King of the Beggars 'A Perfect Onion of Worlds within Worlds

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<ul><li><p>King of the Beggars 'A Perfect Onion of Worlds within Worlds'Author(s): Fiona DunneSource: The Irish Review (1986-), No. 26 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 30-37Published by: Cork University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 06:49</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Cork University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Irish Review(1986-).</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 06:49:02 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>King ^he#eggars 'A Perfect Onion of </p><p>Worlds within Worlds' </p><p>FIONA DUNNE </p><p>King </p><p>of the Beggars (1938) is not about Daniel O'Connell so much as it is </p><p>about Eamon de Valera. O'Faolain's disappointment with post-revolu? </p><p>tionary Republican politics found its chief focus in de Valera, reflecting the </p><p>search for a messianic hero which permeates all his work, especially his his? </p><p>torical biographies. De Valera was ultimately found lacking in heroic </p><p>qualities when measured against the heroic model O'Faolain developed in </p><p>his studies of O'Connell and Hugh O'Neill. However, O'Faolain was </p><p>unable to relinquish completely his image of de Valera as Hero, just as he </p><p>could never fully renounce his own early and romantic Republicanism, </p><p>despite his generally accepted reputation as the 'shrewdest critic of retro? </p><p>gressive nationalism', to quote Edna Longley.1 His writings of the 1930s and </p><p>1940s reflect the conflict between his early romantic nationalism and his </p><p>later disappointment with post-revolutionary politics, but they also reflect </p><p>the limits of his critique. All of his criticisms of republican ideology came </p><p>from within that same tradition and not, as is commonly imagined, from the </p><p>position of dispassionate, or cynical, alienation from it. </p><p>Unusual by contemporary nationalist standards in its portrayal of O'Con? </p><p>nell as an Irish hero and remarkable for its direct rebuttal of Corkery's Hidden Ireland (1924), King of the Beggars provided the quintessential defini? </p><p>tion of O'Faolain's heroic model. While it challenged contemporary </p><p>Republicanism, as well as the received historical and nationalist judgement of O'Connell, King of the Beggars was a highly romanticised celebration of a </p><p>constitutional pragmatist, which illustrated that O'Faolain's argument with </p><p>Republicanism in the post-independence period was essentially a 'lovers' </p><p>quarrel', as Julien Moynihan called it, whose anger was born more from </p><p>frustrated love than from a radical ideological shift.2 As O'Faolain remarked </p><p>30 DUNNE, 'King of the Beggars', Irish Review 26 (2000) </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 06:49:02 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>of his similarly complex relationship with his birthplace and of the influence </p><p>of early experiences,'no man </p><p>jumps off his own shadow'.3 </p><p>Published in 1938, King of the Beggars comes between two biographies of </p><p>de Valera: The Life Story of Eamon de Valera (1933) and de Valera (1939). The </p><p>first is less a critical study than a hagiographical account, later renounced by O'Faolain himself in The Bell as 'an utterly rubbishy booklet'.4 The later ver? </p><p>sion is a fuller and more complex study, which on some readings is quite </p><p>fiercely critical and contains many of the themes and the distinctive voice </p><p>that O'Faolain was to develop in later Bell editorials. On closer reading, </p><p>however, it is not as unequivocally critical as it initially appears. The differ? </p><p>ences between these two biographies can be partly explained by King of the </p><p>Beggars, which epitomises the tension in O'Faolain's work between his </p><p>youthful romantic Republicanism and his later disillusionment. </p><p>The importance of the heroic for the revolutionary generation is evi? </p><p>dent in O'Faolain's early literary preoccupations. The 'Great Man' was a </p><p>constant theme of his. Within the first decade of his writing career, he had, in addition to his biographies of de Valera and O'Connell, written biogra? </p><p>phies of two other nationalist icons: Constance Markievicz, in 1934, and The </p><p>Great O'Neill in 1942, in addition to editing The Autobiography of Theobald </p><p>Wolfe Tone in 1937. The inclusion of O'Connell in this list is surprising, and the fact that the constitutionalist and pragmatist much derided by </p><p>Republicans came closest to O'Faolain's ideal raises fascinating questions about his adherence to conventional Republican thinking. However, </p><p>although O'Connell, with his realism and humanity, was the hero de Valera </p><p>ultimately failed to be, O'Faolain's portrayal of his decline on entering constitutional politics parallels a similar