British and Irish Literature Seán O’Faoláin
Paul Delaney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0090


Seán O’Faoláin (b. 1900–d. 1991) was one of the most influential figures in 20th-century Irish culture. A short-story writer of international repute, he was also a leading commentator and critic. Over the course of a long publishing career, O’Faoláin wrote eight volumes of short stories, the first of which, Midsummer Night Madness, appeared in 1932; his last volume, Foreign Affairs, was published over forty years later, in 1976. O’Faoláin also wrote four novels, three travel books, six biographies, a play, a memoir, a history book, and a so-called “character study.” He produced critical studies of the novel and the short-story form, introduced texts of historical and literary merit, and contributed scores of articles, reviews, and uncollected stories to periodicals in Ireland, Britain, and America. Most famously, he cofounded and edited the influential journal The Bell from 1940 to 1946. Under O’Faoláin’s editorship, The Bell participated in many key debates of the day; it also provided a crucial outlet for established and emerging writers during the lean war years. A recurring thread in O’Faoláin’s work is the idea that national identities are historically produced and culturally hybrid; an additional thesis is that Irish history should be conceived in international terms, and that it should be read, in particular, in the context of social and intellectual developments across Europe. O’Faoláin was a controversial figure in his own lifetime and two of his books were banned for “indecency” in Ireland—his debut collection of short stories and his second novel, Bird Alone (1936). His legacy has proved divisive. If some consider him a liberal pluralist who challenged proscriptive definitions of Irish culture, others see him as a chauvinistic snob who paradoxically restricted the development of Irish writing. Proto-revisionist or nascent postcolonial, O’Faoláin has been considered both, sometimes within the same critical survey. Either way, his work was central to the evolution of a post–Literary Revival aesthetic, and his voice was one of the most prominent, and eloquent, in the fight against censorship in Ireland. A note on spelling: This annotated bibliography follows the idiosyncratic spelling of Seán O’Faoláin’s name throughout (with fadas and an apostrophe); this is the spelling preferred by O’Faoláin, and is unusual in its fusion of Irish and English-language elements. Other spellings of the writer’s name are retained in the references to particular texts, however, since critics have variously commented on the works of “Sean O’Faolain” (without fadas), “Seán Ó Faoláin” (without an apostrophe), “Sean O Faolain” (without either) and “Seán O’Faoláin” (with both), at different points in time. Readers should note that O’Faoláin was never consistent with the spelling of his own name, and that he played with variations of it—employing all of the above and adopting different personas in the process—as conditions required or allowed.

Reference Works

Short biographical essays can be found in most databases and dictionaries of Irish writing: Lynch 1996, for instance, is thoughtful and informative; Harmon 2009 is instructive and rich. However, students should be wary of some introductory essays: Room 2004–2011 combines germane observations with several factual inaccuracies. Arndt 2001 is a detailed online bibliography of O’Faoláin’s works, taken from A Critical Study of Sean O’Faolain’s Life and Work (Arndt 2001, cited under Critical Monographs). Useful bibliographical resources can also be found in most monographs and critical studies of O’Faoláin’s work—see, for example, Harmon 1966, Bonaccorso 1987, and Delaney 2014 (all cited under Critical Monographs).

  • Arndt, Marie. “Select Bibliography of Seán O’Faoláin: Works.” Ricorso, 2001.

    Available online for free, this comprehensive bibliography features information on most of O’Faoláin’s works, including essays, articles, and reviews, as well as details of all his major works. A tab is included for selected reviews and critical analyses of (rather than by) O’Faoláin. Students should be careful of this tab, however, as the critical bibliography is not complete and no entries have been posted since 1999. This online bibliography is taken from Arndt’s A Critical Study of Sean O’Faolain’s Life and Work (Arndt 2001, cited under Critical Monographs).

  • Harmon, Maurice. “Sean O’Faolain.” In The Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography. 9 vols. Edited by James McGuire and James Quinn. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Succinct sketch of O’Faoláin’s life and œuvre by one of his most influential critics. Includes a concise contextualization of the period within which O’Faoláin wrote, and also serves as a good starting point for information on his contemporaries and peers. Also available online by subscription.

  • Lynch, M. Kelly. “Sean O’Faolain.” In Dictionary of Irish Literature. Vol. 2. 2d ed. Edited by Robert Hogan, ed., 957–962. London: Aldwych, 1996.

    Perceptive portrait, which celebrates O’Faoláin as someone to whom “the literary culture of Ireland owes a tremendous debt” (p. 957). In many respects a model introduction, combining an impressively succinct biography with a wide-ranging synopsis of the writer’s fiction and nonfiction. This essay is included in the revised and expanded edition of Hogan’s 1979 dictionary; the previous edition included a fine entry by James F. Kilroy.

  • Matthews, Kelly. “The Bell Index.” Digital Commons at Framingham State University, 2012.

    Available online for free, a fully-searchable index of articles from The Bell. This excellent resource is housed at Framingham State University, and is accessible through the Digital Commons repository. The index is easy to navigate and free to use, and should prove instrumental for future scholarship on the journal.

  • Room, Adrian. “Seán O’Faoláin.” In The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004–2011.

    Decent survey of O’Faoláin’s life and work, unfortunately marred by omissions and mistakes: a major short-story collection, A Purse of Coppers (1937), is overlooked; the wrong publication date is listed for Constance Markievicz (1939 rather than 1934); and the plot of the novel Come Back to Erin (1940) is confused with several earlier texts. Available online by subscription.

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