The burden of innocence
The vividly lifelike stories of Frank O’Connor (1903–1966) did not come to him fully formed. In this previously undocumented piece, we glimpse him at work in the early nineteen-fifties. The text occupies a few handwritten pages in one of the lawyer’s brief books he liked to use. O’Connor’s notebooks contain versions of stories, essays, and translations that he eventually completed as well as work in progress he intended to revisit. ‘The Burden of Innocence’, although not fully developed, is complete, a psychologically astute miniature; O’Connor might have called it a ‘treatment’, a term he sometimes used for such pieces. He was often characterized as anticlerical, but this piece is gently amused rather than polemical, depicting a world where generosities of spirit were possible. Although much of O’Connor’s fiction is based on verifiable incidents, no one should assume that he was the little boy in search of sin described here: his work always transforms the source material rather than taking it whole. I am grateful to his widow, Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, a diligent archivist, for allowing me to read her husband’s notebooks and for deciphering some passages in his sometimes cryptic script.—Michael Steinman
When I was a kid I lived in unholy dread of Confession. Saturday after Saturday I had to wash my face, put on a clean collar, and go all the way down to the big dark echoing church in the lower row, say my prayers and then sit in a bench beside a lot of other people. Old men, old women, young women and kids, and instantly distraction would begin. There were two confessionals, one at each side of the priest’s box, and I studied the numbers at either side – and the layout of each priest’s confessional. With a child’s cunning I knew that this didn’t really tell you anything. A priest that had only two penitents waiting might get rid of them both in a hurry and go for a stroll in the sunlight. On the other hand, he might have two penitents only because he was a cross, cantankerous man who would keep you there all day. The priest with the twenty penitents ranged at either side of his box might be an easy-going man, who wouldn’t bother to listen to what you were saying, or he might be a very holy man, much sought after by pious old ladies because he would listen to their troubles with husbands or lodgers, and you could be there until darkness fell. Then there was the sheer misery on a fine summer evening of sly fellows who had come in hours after you, as it seemed, tiptoeing away out the church with a sidelong glance at you.
My trouble was that I was trying to defeat the whole damn organization, and it took all my cunning and resourcefulness to do it without having to plot how I was to avoid being kept there all day as well. The woman who had prepared us for our First Communion had told us reverently about the great Pope who had made it possible to receive the sacraments regularly, and told us about the bad old days when even grown-ups never went to Confession except at Easter; and I looked back on those as the great days of the Church. Once a year would have done me fine, because the fact was that I never committed any sins at all. And this wasn’t altogether complacency on my part. I had read those commandments till I knew them backwards. And I’d never done a thing that could have offended the writer of them. If these were all he expects of me, then he had a boy after his own heart. And it wasn’t that I didn’t fully understand them, because I’d read the passage about examination of conscience in my prayer book, and I hadn’t done any of these things either.
Take the commandment about not swearing. Father was always doing that, and every time he did I nearly died of shame. The only occasion I had ever done it was one night he was being more obstreperous than usual and I had gone alone to the darkest spot near our house and sworn and waited for God to strike me dead, and He didn’t. So I took it He shared my views of Father. The only thing I took from the whole shooting match that looked as if it might provide me with a suitable sin was the one that said ‘Honour thy father and thy mother.’ Now I did honour my mother, but nobody with a stitch of sense could possibly honour Father, and as far as I could see God shared my views of him, seeing that he didn’t strike me dead when I swore a holy oath after his saying things about me and Mother that a man shouldn’t say. There was a contradiction here, but I was never of a faithless temper and if God wanted me to say I was sorry for the things I thought about Father when He himself actually had the same opinion, I was ready to oblige. For a whole year after my first confession I never confessed to anything only that I’d been disobedient to my parents, meaning Father, but I never really believed it, and I had a strong suspicion that the priest didn’t believe it either for he never asked me a thing about it and only asked me to pray for his intention, and gave me three Hail Marys for penance.
I said off those Hail Marys still feeling a bit of a hypocrite and went out under the too bright light under the columns of the portico and promptly forgot all about it until the following week, when once again this monstrous shadow of Confession rose before me and I realized that I still hadn’t succeeded in doing anything at all. People talk about a sense of guilt, but I can assure you it’s not half as bad as the sense of innocence. It ended by giving me the feeling there really was something wrong with me. In all reasonable human beings there’s a quite natural desire to be like everybody else, and I was coming to the conclusion that I really was a bit of a freak and should do something about it. I had actually heard of a fellow who got the Rosary to say for a penance, and I worshipped him from a great distance, feeling that he at least could tell me the sort of sin I could commit that would give some reality to this fiction that I had to go through each Saturday with the growing feeling that there was something sacrilegious about it. I felt sure the priest was a decent man who was slightly disgusted with my pretence of being a sinner and would wait until I changed my confession the way that he wouldn’t notice I never had but the one sin and didn’t believe in that. I never got more than the three Hail Marys for any of them and I was becoming disgusted with the obvious lack of interest in me.
