Archive for October 2015

An Irish Journey, by Sean O’Faolain

October 30, 2015

–What funnel? asked Stephen.
–The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.
–That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?
–What is a tundish?
–That. The . . . the funnel.
–Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.
   — from A Portrait of the Artist

This is the travel book of a proud Irish liberal going clockwise around the island, political divisions disregarded, circa 1939-40. Without a motor home, he stays at “old Irish hotels” and provides color and commentary on the folks he meets. The author is the dominant personality in the book, since his only traveling companion is the watercolorist Paul Henry, who contributes some hazy images, but keeps quiet. The coming war rumbles in the background.

O’Faolain is a little amused and impatient with his countrymen of the south. He likes their old ways, comfortable as an old coat; but wishes they’d go ahead and get up to date. He has repeated encounters with booksellers and librarians who are too cautious. Early bluster from a member of a temperance league, who is appalled that Limerick pubs stay open at all hours, is an amusement, but the author sees such a “puritan” as an essential character of the island, tolerable as long as he does not dominate.

His account of Cork, his home place, is especially passionate: “There is only one tune for Cork. It is one of those towns you love and hate. Some wag said that in Cork you do not commit sin; you achieve it. You do not, likewise, enjoy life in Cork; you experience it.” And later: “Exiled Corkman, never come back! If you do return you will find that it is like meeting a woman whom you had loved long ago. She is now fat and cosy and contented. She sits among the crockery with her children, her husband, and her admiring relatives about her, and all her wild dreams are dead. She invites you, old lover, in her bright breaking voice to sit and eat. But she does not understand your frown because she has forgotten the agony of her youth and yours.” An “eighteenth-century Whig” thrashes Pius XI for Quadragesimo Anno and pines for a dictator. The author’s own feeling is clear enough, but even he quotes market prices for eggs, mutton, and potatoes, and monthly housing rents, and wonders how the people get by. The integrated circuit assemblies were still to come.

“The truth about Killarney is simple. It is a tourist town badly run.”

He has no sympathy for the British influence in the Six Counties of the North, though he protests that no real conflict exists between Orange and Green on the level of man-to-man; it seems that the governments are to blame. He does his best to find “Native Ireland” where he can, but “there is one thing to be said in favour of Belfast–you can get out of it quickly.” Literary opinions dominate at the end, when he returns to Dublin, whose best literary days were behind it already. Yeats had just died, and Joyce would follow him soon.


Paul Henry, "A Connemara Village" (National Gallery of Ireland)

Paul Henry, “A Connemara Village” (National Gallery of Ireland)