Joseph O’Connor


Life
1963- [Joseph Victor O’Connor; fam. & gen. “Joe”]; b. 20 Sept., Glenageary, Co. Dublin, br. of Emer and Sinéad O’Connor [q.v.]; child of book-loving mother and music-loving father; lost his mother in a traffic accident, 1985; (‘there was a lot to fix and it wasn’t fixed’); experienced difficulties in teenage; grad. UCD (Arts), where he was taught by Declan Kiberd; read John mcGahern’s “Sierra Leone” in Getting Through and wrote out the story;
 
contrib. to Magill; went to Nicarauga as a student, then in civil war - scene of Desperadoes; his first short story, “The Last of the Mohican”, featuring, Eddie Virago, was published on the Sunday Tribune’s “New Irish Writing” (ed. by Ciaran Carty), 1989, going on to win the Hennessy Award proceeded from UCD MA programme to doctorate on Stephen Spender in Oxford; suffered death of his mother in a car accident, Feb. 1985;
 
became involved in Nicaraguan Solidarity in London and travelled to Nicaragua, April 1985; won Time Out Magazine Travel Writing Prize for an article about being arrested and imprisoned in Nicaragua, 1990; issued novels incl. Cowboys and Indians (1991), shortlisted for Whitbread Award and later winner of Miramax screenplay award, 1995; issued True Believers (1991), stories; issued Desperadoes (1994), based on his experience in Nicarauga; winner of Macauley Fellowship;
 
contrib. a column to prose The Sunday Tribune (Dublin) from 1993; published as The Secret World of the Irish Male (1994); wrote Red Roses and Petrol (1995), a play commissioned by Pigsback Theatre, Dublin; issued Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America (1996), visiting nine Dublins in America; reached six-figure per book advance agreement with Reed on the death of his editor Jonathan Warner, 1995; issued The Irish Male at Home and Abroad (1996); issued The Salesman (1997), a novel; issued Yeats is Dead! (2001), 15-writer fiction collaboration and Irish best-seller with profits to Amnesty, with Marion Keyes, Pauline McLynn, et al.;
 
issued The Comedian (2001), for learning readers; issued The Star of the Sea (2002), a serious historical novel treating of a famine-ship voyage across the Atlantic from Liverpool via Cobh [Cork] to New York; picked up by Amanda Ross for “Richard and Judy Book Club” on TV, and enthusiastically reviewed by Bob Geldof and others; went to top of British best-seller list;
 
winner of Prix Littéraire Européan Madeleine Zepter for European Novel of the Year; awarded Dorothy & Lewi B. Cullmann Center for Scholars and Writers fellowship at NYPL, and spent 2006 in New York with his family; children James (b.2000) and Marcus (b.2004); issued Inishowen (2000), a detective novel set in Donegal where the Celtic landscape figures prominently; issued Redemption Falls (2007), a sequel to The Star of the Sea set in the US post-Civil War period, afterwards filmed successfully (dir Brendan M. Leonard, with Laura Hunter, Rachel Kiri Walker, Julie Bersani, and Daniel Abeles, 2008);
 
he read at the Project Theatre with Canadian writer Timothy Taylor during the Dublin Writers Festival (16 June 2007); currently working on a novel about Molly Allgood in America, the third in his Irish-American trilogy; issued a new novel, Ghost Light (2010), based on the love of Máire (“Molly”) O’Neill and John Millington Synge, and opening in her last years in London, 1952; chosen for Dublin One City, One Book in 2011; edited New Irish Short Stories for Faber (2011), in the series inaugurated by David Marcus (2004-05, 2006-07);
 
received the Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature, 2012; issued Where Have You Been? (2012), stories; adapted Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel for the stage (Gate Th., Dublin, 2012); issued The Thrill of It All (2014), a novel about the attempt of four musicians - Robbie Goulding and Fran Mulvey and others - to form a band in Luton, nr. London; currently writing about Bram Stoker’s friendship with Henry Irving for BBC4; issues The Thrill of It All (2015), set in the Irish 1980s.

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There is a Joseph O’Connor website at
www.josephoconnorauthor.com
Works
Fiction
  • Cowboys and Indians (London: Sinclair-Stevenson 1991); Do. (London: Flamingo 1992), 249pp. [extract];
  • True Believers (London: Sinclair-Stevenson 1991);
  • Desperadoes (London: Sinclair-Stevenson 1994), Do. (London: Flamingo 1995), 425pp.
  • The Salesman (London: Secker & Warburg 1997; Picador 1999), 393pp.;
  • [with others,] Yeats is Dead! (London: Jonathan Cape 2001), 297pp. [infra];
  • Inishowen (London: Secker & Warburg 2000), and Do. (Vintage Books 2001), 472pp.;
  • Star of the Sea (London; Secker & Warburg 2002), 410pp.;
  • Redemption Falls (London: Harvill Secker 2007), 464pp.
  • Ghost Light (London: Harvill 2010), 256pp.
  • Where Have You Been?: Stories and a Novella (London: Harvill Secker 2012), q.pp.
  • The Thrill of It All (Harvill 2014), q.pp.
For children [adult literacy]
  • The Comedian [Open door series] (Dublin: New Island 2000), 68pp. [in small-town Ireland]
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Drama
  • Red Roses and Petrol (Project Arts 1995), dir. Jim Culletin;
  • also The Weeping of Angels (q.d.)
Commentary
  • The Secret World of the Irish Male (Dublin: New Island Press 1994; reps. 2005), 350pp. [from Tribune column; see extract];
  • Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America (London: Picador 1996), 369pp.;
  • The Irish Male at Home and Abroad (Dublin: New Island Press 1996; London: Minerva 1996), 260pp.;
  • Introduction to Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, ed. David Marcus (1995);
  • The Last of the Irish Males (Dublin: New Island Books 2001), 306pp.;
  • The Irish Male: His Greatest Hits (Dublin: New Island Press 2009), 450pp. [sel. from The Irish Male ser. and RTÉ Drivetime programme];
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Anthologies
  • ed., New Irish Short Stories (London: Faber Faber 2011), 404pp. [contribs. incl. Kevin Barry, Dermot Bolger, Gerard Donovan, Emma Donoghue, Roddy Doyle, Richard Ford, Anthony Glavin, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Christina Dwyer Hickey, Colm McCann, Eoin MacNamee, Rebecca Miller, Mary Morrissey, Joseph O’Neill, Glenn Patterson, Kevin Power, Colm Toibin, William Trevor.]

