FAMILY FOLKLORE has it that when Pádraic Ó Conaire was broke, a fairly frequent occurrence by all accounts, he would approach the grandfather Tom ‘Cork’ Kenny, co-founder and editor of the Connaught Tribune, hoping he would publish a story in the paper and pay him.
Tom would give him pen and paper, bring him to a room in the Tribune offices and sit him at a table there. He then left the room carefully locking the door which would remain locked until the story was slid out under the door. Then, and only then, he would open the door, pay Ó Conaire and presumably publish the story.
The shadow of Ó Conaire has hovered over Galway cultural life ever since then seen as a benign figure, a wonderful storyteller, the author of the delightful story M’Asal Beag Dubh, which to this day is still one of the more requested books across the counter. His statue on Eyre Square was to become an icon of the city’s literary ethos.
As a postgraduate student and being fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to do a masters degree in Paris, the subject of the thesis was the influence of Guy de Maupassant on the short stories of Pádraic Ó Conaire in Irish and Seán Ó Faoláin in English.
Because no French translation of Ó Conaire’s stories existed in French, before the thesis could be submitted they had to be translated into French. Thanks to the help of Pauline O’Gorman, these translations were achieved over the period of a week or two.
While working through the stories, a different image of Ó Conaire emerged. Some of them have a hard edge, redolent of the dark side of life, while others are steeped in the fantasy of the far east. The humour and innocence that permeate M’Asal Beag Dubh is nowhere to be seen.
The smiling storyteller of the statue is now a shadow flitting here and there, always searching but never really finding a sense of his own destiny. Indicative of this is the story that he died a pauper’s death in Dublin on his way to Russia.
In his new novel, Beirt Bhan Mhisniúla published by Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Pádraig Ó Siadhail explores the shadowy figure of Padraic Ó Conaire. Even here the facts are slight. In an afterword the author tells us the only factual base to the story is that Kathleen Hughes did collaborate with Ó Conaire in the writing of a play, The Cherry Bird, sometime in London before 1915.
The play was never produced or published but that Hughes had brought it back to America with her, hoping to use it as a fundraiser to help Ó Conaire be appointed to a permanent post in University College Galway. Unfortunately she died from cancer before this could be achieved. Everything else in the book, according to its author, is fiction including the story that Ó Conaire and Hughes became lovers.
Even if this is pure fiction, it nonetheless portrays a fascinating image of Ó Conaire. He is at once kind and fickle, loving and restless, communicative and reserved. While Kathleen Hughes and Mary Morrison are the two main characters of the book, it is the figure of Ó Conaire that dominates the narration throughout, despite remaining an essentially elusive figure moving in and out of the shadows like a ghost.
A curious aspect of the book is that while it is written mainly in an Ulster dialect, when Ó Conaire is present in the narrative the author has a tendency to slip into the softer Connemara dialect. Probably one of the more fascinating scenes comes towards the end when Ó Conaire and Samuel Beckett are having a drink together in a shebeen in Harcourt Street.
If this were true you would have to wonder, if only briefly, did they speak in English, Irish or French (the lady of the house is called Madame Cogley and some of the dialogue is in French ) and did the figure of Ó Conaire reappear later in Beckett’s work as a tramp.
Beirt Bhan Mhisniúla is a fascinating read in its own right but for anybody interested in the life or work of Pádraic Ó Conaire it is a must.