By Róisín Berry, Archivist, MU Library
Whether writing a blog post, a short story, or a novel, the creative process of each writer is unique and can vary from project to project. One of the most exciting aspects of being an archivist is examining how a work of literature can evolve, from a few scribbled notes on a scrap of paper to a final published work. This process can involve the development of themes, characters, timelines, and revisions, supported often by extensive research and fact-checking. Understanding this process can provide researchers with a much richer experience of a writer and their work.
In 2018, Maynooth University Library was fortunate enough to acquire a fascinating letter written by writer Seán Ó Faoláin (1900-1991). The four-page document reveals how Ó Faoláin researched the main character, Jack Cornfield, for his short story ‘Liberty’ published in a collection of his work, Foreign Affairs and Other Stories in 1976. Ó Faoláin was regarded as one of Ireland’s leading short-story writers at the time. Not confined to fiction, he also produced travelogues, literary criticisms, and historical biographies. The letter is dated 24th February 1973 and is addressed to Dr Burke, who appears to be a mental health professional. In the document, Ó Faoláin describes his short story character, Cornfield, and outlines plot lines for the story, requesting that the doctor assess their feasibility. Cornfield is a patient in a psychiatric asylum, and the fictional story revolves around his relationships, sanity, and freedom.
Ó Faoláin notes in his letter that the story is based on the memory of a man who used to sit outside the psychiatric asylum in Cork. He recalls him on fine days sitting outside the front gate on the low wall backing on to the fields above the River Lee, chatting with anybody who passed. Ó Faoláin mentions his wife knowing him a little as a girl, her father having worked in the asylum at the time, and notes ‘between them they gave me the image of a quiet and cultivated and gentlemanly sort of chap.’ With this ‘meagre memory,’ Ó Faoláin describes how he has invented a history for Cornfield to ‘explain why this apparently sane chap was there and what he may have been through.’
In the document, Ó Faoláin asks Dr Burke specific questions as he attempts to create a plausible backstory for his character, which includes a violent attack on his wife and the potential repercussions. He enquires ‘Here is the first practical q.:- She commits him to asylum. Is this possible? Or was it ever? But she agrees later that he be sent at her expense to a private mental clinic (? Right word?).’ He also observes ‘No least sign of instability has been given by Cornfield since he was first committed. Yet he continues in the public asylum year after year, tacitly recognised as harmless…and bit by bit he achieves so much respect…that he also achieves this liberty, and virtual equality so that he can wander about the grounds, stroll outside the gates, sit on the wall outside, smoke and chat.’
Ó Faoláin observes ‘I am sure you must be chuckling at all these complications and I rather feel myself that so many would bend the credibility of the story.’ He refers to the boyhood image of this patient sitting happily outside the asylum in the sun writing verses and reading books that has stayed with him for fifty years, concluding ‘…as I don’t know his story I am obsessed by the wish to invent it. I suspect I’ve been too inventive.’
An enthralling insight into an artistic mind at work. For further information on our Seán Ó Faoláin collection, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org