When Frank O’Connor was born, his parents—Minnie O’Connor, a former maid raised in an orphanage, and Michael O’Donovan, a veteran of the Boer War and the drummer in a local brass-and-reed band—lived above a sweet-and-tobacco shop in Cork, Ireland. The young family soon moved, however, to a two-room cottage at the top of Blarney Street, a lane that originates, as O’Connor so vividly describes it, “near the river-bank, in sordidness, and ascends the hill to something like squalor.” From this unlikely beginning, a poor boy born Michael Francis Xavier O’Donovan set out on the remarkable journey that transformed him into Frank O’Connor, one of Ireland’s greatest writers.
An Only Child, the first installment of O’Connor’s wonderfully evocative autobiography, captures the joy and pain of his early years: joy in the colorful people and places of Cork and in his devoted relationship with his mother, pain in the family’s impoverished situation and in his father’s melancholy moods and drunken outbursts. Fifteen years old when he joins the Irish Republican Army in the fight for independence, O’Connor finds himself on the losing side of the ensuing civil war and is imprisoned by the government of the new nation. My Father’s Son begins with his release from an internment camp and follows him to Dublin and the world-renowned Abbey Theatre, where he meets W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, and other members of the Irish Literary Revival, and takes the first steps toward becoming one of the twentieth century’s most beloved authors.
As richly detailed and eloquent as the best of his short fiction, Frank O’Connor’s autobiography is an entertaining portrait of a fascinating time and place, and the inspiring account of a young artist finding his voice.
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An Only Child and My Father's Son
By Frank O'Connor
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Estate of Frank O'Connor
All rights reserved.
CHILD, I KNOW YOU'RE GOING TO MISS ME
As a matter of historical fact I know that I was born in 1903 when we were living in Douglas Street, Cork, over a small sweet-and-tobacco shop kept by a middle-aged lady called Wall, but my memories have nothing to do with living in Douglas Street. My memories begin in Blarney Street, which we called Blarney Lane because it follows the track of an old lane from Cork to Blarney. It begins at the foot of Shandon Street, near the river-bank, in sordidness, and ascends the hill to something like squalor. No. 251, where we lived, is one of the cottages on the right near the top, though I realize now that it would be more properly described as a cabin, for it contained nothing but a tiny kitchen and a tiny bedroom with a loft above it. For this we paid two and sixpence—sixty cents—a week.
Up here we were just on the edge of the open country, and behind the house were high, windy fields that are now all built over. A hundred yards farther up the road the country proper began, and there a steep lane called Strawberry Hill descended past my first school into the classy quarter of Sunday's Well. The Women's Prison was at the foot of this lane, where it turned into Convent Avenue, and beside the Women's Prison was the Good Shepherd Convent. The convent had a penitentiary for "fallen" women and an orphanage, and it was in the orphanage that Mother had been brought up. At the foot of Convent Avenue on the left was a house where Mother had been a maid for eight years with a family called Barry, and where she had been happier than at any other time in her life. To the right was a shop the owner of which had once wanted to marry her. All these places were full of significance to me—the convent because my mother and I often visited it to see Mother Blessed Margaret and Mother of Perpetual Succour, who were her friends there, the Barrys' house because of the elegance of the life that Mother described in it, and the shop because of a slight feeling of resentment at the thought that if only Mother had been sensible and married a rich man I should have had a pretty elegant life myself.
That was the exalted end of Blarney Lane. At the other end it descended to the river and across the bridge to the North Main Street, where Mother took me shopping, and beyond the North Main Street, over another bridge to Douglas Street, where we had lived, and where my mother's brother, Tim O'Connor, had a cobbler's shop just across the street from Miss Wall. My memories of the cobbler's shop are hazy; I can remember my uncle only when he was dying in the South Infirmary of dysentery he had contracted in the Boer War; and yet I seem to have a very vivid recollection of him—tall, thin, and fair-haired, unlike Mother, who was small and had very dark hair—because he seemed to be always gay. One of the things I have inherited from my mother's side of the family is a passion for gaiety. I do not have it myself—I seem to take more after my father's family, which was brooding, melancholy, and violent—but I love gay people and books and music.
