O'Riordan, Conal Holmes O'Connell (‘Norreys Connell’) (1874–1948), writer, was born 29 April 1874 at 3 Gardiner's Row, Dublin, the youngest child among two sons and three daughters of Daniel O'Connell O'Riordan, a barrister and JP, and Katharine O'Riordan (née O'Neil), who was her husband's first cousin. At age 4 he witnessed his mother's death in a carriage accident. His formal education, firstly as a day student at Belvedere college, Dublin (1881–5), and secondly as a boarder at Clongowes Wood college, Co. Kildare (1887–8), was interrupted by ill health and periods of self-education at home, marked by omnivorous reading in his father's library. While engaged in military studies in Bonn, Germany (March–September 1890), preparatory to entering Sandhurst military academy in Britain, he fell from a horse during riding lessons, suffering a back injury that resulted in permanent spinal damage, thus precluding a military career. Left with limited means after his father's death, he moved to London (1891), where, after attempting suicide, he found work as a stage actor with the Independent Theatre Society of J. T. Grein (1893–8) and other companies, both in London and touring the provinces, and was noted for his interpretations of Ibsen. Active in the Irish Literary Society, where he met W. B. Yeats (qv), he wrote fiction under the pseudonym ‘F. Norreys Connell’, which he also adopted for his stage work. His early publications included In the green park (1894), a collection of connected short stories; The house of the strange woman (1895), a provocative novel of sexual promiscuity in upper-class London bohemia, boycotted by some booksellers as being ‘morally tainted’; and several books reflecting his deep interest in all things military, most notably The pity of war (1906), a collection of Kiplingesque short stories. Largely abandoning fiction for some years to concentrate on writing for the stage, he returned to Dublin for the first time in fourteen years to direct his controversial one-act play ‘The piper’ in the Abbey theatre (opened 13 February 1908), which was jeered as a slander on Irish patriots in disturbances mildly reminiscent of the ‘Playboy’ riots thirteen months previously. The audience on the third night was placated by Yeats, who in a speech from the stage interpreted the play – in which a party of rebels in the 1798 rising disdain to set sentries as they argue interminably and discursively, only to be surprised and slaughtered by yeomanry – as a satirical allegory on the fruitless debate that followed the Parnellite split. The work can more usefully be read as a meditation on the propensity of democracy to disintegrate at moments of crisis into ineffectual and dillusory demagoguery. ‘The piper’ weathered the controversy to become in the 1910s a frequently performed staple of the Abbey repertoire. After the death of John Millington Synge (qv), O'Riordan served briefly as managing director of the Abbey (25 March–2 July 1909), during which time he produced and directed two of his own one-act plays – ‘Time’ (1 April), in which he also acted, and ‘An imaginary conversation’ (13 May) – as well as the first revival of Synge's ‘Playboy of the western world’ (27 May). Wearied by the repeated interferences in the theatre's affairs by its financial backer, Annie Horniman (qv), he resigned abruptly during her fit of pique when the actress Sara Allgood (qv) recited poetry at a private gathering of suffragettes.
O'Riordan scored a major triumph on the London stage with ‘Captain Hannibal’ (1909), his adaptation of a novel by Stanley Weyman, on the proceeds of which he lived for many years. Settling permanently in London, in 1910 he purchased a house at 106 Meadvale Rd, Ealing, his home for the rest of his life. Rejected by the British army at the outset of the first world war owing to his disability, after several failed attempts to secure war work he eventually went to the front in 1918 in charge of YMCA rest huts at Etaples railway junction, where he befriended the doomed soldier poet Wilfred Owen. He achieved his most accomplished writing within a cycle of twelve novels, published under his own name, chronicling the experiences of several inter-connected Irish and English families from the Napoleonic wars to the 1920s. First of the series to appear was Adam of Dublin (1920), a combined Bildungsroman and roman-à-clef of the literary revival, with vignettes of Dublin slum life, Belevedere college, and the early years of the Abbey. O'Riordan followed his protagonist, Adam Quinn, through the sexual turmoil of adoloscence, an itinerant acting career, and an unhappy marriage in three sequels: Adam and Caroline (1921), In London (1922), and Married life (1924); these four ‘Adam’ novels chronologically conclude the narrative of the completed cycle. The narrative commences with the ‘Soldier’ tetralogy – Soldier born (1927), Soldier of Waterloo (1928), Soldier's wife (1935), and Soldier's end (1938) (the first two were published in America as a single volume, Yet do not grieve (1928)) – a picaresque treatment of the multifarious and farflung experiences of David Quinn, a forebear of Adam, from an Irish childhood and English education, to the battle of Waterloo, where he suffers horrible facial mutilation, through the Irish famine and the American civil war, to his death at the hands of Versaillais troops during the suppression of the Paris commune. Judith Quinn (1939) and Judith's love (1940), about the disappointments in love and marriage of a late-Victorian Dublin woman, link the narratives of the ‘Adam’ and ‘Soldier’ tetralogies, while The age of miracles (1925) and Young Lady Dazincourt (1926) are chronologically contemporaneous with the latter ‘Adam’ novels. Inconsistent in intention, and uneven in execution, the cycle is strongest in its evocative descriptions of Dublin, London, and other cities, with their varied social strata, in different historical periods; in the sharp-edged, witty dialogue; and in the juxtaposition of dazzling comedy and an ironic sense of tragedy.
O'Riordan continued to write successful, if lightweight, stage plays; his 1928 production of ‘Napoleon's Josephine’ featured a stellar cast including Edith Evans. Among his published plays were Shakespeare's end, and other Irish plays (1912), Rope enough (1914), His majesty's pleasure (1925), The king's wooing (1929), and Captain Falstaff and other plays (1935). The historical commentary Napoleon passes (1933) reflected his abiding interest in the French emperor. President of the Irish Literary Society (1937–9), he resigned after failing to persuade his colleagues to repudiate Ireland's wartime neutrality. Despite age, disability, and increasing reclusivity, throughout the second world war he served as an air raid warden (1940–45). Elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1945–8), he represented the society on the council of the newly formed National Book League, and was the society's Tredegar lecturer in 1946. Charming and convivial, a witty and erudite conversationalist, he cultivated numerous literary friendships, and was an inveterate womaniser, enjoying countless intimate relationships, both sexual and platonic. His single recreation listed in Who's who was ‘sleep’. He married firstly (1903) Florence Derby (d. November 1923), a nurse eight years his senior, with whom he had one son; they were estranged by the time of her death. He married secondly (1 January 1924) Olga Buckley, his lover since 1920, and secretary to the wife of G. K. Chesterton; they had two sons (both born before the marriage) and one daughter. Despite considerable contemporary celebrity and critical acclaim, his work compared to that of Dickens and Balzac, O'Riordan has been ignored by posterity; the best of his writing, especially the ‘Adam’ and ‘Soldier’ novels, merits rediscovery. He died at his London home on 18 June 1948, the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. A special O'Riordan number of the Journal of Irish Literature (September 1985), edited by his daughter Judith, includes a portrait photograph, the text of ‘The piper’, and a detailed chronology.