Note: New Irish Short Stories is successor to Best New Irish Short Stories 2004-05, and Best New Irish Short Stories 2006-07, edited by David Marcus, who created Irish Writing in the Irish Press in 1946 and edited “New Irish Writing” [page] for the Irish Press from 1968, as well as the Phoenix Best New Irish Stories anthology series and the Bodley Head Book of Irish Short Stories (1982).

Miscellaneous
  • Even the Olives are Bleeding: The Life and Times of Charles Donnelly (Dublin : New Island Books 1992), 142pp., port.
  • ‘Diaspora and Exile’, in ‘New Irish Writing’ [special iss.], ed. Derek Mahon, Ireland of the Welcomes (Sept.-Oct. 1996), pp.49-50;
  • ‘Stranded in Sierra Leone: If you can’t find your own story [...] write someone else’s’, in The Guardian (10 Jan. 2004) [see extract];
  • ‘The Cable Guy’, review of John Griesemer, Signal and Noise, in The Guardian (24 January 2004) [novel about underwater telegraph from Ireland to Newfoundland, 1857-66];
  • ‘Not all knives and axes’, review of The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, in The Guardian (24 May 2008) [see extract under Barry, Commentary - as supra].
  • ‘An Appeal to the Sages of the Snug’, in The Irish Times (20 March 2010), Weekend, p.9 [see extract].
  • introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Hans Walter Gabler with Walter Hettche [1993] (NY & London: Garland Publ. 2012), xxiv, 249pp. [incls. another intro, by Dieter Fuchs and those of the textual editors].
  • Review of Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, by Neil Young, in The Irish Times (20 Oct. 2012), Weekend, p.11.
Reviews (sel.)
  • ‘Desperadoes Waiting for the Tube’, in Patrick O’Dea, ed., A Class of Our Own, Conversations about Class in Ireland (Dublin 1994) [p.157];
  • review of No Other Life, by Brian Moore, in Causeway, 1 (Autumn 1994), pp.57-58 [scathing];
  • review of Thomas Keneally, The Widow and Her Hero, in The Irish Times (3 March 2007), Weekend, p.10 [‘the novel investigates the processes by which public heroes are constructed .. now a war novel in the narrowly documentary sense but a book about versions of masculinity ... brings a deeply involving edginess to the writing’].
  • review of Who Am I, by Pete Townsend, in The Irish Times (1 Dec. 2012), Weekend, p.11 [same issue incls. his contrib. to ‘Christmas Disasters’, p.3.]
  • ‘Mine’s a Pint’ - on the Fiction of John McGahern [review-article connected with Creatures of the Earth], in The Guardian (Sat. 16 Aug 2008) [see copy - as attached].

Hear Róisín Ingle, Irish Times interview with Joseph O’Connor, in “How to Write a Book” series [No. 1] - online; accessed 18.05.2014.)
Roisin Ingle - Interview

“[...] Readers know when you're patronising them. They don't like to be written down to. [...] One of the great gifts of Star of the Sea in my life was that it taught me not think about anything than the book ... if you must think about anything else, think about the reader - think about who this is for, and after that just freeze everything out ...”

See also Irish Times Sound Cloud - online.

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Bibliographical details
Yeats is Dead!
[Bought to Book: 15 Irish Writers Celebrate Amnesty’s 40th Birthday] Joseph O’Connor; Roddy Doyle; Charlie O’Neill; Anthony Cronin; Gene Kerrigan; Hugo Hamilton; Conor McPherson; Frank Mccourt; Pauline McLynn; Donal O’Kelly; Tom Humphreys; Owen O’Neill; Marian Keyes; Gerard Stembrdige; Gina Moxley. (See Irish Times Magazine, 9 June 2001, pp.25-31).

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Criticism
Studies
  • Liam Harte, ‘A Kind of Scab: Irish Identity in the Writings of Dermot Bolger and Joseph O’Connor’, in Irish Studies Review, 20 (Autumn 1997), p.17-22;
  • Gerry Smyth, The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction (London: Pluto Press 1997) [on Cowboys and Indians] pp.150-53 [see extract];
  • Linden Peach, The Contemporary Irish Novel: Critical Readings (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2004), espec. Chap. 3 : ‘Secret Hauntings’ [on The Salesman, and works by other writers];
 
