O'Faolain, Sean (1900–91), writer and editor, was born 23 February 1900 at 16 Halfmoon St., Cork, youngest of three sons (Patrick, Augustine, and John) of Denis Whelan (d. 1928), member of the RIC, and Bridget Whelan (née Murphy; d. 1944), a farmer's daughter from Rathkeale, Co. Limerick. Soon after Sean's birth the family moved to 5 Halfmoon St. The parents were pious catholics, ambitious for their sons. He was educated at the Lancasterian School (1905–12) and the Presentation Brothers’ College (1912–18). In the summers Bridget and the three boys usually went on holiday to Rathkeale, which became Sean's ideal of rural Ireland. He felt coerced at ‘Pres.’, but two teachers were particularly influential: Brother E. I. Connolly gave him a sense of horizons beyond Cork, and Padraig Ó Domhnaill introduced him to Irish language and culture. In the summer of 1918 he began to learn Irish and met Eileen (qv) Gould, whom he would marry; in the autumn they went to Ballingeary to study Irish. There he became Sean O'Faolain. From 1918 to 1926 he and Eileen returned to Ballingeary or another Gaeltacht each summer. In October 1918 he entered UCC, and was active in student societies. He returned in 1924 to do an MA in Irish, in 1925 to do an MA in English. Revolution – the Anglo–Irish war, the truce, the civil war – formed the background to his university years. He joined the Irish Volunteers and was an idealistic nationalist. He took the republican side in the civil war under the influence of Daniel Corkery (qv) and suffered the ignominious defeat of the republicans. During these early years he was a committed nationalist, a Gaelic Leaguer, active in a number of Cork's literary activities, and interested in becoming a writer. He met Frank O'Connor (qv); they became friends and rivals.
In 1926 he went to Harvard University as a commonwealth fellow, was awarded an MA in modern languages in 1928, and taught Anglo-Irish literature at Boston College. He married Eileen Gould in 1928; they lived at 10 Appian Way in Cambridge, Mass. In September his story ‘Fugue’ was published in Hound and Horn and approved by Edward Garnett, a reader at the Jonathan Cape publishing house, who encouraged O'Faolain to send him everything he wrote. In June 1929 the O'Faolains returned to Cork. From September 1929 to June 1933 he was senior lecturer in English language and literature at St Mary's Training College, Strawberry Hill. He applied for the professorship of English at UCC, but the position went to Daniel Corkery in 1931. Under Garnett's guidance he wrote the stories about revolution that were published in Midsummer night madness (1932) and his first novel, A nest of simple folk (1934), a chronicle of his family's struggle from peasant living in Limerick to the divisions caused by the rising of 1916. In 1932 the Irish censorship board banned Midsummer night madness. In June 1932 his daughter Julia (O'Faolain Martines), short-story writer and novelist, was born.
In July 1933 the O'Faolains returned to Ireland and lived at Killough House, Co. Wicklow. From now on O'Faolain made his living as a writer. He renewed his friendship with Frank O'Connor and was active in Dublin's literary and artistic worlds. He became disillusioned with post-revolutionary Irish society, dominated (he thought) by Gaelic revivalists and Catholic Actionists. His disappointment was expressed in Bird alone (1936), which mirrored post-revolutionary Irish society in the years of disappointment that followed the fall and death of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv). It concentrated on the damaging effects of narrow catholic morality and was banned. The stories in Purse of coppers (1937) also reflected the barren state of those who have become misfits in a restrictive society. King of the beggars (1938), a biography of Daniel O'Connell (qv), marked an important development in O'Faolain's outlook. He moved to a recognition of complex, flawed human nature, arguing that Irish democracy had its origins in O'Connell's realistic acceptance of the people, and that his many-sided, ambivalent nature resembled the condition of most Irishmen. O'Faolain's historical biographies each concentrated on a particular leader and through him sought to illuminate a period, calculated to what degree he personified the people's needs, and also tried to show the extent and nature of the heritage he created. Each figure lived at a pivotal time when the course of Irish history was significantly changed. In 1938 the O'Faolains moved to Knockaderry in Killiney, where their son Stephen was born. From 1940 to 1945 O'Faolain edited The Bell, a magazine of creative fiction. It is best remembered for editorials that were critical of church and state. His biography The great O'Neill – that is, Hugh O'Neill (qv) (1550–1616), earl of Tyrone – contained much of O'Faolain's thinking at this time. He praised O'Neill's speculative energy, his analytical approach, and his introduction of outside ideas into Irish life, and stressed the disciplined manner with which O'Neill handled the difficulties of his situation.