Not that Tim had much to be gay about; his wife, as I remember her, was common and jealous, and disliked Mother's politeness and gentleness, while Mother never ceased to resent the hysterical scenes Annie O'Connor had made over Tim's grave. Mother disliked and distrusted any form of demonstrativeness, and when Annie married again it was only what Mother had expected of her. How she thought Annie could bring up two children unaided I do not know, but she and Father shared an attitude which seemed to be commoner then than it is now, of regarding all second marriages as a form of betrayal.
On the other hand, Tim had objected to Mother's marrying my father, Michael O'Donovan. The two men, who were old friends, had been in the British Army together, and were stationed at Charles Fort, near Kinsale, where Tim's girl, Annie, and Mother visited him together. Mother came back to visit Father. Though they were friends and drinking companions, Tim told Father that he was not good enough for Mother, and Father, to give him his due, did not hold it against him. "I'll get her in spite of you, Tim," he said, and he did. Certainly neither Tim nor my mother had much to boast of in their marriages. Maybe there is about these men and women of Mozartean temperament a certain unworldliness that makes them get the worst of any bargain.
Father played the big drum in the Blackpool Brass and Reed Band, and as I was the only child, I had often to accompany him, much against my will, on his Sunday trips to the band room or on band promenades at holiday resorts. The Cork bands were divided into supporters of William O'Brien and supporters of John Redmond, two rival Irish politicians with little to distinguish them except their personalities—flamboyant in O'Brien and frigid in Redmond. The Blackpool Band was an O'Brienite group, and our policy was "Conciliation and Consent," whatever that meant. The Redmond supporters we called Molly Maguires, and I have forgotten what their policy was—if they had one. Our national anthem was "God Save Ireland" and theirs "A Nation Once Again." I was often filled with pity for the poor degraded children of the Molly Maguires, who paraded the streets with tin cans, singing (to the tune of "John Brown's Body"): "We'll Hang William O'Brien on a Sour Apple Tree." Sometimes passion overcame me till I got a tin can of my own and paraded up and down, singing: "We'll Hang Johnny Redmond on a Sour Apple Tree."
The bandsmen shared our attitudes. There were frequent riots, and during election times Father came home with a drumstick up his sleeve—a useful weapon if he was attacked by Molly Maguires. There were even more serious incidents. Bandsmen raided a rival band room and smashed up the instruments, and one of Father's most gloomy songs listed some of the men who had done this:
Creedy, Reidy, Dessy, and Snell, Not judging their souls, they're already in Hell. The night of the battle we'll show them some fun; We'll hang up the ruffian that stole our big drum.
Almost all the bandsmen were ex-bandsmen of the British Army, as Father was; and I think it may have been something of a tragedy to them that when once they returned to Cork, music became less important than the political faction for whom they made it. Father was devoted to the policy and personality of William O'Brien, who had married the daughter of one of the great Franco-Jewish bankers. It was Sophie Raffalovitch's mother who had started the romance by sending to O'Brien when he was in gaol a verse of Racine with an eagle's feather enclosed, but I am glad that when Sophie O'Brien was old and poor in France during the German occupation, the Irish Government protected her and paid her an allowance. Once, when there were threats of a Molly Maguire attack, Father, an enormously powerful man, acted as bodyguard for William O', and William O' thanked him personally and handed him a pound note. All the same, for several years Father had been big drummer of a Molly Maguire band. It was a superb band, and Father liked music so well that he preferred it to politics. For the sake of the music he even endured the indignity of playing for Johnny Redmond. Naturally, whenever he attended a demonstration at which William O' was criticized, he withdrew, like a good Catholic from a heretical service. What made him leave the Molly band and join the Blackpool Band I never knew. It was a period that for some reason he never liked to talk about, and I suspect that someone in the band must have impugned him by calling him a turncoat. That is the sort of thing that would have broken his spirit, for he was a proud man and a high-principled one, though what his principles were based on was more than I ever discovered. He was the one who insisted on the "O'Donovan" form of the name, and it must