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Brad Kent, ed. The Selected Essays of Sean O'Faolain.

Brad Kent, ed. The Selected Essays of Sean O'Faolain. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2016. 518 pp. $34.95.

In his 1978 compilation The Best from The Bell, Sean MacMahon opined that "One excellent anthology would be the collected editorials" of the magazine (9). Many years later, this wish has been improved upon by Brad Kent, who has edited a selection of essays from the long and prolific career of Bell editor Sean O'Faolain, among Ireland's leading public intellectuals of the twentieth century. In addition to his six-year stint at the helm of The Bell, O'Faolain was a novelist, biographer, and tireless advocate for liberalism and literary freedom. Above all, he was a writer. This collection gives us a welcome opportunity to appreciate O'Faolain's voice, his lively, wide-ranging interests in the arts, public policy, and politics, and his humorous skewering of others in the public eye whose conservatism gave him fits.

Kent prefaces this volume with a cogent, clear introduction, depicting O'Faolain as a committed interventionist in a conservative post-revolutionary society. As Kent points out, O'Faolain's essays are merciless in their critique of Free State policies, but "what constantly shines through them is a hope for reform, even if it is reform by increment" (xii). Over the course of five decades, O'Faolain sparred with the Board of Literary Censors, the Gaelic League, and the Catholic hierarchy, among others, and his writing career provides a cultural topography of postindependence Ireland in a way that few literary histories can achieve.

What is most exciting is that this book offers a new opportunity to view the arc of O'Faolain's development as an essayist. His early pieces lack the sharp edge of his later work for The Bell, but the familiar themes and acerbic wit are already emerging. In the 1930s, O'Faolain was developing his anti-establishment public voice and was working to find his ideal audience. He wrote and published multiple essays from the vantage point of an Irishman in the United States, while on fellowship at Harvard; Kent includes several from journals such as The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Commonweal, and The American Mercury. (One of these, on land reform, helpfully glosses Irish country estates as "ranches" for American readers [50].) From his stateside perspective, O'Faolain also contributed to an Irish Statesman series on censorship, protesting book banning in Boston, alongside writers such as Yeats, Shaw, and who were growing increasingly concerned about the broad reach of censorship at home (xxii).

But it was when he returned to Ireland that O'Faolain hit his stride as a literary and political commentator. In 1932, writing for The New Statesman and Nation, he voiced his early opposition to Daniel Corkery's essentialist view of Irish identity, what O'Faolain called the "submerged Celt theory" of hidden Ireland (29). Readers in his home country likely had no difficulty absorbing O'Faolain's barrage of references to figures ranging from Pearse to Cosgrave to the Earl of Granard, but for contemporary readers, and especially for North Americans, this volume's generous footnotes are a welcome support in following each essay's argument. Kent has arranged the essays chronologically, separated into three major time periods, and has provided a list of suggested thematic groupings to trace the evolution of O'Faolain's thoughts about censorship, language, politics, religion, and writing. The section comprising essays from 1940 to 1945 showcases a robust selection of Bell editorials, sampling O'Faolain's major preoccupations: censorship, nationalism, and the dilemma of the provincial writer.

O'Faolain would forever be the exile who returned, the cosmopolitan writer coming to grips with his beloved country's parochialism in all its richness and frustration. Kent does not shy from discussion of O'Faolain's reputed role as "forefather of revisionism" (xxx), but these essays help today's reader see that O'Faolain's critique of Irish republicanism was one aspect of his opposition to the political posturing of his day. If O'Faolain be marked as a revisionist, his defining view of Irish history may be that "all human beings read these symbols out of the past, according to their own ambitions, their own desires, their own hopes or their own fears as to what life ought or ought not to be ... there never was and never will be a critic who does not see the wood of the past through the wood of the present" (66-67).

Indeed, O'Faolain's clear-eyed critique of Ireland's glorious past and uncertain future is all the more prescient in relation to contemporary Ireland, and it seems appropriate that his work is regaining critical attention in the turbulent wake of the Celtic Tiger boom and bust. This book asserts O'Faolain's relevance to the Ireland of today, as Kent eloquently argues in his introduction. In 1953, troubled by large-scale emigration and increasing secularism among the young, O'Faolain worried whether "that impalpable thing we know as the Irish nature is shrivelling and hardening into selfishness" (471). Reading these essays reminds us that despite his fears, O'Faolain believed in his fellow citizens' capacity for generosity and in their shared commitment to forging their own identity as a nation.

Kelly Matthews

Framingham State University

Work Cited

McMahon, Sean, ed. The Best from The Bell: Great Irish Writing. Dublin: O'Brien Press, 1978.
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Author:Matthews, Kelly
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2017
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