Art Imitating Life Imitating Death. An exploration of “Guests of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor

Cónal Creedon, University College Cork

Frank O’Connor creates a colourful and textured narrative that captures the Cork City of my childhood in all its idiosyncrasy and eccentricity. Born on Douglas Street and reared in Harrington’s Square (via Blarney Street), O’Connor was a neighbour’s child. He was one of our own. His words were our words. His stories were our stories. His characters were steeped in our parish yet resonated across the planet. Embraced by Irish-America at a time when the recently established Republic of Ireland was taking its fi rst faltering steps as an independent nation, O’Connor cast a larger-than-life shadow from the foot-lights of the world stage. Meanwhile, here in his hometown, we basked in the reflected glow of his global glory.

I first came upon “Guests of the Nation”, in the pages of “Exploring English I”, my Intermediate Certificate school anthology (Martin 2011 [1967]). Barely a teenager, I was bored by textbook experts spouting textbook theories. The education I craved was to be found beyond the school gates, for out there was the greatest educator of all — life itself. My rampant imagination ran with the fox and chased with the hound. But then, one day, while thumbing through my schoolbook, my fingers hesitated at “Guests of the Nation”. Something about that story just stopped me in my tracks. Seduced by a narrative that was deeply rooted in a culture, a history and a landscape so familiar to me, I was captivated by this wartime parable, that somehow elevated me above the tedium of the classroom. In time, O’Connor’s curly tales of shawlies (Martin 2017) steps and steeples, became like a gateway drug that unlocked the magical mystical world of Irish literature in the mind of this adventure-seeking youth.

In retrospect, I now understand why “Guests of the Nation” made such a profound impression on me at that time. I was fourteen years of age, and Ireland was a place of change just as I was coming of age. The cosy cartel of church and state that had been enshrined and embraced since the formation of the Irish Free State was beginning to show hairline cracks, and after eight hundred years of asset stripping and despotism as a colony of our nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland was finally getting up off its knees and finding its “place among the nations of the earth” (Vance 1982, 185)4. The island of Ireland was in transition — a short few decades had passed since independence, and the capital “R” of Revisionism was poking its finger in and around the soft underbelly of Irish sacred cows (Costello 2014).

Something momentous happened in 1970, when a young Catholic schoolgirl stepped out from behind the sectarian barricades of Derry (Londonderry; Ferguson 2015)5 in Northern Ireland (The North of Ireland) and won the Eurovision Song Contest for the Republic of Ireland. Her gentle song of love soared above the sabre rattling, gunfire, rioting and unrest. And when the British tabloids asked what sort of a name was Dana, they were told it was an Irish name meaning bold, fearless or brave.


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