Reviews
  • John Kenny, review Inishowen (Secker and Warburg, 2000), 474pp., in The Irish Times (3 June 2000) [see extract];
  • C. L. Dallat, review of O’Connor, ed., Yeats is Dead!, in Times Literary Supplement, [Irish issue] (29 June 2001) [see extract];
  • Aisling Foster, ‘A Subtle Yarn in Ship Shape’, in The Irish Times, Weekend (2 Nov. 2002) [see extract];
  • James R. Kincaid, ‘Keep Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses’, in New York Times [Sunday Book Review] (1 June 2003) [see extract];
  • Terry Eagleton, review of Redemption Falls, in The Guardian (Sat., 5 May 2007) [see extract];
  • Max Byrd, ‘Wild Wild Lit’, review of Redemption Fall, in New York Times [Sunday Book Review] (25 Nov. 2007) [see extract].
  • Chris Power, review of Where Have You Been, in The Guardian (5 Oct. 2012) [see online].
  • Lucy Scholes, review of Where Have You Been, in The Independent [UK] (7 Nov. 2102) [see extract].
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Interviews
  • Robert Birnbaum, interview with Joseph O’Connor (26 June 2003), at Identitytheory.com [see online];
  • Arminta Wallace, ‘Escapades in Irish America’, interview with Joseph O’Connor, in The Irish Times (28 April 2007), “Weekend” [see extract];
  • Shirley Kelly, ‘No Longer the Tortured Artist’ [interview-feature], in Books Ireland (Summer 2007), p.125-26;
  • ‘Molly’s A Pushy Gal’, interview with Joseph O’Connor, in Books Ireland (Summer 2010), p.130 [see extract]..

See also ‘Declan Kiberd on his star pupil Joseph O’Connor: laureate of a lost generation’, in The Irish Times (31 Aug. 2015) - online.

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Joseph O’Connor website cites and quotes enthusiastic - even incandescent - reviews of Redemption Falls by critics including ...

Arminta Wallace (Irish Times, 28 April 2007); Brian Lynch (Irish Independent, 28 April 2007); John Spain (Irish Independent, 28 April 2007); Padraig Kenny (Sunday Tribune, 29 April 2007); Mick Heaney (Sunday Times, 29 April 2007); Aisling Foster (The Times, 28 April 2007); Ryan Tubridy (RTE Radio, 30 April 2007); Terry Eagleton (The Guardian, 5 May 2007); Declan Kiberd (The Irish Times, 5 May 2007); Lucille Redmond (Evening Herald, 7 May 2007); Karen Luscombe (Times Literary Supplement, 11 May 2007); Tom Adair (The Scotsman, 12 May 2007); Dermot Bolger (Sunday Independent, 13 May 2007); John Boyne (The Sunday Tribune, 13 May 2007); Peter Burton (The Daily Express, 24 May 2007); Trevor Lewis (The Sunday Times, 27 May 2007); Anna Scott (The Observer, 27 May 2007); Gay Byrne (Sunday Independent, 24 June 2007) ... and numerous other in organs including Irish Voice and Irish Echo ...

Also advance quotes from Colm Toibin, Colm McCann, Frank McCourt, Nuala O’Faolain and Roddy Doyle.
 
—Go to Joseph O’Connor website > review extracts - online.

Commentary
André Billen makes a pilgrimage to Knock with post-modern novelists and playwright Joseph O’Connor [...]’, in Irish Independent, 21.8.1995 [copyright Observer News Service; The Guardian, London]; gives account of Red Roses and Petrol (1995), ‘action set around a wake that no one turns up for ... the relationships in a family that tells itself it is no good at relationships [...]’; also, ‘the only time in my life I am religious is when I think about Sinéad and go down on my knees and thank God I wanted to be a writer and not a singer’; ‘It somehow feels good using the words “Yeats” and “fuck” in the same sentence’ [also cited in John Boland, Bookworm, Irish Times, 22 July 1995].

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Andrew Rosenheim, ‘Urban cowboy’, review of O’Connor, Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America (1996), 367pp., together with Henry Shukmana, Savage Pilgrims: on the road to Santa Fe: ‘Neither the lengthy asides, nor the accounts of O’Connor’s visits to the nine Dublins, ever really engage the reader, encumbered as they are by an almost suffocating levity, sometimes puerile, sometimes distasteful - “There was more hair in the butter dish than in the waiter’s nostril”; at other times, it is merely lame - “it was my first time at the Met and I must say the place was looking well”. Always it is gauchely expressed and intensely irritating.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 26 July, 1996 p.12.

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Gerry Smyth, The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction (London: Pluto Press 1997), on Cowboys and Indians (1991): ‘The engagement with fashion is also a question of narrative technique, as the narrator seems just as concerned as Eddie to consolidate his street credentials. The pace is fast, the tone inyour-face. Much of the narrative is taken up with dialogue, and the narrative remains more or less present-centred and hero-centred throughout. It becomes increasingly difficult, in fact, to separm Eddie’s voice zone from that of the narrator; both are simultam. ously brash and diffident, confident and self-doubting, always [in]tent on being up-to-the-minute cool. As a consequence there is a somewhat hollow ring to many of the exchanges and scenes, as worlds of narrative and narration threaten to collapse into other. When, for example, Eddie goes for a job on a building his potential bosses ask him “if he knew the difference between joist and a girder. Eddie said yeah, Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake and Goethe wrote Faust. They didn’t see the joke’ (p. 183). Now, this is an old joke in Ireland, the point being that the nation’s intellectual heritage is lost on a brand of English racist who sees the Irish as working-class fodder. The joke depends very precisely, moreover, upon the puns made available by the words “joist” and “girder” and in that order. However, to the extent that it has a definite discursive status outside the fictional narrative - in terms of extra-narrative realm of narrator, author and a specific encoded Irish reader – the joke detaches itself from the surrounding narrative discourse and compromises the reader’s engagement with the story. / Nevertheless, O’Connor’s representation of a flawed, fashion-conscious Irishman in London, unwilling to fade into an expatriate ghetto or to turn the other cheek to a residual racism, signals a challenge to the nation’s traditional emigrant culture. […]’ (pp.152-53.)

