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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

An Honest Writer: Cristóir Ó Floinn

Consplawkus: A writer's life
(Cork & Dublin: Mercier, 1999. 10 IRP)

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 26 August 2006

Curious title, fittingly the garbled Irish of this grandmother for 'gan spleachas', or 'without dependence', a phrase characterizing well the productive, respected, if not internationally acclaimed writing career, in English and Irish, of this Limerick-born writer. His life having started its expression in the prequel There Was an Isle: A Limerick Boyhood. Obviously as he's born 1927 and so only slighter more advanced in age than Frank McCourt, Ó Floinn benefits from timing for his autobiographies and his hometown's sudden prominence on the bestseller lists. From the cover you may assume an opportune 1999 entry in the burgeoning autobiographical hard times in our departed oul' Ireland genre. Yet, Ó Floinn (the cover gives his last name as the anglicised version, I suppose fitting like the book title since his name hovers between the two languages therefore) eschews sentiment.

He's a tough-minded character, not with his mitts but with his often-pawned typewriter. Whether in the Kerry Gaeltacht or rural Limerick, he stands up for himself without puffery but out of a hard-earned pride, as his writing, although neglected by scholars of theatre, has added up to a long resumé and a record of commitment and polish in both his languages. Not only as Béarla are his talents belittled. He exposes the distorted mentality of the state-controlled An Gum publishing establishment and its refusal to allow that a writer not born in the sainted Gaeltacht could, from a very young age, achieve the same level of literary prowess as an untutored fisherman from the Blaskets. When submitted often to a 'blind' peer review, his Irish stories and novels gained applause. (Even with my considerable limits of comprehension, I marvelled at his nuanced renderings of Irish into English in the passages he translates throughout the book.) But after their author was named, and proven to be Limerick-born, so not technically 'a native speaker', his nimble skills often met with rejection. He never gives in, however. His character allows him to stand up against censorship of his plays, clerical deceit, financial chicanery by the Abbey Theatre, and finally to quit Bord Fáilte over its mealy-mouthed spinelessness out of principle although he and his family could well not afford his resignation. You must read this to find out the four-letter word that the tourist board never allowed him or its publicists to use in their promotional brochures!

Over and over, all his diligent writing does not pay the bills. I found it heartening or perhaps disheartening to find that he, like all of us who have tried to submit our pieces, gets rejected even after his publishing career seems assured. The uncertainty of an aspiring-to-be-professional writer living without fame (except the humbler kind in the eyes of admiring pupils, he lets slip in one anecdote forgivably) is expressed vividly. He shares his ups and downs with a touch of wit and humor but avoids playing into what too many readers may expect to find when they see the words long attached to him on his way about the publishing offices as a "young writer from Limerick." He keeps integrity, if not amassing profits.

He's no dilettante or bohemian. Anthony Cronin's Dead as Doornails, or John Ryan's Remembering How They Stood, thoughtful accounts of McDaid's, Ginger Man's inspiration, Behan, Flann O'Brien and Kavanagh in the pre-Temple Bar postwar period in dear dirty Dublin: these are neither his haunts nor his crowd. Unlike them, he put first the support of his wife and children, and so had to work regularly! It makes for a more sober tale in more ways than one.

This therefore is an insightful, and impressively not embittered, example of the Irish writer who does not fall into the stereotype (he hardly drinks but cider for much of the tale, in his innocence thinking that pubs dispensed it as non-alcoholic!) but who unmasks the less melodramatic demons against which he daily had to contend under Archbishop McQuaid and Dev (the latter man is portrayed deftly) and Seán South (Ó Floinn's youthful companion in Limerick) during the 50s. South/Sábhat's early personality receives eloquent but unblinkingly precise depiction here, from one who knew the later IRA activist before he was romanticized into a ballad's subject and a republican martyr for the Cause. You read this section thinking how strange it must be to have been friends with just another young fellow in the neighborhood, who a few years later becomes renowned for exploits you never knew him to be preparing for, such was his unassuming mien. Ó Floinn's reflections on South provide some of this autobiography's best passages.

Our author would like to write all day but must teach -- 'back in the chalk mines' the recurring saying. But he manages to write all sorts of prose on the side, and tries to keep his career, in this book spanning about 1950-1966, sustained in the face of narrow-minded petty Catholic Ireland still mired in complacency, inefficiency, and prejudice. He credits those far less publicised clergy and Sisters who did much to help others quietly, as well as castigating those who abused their power in the name of the Church. He also observes well that it is ridiculous to blame the temper, say, of one priest hearing your sins and becoming frustrated with you, as justification for losing your faith. Confusing the sin with the sinner, he argues, should not result in abandoning belief in what the faith represents beyond its human and therefore weaker manifestation among us.

As he documents, such an honest life is not rewarded, at least financially. He muses how he had considered the lilies of the field for so long that he could be counted a professor--one of the narrative's best analogies! The book reads straightforwardly as if he's speaking his reflections to you, as they occur to him. Obviously this disguises the craft involved, but an easy tone about hard lessons he captures well. This makes for an engaging, self-effacing but not self-conscious, relating of life as an intellectual who refuses (at least for long) to take the boat to Britain (or almost East Africa) during dire times for him and his ever-growing brood. He turns down repeated offers to teach at Brandeis in the US since he fears the loss of his marital fidelity and/or the erosion of his personal ethical code. Both, from the evidence he presents, serve to discipline his determination to succeed without turning him priggish or aloof.

One aspect that gains far too little attention: his teaching stints. How he spent so many hours so many years in various schools gains little direct detail, although he's deadly accurate on what a schoolteacher in a village was expected to do, outside of his immediate occupation, to justify his "free" house provided by the parish. His depiction of such a life under the thumb of the parish priest should diminish any rose tint that may be assumed incorrectly by a reader coming to this expecting a bucolic romp in the meadows or blarney banter of the local farmers down the pub.

He tells rather more about trying to get hired and getting fired than what happens in the interim. McCourt, also a teacher of course for many years, did not write at night, so he led a fuller social life, I suppose, when he wasn't grading papers! Ó Floinn, by comparison, reveals too little beyond the focus on 'a writer's life'. This makes his account a bit too tipped towards the life of himself as the scribe only. His children are not named, although their number increases steadily. You do not find out much about his domestic life or as the teacher who must take the other half of each day's effort.

This is his prerogative, to arrange the relation as he wishes of his life, to protect privacy, but it does mean that nearly all of the story's told about a writer writing, failing to get paid and/or published, and his frequent shifts of venue. The subtitle tells you what he delivers. Most authors however gifted cannot make such material inherently as exciting as a life spent adventuring or encountering dramatic challenges, but Ó Floinn does his best to keep you following his recollections. It's a rambling journey at times, but as this book sounds like a transcription rather than a literary artifact, it does gain verisimilitude in the looser telling of events as they jumble.

As one who works in education myself, perhaps I expected too much about the classroom. He does stick to his subtitle admirably well, I admit, and what I see as a minor shortcoming in such concentration may to other readers be a strength of the book, for (unlike, say, McCourt's disjointed quick cash-in follow-up 'Tis,) the tale of his mid-life does not wander off on digressions. Ó Floinn does stop suddenly at the end to allow for a sequel promised to be dramatic. If he writes it, I hope I will be there to read it. This time, it'd better find a publisher.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

27 August 2006

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The Letters page has been updated.



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