‘Legal Aid’ by Frank O’Connor

Legal Aid by Frank O’Connor, 1951

The magic trick:

Focusing on what is a petty fight between ordinary families to highlight the absurdities of Irish society at large

In eight swift pages, O’Connor crushes mid-century Irish society, its religion, law and petty obsession with class and reputation. And it’s funny, too!

It’s a pretty simple concept. Focus on the lives and actions of the most ordinary people in Ireland. But do so in a way that takes their problems and mistakes incredibly seriously. Write about their lives like they are the most important people in the world. Make the stakes out to be monumental.

The effect is twofold: one, it’s respectful. Just because they are not kings or queens does not mean we shouldn’t care about them, obviously. The stakes are not important on a global scale, but they mean the world to the people involved. This is just authorial kindness. But the second effect is one that is less generous and more critical. By writing about their petty concerns – particularly the obsession with reputation – you turn a judgmental eye on their society.

The life of a laborer’s daughter and a farmer’s son was never going to be easy. But, boy, they make it a lot harder on themselves than need be. And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part. 

The selection:

“Merciful God Almighty!” moaned Cooper, turning his eyes to the ceiling. “As if any responsible Irish court would put that price on a girl’s virtue. Still, it might be as well. I’ll see what I can do.”

He moved ponderously across the court and with two big arms outstretched like wings shepherded out the Flynns.

“Two hundred and fifty pounds?” gasped Ned, going white. “Where in God’s name would I get that money?”

“My dear Mr. Flynn,” Cooper said with coarse amiability, “that’s only half the yearly allowance his Lordship makes the young lady that obliges him, and she’s not a patch on that girl in court. After a lifetime of experience I can assure you that for two years’ fornification with a fine girl like that you won’t pay a penny less than five hundred.”

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