have been his absence at the Boer War that explains my being described as "Donovan" on my birth certificate. He would not permit a slighting reference to William O'Brien, and reading the Echo, the only evening paper in Cork, and a Molly one, was as much a torment as a pleasure to him. "There were about 130 people present, most of them women, with a sprinkling of children" was how the Echo would describe any meeting of O'Brien's, and Father would raise his eyes to Heaven, calling on God to witness that anything the Echo said was untrue. "Oh, listen to George Crosbie, the dirty little caffler!" he would cry with mortification. In days when no one else that I knew seemed to worry about it, he was a passionate believer in buying Irish manufactures, and often sent me back to the shop with a box of English matches that had been passed off on me. He was a strong supporter of Jim Larkin, the Irish Labour leader; for months when he was out on strike we practically didn't eat, but we always bought The Irish Worker, Larkin's paper, and I was permitted to read it aloud because my dramatic style of reading suited Larkin's dramatic style of journalism. According to Mother, there was a period in my infancy when Father didn't drink for two years. He had drunk himself penniless, as he frequently did, and some old friend had refused him a loan. The slight had cut him so deep that he stopped drinking at once. The friend was wrong if he assumed that Father would not have repaid that or any other loan, but, still, it was a great pity that he hadn't a few more friends of the sort.
It was no joke to go with Father on one of his Sunday outings with the band, and I often kicked up hell about it, but Mother liked me to go, because she had some strange notion that I could restrain him from drinking too much. Not that I didn't love music, nor that I wasn't proud of Father as, with the drum slung high about his neck, he glanced left and right of it, waiting to give the three taps that brought the bandsmen in. He was a drummer of the classical type: he hated to see a man carry his drum on his belly instead of his chest, and he had nothing but scorn for the showy drummers who swung or crossed their sticks. He was almost disappointingly unpretentious.
But when he was on the drink, I was so uncertain that I always had the feeling that one day he would lose me and forget I had been with him at all. Usually, the band would end its piece in front of a pub at the corner of Coburg Street. The pubs were always shut on Sunday until after last Mass, and when they opened, it was only for an hour or two. The last notes of "Brian Boru's March" would hardly have been played before Father unslung the drum, thrust it on the young fellows whose job it was to carry it, and dashed across the road to the pub, accompanied by John P., his great buddy. John P.—I never knew what his surname was—was a long string of misery, with an air of unutterable gravity, emphasized by the way he sucked in his cheeks. He was one of the people vaguely known as "followers of the band"— a group of lonely souls who gave some significance to their simple lives by attaching themselves to the band. They discussed its policies and personalities, looked after the instruments, and knew every pub in Cork that would risk receiving its members after hours. John P., with a look of intense concentration, would give a secret knock on the side door of the pub and utter what seemed to be whispered endearments through the keyhole, and more and more bandsmen would join the group peppering outside, while messengers rushed up to them shouting: "Come on, can't ye, come on! The bloomin' train will be gone!"
That would be the first of the boring and humiliating waits outside public houses that went on all day and were broken only when I made a scene and Father gave me a penny to keep me quiet. Afterwards it would be the seaside at Aghada—which wasn't so bad because my maternal grandmother's people, the Kellys, still lived there and they would give me a cup of tea—or Crosshaven, or the grounds of Blarney Castle, and in the intervals of playing, the band would sit in various public houses with the doors barred, and if I was inside I couldn't get out, and—what was worse for a shy small boy—if I was out I couldn't get in. It was all very boring and alarming, and I remember once at Blarney, in my discouragement, staking my last penny on a dice game called the Harp, Crown, and Feather in the hope of retrieving a wasted day. Being a patriotic child, with something of Father's high principle, I put my money on the national emblem and lost. This was prophetic, because since then I have lost a great many pennies on the national emblem, but at least it cured me of the more obvious forms of gambling for the rest of my days.