Then I heard of Maurice Reilly, who had the Book. It was said to me that if a man like Maurice got all his sins out of a book then I might as well, so I began to covet that book. Not that I wanted to be like Maurice Reilly, who had a thin face and a thin nose and was marched to Confession by his old mother who was sure he was a goldmine. Nobody really liked Maurice Reilly, but now when I met him in the street I smiled at him in an enthusiastic way. He didn’t smile back. He wasn’t a fellow who smiled. He just nodded. It was like that the time when I asked him for the Book. It seemed he couldn’t part with it. Eventually he agreed to lend it to me for an evening and even at that I am sure he only did it to collect a hundred days’ indulgences. I collected a few indulgences myself, but that fellow must have had millions of years of them saved up and wouldn’t part with a day of them to get a poor soul out of Purgatory. That showed he was a real sinner: it had an air of authenticity about it. But the Book was the business all right. It just didn’t ask you did you kill anybody. It asked did you (a) call someone names or (b) hit a boy who called you names. It didn’t ask you whether or not you bore witness against your neighbour; it asked did you blame N. for breaking the window when you’d done it yourself. I will say for the fellow who wrote it that he knew a lot about sins. It still didn’t tell me what I’d done wrong but it did at least tell me the sort of thing the priest expected to hear from me and that might make him respect me as a real sinner instead of a sham one. But the one that appealed most to me was, ‘Did you steal raisins when your mother was baking?’
For three months I was perfectly happy with my one sin. I even stopped shopping for new priests and went regularly to one young priest, leaving him if he wished to decide that I was an incurable sinner. But one day a terrible thing happened. He heard my confession and then said, ‘Tell me a sin of your past life that you’re sorry for.’ It was so quick that I didn’t even have time to think.
‘Stealing raisins, Father,’ I said.
He had me caught and I knew it by the look he gave me. He sat back in his box and I knew I was in for it.
‘You seem to be very fond of raisins.’
I said nothing to this. There wasn’t much I could say.
‘Do you confess every time you go to Confession that you stole raisins?’
‘Well, can’t you stop stealing raisins? Are you so mad on raisins that you can’t stop stealing them? Answer me.’
‘Do you give them to other children?’
‘Oh, no, Father!’ I was genuinely shocked at this, which would have been robbing my poor mother.
‘How many do you steal at a time? One or two or a box?’
‘One or two, Father.’
‘Then you’re not fond of raisins.’
‘Then why do you steal them?’
There was a pause.
‘Does your mother bake a raisin cake every week?’
‘How often does she bake one?’
‘She doesn’t bake them, Father.’
‘Then where do you steal them?’ There was a pause and suddenly his voice changed. ‘Do you mean you don’t steal raisins at all?’
‘Then why do you come to me with this rigmarole about raisins?’
‘It said it in the Book, Father.’
‘The Conscience Book, Father.’
‘Then what do you want telling me sins out of the Conscience Book for? Haven’t you any sins of your own?’
‘No, Father.’ I was humiliated as I had never been humiliated before. It was like a big boy twisting your arm and wrist till you said ‘cabbage’. I’d never said ‘cabbage’ and wanted to cry.
‘You grow more and more remarkable with every moment,’ said the priest, but he sounded more cheerful. ‘Do you ever tell lies?’
‘Oh, no, Father,’ I said earnestly.
‘Oh, don’t you? Do you never go to Confession and tell the priest you did something you never did at all like stealing raisins?’
‘But Father –’ I was horror-struck.
‘I didn’t mean it.’
‘No, but you did it, and that’s a very serious sin indeed, because not only are you telling lies to God but you’re making a fool of the priest which is very nearly blasphemy. Do you know what blasphemy is?’
‘Then for goodness sake don’t look it up in the Conscience Book. Now are you sorry for all the lies you told me?’
‘And all the time you’re after wasting on me?’
‘And you’ll never again tell a priest that you stole raisins?’
‘All right. Three Hail Marys and one Hail Mary for myself. Absolvo te …’
I went out and did my penance with real fervour. And yet when I left the church it was in a genuinely joyous mood. The burden of innocence had been lifted from me and I saw myself a sinner like everybody else, a fellow who any day might get the Rosary for penance. The experience of confessing real guilt seemed to have joined me again to the whole human race.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 26 Spring 2007