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Carol Birch, ‘The Birdman of Dalkey’, review of The Salesman (1997), in which Bill Sweeney, a middle-aged satelite-dish salesman, recalls his first love for his wife Grace Lawrence in Dublin of the 1960s, a love subsequently extinguished by his own drinking habits, and tells in this confession to his daughter, and narrates also how she was murdered in a bungled robbery, and how when one ecapes policy custody he tracks him remorseless and finally wreaks revenge; draws on the myth of mad Sweeny among the trees, which it echoes In phrases such as ‘that which portrays the distraught hero ‘roosting like a mad bird in the sweltering attic’.

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John Dunne, review of The Salesman, in Books Ireland (Dec. 1997), pp.334-35, remarking, ‘evidence that O’Connor is fast becoming a mildly entertaining writer content to cruise … his earlier work … hit me like a tone of bricks.’

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John Kenny, review of Joseph O’Connor, Inishowen (Secker and Warburg, 2000), 474pp., in The Irish Times (3 June 2000), notes his quasi-autobiographical humerous journalism, mainly in The Sunday Tribune; remarks that one of the chief problems of his fiction has been ‘an intergeneric stylistic sameness [which disallows] novelistic full seriousness.’; calls True Believers (1991), stories, one of the most significant volumes of the younger generation but characterises Cowboys and Indians (1991), Desperadoes (1994) and The Salesman (1998) as ‘inflated affairs’ illustrating ‘the damage that an unrestrained jokey mode can do to an undeniably compassionate content’; Inishown deals with the Church’s American adoption scheme and the separation of mothers and children in the 1940s; a terminally ill Ellen Donnelly attempts to locate her mother in Buncrana arising from a report of an abandoned child in the Donegal Democrat for 1948; added by Garda Inspector Martin Aitken, whose son is buried on the peninsula (where he had met his estranged wife) while being sought by her philandering plastic surgeon husband Milton Amery; nuns of a Donegal nun with whom she corresponds provide potted social history of mid-century Ireland; reviewer finds Americana unconvincing and some character treatment as mere cypher.

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C. L. Dallat, review of O’Connor, ed., Yeats is Dead!, in Times Literary Supplement, [Irish issue] (29 June 2001), collaborative novel by Roddy Doyle, Conor McPherson, Gene Kerrigan, Gina Moxley, Marian Keyes, Anthony Cronin, Owen O’Neill, Donal Kelly, Gerard Stembridge and Frank McCourt. The basics of the plot concern a pharmeuticals rep. called Tommy Reynolds, murder[ed] in a mobile home after a visit by heavies in the shape of off-duty gardaí Nestor and Roberts, apparently working for a crime-world figure Mrs Bloom; novel littered with Joyce allusions and characters of Joycean pedigree incl. Eveline, Molly Ievers, O’Madden Burke, Dignam and even Kinch. Issued with profits to Amnesty on its 4th Anniversary. (p.22.)

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Aisling Foster, ‘A Subtle Yarn in Ship Shape’, in The Irish Times (2 Nov. 2002) [Weekend]: recounts a plot in which 450 passengers on a famine ship experience a living hell in Nov. 1947; Capta. Lockwood, a trusting English Quaker finds his faith in human decency pushed to breaking point over 20 days at sea; remarks: ‘Joseph O’Connor has laid out his story like a racy Victorian novel. A murder is promised, chapter, headings and illustrations are presented in the style of a penny dreadful and the narrative slips between press clippings, the ship’s journal and the jottings of an American newsman and failed novelist, G. Grantley Dixon.’ Lists among a ‘marvellous cast of characters’ the ‘crippled “Monster” Mulvey, put on board to kill David Merridith, foolish aristocrat and Galway landlord; the wild man, Meadowes, a member of the revolutionary “Be Liable” Club; and the sadly beautiful Mary Duane, childhood friend of the bankrupt landlord and nursemaid to his children’, as well as ‘mysterious Maharajah, given to hilariously inappropriate remarks at moments of crisis’; and remarks: ‘Yet before this tale has sailed very far, it becomes obvious that so much melodrama masks wide-ranging research and a very modern understanding of the forces involved. Experience of famine is remembered painfully well, both for the sufferer and the better off left standing on the sidelines. Hunger, we are told, has a “trick of letting you think you weren’t hungry and then suddenly hammering into you like a wild-eyed, shrieking robber”. Foster quotes O’Connor: “It is not the common man of England who is preying like a vulture on the poor people when they have nothing, but the Judas Irish merchant with his greedy eye to whatever mite he can screw out of his wretched countrymen and they so down”, and speaks of a retreat into denial on the part of the wider Irish world, and continues: ‘Yet, Joseph O’Connor is clearly not “the kind of radical who is secretly relieved that injustices exist; morality being so easily available by saying you found them outrageous” [O’Connor]. Nor, despite the book’s playfully decorative Victoriana (including a cameo appearance by Charles Dickens himself), has he written, a mere historical pastiche. / Instead, he has poured a furious intelligence into the minds of his travellers, questioning everything from the inheritance of guilt to the loss of local memory. In doing so, he has written his most substantial and impressive novel to date.’ [... &c.] (p.3.)

