Frank O’Connor, Irish writer of over 150 works and best known for his short stories and memoirs, dies of a heart attack in Dublin on March 10, 1966. The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is named in his honour.
O’Connor is born Michael Francis O’Donovan in Cork, County Cork, on September 17, 1903. The only child of Minnie (née O’Connor) and Michael O’Donovan, he attends Saint Patrick’s School on Gardiner’s Hill and North Monastery CBS. His early life is marked by his father’s alcoholism, debt, and ill-treatment of his mother. His childhood is shaped in part by his mother, who supplies much of the family’s income by cleaning houses, because his father is unable to keep steady employment due to his drunkenness. He adores his mother and is bitterly resentful of his father. In his memoirs, he recalls his childhood as “those terrible years,” and admits that he has never been able to forgive his father for his abuse of himself and his mother. When his mother is seventy, O’Connor is horrified to learn from his own doctor that she has suffered for years from chronic appendicitis, which she has endured with great stoicism, as she has never had the time nor the money to see a doctor.
In 1918 O’Connor joins the First Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and serves in combat during the Irish War of Independence. He opposes the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and joins the Anti-Treaty IRA during the Irish Civil War, working in a small propaganda unit in Cork city. He is one of twelve thousand Anti-Treaty combatants who are interned by the government of the new Irish Free State. Between 1922 and 1923 he is imprisoned in Cork City Gaol and in Gormanston, County Meath.
Following his release, O’Connor takes various positions including that of teacher of the Irish language, theatre director, and librarian. He begins to move in literary circles and is befriended by George William Russell (Æ), through whom he comes to know most of the well-known Irish writers of the day, including William Butler Yeats, Lennox Robinson, F. R. Higgins and Lady Gregory. In his memoirs, he pays tribute to both Yeats and Russell for the help and encouragement they gave him.
In 1935, O’Connor becomes a member of the board of directors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, founded by Yeats and other members of the Irish National Theatre Society. In 1937, he becomes managing director of the Abbey. Following Yeats’s death in 1939, O’Connor’s long-standing conflict with other board members comes to a head and he leaves the Abbey later that year. In 1950, he accepts invitations to teach in the United States, where many of his short stories have been published in The New Yorker and have won great acclaim. He spends much of the 1950s in the United States, although it is always his intention to return eventually to Ireland.
From the 1930s to the 1960s O’Connor is a prolific writer of short stories, poems, plays, and novellas. His work as an Irish teacher complements his plethora of translations into English of Irish poetry, including his initially banned translation of Brian Merriman‘s Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court). Many of his writings are based on his own life experiences – notably his well-known The Man of the House in which he reveals childhood details concerning his early life in County Cork. The Sullivan family in this short story, like his own boyhood family, is lacking a proper father figure.
O’Connor’s early years are recounted in An Only Child, a memoir published in 1961 which has the immediacy of a precocious diary. He continues his autobiography through his time with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in his book My Father’s Son, which is published posthumously in 1968. It contains valuable character sketches of many of the leading Irish literary figures of the 1930s, in particular Yeats and Æ.
Frank O’Connor has a stroke while teaching at Stanford University in 1961, and he later dies from a heart attack in Dublin on March 10, 1966. He is buried in Deans Grange Cemetery two days later.