On another occasion, after what had seemed an endless day in Crosshaven, I found myself late at night outside a locked public house in Cork opposite the North Cathedral, waiting for some drunk to emerge, so that I could stick my head in the door and wail: "Daddy, won't you come home now?" At last, in despair, I decided to make my own way home through the dark streets, though I had never been out alone at night before this. In terror, I crept down the sinister length of Shandon Street, and crossed the street so that I might escape seeing what I might see by the old graveyard, and then, at the foot of Blarney Lane, I saw a tiny shop still open. There were steps up to the hall door, and railings round the area, and the window was small and high and barely lighted by one oil lamp inside, but I could plainly see a toy dog in it, looking out at me. Praying that it wouldn't be beyond my means, I climbed up the steps. Inside, a door on the right led from the hall to the shop, where the counter was higher than my head. A woman came out of the little back room and asked me what I wanted. I told her I wanted to know the price of the dog, and she said it was sixpence. I had earned a lot of pennies by standing outside public houses that day, and sixpence was exactly what I had, so I threw it all on the counter and staggered out, clutching my protector. The rest of the way up Blarney Lane I walked without fear, setting my woolly dog at every dark laneway to right and left of me with a fierce "At 'em, boy!" Fortunately for myself, I was fast asleep when Father arrived home, distracted over losing me.
As for keeping him off the drink, I never did it but once, when I drank his pint, became very drunk, smashed my head against a wall, and had to be steered home by himself and John P., both of them mad with frustration and panic, and be put to bed.
Father had been brought up in the vicinity of Cork Barracks, a mile or two away at the other side of the town, and his family still lived there. For this neighbourhood he seemed to pine as an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn is supposed to pine for Galway Bay, though, unlike the Brooklyn immigrant, Father meant it. He used to take me to my grandparents' house in Harrington's Square—an uneven unlighted piece of ground between the Old Youghal Road and the Ballyhooley Road that seemed to have been abandoned by God and was certainly abandoned by the Cork Corporation. One side was higher than the other, and a channel had been hollowed out before the houses on the lower side to give ingress, while at the end of this one lonesome pillar commemorated some early dream of railing the place off. In England such sites are politely known as "non-adopted," a word that well suits their orphaned air. It was inhabited largely by washerwomen who worked mainly for the British officers in Cork Barracks, and there were three sets of iron poles in the middle of the square to support their lines. One set belonged to my grandmother, a stout, coarse peasant woman from Aghada, who flopped about the floor in bare feet because these were what she was used to and the boots still continued to give her trouble. She had a pronounced Mongolian appearance, and the protrusion of the brows and the high cheekbones gave her a constant look of peering at things. With it went a curious shrugging of the shoulders, which I never noticed again till I saw it in an eminent writer and traced it down to a common dislike of soap and water. After a huge meal of stockfish and boiled potatoes she would shrug and bless herself and then add her own peculiar grace: "Well, thanks be to God, we're neither full nor fasting." I remember little of my grandfather, a quiet, bearded old man. My aunt was a deaf-mute, and during the early part of my childhood I met her only once or twice, when she was home on holidays from Glasgow, where she lived with her husband—a tailor named Hanlon. She, too, seemed to pine for the old spot.
I had no nostalgia for it. The kitchen of my grandparents' house resembled that of a country cabin, and there was nothing in it but a table and a few chairs—no pictures, or anything else that could hold the attention of a child. It was criss-crossed with clotheslines, and in wet weather it smelled of damp linen and was warm with a big fire where the heaters for the box-iron were reddened. (I liked the heaters, and I wished Mother would get a box-iron instead of her own little flat-iron.)
Excerpted from An Only Child and My Father's Son by Frank O'Connor. Copyright © 1999 Estate of Frank O'Connor. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI Child, I Know You're Going to Miss Me,
II I Know Where I'm Going,
III Go Where Glory Waits Thee,
IV After Aughrim's Great Disaster,
My Father's Son,
I Rising in the World,
II The Provincial in Dublin,
III The Abbey Theatre,
IV The Death of Yeats,
About the Author,