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James R. Kincaid, ‘Keep Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses’, in New York Times [Sunday Book Review] (1 June 2003): ‘This is a brave and artful novel disguised to appear safe and conventional. One can read on for some time as if it were simply a “terror stalks the high seas” thriller, but one would be an uncommon fool to do so for very long. / Joseph O’Connor, an Irish critic and playwright who is also the author of several previous novels, lures us into an easy read that, before we know it, becomes a chilling indictment not of a murderer but of us. As a London publisher says midway through the book, advising a writer unsuccessfully peddling his fiction, this is “a good old thumping yarn,” the sort of thing a reader can “sink his tusks into.” But Star of the Sea is also an agonizing inquiry into the nature of abandonment and the difficulty of finding anyone who will truly care about the fate of others. How large does suffering have to loom before we take notice? O’Connor suggests that we can tolerate mountains of misery, sipping our coffee and reading our newspapers as the corpses pile up beneath the headlines. [...] O’Connor writes well here of what George Eliot called that vision of “ordinary human life,” ordinary human suffering, that we cannot let into our hearts. “It would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat,” Eliot said, “and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” / O’Connor is not, perhaps, speaking of ordinary suffering, though the massive number of corpses makes the nightmare here seem run-of-the-mill. In any case, few modern writers have exposed with so much passion and skill the protective measures, the wadding of stupidity, that we wrap around ourselves. Neither O’Connor nor Eliot underestimates the cost of caring. It may kill us. Even so, how can we make our ignorant comfort tally with that roar on the other side of silence?’

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Arminta Wallace, ‘Escapades in Irish America’, interview with Joseph O’Connor, in The Irish Times (28 April 2007): ‘Joseph O’Connor’s mammoth new novel, Redemption Falls, opens with a stark, striking image: a woman, young, alone, dishevelled, walking across Louisiana. As the pages turn, the reader cannot but be dazzled by the book’s vast cast of characters, enormous historical canvas and ambitious structure. Amid the chaos of the last gasp of the American civil war, the story unfolds courtesy of a fistful of narrators, a raucous succession of poems and ballads, and a roller-coaster series of literary forms, including transcriptions of recorded interviews, historical documents, letters, poster-bills, even paintings. / But there’s always the character of Eliza Duane Mooney to hold on to. Which is just as it should be because, according to O’Connor, she was the spark that created the entire book. “I got a picture of this woman walking through the landscape”, he says. “That’s often how a novel starts off for me. At first I wasn’t sure whether it was a contemporary novel; whether the woman might be Afghani, or African. Then I saw a connection between this character and the narrator of Star of the Sea. So I stuck with her.” [...].’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Terry Eagleton, review of Redemption Falls, in The Guardian (Sat., 5 May 2007): ‘Joseph O’Connor’s magnificent new novel, Redemption Falls, falls squarely in this great non-tradition. It is a huge dishevelled monster of a book, crammed with all manner of typographical stunts. The text is stuffed with posters, verses, letters, doodles, extracts from notebooks and newspapers, snatches of ballads, transcripts of documents and stories within stories. [...] Set in the US during the civil war, Redemption Falls is as richly digressive a narrative as Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. We follow the fortunes of the Irish immigrant Eliza Mooney, stumbling across war-torn America in search of her brother Jeremiah, whom the war has sucked in as a drummer boy. But this particular narrative weaves its way in and out of half a dozen others, and at the centre of the whole tangled web of tales stands the epic figure of orator, soldier and philanderer James O’Keefe. [...] It is hard for language to appear innocent when it has been a political minefield for centuries. Redemption Falls perpetrates hardly one slack or unsculptured sentence for the whole of its 450 pages. Like Joyce, O’Connor combines his panoramic range with a close eye to the grain and texture of the phrase. Eliza Mooney is a “cadaverous madwoman in her ash-dusted rags, who leaves footprints of blood … whose face looks as though it has been forced through a mangle before being sutured back on to her skull”. / There are times when this lapses into manic self-parody: “They roosted up the masts dropping guano on the famished, and the faithful are wading in faeryshite yet: they were gusted across the billows by the reeking breath above them as it roared the oratorios of vengeance.” This sounds like a mixture of blarney and Dylan Thomas on a bad day. Yet the lapses are remarkably rare. Redemption Falls is a major work of modern fiction from an astonishingly accomplished writer.’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library,“Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Max Byrd, ‘Wild Wild Lit’, review of Redemption Fall, in New York Times [Sunday Book Review] (25 Nov. 2007): ‘Joseph O’Connor, an Irish novelist and playwright, is best known in this country for Star of the Sea, a remarkable and affecting novel set on a passenger ship traveling from Ireland to America in the winter of 1847, at the height of the great potato famine. In Redemption Falls, he has kept many of the novelistic techniques he used so well in the earlier book - multiple points of view, letters, fictional documents and pseudo-authorial footnotes. But while “Star of the Sea” gained power from its disciplined compression of setting and the linear clarity of the voyage, this new book sprawls across a vague, unmapped space that resembles mid-19th-century Montana and has no more linear clarity than a swatted beehive. [...] One of the purposes of literature is, as Dr. Johnson said, to bring realities to mind, but no one is likely to mistake these characters for actual people. This is partly because - a considerable mistake in a historical novel - their actions are so detached from historical particulars. But it’s mostly because on virtually every page O’Connor’s hyperkinetic prose throws up a dancing screen of rhetoric that obscures both plot and character. / This style can be memorable: on a hot road Eliza “blisters in sunroar” and “the land unspools like a painted diorama.” It can also be very funny: “Cows enstalled, staring like a row of nuns.” And Eliza’s stream-of-consciousness observations can even be strangely poetic: “Burnt cotton in the air. And rooks. And scorched banknotes. Strange confetti, those gallowsblack angels.” [...] “Oh rocks!” says Molly Bloom, drumming her fingers in impatience. “Tell us in plain words.” (End; for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Ursula K. Le Guin, review of Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor, in The Guardian [Sat.] (19 June 2010). ‘[...] Joseph O’Connor mostly doesn’t get inside Synge’s head because it is Molly’s head he’s in. Synge is seen almost entirely through her eyes: a sick man and a strange one, aloof and tormented, though, to her, worth all the love and grief she spends on him. / Molly Allgood – Maire O’Neill was her stage name – was the first Pegeen in the stormy first performances of The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre in 1907. Later she played in a few movies, and died in obscurity, at 67, in 1952. The major part of the novel follows Molly’s stream of consciousness as an old woman living alone in London, drinking a great deal too much, just short of outright beggary, making her way towards an engagement at BBC Radio. As she slowly navigates the London streets she remembers better days in Ireland and America. The novel’s theme is the one Yeats borrowed from Ronsard: “When you are old and grey and full of sleep” – the old woman treasuring the memories of the young poet who loved her in her beauty. It’s a fine theme for a romance. / I had trouble following it, however, because the writing is so conscious, so over-tactical.’ (for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Nicholas Lezard, review of Joseph O’Connor, ed., Irish Short Stories (London: Faber), in the Guardian (19 March 2011): ‘[...] O’Connor’s introduction is interesting. He would like, it appears, the category of “Irish” to be even more generously inclusive than it is for the national football team: “it’s a particular regret that these pages don’t include a story by an immigrant to Ireland from the developing world.” They might, though, be put off from turning up at Dublin airport by reading some of the stories here. They might judge the mood of the country to be a touch gloomy, and even when the nation’s woes are not alluded to, gloom is one of the short story’s favourite modes./ Irish writers have worked hard to escape from the shadow of Joyce and Beckett and they can be said to have succeeded here (with the caveat that any carefully crafted and piercing-eyed story set in the capital is bound to recall something from Dubliners). This is not, I am afraid, necessarily a good thing. For a start it means, particularly in the case of Beckett-evasion, that a certain mad wit will not be popping up. O’Connor has other concerns. “Ireland is still a country, for all its innumerable shames, where the empathies involved in the sharing of a story are valued for their possibilities of hope and healing,” he writes. Putting established and new writers in the same book, he adds, “is to raise at least the possibility that we can walk from the tomb of sordor that several of these stories rail against”./ I must admit that, when I read those words, my heart sank a little bit [...].’ (See full text - online; accessed 6.1.2013.)

