Farrell, Michael James (1899–1962), writer, was born in Carlow, one of at least seven children (four boys and three girls) of James Farrell, an ironmonger, and his wife Mary Agnes (née Brophy). He was educated at Knockbeg College, becoming an enthusiastic student of the classics, and later at Blackrock College, Dublin, after which he began studying medicine at UCD. During the war of independence (1919–21) he became peripherally involved in republican activities and after his arrest for possession of incriminating documents was imprisoned for six months in Mountjoy jail, Dublin. On his release he ceased his studies and travelled to France, subsequently taking a job as a marine superintendent for the firm Lever Brothers at Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo. In 1927 he returned to Dublin and resumed his medical studies, this time at TCD, but in 1930 again abandoned college to pursue a career in journalism. A degree of financial security and access to literary and artistic circles was ensured after his marriage in 1931 to Frances Cahill, a well-known painter and founding member of the United Arts Club who also ran the Crock of Gold, a successful hand weaving business in Dublin. The couple moved to Co. Wicklow, where his neighbour Sean O'Faolain (qv) remembered him as humorous, talkative and argumentative. A few years after O'Faolain launched the Bell periodical, Farrell began contributing a regular piece entitled ‘The open window’ under the pseudonym ‘Gulliver’. Seen by its admirers as a brilliantly successful causerie on literature and other topics, or by its detractors as a column of pretentious arty ‘chat’, it ran from 1943 to 1954; he also acted as occasional drama correspondent for the Bell.
Farrell also became known to the public through his work with Radio Éireann, as a compere and producer of two regular weekly features, ‘Radio digest’ and ‘Pros and cons’, as well as regular film reviews. He is, however, primarily remembered for his novel Thy tears might cease, published posthumously in 1963, which became a best-seller in Ireland, England and America. He began writing it in the 1930s, and its prolonged gestation became the talk of literary Dublin, to the extent that during his lifetime many wondered whether its existence was a myth. It became his life's work, written at enormous length, and he seems to have found it impossible to edit. In the late 1930s Sean O'Faolain was reputed to have brought five volumes of the manuscript to a London publisher who agreed to publish the finished product. O'Faolain maintained he was ‘avid to see it printed, but terrified to let it go’, and an entry in his diary in the mid 1940s refers to Farrell being ‘very sensitive and discouraged about his novel’. Perhaps aspects of his character – he could be impulsive and volatile as well as gentle and magnanimous – contributed to his indecisiveness; Mervyn Wall (qv) presented a vivid and unflattering portrayal of him in the play ‘Lady in the twilight’ (1941). Farrell was still working on the book throughout the 1950s, at a time when he was also involved in the management of his wife's business; and after the novel had been accepted by an English publisher, with American publishers also prepared to pay for publishing options, he was still determined to revise the manuscript. The novel, which is semi-autobiographical, deals with the experiences of orphan Martin Mathew Reilly who grows to manhood during the struggle for Irish independence, and recounts his schooling, life, loves, religion and involvement in the 1916 rising. Although eminently readable and historically accurate with memorable characters and sensitive and moving insights, it is weakened by passages of lush writing and lazy romanticism. It was left to the poet, Monk Gibbon (qv), a close friend of Farrell, to edit the book for publication, which involved cutting 100,000 words out of the manuscript.
Farrell, suffering from arteriosclerosis, died 24 June 1962 at his home in Blackrock, Co. Dublin.