Places: A Nest of Simple Folk

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1933

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional

Time of work: 1854-1916

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*County Limerick

*County Nest of Simple Folk, ALimerick. County in southwest Ireland, four farms of which are central to O’Faoláin’s family saga, which centers on the age-old struggle to control land. O’Faoláin demonstrates how land, or a lack of land, really, can cause deep family strife because it remains central to Irish survival. The underlying historical cause of contention, which turns family members into enemies, results from Great Britain’s historical colonization of Ireland. As the cultivation of large estates by British landowners left fewer acres for Ireland’s own people to cultivate, and as the Irish population increased, families were pushed to the breaking point to survive.


Bawnrea. Farm into which the novel’s central character, Leo Foxe-Donnel, is born. When his mother, Judith Foxe, marries his father, Long John O’Donnell, she marries down socially from the local estate house, Foxehall. While Long John welcomes his new bride, he welcomes her land, Ahill Farm, even more and mortgages it immediately so he can buy a third farm, New Plot. Ignoring his older brother’s birthright, his mother makes sure that her youngest son, Leo, will inherit the best land. Leo, however, squanders his chances at education, preferring to drink, chase women, and father illegitimate children. Because Leo is privileged, he makes enemies of his brothers, who must spend their life on poorer land, barely scraping out subsistence livings to provide dowries for their seven sisters. While Leo spreads his wild oats, they must postpone marriage until they are in their fifties or sixties. Leo is saved as a character because he harbors a deep resentment against Britain. During the Fenian uprising, he shoots a man, spends ten years in jail, and thereby loses his land to his hard-working brother.


*Rathkeale. Town in County Limerick to which the older Leo gravitates after he has lost his land. There, O’Faoláin demonstrates that even though it might not seem related, occurrences on the land deeply influence events in the town. The parish priest forces Leo to marry Julie from Ahill Farm, with whom he has fathered two illegitimate children and started a shop in Rathkeale. In the town, the man from the country clandestinely continues his rebel activities. His wife’s sister Bid becomes involved with an Irish policeman, Johnny Hussey, employed under the jurisdiction of the British crown. All have been forced off the land in County Limerick, and although they get along well on the surface, political conflict arises between Leo, who represents victimized Ireland, and Johnny who represents imperial England. Intent on moving up by becoming a sergeant, Johnny spies upon Leo’s patriotic activities, informs his superiors, and has him returned to prison.


*Cork. Irish city in which the family settles after Johnny is transferred from Rathkeale. His wife’s sister Julie and Leo move there after Leo’s release from prison. Now old and seemingly enfeebled, Leo starts another shop and becomes a bookie, which aids him ultimately in revenge against his traitor brother-in-law, who illegally plays horses. The family’s agony in its efforts to reconcile the past on the land is passed down to the third generation: Leo’s illegitimate son, another Irish patriot, and Johnny’s artistic-hearted son, Denis. Johnny and Bid, intent at any cost to forget their peasant beginnings on the land, relentlessly force Denis to enter the priesthood, or to rise financially in the world.

BibliographyBonaccorso, Richard. Seán O’Faoláin’s Irish Vision. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1987. A survey of the main phases of O’Faoláin’s career. Evaluates A Nest of Simple Folk in that career. Analysis of the novel concentrates on its treatment of individuality. Includes a comprehensive bibliography.Doyle, Paul A. Seán O’Faoláin. New York: Twayne, 1968. A general introductory survey of all O’Faoláin’s writings. Discussion of A Nest of Simple Folk deals with its sense of historical context and its narrative development. Contains a chronology and a bibliography.Harmon, Maurice. Seán O’Faoláin: A Critical Introduction. 2d ed. Dublin: Wolfhound, 1984. An insightful overview of O’Faoláin’s career. Discusses his contributions to Irish intellectual life and his major works. Evaluation of A Nest of Simple Folk is guided by a sense of the conflict between the individual and society in O’Faoláin’s novels. Includes an extensive bibliography.O’Brien, Conor Cruise. “The Parnellism of Seán O’Faoláin.” In Maria Cross: Imaginative Patterns in a Group of Catholic Writers. 2d ed. London: Burns and Oates, 1963. Intellectually sophisticated, culturally wide-ranging, critically incisive analysis of certain key features in O’Faoláin’s major works, among them history, tradition, and memory. Assesses how these shape the narrative of, and constitute authorial identity in, A Nest of Simple Folk.O’Faoláin, Seán. Vive Moi! London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965. The author’s autobiography. Presents prototypes of the landscape, characters, and rural sensibility featured in A Nest of Simple Folk. The contrast between fictional and autobiographical perspectives is critically revealing.
Categories: Places