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Lucy Scholes, review of Where Have You Been, in The Independent [UK] (7 Nov. 2012): ‘[...] “Two Little Clouds“ reintroduces Eddie Virago, first encountered heading for London with his electric guitar in O’Connor’s 1991 debut, Cowboys and Indians, now back in Dublin in 2007 “flogging flats for a living” with a wife and kids. In “Orchard Street, Dawn”, set in New York in 1869, a husband and wife tell their children stories of their crossings to America from Ireland. [...] Loss is a familiar presence. A grieving mother is described as ‘embrittled, scooped-out, she walks as in a dream, her eyes grown sore from tears”. An abandoned husband is transformed into “a man of timetables, neurotically filled schedules”: one of the many “fruits of his despair”. O’Connor’s pin-sharp descriptions are beautifully contrasted with the stark simplicity of the stories, but he teaches a masterclass in what’s better left unspoken, whether the death of a child too raw to detail, or the story of a mother “too painful to tell here”. Individually these stories are quietly unassuming gems; together, a powerful ode to modern Ireland.’ (See full text - online; accessed 22.11.2012.)

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Quotations
‘The most important thing I would learn in school was that almost everything I would learn in school would be utterly useless. When I was fifteen I knew the principal industries of the Ruhr Valley, the underlying causes of World War One and what Peig Sayers had for her dinner every day...What I wanted to know when I was fifteen was the best way to chat up girls. That is what I still want to know. ‘ (The Secret World of the Irish Male by Joseph O’Connor; quoted in Irish Culture and Customs, online - 23.03.2010.)

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Cowboys and Indians (1991): ‘He tried to feel the way an emigrant is supposed to feel. Sentimental songs and snatches of poetry drifted like remembered smells into his consciousness and then eluded him. And thoughhe was vaguely aware of the thousands of petulant Paddies who had crossed the same stretch of sea over the decades, and over the centuries too, he couldn’t actually feel … Pain, loneliness, isolation, they were just words. (p.6; cited in Aidan Arrowsmith, ‘Debating Diasporic Identity: Nostalgia (Post) Nationalism, Critical Traditionalism’, Irish Studies Review, August 1999, p.176.); Further, ‘Oh yeah, the Great Irish Novel, jesus man, a computer could write that. A bit of motherlove, a touch of suppressed lust, a soupcon of masochistic Catholic guilt, a bit of token Britbashing, whole shitloads of limpid eyes and flared nostrils and sweaty Celtic thighs, all wrapped up in a sauce of snotgreen Joycean wank.’ (p.137; quoted in Gerry Smyth, The Novel and the Nation: Studies in New Irish Fiction, London: Pluto 1997, cp.12.)

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The Secret World of the Irish Male (1994): ‘The “war” is not Ireland’s central drama. Ireland’s central drama is - and always has been - the conflict between private life and public fantasy [...] maybe this new concentration on the dignity of the individual lives is what is so powerful - and so profoundly political - in the work of the new Irish writers which my correspondent so roundly chastises’ (p.139; quoted in Gerry Smyth, op. cit., pp.17-18). Further: ‘Britain is still, sadly, one of the most racist societies in Western Europe. And the Irish are still the people the English understand the least.’ (‘The Write Stuff’, in The Secret World of the Irish Male, 1994, p.162). ‘You’ll all be familiar with the concept of the newman, I’m sure. Like communism, it’s a great idea in theory but it just doesn’t work in practice.’ (The Irish Male At Home and Abroad, London: Minerva 1996, p.127; quoted Yolanda Gonzalez Monalo, IASIL 1999.) ‘Ireland is an idea with many histories’ (p.148); [the young writers] ‘really the first pure middle-class generation in Ireland’ (p.139).

