First Confession Summary

Frank O’Connor

First Confession

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First Confession Summary

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“First Confession” is a short story by Irish author Frank O’Connor, first collected in the short story omnibus Traveller’s Samples in 1951. Focusing on Jackie, a young boy about to have his first confession, it tracks his fears about being condemned by the Priest—fears that are only exacerbated by the taunting of his older sister, and the fire and brimstone of his stern teacher. He goes to increasingly elaborate ends to avoid confession, only to find himself forced to go, eventually realizing he had nothing to fear. Like many of O’Connor’s tales, it is rooted in a deep Roman Catholic faith, and explores themes of childhood innocence, conflict between generations, and the fear and growth that come with maturing. Considered a classic of Irish literature and one of O’Connor’s finest stories, it is regularly taught in classes focusing on the country’s literature, and is included in several anthologies of his work.

“First Confession” begins with Jackie and his sister Nora dealing with a new arrival in their household —their grandmother, only known as Gran. Gran is an eccentric woman from the countryside, who mainly lives on a diet of potatoes and wine. Family members feel differently about Gran. Nora and their father welcome her with open arms, and Nora becomes very close to her. Their mother, however, is a bit more skeptical about her, and Jackie does not get along with Gran at all. He finds her attitude and behavior off-putting and unusual, and is particularly put off by her old-fashioned cooking. This makes Jackie’s father angry, and earns Jackie several reprimands.

Jackie is also nervous because his first communion is fast approaching. This will also include his first confession, which will be administered by Mrs. Ryan. Mrs. Ryan is an old woman who works for the priest, and delights in preparing children for confession by telling elaborate stories about hell. One of the stories she tells, which traumatizes Jackie, is about a man who did not confess all his sins. He visits the priest one night, begging for a second chance. Then, suddenly, he is sucked into hell. Mrs. Ryan also makes the children hold their finger over a candle flame briefly to simulate the fires of hell. All of these things make Jackie terrified of confession. Mrs. Ryan also puts the children through a conscience exercise where she shows them how to reflect on their sins. This makes Jackie feel very guilty about the way he treated his grandmother.

Jackie tries to avoid confession, but Mrs. Ryan will not have it and sends Jackie along with all the other children in her class to the church. Along the way, Nora catches up with them and taunts Jackie about his past bad behavior, letting him know that he is in for it when he gets in with the priest. She goes into confession first, and comes out holding a prayerful, solemn pose. When it is Jackie’s turn, he goes into the confession box and immediately becomes very confused. He climbs on the shelf above the window, and when the priest opens it, he sees Jackie fall off. Confused and angry, the priest demands to know what Jackie is doing as Jackie falls out of the box. Nora rushes up and begins beating Jackie for disrespecting the confession booth, but the priest stops her and sends her away. The priest tells Jackie to wait while the other members go in for confession, and Jackie is relieved not to be one of the first.

Soon, the priest calls Jackie into the box again. Jackie starts talking, telling the priest about his grandmother, whom he describes as awful and evil. He describes how his father and grandmother favor Nora over him. Once he starts talking, he really cannot stop and begins rambling about how he wants to kill both his grandmother and Nora, describing in graphic detail about how he would do it—with a bread knife. The priest is taken aback by hearing these detailed thoughts of murder from a young boy. When Jackie is finished, the priest warns him that he if he ever does these things, he would be hung by the state. Jackie asks him if he has ever seen a man hanged, and the priest says yes. Jackie finds the priest to be a fascinating man to talk to, and they talk for ten minutes, longer than the average confession. The priest gives Jackie some candy on the way out, and when Jackie comes out Nora is waiting. She demands to know what he confessed, and Jackie says he said everything he had done or thought of doing. He tells her that he only got three Hail Marys, which annoys Nora because she does not think there was any point of pretending to be so good.

Frank O’Connor, born Michael Francis O’Donovan, was an Irish writer of more than 150 works, best known for his short stories and memoirs. A staunch Irish nationalist, he was also known as a literary critic, essayist, travel writer, translator, and biographer in addition to his novels, poems, and plays. Many of his works featured a character named Larry Delaney, who is believed to be a fictionalized version of O’Connor himself and undergoes similar experiences in the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. His hometown of Cork holds an annual festival devoted to his work, where The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is given to the best short fiction collection in English in the year preceding the festival.