‘The old lady was a holy terror’

Ireland’s greatest short story writer is probably the late Frank O’Connor (1903-1966 ). Born in Cork city, his autobiography An Only Child (1961 ) is ironically a celebration of his vivacious but fastidious mother, and their survival from his alcoholic, and at times brutal, father.

O’Connor was blessed to have had a brilliant teacher, Daniel Corkery, at Cork’s renowned North Mon school, who encouraged his learning Irish and to write.

For a brief period he sided with the Republicans during the Civil War, but after a term of imprisonment kept away from politics, and concentrated on writing short stories and translations from Irish.

He came to the attention of WB Yeats and George Russell (AE ) who widely praised his work. While only in his early thirties Yeats invited him to become a member, and later a director, of the Abbey Theatre, which was founded by Yeats and others of the Irish National Theatre Society, a powerful voice in the growing demands for national independence at the beginning of the 20th century.

We knew little of O’Connor’s personal struggles in the Abbey Theatre other than he gave much energy to the theatre’s affairs and wrote several plays. It was not until his book Leinster, Munster and Connaught was published in 1950 that we learned about his initial terror of Lady Augusta Gregory, a co-founder of the Abbey, the author of numerous plays performed there, and a steadfast defender during the theatre’s many crises. She was a stern administrator, and firmly held everyone to their ‘first intent’.

Pangur the cat

In his book O’Connor arrives in County Galway and gazes with pity on the ruins of Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s home. She had died in 1932, eighteen years earlier. Her home, he writes, was ‘sold by Mr de Valera’s government to a Galway builder for £500 and torn down for scrap’.

Admirers of Lady Gregory, and I am one of them, will be amused at O’Connor’s memories of meeting her ladyship when he first joined the Abbey team.

‘The old lady was a holy terror; that is the only way I can describe her. On the first evening that I called at Yeats’ I also met her. She came into the drawing-room in her mantilla, and, while I warmed to Yeats, she struck cold terror into my heart.

‘In my embarrassment I told the story of an unfortunate Gaelic teacher I knew in Cork, whose only hope of collecting his salary was to put on a concert and play, and who would have got no salary at all if he produced a play which required the payment of royalties.

‘He produced her Workhouse Ward (Reader please note that this was Lady Gregory’s most popular play ), under the title of ‘Crime and Punishment’, translated from the original Russian of Fyodor Dostoievsky!

‘The old lady looked at me bleakly. “And didn’t he know it was wrong?” she asked in her flat charwoman’s voice - a comment which deserves to go down in history with “WE are not amused.”

‘For the rest of my life I nourished something like an inferiority complex about the old lady until long after Yeats’ death. Mrs Yeats revealed to me that he was as terrified of her as I was. She had always treated him as a talented but naughty child.

‘When at last he married and took his young wife to Coole, he felt the time had come for him to assert his manhood. No animals were permitted in Coole - which, considering what most Irish country houses are like, seems to me to be kindness to Christians - and Yeats was fond of his cat. Now that he was a married man, a mature man, a famous man, he was surely entitled to his cat. So Pangur was duly bundled up and brought to Gort. But as the ourside car drove up the avenue of Coole, the married, mature, famous man grew panic-stricken at the thought of the old lady’s forbidding countenance. He bade the jarvy drive him first to the stables. There Pangur was deposited until, everyone having gone to bed, Yeats crept out in his slippers and brought him up to the bedroom.

‘Yet till the day she died he secretly nursed the hope of being able to treat her as an equal. Nobody who had ever been squelched by her could realise the relief with which I heard this...’

‘Up de rebels!’

But if the young O’Connor was in awe of Lady Gregory, the mature writer that he became, later saw her prodigious talents.

‘ She produced a series of little plays which as a writer fill me with despair, so perfect is their Franciscan austerity and charm. She was only restrained by Yeats’ scepticism from becoming a Catholic, and Robinson gives one final glimpse of her during an ambush in O’Connell Street, when all the passers-by were lying on the pavement, and English machine-guns sweeping the street, standing, erect and defiant, a tiny little woman in black shouting: “Up de rebels!”

Next week: More of O’Connor’s wry comments on Galway (which he did not like ).

NOTES: O’Connor resigned from the Abbey after the death of Yeats. From the 1930s to the 1960s he was a prolific writer of short stories, poems, plays and novellas, which included Guests of a Nation (1931 ), The Common Chord (1947 ), An Only Child (1961 ), My father’s Son (1968 ), numerous essays and articles in the New Yorker, and the Sunday Independent, and The Bell. Many of which are extraordinarily amusing. He famously translated Brian Merriman’s Cuírt na Meán Oiche (The Midnight Court ), which was banned.

His love life was complicated. He married firstly a divorced Welsh actress, Esther Evelyn Bowen, which was not a popular choice in the Catholic Ireland of the time. It eventually ended in divorce, and self exile in America, where he lectured, and was a much loved broadcaster. He married secondly, an American, Harriet R Rich. Frank O’Connor was the father of five children.

He was a fighter too. He commented critically on many aspects of Irish life, including governmental policy on education, health, and language. He also began a lifelong campaign for the preservation of national monuments, whose neglect and decay he deplored. The same concern dominates his travel books Irish Miles (1947 ), and Leinster, Munster and Connaught (1950 ).

I am taking additional information from Google; and an essay on Frank O’Connor in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, by Ruth Sherry.


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