Patrick Conroy was born in Galway city in 1882, where his father, Thomas, had a public house. His parents both belonged to the upwardly mobile Catholic class who prospered in business, in the professions and in the Church, following the Repeal of the Penal Laws. However, financial difficulties—due, apparently to Thomas’s drinking—meant that the family had to move house four times in six years and in 1888, when Patrick was six years old, his father departed for America, abandoning his family. Patrick’s mother, Kate, assumed control of the business but, six years later, she died suddenly and Patrick and his two younger brothers were sent to live with their paternal grandparents in Rosmuck, in the Connemara Gaeltacht. When their grandmother died, two years later, he and one of his brothers were sent to live with their maternal aunt in Miltown Malbay, County Clare. A year later, he was uprooted once again, this time to Rockwell College, County Tipperary, where he was enrolled in the seminary. Within a year, the seminary closed and he moved to Blackrock College, in Dublin, which was also run by the Holy Ghost order. His classmates in Blackrock included the young Eamonn De Valera and the future Cardinal Dalton. Patrick Conroy left Blackrock without having completed his final examinations and commenced work as a boy-copyist in the Board of Education at Whitehall, London, in January 1900. He was a month short of being nineteen years old.
While Irish was not his first language, he had a good knowledge of Irish growing up. English was the language of his domestic environment, despite the fact that his father was from Rosmuck. English was associated with status and progress and was the language spoken in the family home in Galway and also in Rosmuck—the Conroys of Rosmuck were very prosperous merchants, trading on boats throughout the Connemara Gaeltacht. However, the young Patrick was exposed to Irish during these years; Irish was spoken in the family
public house in Galway where many of the customers came from Connemara, and he and his brothers were looked after by young women from the West who spoke Irish. In Rosmuck, Irish was the language of the community outside of the home and some Irish was also spoken in the part of County Clare where he lived with his aunt. It was hardly surprising that his best grades in the Intermediate Certificate (Junior and Middle), were in Irish (or ‘Celtic’, as it was called then).
The Gaelic League had been founded in Ireland in 1893 and three years later, a branch was established in London. When the young civil servant, P.J. Conroy, was enrolled as a member in December 1900 he became Pádraic Ó Conaire and from that time until his return to Ireland in 1915, the Gaelic League played a central role in his life. Through his association with the organisation in London he got to know Irish emigrants from all social classes: native speakers of Irish, scholars of the language and those who had joined the League in order to learn Irish. He soon became active in its various sub-committees, participated in its cultural activities, performing in—and even writing—short plays. As well as being a useful language-teaching tool, drama provided an opportunity for meeting people and feeling part of a cultural community. Ó Conaire also gave lectures on various topics and began teaching at the Irish classes throughout London. He became a committed activist on behalf of the language and very soon acquired a reputation as an accomplished speaker of Irish, an inspiring teacher and, above all, a successful writer. The domestic instability that he experienced when growing up in Ireland seems to have set a permanent pattern; he moved house frequently—for example, between 1905 and 1911 his four children were born and the address on each child’s birth certificate is different. It is significant that the only permanent address he himself had during the time he lived in London was that of the Gaelic League—as if that was his real home.
In the Irish-speaking milieu that was the London Gaelic League, Ó Conaire enjoyed friendship, encouragement and respect. By 1902 he had mastered the Berlitz system of language teaching which the London Gaelic League was promoting in its classes and by 1905 he was instructing the other teachers in the system. By this time he was also teaching Irish under the auspices of the London County Council. In 1904, he was teaching Irish every evening of the week—as well as working in the civil service (where his post was not overly demanding or stimulating—or well-remunerated). His fee from the LCC amounted to almost half the salary he was earning in the civil service.
Ó Conaire’s colleagues and friends in the London Gaelic League were readers and the milieu to which he now belonged was one where contemporary literature was discussed. While it is not possible to say what he read, he refers, in his 1908 prize-winning essay ‘Sean-litríocht na nGael agus nua-litríocht na hEorpa’, to Gogol, Turgenev, Andreyev, Gorky, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Bjornsen and Knut Hamsun. He also mentions Hardy, Meredith, Maupassant and Balzac. He published his first short story in An Claidheamh Soluis in 1901 and by the following year had written a short play. He claims that it was the Tipperary-born journalist and prominent Gaelic Leaguer, William P. Ryan, who encouraged him to write in Irish rather than in English. It is not possible to say whether or not he had already started writing in English but from the time he published his first story in 1901 he wrote exclusively in Irish. Between 1904 and 1913 he won prizes in the Oireachtas Literary Competition for short stories, for one-act plays, for essays on literary topics and for his only novel, Deoraíocht (published in 1910). The Oireachtas competitions and the various Gaelic League periodicals, both in London and in Dublin, provided him with an outlet for his work and also augmented his modest income. Pádraic Pearse, who was secretary of the League’s publication committee from 1899 and editor of An Claidheamh Soluis from 1903 was a very important mentor and source of encouragement for the young writer.
By 1913, politics were beginning to have an effect on the cultural and literary activities of the Gaelic League both in Ireland and in London. An tÉireannach, the monthly paper of the London branch, had ceased to exist for financial reasons in the previous October, which meant that for the first time since the establishment of Inis Fáil, in 1904, the London League was without a regular publication. By 1915, the Irish London’s attention turned to Dublin. As Art Ó Briain wrote (1944, Capuchin Annual): ‘From the outbreak of the war in 1914, all activities of the London League were on the wane, and in 1917, when so many of the “Wild Geese” had flown back to Ireland, the number of schools had declined to four. Even these only maintained a, more or less, symbolic existence, with perhaps only one class and a few pupils.’
