‘Guests of the Nation’ by Frank O’Connor

The setting is Ireland, during the War of Independence. A small flying column has become too friendly with their English prisoners; the narrator (Bonaparte) notes that like weeds they take root wherever they are put. The flying column justify the impending execution to their prisoners, Belcher and Hawkins. Hawkins pleads, offers to join the Irish cause, defiantly claims that he won’t be killed because his Irish “chums” are not “tools of any capitalist.” But neither pleas nor denial work. Hawkins is shot, and then the other guest of the euphemistic title, Belcher, notes that he isn’t properly dead yet, so requests that Hawkins is shot again. Then Belcher is “plugged.” However fatigued I might be with the idea of an epiphany™ or the equally glib mirror-image, the negative-epiphany™, something of that affect overcomes me on reading this story and its brief sketch of violence in an anti-colonial struggle.

First published in 1931. Collected in Classic Irish Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 1985

‘First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor

I first came across Frank O’Connor in an anthology of early 20th century short stories, then again in a miniature collection issued on the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics. I particularly enjoyed O’Connor’s voice and characterisation.

This story concerns seven-year-old Jackie, who is about to undergo first confession. He’s so afraid of the prospect that he feigned toothache to avoid going with his class – but is still instructed to go by himself on Saturday. His sister Nora accompanies him, goading him all the way there. But what Jackie finds in the confession box is something rather more pragmatic than he expected.

I find ‘First Confession’ a vivid slice-of-life tale. I love the thread of humour running through it (especially the passage where Jackie is trying to find how to sit in the confession box), and even O’Connor’s secondary characters are sharp in the mind.

(First published in the collection Traveller’s Samples (1951). I read it in the Penguin ‘Mini Modern Classic’ collection The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland (2011). Available to read online here)