Frank O'Connor

From New World Encyclopedia

Frank O’Connor (born Michael Francis O'Connor O'Donovan) (September 17, 1903 – March 10, 1966) was an Irish author of over 150 works, who was best known for his short stories and books of memoirs. Born an only child in Cork (city), Ireland, to Minnie O'Connor and Michael O'Donovan, his early life was marked by his father's alcoholism, debt, and ill-treatment of his mother. While his works treat a wide range of subjects, they bear witness to the breakdown of relationships in the modern world.


Frank O'Connor was raised in an extremely chaotic environment in which his only refuge was his mother, Minnie. While his father was an addicted drunkard who could not refrain from exceeding all credit limits, O'Connor's mother took full responsibility of the household and supported the family single-handedly. In addition, O'Connor's father berated him with derogatory comments toward his masculinity. His father found it outlandish that instead of wrestling, Frank preferred to read. As a result, O'Connor's writing is scarred with the stains of his tumultuous childhood.

He has recounted the early years of his life in one of his best books, An Only Child, a memoir not published until 1961, but which had the immediacy of a precocious diary. In fact, writing and books were his safe haven from the terrifying family life he was forced to endure. In the process, O'Connor successfully taught himself French and German, which reaped great rewards for him as he would go on to write over 150 short stories.

In 1914, he attended St. Patrick's National School under tutelage of Corkery. In 1918, he joined the First Brigade of the Irish Republican Army in its resistance to British rule. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and took the Anti-Treaty side in the ensuing Irish Civil War. He worked in a small propaganda unit in Cork City. O'Connor was subsequently among the twelve thousand anti-Treaty Irish Republicans who were interned by the nascent Irish Free State forces. He was imprisoned in the Gormanstown camp between 1922 and 1923. Following the war, the polyglot O'Connor took various positions, including that of an Irish teacher and librarian. He was perhaps Ireland's most complete man of letters, best known for his varied and comprehensive short stories but also for his work as a noble literary critic, essayist, travel writer, translator, and biographer. In fact, many of O'Connor's works appeared in the Irish Statesmen. In 1931, Mr. O'Donovan switched over completely to Frank O'Connor, and went from a businessmen to a full time writer. This is when his first volume of stories were produced, specifically, "Guests of the Nation." He was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Abbey Theatre in 1935, and produced Three Old Brothers, and Bones of Contention, in the following year. In 1937, he made his first broadcast on Radio Eireann. In the same year, he was made Managing Director of the Abbey. In 1938, he was married to Evelyn Bowen Speaight. The next year he was forced to resign from the Board of Directors of the Abbey Theatre after the death of Yeats. In 1941, he produced, The Statue's Daughter, at the Gate Theatre and began working with the BBC in London. Many of his stories, like "Midnight Court," were later banned. After a ten year marriage, O'Connor separated from his wife in 1948. At the age of 48, he became a teacher at Northwester University and Harvard. Pain plagued him in 1952, with the death of his mother and the official divorce from his wife. However, 1953 began to shine brightly on Frank as he produced his, The Stories of Frank O'Connor, and married Harriet Rich. He continued to write throughout the remainder of his life and An Only Child was the prime example of memoir writing. He suffered a stroke while teaching at Stanford in 1961, and thus returned to Ireland. In 1962, he was awarded the D. Litt. from Trinity College, Dublin. Frank O'Connor, or Michael O'Donovan at birth, died on March 10, 1966, in Dublin. He was buried in Dean's Grange Cemetery on March 12.


From the 1930s to the 1960s, Frank O'Connor was a prolific writer of short stories, poems, plays, and novellas. His work as an Irish teacher complemented his numerous translations into English of Irish poetry, including his initially banned translation of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche. Many of O'Connor's writings were based on his own life experiences—his character Larry Delaney in particular. "Guests of the Nation" was one of the first short stories that Frank O'Connor produced. In 1932, he published his first novel, The Saint and Mary Kate, and first translations of Irish poetry, "Wild Bird's Nest" (Cuala). He worked with Hugh Hunt to produce "In the Train" and "The Invincibles." He also wrote "The Big Fellow," "The Statue's Daughter," and banned stories like "Midnight Court." The Stories of Frank O'Connor, and An Only Child, are one of the more famous O'Connor works, but he has also written well known stories such as, "My Oedipus Complex," "First Confession," "The Bridal Night," "The Luceys," and "The Long Road to Ummera." Works such as, An Only Child, "My Oedipus Complex," and "The Drunkard," clearly demonstrate the impact his childhood had on his mind and on his writing.

