AS PART of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the death of Cork writer Frank O’Connor (born Michael Francis O’Donovan), on Thursday, his son, Oliver O’Donovan, will donate 642 letters to UCC library.
These letters were correspondence by his father and mother to each other between 1945 and 1950. A theologian and Church of England priest, O’Donovan’s mother was writer, Joan Knapes, who became O’Connor’s lover in 1943. While the couple never married, they lived as man and wife, in Dublin, from 1950 to 1953, when they broke up.
O’Connor had a complicated domestic life. He had five children by three women. O’Donovan was 20 when his father died, at 63. The letters, which include everything from “multi-page, handwritten letters to scrappy telegrams and a few words scribbled on the back of post-cards”, are mainly from the period 1952 to 1953.
“When my father went off on long lecture visits to North America, including Harvard, he and my mother wrote to each other every day,” explains O’Donovan.
“Every detail of their daily lives is covered. There’s also a fascinating account of the time when problems blew up between my father and his wife, Evelyn. They got stuck in annulment proceedings, which sound completely tortuous and painful. There’s a lot of material there for a future biographer to correct, and improve the existing record of that period in his life.”
The letters also include O’Connor’s reaction to a five-day voyage to America on a liner, and of arriving there for the first time, which stunned him. “It opened up a whole world for him. There’s humour in the letters, of an ironic, slightly detached kind. He presents himself in a droll way, the innocent observer who is always taken aback and caught out, and made a fool of by everybody else, which, of course, was not the truth at all. It was just a witty pose he liked to strike. The letters are very entertaining reading. He was always the observer.”
O’Connor, whose early life was marked by his father’s alcoholism, debt, and the ill-treatment of his mother, did not have “a normal father/son relationship” with O’Donovan. “I didn’t see my father often during my childhood. My parents had a very broken relationship. We all lived together, as well as my father’s mother, in south Dublin, from 1950 to 1952. After my parents broke up, I would be sent across to him on holidays. We travelled in France together when I was 13. We talked and he kept a curious eye on my education.
“He had an extremely exploratory, restless, speculative and interested mind. He liked to present himself as essentially untaught, an untutored genius. But he wasn’t as untaught as all that. By today’s standards of secondary education, I think he would have come out quite well.”
How did O’Connor, an atheist, react to his son’s religious leanings? “He was ironic about it, as you would expect. He teased me about it, insofar as he knew where I was going at the time. I was still only a student when he died. He was interested, and sometimes puzzled, but he let me find my way.”
O’Donovan hasn’t been keeping a close eye on the legacy of his father. “When I come to Cork, I see the work the Munster Literature Centre does [to keep the memory of O’Connor alive]. Then, there’s the little head of him in the library. When I was a child, I always looked forward to the day when I’d see a statue of my father in the city. I wouldn’t object to one, providing it was a good one.”
The Dublin literary establishment, “to which my father belonged, moved on and left him behind. But Cork is still interested in him and I always appreciate that.”
However, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize, awarded annually for a new short story collection, and worth, at its peak, €50,000 — the richest short story prize in the world — has been axed.
In its place is the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellowship. This year, the inaugural fellowship has been awarded to Canadian writer, Zsuzsi Gartner.
The Cork City Council-funded fellowship, worth €15,000, will see Gartner living in Cork, and working with the literary community here, for three months, and contributing to the Cork International Short Story Festival.
Pat Cotter, director of the Munster Literature Centre, says Cork has dealt appropriately with the legacy of Frank O’Connor.
“Putting up the major short story award for eleven years was a huge commitment. Back in 1993, I tried to get what I was calling the ‘Frank O’Connor Summer School’ off the ground. But it was very difficult.” says Cotter.
“His reputation was fairly invisible. None of the major critics were paying attention to Frank O’Connor. He was dismissed as a backward social realist. But the award, and the 17 years of the Cork International Short Story Festival, have redressed that problem.
“In retaining Frank O’Connor’s name in the fellowship, we are committed to his memory.”
Whatever about the critics, O’Connor has had a significant influence on leading writers, including Richard Ford and Julian Barnes. Many contemporary Irish writers are influenced by his mastery of the short story, including Claire Keegan and Anne Enright.
There has also been a resurgence of the Irish short story in recent years, via writers such as Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett and Madeleine D’Arcy. O’Connor may not yet have a statue in his hometown, but his legacy clearly lives on.