Claire McCormick pays tribute to renowned short-story writer Frank O’Connor on the anniversary of his death (March 10)

The author Frank O’Connor is one of Ireland’s most famous short story writers. Born Michael Francis O’Donovan on 17 September, 1903, in Cork, and died on 10th March, 1966. He was an only child and was greatly influenced by his mother, whom he adored. He did not always have a good relationship with his father, who was an alcoholic, but no doubt he did love him.

He started putting together a collection of his writings at the early age of twelve. Well known as a translator, broadcaster as well as a novelist, critic, and short story writer,  ‘First Confession’ is my own favorite of his short stories.

It’s the  story about the upheaval of relationships in a household when a grandmother moves in with a nuclear family; her son and his family. It divides the family. There is much squabbling between a young boy and his older sister, which in turn divides the family. This all happens in the lead up to the young boy’s first Confession. The narrator is the boy, Jackie, and this story is somewhat similar to Brendan Behan’s ‘The Confirmation Suit’ on many levels.

Except, I believe this is much more comedy.

The grandmother in this story is the cause of  ‘the heart scald’ (his words) that this dear boy has to suffer. What, with her being a wrinkly, porter-drinking country woman, with strange disgusting habits, not at all suited to city living.

She eats with her fingers and goes about the house in bare feet. What shame the boy feels and he avoids bringing his friend – a Colonel’s son – near his home. He can’t find anything redeeming about her.

His sister, Nora, on the other hand, ingratiates herself to the grandmother and is rewarded a penny on every pension day.

If that’s not enough, the preparation for Confession sends him into a dreadful state of fear; fear of making a bad Confession. How can he tell he tried to stab his sister with the bread knife! And all that talk of hell, and burning for all eternity.

The talk of Hell put a burning fear into all young minds preparing for confession in the Fifties. I made my first confession when I was eight years old. The week before the event, our class was taken across the road to the Chapel of St. Mary and Laurence in Crookstown and we got to see and kneel inside the confessional box.

That part was easy. It was to remember the list was the hard part. Ah, yes! the list. Stealing apples was number one on my list. Mr. Bell, the proprietor of the bicycle shop, had a great orchard and, with my friends the Lawlers, we occasionally climbed the wall from their yard into it and stole apples.

To be fair, we only ever took a few. Greed was not on the list.

The other grave sin was requesting to go out to the toilet while in school: ‘An bhfuil cead agam dul amach, más é do thoil é?’ (when one did not really want to go) only to get out side and walk in the air, rain or shine to the toilet at the gravest part of the lesson.

However, Confession got much easier after that initial occurance. One more or less had the list off by heart. The penance too, was standard. ‘Three Hail Marys’.

The climax of O’Connor’s ‘First Confession’ story is when Jackie misses the opportunity to go to Confession with his class, as he’s sick on that day, and ends up being brought along to Confession by his sister, who ceaselessly torments him about his sins.

As he has not been given a preview of the confessional, he gets totally confused when he enters the darkened box. He manages to fall out the door causing a great commotion and the priest comes out to find the boy getting a box on his ear from the sister, which lends the priest to call her ‘a vixen’.

That’s when we come to the most humorous part of the story. I found myself laughing out loud. It is a classic, economically written. No wonder it has been said that “Frank O’Connor is Master among Masters of the short story”.

To win a pair of tickets to see the ‘God Bless the Child, First Confessions are the Hardest!’ show which features some of O’Connor’s best short stories on Tuesday, March 31st, in The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, tell us in which Irish county Frank O’Connor was born. Please email your answer and details, including a telephone number, to before midnight on Wednesday, March 25th.


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