Ó Conaire was dismissed from his post in the civil service in October 1915—apparently because he returned late from Ireland where he was attending the Gaelic League Ard-Fheis. However, he had been contemplating leaving London for some time before that. His friends and associates were gradually returning to Ireland from as early as 1912, and the community that had sustained him in London was disintegrating. He now believed passionately in the idea of an Irish-speaking Ireland and was convinced that he could realise his dream if he returned. He wrote in the magazine Samhain, in November 1915:
The Irish language movement will not thrive until every English speaker, whether he be sympathetic or otherwise, realises that he is a foreigner in his own country if he speaks English. And I believe that the movement will make no progress until some small group undertakes to speak Irish exclusively and on every possible occasion.
Ó Conaire departed for Dublin in December 1915, one month before his Gaelic-League friend Michael Collins (with whom he joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913) did the same. He wrote later of the conversation that ensued when the pair met again in January 1916. It was clear that both men were thinking of a revolution, but for Ó Conaire it would be a language revolution.
Pádraic had hoped to live as a full-time writer when he returned to Ireland, with the support of the Gaelic League but, as we‘ve seen, that organisation had taken a new direction by 1915 and providing maintenance for a writer was low on its list of priorities. He received a small allowance from the Executive Council for about fifteen months, in return for short articles he wrote for An Claidheamh Soluis but these articles appear to have ceased from March 1917. By now he was no longer in receipt of a regular income—however meagre— from the civil service. His drinking had become problematic at this time also. He found himself reduced to writing harmless material for school textbooks for a while, in order to eke out a living, and for the last three years of his life his publications consisted exclusively of short weekly articles for The Connacht Sentinel. Prophetically, like so many of the characters in his stories who returned from exile, the life to which he returned proved to be a bitter disappointment.
Between 1901 and 1927, he published some 400 short stories, 200 short journalistic articles, six one-act plays and one novel. A total of twenty collections of his short fiction and essays were published. Of these works, three collections of short stories have been translated and published in English: The Land of Wonders (1919), The Woman at the Window (1921) and Field and Fair (1929). A further collection, The Finest Stories of Pádraic Ó Conaire, aimed at Leaving Cert students who were studying Scothscéalta, was published in 1982. The novel Deoraíocht was published in English as Exile (1994) and in Czech as Vyhnanstvi (2004). Although this oeuvre seems substantial, the actual amount of material that comprises his literary output is relatively small: many works appeared in more than one collection and some reappeared a number of times in different papers. Apart from one collection of seven stories which had the 1916 Rising as a unifying theme, and which was published in 1918, Ó Conaire’s best work was all written while he lived in London.
There are different perceptions of Pádraic Ó Conaire. For many Irish people, he is the author of the story ‘M’asal Beag Dubh’—a fondly remembered school text. For others, he is the larger than life character who was familiar on the roads of Ireland between 1915 and 1928, when he was struggling to earn a meagre existence from his journalism or from some short irregular teaching posts, drinking heavily and becoming increasingly dependent on the charitable assistance of his friends. Few think of Ó Conaire as a writer of sophisticated modern psychological fiction.
Exile is a recurring theme in his work and this theme has tended to be read as autobiography. In fact, although he produced this work while he was living in London, London—as a geographical location—has no place in his stories. He writes about a condition of internal exile where London is merely a metaphor. Invariably, it is the characters who return home that prove to be the real exiles. The psychological condition that William James described as ‘The Divided Self’ is the theme of stories such as ‘Páidín Mháire’ in which a simple fisherman has to exchange the freedom of his life by the sea for the prison that is the Workhouse, or ‘Nóra Mharcais Bhig’, in which a young pregnant girl has to exchange her life in a village in Connemara for the life of a prostitute in London, or in the stories of An Chéad Chloch, that are purportedly set in an oriental country or in the land of the Bible. The novel, Deoraíocht, which could be translated as ‘exile’ (or ‘alienation’) is set in London and Galway but this ‘London’ is merely an internal state; London is never described and no recognisable landmarks or streets are named. It is a place that is not Galway, just as ‘Galway’ is a place that is not London. That is, each place is defined as the obverse of the other: London is the present, a place associated with loss and damage while Galway is the past—a state of innocence and hope, a Paradise Lost to which there is no happy return. Like many emigrants, Ó Conaire returned to an Ireland that was changing radically and the vision of home that he had conceived while he was in London never materialised.
Pádraic Ó Conaire, the writer, would have benefitted from the sustained support of an editor such as Pádraic Pearse, and from an informed, critical readership. Unfortunately, he was denied both. Nevertheless, his best work merits inclusion in any anthology of Irish short fiction from the beginning of the last century, in either language. And, in the past nine years, three collections of Ó Conaire’s best work have been reprinted, with a short introduction in each case: An Chéad Chloch, published by Mercier (2006), and Scothscéalta (2009) and Rogha Scéalta (2008), both published by Cló Iar-Chonnacht. As the first writer in the Irish language to produce modern short fiction which endures one hundred years later, his legacy is significant.