Emigrant life: ‘[The absence] of the first person texts of Irish emigrant life in the latter part of the last century and the earlier part of this [has ended since the 1960s]. Further: ‘[Modern Ireland] greater than its borders, no longer the disconnected Island that it only became in the early years of semi-independence’ (Joseph O’Connor, Introduction, in Bolger, ed., Ireland in Exile (1994), pp.14-17.)

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Holy Trinity?: ‘Wherever two or three Irish-American literary academics are gathered, the names of Seán O’Faolain, and Liam O’Flaherty and Frank O’Connor are reverently invoked like some sort of latter day Holy Trinity.’ ([Quoted], in Intro., David Marcus, ed ., Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, 1995, pp.10-11.)

Trinity News: ‘I Think I’ll Always Use Humour’, interview with Joseph O’Connor in Trinity News (April 2000), contains quoted remarks: ‘I guess these days I would prefer writing novels [to columns], I don’;t do that much journalism anymore. I stopped writing in the Tribune about two years ago now and I have to say I don’t miss it much. There is a third collection of the Irish Male books, the “funny stuff” that’s gonna come out next year and that’s definitely going to be the last of those. [...]. Further, of fiction-writing: ‘You never know what you’re doing.’ Interviewer remarks that, in person, O’Connor ‘somewhat resembles Sweet Liberty [... in] his travelogue of his journey through America’s towns’ and records that when O’Connor went to America to cover the World Cup for the Tribune, that Dermot Bolger encouraged him to make a book of the travel articles he wrote there.O’Connor is currently occupied in adapting his novels for films. Interviewer narrates a story of on-duty Irish soldiers caught laughing at an O’Connor book in the Lebanon: ‘so funny they could kill you!’ (p.15.)

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Stranded in Sierra Leone: If you can’t find your own story [...] write someone else’s’, in The Guardian (Sat., Jan. 10, 2004) [relates copying John McGahern story]: ‘All writers have the story they will tell for ever, the paradigm they will go on repeating, consciously or not, until they run out of disguises and start again, or find their own way of seeing the world. I found my story in “Sierra Leone”. Every fiction I’ve begun has been an attempted reaching-back to that heart-stopping moment of first encountering John McGahern. A desire as doomed as any in the history of love stories. But you could spend your time chasing worse. [...] I felt that the act of writing would make the words somehow mine. But, if so, it was literary adultery. I ached to know what that feeling was like: to write out something beautiful from beginning to end. I suppose it was the equivalent of an aspiring pop star strumming a tennis racket in front of the mirror. But I’m fairly sure it was also something else. Perhaps this is what lies at the heart of the will to read: the desire for intense communion with words we love. Not just with what they say, but with the words themselves. Perhaps every reader is rewriting the story. [...] Steadily, the balance continued to tilt. The pub was cut, the couple aged; soon they were married and then divorced. Slowly, gradually, over the years of my adolescence, every trace of McGahern disappeared from the text. Sierra Leone had become Glenageary. The story was no good now, but at least it was mine. / All writers have the story they will tell for ever, the paradigm they will go on repeating, consciously or not, until they run out of disguises and start again, or find their own way of seeing the world. I found my story in “Sierra Leone”. Every fiction I’ve begun has been an attempted reaching-back to that heart-stopping moment of first encountering John McGahern. A desire as doomed as any in the history of love stories. But you could spend your time chasing worse.’

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Dream-come-true: “When I started writing”, he says, “I used to get the trade magazine The Bookseller, and it would have figures for writers like John Grisham whose books sold, say, 12,000 copies a week. And I remember thinking that it couldn’t actually be true. No book would sell that many copies. Then I remember thinking that no book I would write was ever going to sell that many copies. So when it happened, it was dream-come-true territory. I sat at the computer looking at the figures. Star of the Sea started the day at number 360 or something like that, and just went up and up. Then it became clear that it was going to go to number one.” The novel became a runaway bestseller. “The whole experience has been brilliant fun, and I wish every writer could have it once in their writing life; and if it never happens to me again, I don’t mind.” / He didn’t, he insists, set out to repeat the trick with Redemption Falls. (See Arminta Wallace, ‘Escapades in Irish America’, interview with Joseph O’Connor, in The Irish Times (28 April 2007), “Weekend” [full text, infra].

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Last things: contribution to ‘Some novel ways to end on a high’, compiled by Sinéad Gleeson, in The Irish Times (10 July 2010), Weekend Review [with Jon McGregor, Tana French, Hugo Hamilton, et al.]: ‘I wrote the closing lines of my current novel, Ghost Light, many months before I completed the book. I’ve often changed a last line in the hope of improving it. But once I decide on it, some version of it nearly always stays. It’s useful to have something more or less unchangeable to aim at. I think the last line of a story should be a beginning, not an end. It should at least leave open the possibility that something fundamental has changed for the characters and that they find themselves in a new world, perhaps unprepared. If the last line truly ends the book, it kills it. / The last line of my novel Redemption Falls carries a major revelation that retrospectively changes everything about the book, but generally I think such a late detonation is better avoided. Of course, there’s a wonderfully cheap pleasure to be got from a sort of heavy-metal ending, the literary equivalent of the two-minute-long repeated thrashing power-chord climax before you set the guitars on fire and stalk from the stage, but it’s nearly always wrong. / When I was 16 I read a novel I absolutely loved, and I can still remember the shimmering pleasure its last line gave. From Dickens’s Great Expectations: “I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”’ (p.8.)

