-flown expressions; the lift of the shoulder, the way I pulled a grass-blade to chew (it needn’t be a desert), and Mother would realise that though I was not demonstrative - just a plain, rough, willing chap - I had a heart of gold.

Don Juan (Retired)

One fine summer evening Joe French went into Casserly’s pub. Joe was a tall, well-built young man, an insurance agent by trade, with a broad, smooth, pleasant face; very pious and going just a shade bald in front. He dressed well, spoke well, and had never drifted into any of the sloppy ways of young men in Irish country towns. Barring one disappointment with a girl called Celia Goodwin, who had walked out on him and run off with a commercial traveller, his life had been uneventful enough.

There were two people in the pub before him: the barman, Jimmy Matthews, and Spike Ward, the motor driver. They weren’t talking. Jimmy had his two elbows on the counter and was studying the daily paper; when Joe came in he looked up in a scared sort of way. Jimmy was the leader of the local Republicans, and it may have been that which gave him the air of something peeping out of a burrow. He was tall with a haggard face like a coffin, a rather modish mop of black hair going white at the temples, and a pair of pince-nez which gave him a cast-iron intellectual expression. Spike was sitting with his back to the window, wearing a shabby old bowler hat and a pair of riding breeches. It was nearly ten years since he’d given up the horse and car, but he still continued to dress the part.

‘ ’Tis hot, Mr. French,’ said Jimmy, rubbing his hands briskly as if he meant that it was cold, and cocking his ears for the order. ‘A pint, I suppose?’

‘Oh, a pint, Jimmy,’ chuckled French, taking out his pipe. ‘Have one with me?’

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