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Seán O’Faoláin: A Nest of Simple Folk

Seán O’Faoláin’s best-known novel is as much a history of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Ireland as it is a family saga. The families involved – all interrelated – are the Foxe, O’Donnell, Keene and Hussey families but O’Faoláin’s main interest is Leo O’Donnell, aka Leo Foxe-Donnel. Leo’s mother – Judith Foxe – daughter of a gentleman farmer – surprisingly leaves her family (her two sisters remain unmarried) and marries John O’Donnell, a hardworking but less socially acceptable farmer. They eleven children but, as far as the father is concerned, it is only the four boys that matter and, as far as the mother is concerned, it is only the youngest, Leo, that matters. She spoils him and manages to get the best deal from him from his father’s will when the father dies, to the bitter resentment of his brothers. He becomes a gentleman farmer which, to him, means no work but hunting, drinking and chasing the girls, one of whom he gets pregnant.

All this might have continued forever had he not happened to have overheard James Stephens speaking in a pub. He joins the Fenians but, before long, they are caught by the police. Leo shoots a policeman and is sent to jail in England for fifteen years but paroled after ten. He returns home to find his place in debt and is eventually evicted for non-payment of debt, with his hated brother, James, buying up the property. In the meantime, he has continued both his Fenian and philandering ways, getting his cousin, Julie, pregnant. He manages to get some money and the couple marry and move to Rathkeale, Limerick, where they run a shop. The shop soon becomes a front for the Fenians. One day, a young man claiming to be Leo’s nephew turns up – he is in fact his illegitimate son by Julie – and he joins his father in the Fenians. However, Leo’s nephew, Johnny is a policeman and ambitious. He gets wind of his uncle’s activities and when they run guns, they are caught and Leo has another five years in prison. Johnny gets his promotion and Leo eventually gets out but even though he is now an old man, he continues his activities. The book ends with Leo in Dublin for the Easter Rising.

But with all this politics, O’Faoláin gives us a detailed portrait of the average man and woman in Ireland, their struggles and, to some degree, what it means to be a colony. On the one hand, there is Leo the Fenian and on the other Johnny Hussey the policeman. In between are the tenant farmers struggling to survive, the women oppressed on all sides and the ordinary people trying to make a livelihood. O’Faoláin’s tales tells their side in a sympathetic but lively way.

Publishing history

First published 1933 by Jonathan Cape