Frank O’Connor (1903-1906) was born Michael Francis O’Connor O’Donovan. He used his mother’s maiden name when he began to publish his short stories and memoirs. “The Drunkard” appeared in 1948 and was recalled in an autobiography that appeared in 1961.
The commenting author is a former secondary school teacher and kept this marvelously funny and poignant story among his “read aloud” collection. Whether or not students had a copy of the text in front of them, he found that his oral reading with mild Irish brogue – especially in the dialogue – amused his students and seemed to make the story even more hilarious and effective.
The story begins with the speaker’s father reflecting on the sad news of the death of his friend Mr. Dooley. Father and Dooley were conversationalists. Dooley “had a low, palavering voice . . ., and Father would listen in astonishment, . . . and then stump triumphantly in to Mother with his face aglow and ask: ‘Do you know what Mr. Dooley is after telling me?’” (It is difficult to read that aloud without one’s voice being infected with Blarney.)
Mother is concerned that Father seems set upon attending Dooley’s funeral and the inevitable socializing that will follow. It would mean Father’s forfeiting half a day’s pay, but it wasn’t that she begrudged. “Drink, you see, was Father’s great weakness."
According to the young son and narrator, his father could go weeks, months, sometimes a year or two without taking a drink. At such times he would calculate the hard-earned money he saved by not sharing any with the publican. But such spiritual pride always results in some form of celebration. Maybe just one drink - “not whiskey, of course; . . . just a glass of some harmless drink like lager beer.”
And that would be the end of Father, otherwise known as Mick Delaney. After one beer he would feel he had made a fool of himself, take a second drink to forget, and a third “to forget that he couldn’t forget, and at last came home reeling drunk.” Then he would awake hung over and Mother would have to make excuses to Mick’s employers. After days of drinking and no income, Mother would take the kitchen clock, conceal it under a shawl, and take it to the pawnshop.
The pattern begins to repeat itself. Mick attends the funeral Mass in his finest clothing. He is impressed with the turnout: “Five carriages and sixteen covered cars!” But this time Mother has sent son Larry along to act as a brake on the post-Mass activity.
When Mick and Larry reach the pub, Larry asks to go home, Mick bribes him with the offer of a lemonade, then suggests he run out in the road and play. Mick gets his drink and leaves it on the bar as he reminisces about past funerals he has attended. He is unaware that Larry takes first one disappointing sip of his beer, then another that tasted better, and soon he has drained it.
Father discovers his empty glass and demands to know who has been drinking it. The old women ask if he thinks they are robbers and then look darkly at Larry, who begins to get sick. At Mick’s insistence Larry runs out to the street, bloodies his forehead on a vine- covered wall, apologizes to the wall, and gets sick some more. The shawly women assume Mick has plied his little boy with alcohol.
Read on about cold-sober Mick dragging and carrying his drunken son down Blarney Lane, the two making a sight of themselves. Larry bursts into song, calls the women bitches, and finally is tossed into bed.
Mother when she returns has heard the story over and over on her way home from shopping. She berates her husband unmercifully, but the next morning she kisses Larry and calls him her brave little man. “It was God did it you were there. You were his guardian angel.”
The story is a masterwork of irony beyond the title, which refers to both father and son. Along with the humor there are touching details such as the narrator’s speaking of “the loneliness of the kitchen without a clock.” Mick Delaney may have a serious drinking problem but he is also possessed of acute awareness of public opinion. He understands the folly of drunkenness and is more than embarrassed when he sees it, soberly, reflected in his underaged son.