As editor of The Bell, O'Faolain adopted similar tactics. He viewed his role not from the angle of the polemicist but from the perspective of the constructive thinker. The Bell, he announced, was a creative journal; it would reflect life as it was really lived, not some idealised version of it, and not in terms of a glorious past. Avoiding ‘Abstraction’, he would allow ‘Life’ to speak by opening its pages to the ordinary and the quotidian. He insisted that contributors must write about what they knew, about what they had experienced. One of the things least remembered about The Bell is the wide range of topics which appeared in its pages, informative articles on prisons, censorship, theatre, concerts, teaching, nursing, libraries, the legal system, women in politics, Northern Ireland, Irish literature, poverty, orphans. These reflected his purpose – to give voice to people and professions, to all creeds, classes and occupations, to social and economic conditions that had not found voice before, that had not been examined before. All of this was revolutionary; it was new; it was basic; it opened windows on reality; it had the dynamism of change. He engaged in measured, constructive thinking, stirring people to reflect, question, and examine. To see his work as polemical is to miss the overall pattern and to undervalue the effectiveness and the strategy behind what he did.
Eventually, he gave up the editorship of The Bell and went to Italy to write a travel book, Summer in Italy. Revelling in the country's senuousness and ancient culture, he felt he shed inhibitions whenever he crossed the Italian border. He returned to the catholic church, lured by the non-puritanical nature of Italian catholicism. Commissioned by Penguin Books to write The Irish (1947), he was determined to make it non-nationalistic. In a pioneering revisionist approach he analysed what successive peoples and particular events had brought to the creation of modern Ireland. From the 1950s O'Faolain enjoyed a better style of living, travelling frequently to Italy and America, and his earnings improved. He was becoming better known abroad, particularly in America. He gave a Christian Gauss seminar in criticism at Princeton (1954) and published his lectures in The vanishing hero: studies in novelists of the twenties (1956). He did lecture tours of American universities, was visiting professor or writer-in-residence at several, and wrote articles on Italy and on American cities for Holiday. The publication The finest stories of Sean O'Faolain (1957) strengthened his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. His book The short story (1948) was a valuable guide to the nature of this genre; his mastery of the short story had been evident since Purse of coppers. There is a steady progression in his short stories to an increasingly complex portrayal of human nature, revealing how contradictory human nature is. This required the more expansive form of the tale in which there is room for a succession of incidents and a fuller development of character. His stories enjoyed great success in his later years. Honours and distinctions came his way: he was director of the Irish arts council, 1956–9; was president of the Irish Association of Civil Liberty, 1953–7; and was awarded an honorary D.Litt. degree by TCD in 1957 and by the NUI in 1978. His fourth novel, And again? (1979), dealt ingeniously with the issues of free will and choice. Volume I of Collected stories appeared in 1980, with two more to follow. In 1986 he received the American Irish Foundation Literary Award, and was elected to the honorary position of saoi in Aosdána. In 1988 he received the freedom of the city of Cork. His autobiography, Vive moi!, a selective and impressionistic work, appeared in 1993. Eileen died in September 1988, Sean on 20 April 1991. A portrait by Edward McGuire (qv) is in the NGI; a sculptured head by Anthony Stones is in the Writer's Museum, Dublin. His papers are in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.