Guests of the Nation

Guests of the Nation is one of Frank O'Connor's more widely read works. This is one of his memoirs based on his experiences as a member of the Irish Republican Army during "the Troubles" (Ireland’s struggle to establish self-rule). Despite his strong support of the Irish cause and his own desires to see Ireland become free from British domination, his stories often show, as Patricia Robinson writes, that ‘‘in war, hatred and revenge drive out ethical and moral intelligence.’’

"Guests of the Nation" is an intricate story that weaves the theme of duty with more complex moral issues culminating in a disturbing, yet somehow, realistic ending. The characters in his stories are ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. They struggle to make sense of their circumstances and come to reach conclusions based on that struggle.

The story opens with two Englishmen, Hawkins and Belcher, held prisoner by Bonaparte, Donovan, and Noble, members of the IRA during the Irish Rebellion. They all play cards and argue about politics, religion, and capitalists. The group is housed in the cottage of an old lady, who in addition to tending the house engages the men in arguments. She is a religious woman who is quick to scold the men if they displease her.

The ironic twist that O'Connor adds to the situation is that despite the hostilities between the two sides, the English prisoners and the Irishmen become great friends, playing poker and conversing on the way of life and religion as though they were childhood buddies. Then, the news arrives that the prisoners are to be executed.

When news arrive that the British army has executed their Irish captives, Bonaparte and Noble have no choice but to do their duty by executing two of the British soldiers (Belcher and Hawkins) in retaliation. Donovan breaks the news to Belcher and Hawkins. As the plot unravels in its last stages, there is an almost heart-stopping chill that creeps across the reader's mind. In a saddening sequence of events, Hawkins is first shot by Donovan as Belcher looks on. The initial blast doesn't kill him, and Bonaparte releases him from his writhing agony with a final bullet. Following this, Belcher's execution is slow and drawn-out, and emotionally difficult for the men and reader alike. Belcher awkwardly attempts to tie a handkerchief around his eyes, but one is not big enough and he must tie two together. As Hawkins is shot in front of his very eyes, he lets out an uncanny little laugh that sends shivers down the spines of the others.

The stirring ending of this text is based on a juxtaposition of the loyalty that each man feels toward his cause, or his side of the conflict versus the simple humanity that they all recognize in each other as they play cards and discuss their views of life. These men recognize a common humanity despite their differences. Each one wants to love and be loved, to live and let live, and to do the right thing, but in the midst of this batter between "enemy brothers," it is precisely this right thing which is the most difficult element to see clearly.

The texts serves to elicit in the reader a response to the moral dilemma which demonstrating the anguish to his characters' sense of humanity that is caused by the conflict. Frank O'Connor portrayed this group of friends almost as a family sharing the bond of humanity. As in his own dysfunctional family, O'Connor depicted the crumbling of this family.

Oedipus Complex

Michael O'Donovan was of Irish blood, and in the Irish culture, it was common to have a stronger bond with the mother than the father. Michael O' Donovan's life is the epitome of this statement. In fact, O'Donovan had a great hatred for his father, and it was only suppressed because it enraged his mother. His pen name was O'Connor particularly because O'Connor was her mother's maiden name (Minnie O'Connor). Furthermore, many have speculated that Frank's bond with his mother hindered many of his sexual relationships as a teenager, and possibly may have destroyed his first marriage.


Frank O'Connor's writing is the ideal example of memoir writing. Over 70 of his works centered on Irish family life, poverty, and his own experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family. The main character in, My Oedipus Complex, Larry, is a recurring character in Frank O'Connor's stories. The mother-son relationship is a theme that surfaces throughout the majority of his works, as well as his disdain for his father. "One cannot escape the conclusion that, though casting his protagonist as a little fellow, O'Connor is here aiming his satiric humor not only at the Oedipal relations which make every chap, falling in love with an attractive mother, want to murder his father, but also at the whole tragic condition of Irish life which finds boys, from their early adolescence, severely tied to their mothers' love (Wohlgelernter 69)."

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