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An Appeal to the Sages of the Snug’, in The Irish Times (20 March 2010), Weekend, p.9: ‘The recent debate about contemporary Irish fiction has been like certain other recent debates in Ireland: some sensible things have been said, some daft things have been said, and one or two things have been said that are little more than the scattergun vituperations of pub bores with internet connections. / If some of the bitter denouncers of contemporary Irish writing would descend from the Olympus of fine-spun thought and deign to venture into the Fiction section of their local bookshops, they would see dozens of stories about the era through which we have just passed, written by authors of formidable commitment and skill. And perhaps if such sages gave support rather than an ice-bucket in the face, we wouldn’t have Irish bookstores going out of business. [...] Fascinating things are happening in Ireland’s recent fiction. They shouldn’t be exaggerated or subjected to false hope. Nor should we replace one set of fantasies of ourselves with another that is only an inversion of the first one. All those caveats accepted, all those reservations acknowledged, the fact remains that in storytelling, in fiction and music, in the images of our playwrights, in our people’s valuing of the written word, we have possibilities that are deeply valuable as we face the coming years. They might help us come home to ourselves.’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Molly’s A Pushy Gal’, interview with Joseph O’Connor, in Books Ireland (Summer 2010), p.130 [full-page with port.] - quotes: ‘[...] I don’t think I really learnt how to write a novel until I wrote Star of the Sea, [...] The books before that each have their own merits, but that was the first time I felt completely in control of the novel-writing process. I knew the story and the characters inside out and it changed the way I think about books. Initially I just loved writing, was maybe a little infatuated with the process, but with Starof theSea I realised there were only so many books I was going to write, and there are enough mediocre books out there, so I’ better put a drop of my lifeblood into each one. / Writing doesn’t get any easier, but you get better at it. You don’t walk up and down Dun Laoghaire pier waiting for the muse to strike. It’s a serious commitment, more like being married than being in love. There are days when everything is going well and you feel blessed, and there are days when you think you’ve make a terrible mistake. / The secret of writing fiction is to put yourself in the reader’s position. What would the reader like you to do in this paragraph? You don’t have to do what they want, you can tease them or completely subvert the story. But you have to write with the purpose of being read.’ [End.]

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Notes
True Believers (1991), together with title story [in which the father cannot redirect his life after his wife, the narrator’s mother, leaves, because of ‘the solid and lonely beat of his true believing heart’]; ‘Class Houses’; Secret World [ &c] (1994) includes ‘Conversations on a Homecoming’ [‘to be inside would mean that you had become a follower rather than a leader, swamped by the blancmange of sogginess. So I’m very happy to still strike an attitude.’ p.200].

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Cowboys and Indians (1991): ‘ Middle-class hero Eddie Virago arrives in London, armed with his Mohican haircut, his electric guitar, his enormous ego and tremendous good looks. meets Marion Mangan, a tough customer from Donegal, on the boat; throws up on her, they make out, and a romance is born; settled in a cheap hotel run by a sympathetic Indian who gives Marion a job; Eddie finds work wholesaling rubbish bags; lured away from his starter-band after pub-land success; musical career goes nowhere; sacked from his job; decides to abandon Marion; gangs up with Salome Wilde, a chic acquaintance from college, and learns that his manager is a dreamer and a thief; plans to apologize to Marion but finds she has gone home and married. Kirkus Reviews: “Vivid, acid-etched details of the London scene in the 80’s, with the mixed blessing of having Irish roots deftly handled - but the conventionality of the story keeps it from being the saga of a new lost generation it might have been. A promising near-miss.’ (See COPAC, online; accessed 04.07.2011.) Note: Miramax was due to bring Cowboys and Indians to public screens in 1995 but afterwards extended to 1996.

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Desperadoes (1994), a dysfunctional Irish family (the Littles), separated following loss of still-born son, go to Nicaragua, where their son, who has been physically abused by his insecure mother, has been arrested, presumed dead, and then located in prison; forced to confront their past, they come to the realisation that ‘the beauty of love was so bound up with its cruelty that sometimes these things come together’ (p.268). Called ‘an intelligent thriller that attempts to explore the way in which children always remain a mystery to the people who raise them.’ (New Statesman) (See COPAC, online; accessed 04.07.2011.)

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Red Roses and Petrol (Project Arts 1995), dir. Jim Culletin in which her children return from New York and London to join a mother at funeral of their father Enda; the father’s secrets, the children’s grudges, the mother’s love.

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Inishowen (2000): Cynical and disenchanted Inspector Martin Aitken is a recent divorcé when he happens on a collapsed woman in the street on Christmas Eve - the last thing he needs. The woman, Ellen Donnelly, was abandoned as a baby and has come to Ireland to find her mother and escape her unfaithful husband, Milton Amery, who is is a worn-out New York plastic surgeon. All three of their roads leads to Inishowen. The lives of each are transfigured by their visit but it’s the place - Inishowen - that carries the story. (See COPAC and Kirkus Review, online.)

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Ghost Light (2010): An autumn day in 1952; elderly Irish actress Molly Allgood makes her way to the BBC through windswept streets marked by the hurricane of the night before; memories of blackout and blitz, and recollections of Broadway; she rehearses scenes from her doomed courtship with John Millington Synge (unnamed); moves between sepia-tinted Edwardian Dublin and a Lower East-side Manhattan in the 1920s, from hunger in London’s West End to the elegant theatres of San Francisco; a love story, a tale of journeys, and a powerful meditation on the hope to be found in the everyday, loosely based on real events, using using letters, lyrics, scraps from contemporary guidebooks, and even a hilarious one-act play in which her lover John Millington Synge meets her senile grandmother. (See COPAC online; accessed 03.07.2011; also notice by Arminta Wallace, in The Irish Times, 19 March 2011, Weekend, p.13.)

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