account of de Valera in the 1939 </p><p>biography, and reflects the traditional republican view that parliamentary </p><p>politics are essentially corrupting. How this problem was handled became </p><p>crucial for O'Faolain, and, in his disillusionment with de Valera s version of </p><p>idealistic Republicanism, found clearer, albeit indirect, expression in King </p><p>of the Beggars, and in the novels and short stories of the 1930s, than in the </p><p>second de Valera biography, in which O'Faolain still avoided confronting </p><p>fully some of the controversial issues of his hero's life, especially the still </p><p>traumatic issues of responsibility for the Civil War and the hairsplitting on </p><p>the Oath of Allegiance. </p><p>Voicing the standard nationalist judgement of O'Connell, de Valera's </p><p>apologist Dorothy Macardle dismissed him as having 'asked for Ireland </p><p>nothing more ambitious than a measure of self-government under the </p><p>British Crown'.5 O'Faolain's choice of O'Connell as an appropriate model </p><p>for twentieth century Ireland seems unusual. Indeed, he claimed that 'the </p><p>Ireland of the present day may . . . best be appreciated in terms of this </p><p>DUNNE, 'King of the Beggars', Irish Review 26 (2000) 31 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 06:49:02 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>period and this man.'6 O'Connell 'had no doubts that Ireland was begin? </p><p>ning all over again',7 a sentiment O'Faolain articulated about his own times </p><p>in his Bell editorials, where he declared that Ireland was now at the begin? </p><p>ning of its adult and creative history.8 The fundamental reason for his </p><p>choice of O'Connell, however, lies in O'Faol?in's definition of the heroic, in which personality is paramount. O'Faolain claimed that he wrote the </p><p>1933 biography 'in the hope of being able to see something of the human? </p><p>ity that lies beneath the mask', yet it emerged clearly in his depiction of de </p><p>Valera that he was unable to achieve this aim. He presented deValera's more </p><p>negative qualities, (as he saw them) as positively as he could, deciding that </p><p>what de Valera 'loses in humanity he gains in detachment . . . the emotions </p><p>of the moment do not catch him as they do other men. He can rise above </p><p>the passions of the moment more quickly than almost any other living Irishman.' By the conclusion, it is obvious that O'Faolain had failed to </p><p>reveal any humanity beneath the mask, as he virtually acknowledged by </p><p>attempting to present this lack as a virtue, claiming that 'a leader of a peo? </p><p>ple in such a country as Ireland must sacrifice all that human side to his </p><p>country, as de Valera has sacrificed it for many years now'.9 King of the Beg? </p><p>gars was crucial in clarifying for O'Faolain his dislike of the bloodless </p><p>abstraction of de Valera's rhetoric, and the dishonest intellectual hairsplit? </p><p>ting that effectively denied the compromises he had made to gain power. His fiction also allowed O'Faolain greater freedom to express his disap? </p><p>pointment in Republican politics. The erosion of faith which began during the Civil War can be traced in his short stories and novels of the 1930s and </p><p>1940s. Anti-Treaty i te hopes were rekindled in 1932 when deValera's party won the general election. This combination of renewed hope, mingled with </p><p>a sense of repressed disillusionment, born from O'Faol?in's experiences of </p><p>the Civil War, was reflected in the defensive propaganda of The Life Story of Eamon de Valera. His sense of disillusionment was intensified after 1932 by the fact that the Ireland in which he was increasingly unhappy, while not yet a republic, was governed by a self-proclaimed Republican party, skilfully </p><p>using the rhetoric of the revolutionary struggle. It was, above all, the gap between that rhetoric and reality which alienated O'Faolain. It is difficult to </p><p>trace the precise development, as well as the extent, of that disillusionment, </p><p>especially considering the unreliable nature of his own later account in Vive </p><p>Moi!, with its concerns to establish continuity over the course of his life. </p><p>That O'Faolain made time during the most busy and prolific years of his </p><p>career (the 1930s) to rework a biography that was only seven years old, indi? </p><p>cates how strongly he felt about his revised opinions. The 1939 De Valera </p><p>dealt more critically with issues such as the 1921 Treaty and deValera's role </p><p>in the civil war, and while O'Faolain still sought to find in de Valera a </p><p>32 DUNNE, 'King of the Beggars', Irish Review 26 (2000) </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 06:49:02 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>messianic hero, he was increasingly unable to square this with de Valera's </p><p>personality and his recourse to special pleading and abstraction. </p><p>The focus on failures