Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Figure 1: Michael John Donovan, (Frank O'Connor).
Many Irish people of a certain vintage will remember the school book Exploring English 1 and reading ‘The First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor, including the grandmother, who consumed a jar of porter and a pot of potatoes for dinner. To honour the anniversary of Frank O’Connor’s birth, this is a short commentary about his early life and that of his parents.
Figure 2: Minnie Donovan with her baby son Michael John Donovan, (Frank O'Connor).
Michael John Donovan was born in a flat over his Uncle Tim's cobbler shop at 84 Douglas Street on 17 September 1903 (from this point on I will refer to Michael as Frank O’Connor). The informant of Frank’s birth was his grand-aunt Ellen O’Connell. Frank writes in his autobiography, An Only Child, that his family were living 'over a small sweet-and-tobacco shop owned by a middle-aged lady called Wall' when he was born, consulting the 1901 census there is indeed a lady, Eliza Wall, a shopkeeper, resident at house 30, Douglas Street.
Figure 3: Guy's Street Directory 1907 showing Tim O'Connor's cobbler shop at 84 Douglas Street.
Figure 4: Birth registration of Michael Donovan (Frank O'Connor) 17 September 1903.
FRANK O'CONNOR'S PARENTS
Frank’s parents were Michael and Mary (Minnie). The couple had married on 8 October 1901. The marriage certificate notes that Minnie’s address was 84 Douglas Street and her brother's wife, Annie was bridesmaid. Although Minnie is not found at that address on the 1901 census, Ellen Connell and Annie O’Connor are noted on the census return. Minnie O'Connor can be found on the census working as a Domestic for the Campion family in Queenstown (Cobh).
Figure 5: Marriage certificate of Michael O'Donovan and Minnie O'Connor.
According to Frank, in An Only Child, his father and his mother's brother, Tim, were old friends and had been in the British army together. Frank's father was brought up close to Victoria Barracks (now Collins Barracks) in the northside of Cork City. In January 1888, at the age of nearly twenty years of age, he enlisted in the first battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. His attestation form notes that he was approximately 5 foot 10 inches, with hazel/grey eyes and several crosses tattooed on his forearms. Michael served in the Munsters from 1888 to 1901, based in Ireland, apart from a brief posting overseas in South Africa.
Figure 6: Michael O'Donovan's military record.
Minnie O'Connor, Frank's mother was brought up in the Good Shepherd convent and had 'no notion of her own age, and had never known a birthday'. She was born in 1865, eldest child of John O'Connor and Julia Corcoran. Unfortunately, her father, who worked in Arnott's Brewery died in an accident at work, and unable to cope, her mother Julia, entered Our Lady's Mental Home, whilst Minnie and her sister, Margaret, were taken in by the orphanage and her other siblings, Tim and Hanorah went to friends and family.
Figure 7: Birth registration, Mary Connor (Frank O'Connor's mother) July 1865.
According to Frank; following his birth, his family moved to Blarney Street and lived at number 251. However, Michael Donovan pined for the area of his birth as 'an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn is supposed to pine for Galway Bay'. Approximately seven years later, the family moved to Harrington's Square when a house became available next to his paternal grandparents and there the families are found on the 1911 census. Harrington's Square is located about half a kilometre from Collins Barracks. It is a large square with houses running down each side of the square. At the top of the square is Old Youghal Road and at the bottom of the square is Ballyhooly Road.
Figure 8: Residents Harrington's Avenue (Square), 1911.
Figure 9: Harrington's Square, Dillon's Cross.
Michael and Minnie O'Donovan remained at 8 Harrington's Square until Michael's death in 1942. Michael Donovan died of pneumonia and was buried in Caherlag cemetery.
Figure 10: Death certificate for Michael Donovan, 13 March 1942.
Shortly after his funeral Minnie left Cork to live permanently with Frank. For the next ten years she was reunited with her son, however, when Michael was in America teaching at Harvard and Northwestern universities, Minnie died in London.
Figure 11: Death notice for Mary (Minnie) O'Donovan.
Minnie's body was brought home by boat to Dun Laoghaire, and then by train. She was buried with her husband and his family at Caherlag. 'The big old headstone still towers over the grave today.' Neither Michael or Minnie's name is recorded and following a recent visit to the cemetery I was unable to find any gravestone with their names recorded.
Frank O'Connor died fourteen years after his mother and is buried in Dean's Grange Cemetery in Dublin.
Figure 12: Frank O'Connor's final resting place.
The 'Irish Chekhov', Frank O'Connor has left a lasting legacy to generations. Not only because of his short story writings but also his translations of Irish poetry. His autobiographies, An Only Child and My Father's Son provide stories from his life and outline life in Cork at the turn of the century. He also has written two biographies of Michael Collins and several historical and topographical accounts. Seán Ó Faoláin sums up O'Connor best when he says 'his greatest gift was his instantaneous and spontaneous perspicacity' and refreshing my memories of My First Confession, this statement is certainly appropriate. How many people can attest to this experience on their first confession:
'With the fear of damnation in my soul I went in, and the confessional door closed of itself behind me. It was pitch-dark and I couldn't see priest or anything else. Then I really began to be frightened. In the darkness it was a matter between God and me, and He had all the odds. He knew what my intentions were before I even started; I had no chance. All I had ever been told about confession got mixed up in my mind, and I knelt to one wall and said: "Bless me, father, for I have sinned; this is my first confession." I waited for a few minutes, but nothing happened, so I tried it on the other wall. Nothing happened there either. He had me spotted all right.'
 Frank O'Connor, An Only Child (London, 1961), p. 3.
 Frank O'Connor, An Only Child (London, 1961), p. 41.
 Jim McKeon, Frank O'Connor, A Life (Edinburgh, 1998), p. 12-3.
 Frank O'Connor, An Only Child (London, 1961), p. 11.
 Cork Examiner, 12 November 1952.
 Jim McKeon, Frank O'Connor, A Life (Edinburgh, 1998), p. 153.
 Irish Press, 11 March 1966.