Frank O'Connor's Fish For Friday: A Revolutionary Cod
Frank O’Connor, born Michael O’Donovan in Cork in 1903, is a writer who resides close to the hearts of Irish people simply because, for very many of us, his short story 'First Confession' was our first brush with great literature.
A boy of seven, searching for his bearings in the pitch dark of a confessional, locates the shelf where penitent adults might rest their elbows. He imagines the shelf is for kneeling on and clambers up, telling us he was always a competent climber, from which height he must hang upside down in order to address the bemused priest behind the grille.
As a child of ten or so, I pitched off my school chair in hysterical relief that I wasn’t alone in my fear of mortal sin, or mortal embarrassment, within the shady confines of the confession box. In his autobiography, An Only Child, O’Connor wrote:
‘I was always very fond of heights and afterwards it struck me that reading was only another form of height and a more perilous one. It was a way of looking beyond your own backyard into your neighbour’s.’
O’Connor’s writing gave the world an honest look inside Ireland’s backyard but for Irish people, eventually, it gave us a revelatory bird’s eye view of ourselves. It might have done so sooner had so much of it not been banned in Ireland.
A little advertised fact is that Michael O’Donovan himself worked as a censor during the Irish civil war. He was placed by the IRA into the offices of the pro-treaty newspaper, The Cork Examiner, where his task was to tilt the newspaper’s content towards a more Republican attitude. O’Donovan’s seven week stint at the front line of propaganda ended when The Irish Free State Army captured Cork from the IRA in August 1922. The writer was then interned until December 1923.
The newborn Irish Free State, shaped largely by the Catholic Church, was not a nurturing place for contemporary Irish writers. President Eamon de Valera felt that the Arts were to be encouraged so long as they observed and upheld the 'holiest traditions'. New laws were introduced to ban any publication deemed indecent or obscene. A Committee on Evil Literature was appointed and the Register of Prohibited Publications in Ireland eventually numbered over 12,000 books including those of Salinger, Hemingway and Irish Nobel Laureates Beckett and Shaw.
So that he might retain his independence as a writer and his job as a librarian, O’Donovan adopted the pseudonym Frank O’Connor, taking his mother’s maiden name.
Frank O’Connor saw five of his books banned and was effectively exiled to the United States to escape the restraints of life in Ireland.
In America, he continued to campaign against censorship which he said represented ‘the determination to get at sex by hook or by crook. Sex is bad, books encourage sex, babies deter it, so keep books out and give them lots of babies...’
O’Connor published more than fifty stories in The New Yorker magazine, among them Fish for Friday which was written in 1957.
The story begins on a Friday morning when 42 year-old Ned McCarthy is thrown into a philosophical tailspin by the news of the impending birth of his third child (or possibly fourth, ‘you lose count after a while, don’t you?’). Ned is dispatched to fetch the doctor but the words ‘there’s no immediate hurry’ grant him leave to tarry awhile at first one public house, and then another and, would you credit it, even a third. Tom Hurley, proprietor of the first establishment, recalls the revelry of the night Ned’s first child was born but Ned isn’t feeling the joy this time round. He’s feeling decrepit and certain that Nature has somehow got the better of him. He’s feeling duped,
‘Like when you fall in love and think you’re getting first prize in the lottery, while all the time it’s only Nature’s way of putting you on the spot.’
Larry Cronin, who happily ‘married into’ ownership of the second pub, is an old comrade of Ned’s from their revolutionary days. Larry is content with his lot, sporting the same smile he wore on the day he ‘threw a Mills bomb into a lorry of soldiers.’ Ned would feel happier now, more alive, were he lobbing bombs – he would feel brave then, manly even.
Instead, he finds his brave comrades no longer have the courage even to defy the church’s rule restricting them to fish for dinner on Fridays. However much they don’t like fish, have been sickened by it, 'turned inside out’ by it, or can’t even stand the smell of it, it’s the rule and that’s that. Colonial subjugation had been efficiently replaced by religious fundamentalism.
‘Not one man in that flying column is having meat for his dinner today.’
As younger men they might have rebelled. One of them, once, was resourceful enough to recite the Our Father the wrong way in order to convince a waitress he was a Protestant, that she might give him a bit of bacon on a Friday – a sin so grave, mind you, that it would require sending for the bishop were his wife ever to hear about it.
‘And now our lives are run for us by women the way they were when we were kids.’
Women, somehow, were in cahoots with the church. Should they perceive any flouting of the rules they’d likely report your sin in confession.
‘But that’s a way Life has,’ he said oracularly. ‘You think you’re seeing it, and it turns out it was somewhere else all the time. Like women; the girl you lose is the one that could have made you happy. Or revolutions; you always fought the wrong battle.’
I read on in the hope that Ned would find enlightenment at the bottom of a glass. Alas, not. He ends worse than he began, with a load of misogynistic claptrap, going so far as to suggest that his wife would be as pleased to receive a bag of fish as a bunch of flowers ,
‘Whether it is or not she’ll take it as kindly meant,’ said Martin. ‘The same as flowers. Women in this country don’t seem to be able to distinguish between them.’
But really, was it any wonder that we, as a nation, took against eating fish.
Our women, stripped of any measure of control over their fertility, were brainwashed into obedience. There was no questioning of the rules. To question, to show any doubt, would have been as grave a sin as to push your fish knife between the ribs of your local parish priest. This, after all, was what all the fighting had been for, so we had damned well better put a bit of butter on it and eat it up. Ireland is a country where faith and patriotism were conflated, a country with a Patron Saint’s Day in place of an Independence Day. And so, whole towns would reek of fish on Friday evenings, every house waving their olfactory flag of allegiance to Mother Church.
‘I’ll eat it because I’m damned with a sense of duty, and I don’t want to get Kitty into trouble with the neighbours but please God, I’ll see one more revolution before I die, even if I swing for it.’
Frank O’Connor campaigned against censorship and defied it by writing the truth about Ireland until his death in 1966. The following year saw the beginning of reform to Irish censorship laws.
A Revolutionary Cod.
‘The spirit of the revolution, Jack- that’s what it’s come to.’
I should declare myself as an Irish, Catholic Mammy who cooks fish for her family most Friday evenings. Now that the whiff of obligation had faded, it pleases me to continue a tradition. Tradition, I find, leaves room for bending the rules in a way that religion did not.
It’s unfortunate, I think, that fish still has an air of abstinence about it. Fish is regarded as something we eat when we are being good, because fish is healthy, nutritious, low in fat and good for us.
This fish dish is good but hardly virtuous, smothered in a luscious, sinfully rich sauce and adorned with sneaky morsels of forbidden bacon.
This recipe is easily adapted to feeding any number of diners. You may bake a whole tray of cod for a revolutionary party or prepare a single portion for when you rebel alone. Half portions, baked on scallop shells, make an excellent starter.
For each person:
1 fillet of cod
1 oz (30g) bacon bits or pancetta.
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
3 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 spring onion, chopped
2 oz (60g) cheddar cheese, grated
Preheat your oven to 180˚C (350 F).
Place the fish fillets in an appropriately sized oven proof dish.
Mix the sauce ingredients together and spread the mixture over the fish fillets.
Sprinkle the bacon bits (or pancetta) on top.
Bake for 20 minutes until the bacon is crisp and the sauce is bubbling.
Half portions cooked in scallop shells will be ready in 12-15 minutes.
Serve with white or brown rice, or buttery new potatoes, and/or garlic bread.