Frank O'Conner was born on September 17, 1903, in the slums of Cork, Ireland, and died on March 10, 1966 in Dublin, Ireland. Though his formal education never went past grade school, he wrote more than two hundred short stories, many of them published first in The New Yorker, as well as two novels, several plays, poetry, translations, literary and cultural criticism, and two volumes of an autobiography. He taught and lectured at Harvard among other universities and colleges, and received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College.
O'Conner was the only son of Michael (Mick) O'Donovan, a former British soldier and alcoholic, Minnie O'Connor, an orphan from a young age. Raised in poverty, his mother was forced to work as a charwoman in order to supplement the family income. According to Hilary Lennon, O'Connor was a lonely, timid and frail child who was sick from school often. He was afraid of his father, who re-enlisted in the British army during World War I, and hence was absent for a number of years during his childhood.
O'Connor's formal schooling ended in 1916 but he was by this time educating himself. An enthusiastic and committed reader, he frequently borrowed from Cork public library. After leaving school, O'Connor spent the next few years in a series of jobs but none of them lasted very long. He had already begun to write short pieces and the political and cultural scene of the time had a profound effect on him.
The country was undergoing its protracted and bloody transition from a colonial state to a constitutional, independent modern nation. The 1916 Easter Uprising lead O'Connor to become interested in Irish nationalism. Eventually he enlisted as a volunteer in the War of Independence; however his young age precluded him from seeing much military action. In February 1923 O'Connor was captured by Free State soldiers and held in Gormanstown Internment Camp just outside Dublin until his release in December of that year.
Though O'Connor never went to university he later considered this period in his life as rich an education as anything a college could have offered him. By the time he left prison, O'Connor came to view the Catholic Church and the Free State government as adversely dominating forces at work in Irish society. The war experiences delineated the beginning of O'Connor's passage from a romantic adolescent to a more independent realistic adult. He became disillusioned with, and frequently and bitterly fought against, Free State government and church policies, yet he retained a deep love for the country, its people, its culture and traditions. O'Connor's civil war experiences led to a lifelong struggle with the role of the state and moreover, the role of Catholicism in Irish life, and the conflicting relationship with the country and the people. This tension of contraries became central to many of his writings.
Although O'Connor delved into many literary endeavors, this paper will look at three short stories from different periods of the O'Connor's career and his depiction of God and religion.
Guest of a Nation
O'Conner fills his stories with irony and freely shows his disdain for the hypocrisy of church and state. The short story a Guest of a Nation was published in 1931, not long after the writer's participation in the Irish Civil War. The story is an account of young Irish revolutionaries' playing cards and discussing religion and politics with two British captives and the friendship they develop. The young rebels find themselves in an impossible situation when they are required to kill their captives, Hawkins and Belcher, in retaliation of the execution of four IRA soldiers.
While Belcher is big and polite and quiet, Hawkins is pugnacious and voluble, arguing with Nobel, one of his captors, about religion and capitalism. These arguments, though fierce, are comradely. The author reveals some of his thoughts on these issues through Hawkins, "The capitalists pays the priests to tell you all about the next world, so's you won't notice what they do in this!" (p. 5). Hawkins then questions Nobel about his belief in the bible and the creation story, declaring, "If you're entitled to 'old on to a silly belief like that, I'm entitled to my own silly belief - which is, that the fust thing your God created was a bleedin' capitalist with mirality and Rolls Royce complete."
Later Hawkins attacks Nobel's beliefs again. I think you're jest as big a bleedin' hunbeliever as I am. You say you believe in the next world and you know jest as much abaout the next world as I do, which is sweet damn-all. What's 'Eaven? You dunno. Where's Eaven? You dunno. Who's in Eaven? You dunno. You know sweet damn-all!"
The absurdity is that these two are friends and it is Nobel, the believer, who helps to kill Hawkins, the non-believer out of a sense of duty to the cause.
In another story, First Confession, (1939) O'Connor examines the Catholic religion through the eyes of a seven-year-old child. Jackie, a young boy who is due for his first confession before receiving his first Holy Communion, lives with his mother, father, sister, and grandmother. Jackie does not like his grandmother; she walks around barefoot and drinks port. His older sister, Nora tries to get him in trouble and torments him constantly. Jackie feels guilty about hating both his sister and his grandmother, and is afraid to confess his sins, certain that they will send him straight to damnation. He fakes a toothache in an attempt to get out of confession, but then his teacher arranges for him confess on another day. As Nora walks him to the church she taunts him with the prospect of what lies ahead. However, because of his fear of the consequences of giving an incomplete confession he confesses to his homicidal thoughts concerning his sister and grandmother. To his surprise, the priest doesn't damn him eternally, but instead agrees with Jackie that his sister and grandmother are horrible. When Jackie leaves the church Nora is waiting for him. She asks about his penance, and he only had to say three Hail Mary's. Also, to Nora's displeasure, she finds that the priest has given Jackie candy.
O'Connor uses this story to comment on the absurdity and hypocrisy of Catholicism. The boy, Jackie is pure and believes that if he doesn't confess his sole will be eternally damned. So he confesses and is rewarded. His sister, Nora, is self-righteous and believes that her actions are all good, even thought the reader can see that she is a manipulative bully. In a way she can be seen as representing the tenets of the Catholic religion. Ironically at the end of the story Nora laments, "Lord God…some people have all the luck! 'Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good. I might just as well be a sinner like you." (p. 182)
My Oedipus Complex
O'Connor uses the eyes of a child to explore family relationships and God in his short story My Oedipus Complex (1950). This story begins with the adult Larry remembering his idyllic and blissful early childhood at home with his mother while his father was away during World War I. Larry enjoys his mother's full attention and prays with his mother each day for his father to come home. When dad finally makes it home Larry finds he has been replaced, and becomes jealous because he no longer receives his mother's full-fledged attention. He asks his mother, "Do you think if I prayed hard God would send daddy back to war?" (p. 285). His mother responds that the war is over. "But, Mummy, couldn't God make another war, if he liked?" (p. 285). She answers, "He wouldn't like to, dear. It's not God who makes wars, but bad people." Larry…