of personality, rather than of policy, is a further </p><p>measure of the limits of O'Faolain's critique. The theme of narrow idealism </p><p>being opposed to humanity was to be most thoroughly explored in his 1940 </p><p>novel Come Back to Erin, where Leonard criticises Irish idealists:'they go like </p><p>bulls against the dirty material things in life, and before they know where </p><p>they are, they have gone against life itself'.10 O'Faolain's view that humanity and republican extremism </p><p>were mutually exclusive, </p><p>runs as an undercurrent </p><p>through the 1939 biography, where he remarked that de Valera's pedantry 'must keep him so very lonely </p><p>? so cut off from all that is casual and idle and </p><p>of the common warm run of life'. He continued to grasp at straws in a </p><p>plea </p><p>to find a redeeming feature:'But as with all characters, whom one may from </p><p>time to time think a little comical, is there not even in the frailty of de </p><p>Valera's at least one human touch? And does not that frailty, that touch of </p><p>humanity make one feel a little more sympathetic towards him?'11 O'Faolain </p><p>asserted, not very convincingly, that de Valera had warmth; it simply wasn't </p><p>obvious. In the earlier biography, O'Faolain had struggled to turn his hero's </p><p>vices into virtues, arguing that de Valera's tendency to reduce 'too much to a </p><p>formula, often a very abstract formula indeed', was 'the fault of his great </p><p>qualities of detachment and consistency'.12 Remarkably, he was still finding excuses for de Valera's abstract political ideology thirty years later, claiming in Vive Moil that abstraction was 'an innate Irish quality'.13 However, abstract </p><p>idealism was normally equated with inhumanity and coldness in both </p><p>O'Faolain's fiction and journalism. One of The BeWs promises to its readers </p><p>was that it would stand for 'life before any abstractions'.14 The concluding words of the 1939 de Valera illustrate this:'somebody like myself, a biogra? </p><p>pher or a novelist interested in the solid variety and warm colour of human </p><p>nature, wrestles with him uneasily, terrified lest at any moment he should </p><p>vanish ? </p><p>as an abstraction'.15 </p><p>While still unwilling to confront fully the extent to which his idealistic </p><p>expectations had been disappointed, O'Faolain as biographer was com? </p><p>pelled, in his second life of de Valera, to raise the mask, and forced to </p><p>recognise beneath it, not a hero but a flawed human being. Forced by </p><p>unfolding events to separate the symbol from the man, in a way he never </p><p>had to do with any of his dead heroes, O'Faolain found it difficult to come </p><p>to terms with the de-mystification of that hero who was not only alive, but </p><p>in power, presiding over a society, which, in O'Faolain's depiction of it, was </p><p>struggling to cope with the consequences of his actions. One attraction of </p><p>O'Connell was that he was a hero safely in the past, who could not disap? </p><p>point, but it was, above all, his personality which held the key to his </p><p>DUNNE, 'King of the Beggars', Irish Review 26 (2000) 33 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 06:49:02 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>greatness, in O'Faolain's view. Acknowledging that each represented a dif? </p><p>ferent nationalist tradition, O'Faolain none the less placed O'Connell </p><p>alongside Tone and Collins, arguing that what they had in common was not </p><p>ideology, but humanity. In the conclusion of the 1939 biography he con? </p><p>trasted de Valera with Tone, 'so merry, so human, so gay', with Collins, 'so </p><p>boisterous, so natural, so passionate, so un-self aware' and with O'Connell, </p><p>who 'with his hat on the side of his head and the merry rogue's wink in his </p><p>eye', was 'a rascal to whom one forgives everything'.16 O'Faolain had set the </p><p>general tone of King of the Beggars with an early image of O'Connell 'with </p><p>his tall hat cocked on the side of his curly head, his cloak caught up in his </p><p>fist, a twinkle in his eye'.17 However, unlike in the 1933 biography of de </p><p>Valera, O'Faolain could create in King of the Beggars a hero who was heroic </p><p>in spite of, and even because of, his faults. </p><p>The defensiveness of the 1933 biography is entirely absent from King of the Beggars, and although he did excuse some of O'Connell's faults, as he </p><p>had de Valera's, mostly with stereotypical references to the Irish or Kerry mind ('we know our Kerrymen'), he depicted O'Connell as a true tragic </p><p>hero, in the sense that his weaknesses were proportionate to his greatness. The basic defence of O'Connell's 'mean lawyers' tricks, </p><p>. . . ambiguity, </p><p>. . . </p><p>dishonesty, evasiveness, snobbery', was that 'he alone had the vision to </p><p>realise that a democracy could be born out of the rack and ruin of Limer? </p><p>ick and 1691'. From thei...</p></li></ul>