Liam O’Flaherty: Commentary


W. B. Yeats
George Russell
Seán O’Faolain
The Bell
Francis Stuart
H. E. Bates
Patrick Sheeran
Peter Costello
John Broderick
A. A. Kelly
David Norris
Benedict Kiely
Richard Fallis
James Cahalan
Margaret Kelleher
Hedda Friberg
Mary Campbell
Liam Harte
Colm Tóibín
Bernard McKenna

W. B. Yeats, ‘Modern Ireland: An Address to American Audience, 1932-33’, in Irish Renaissance, ed., Robin Skelton & David R. Clark [from ‘Irish Gathering’, in Massachusetts Review, 1964] (Dublin: Dolmen 1965), pp.13-25: ‘[in] The Puritan, Mr O’Flaherty’s satirical anti-clerical novel, I find this sense of voluntary suffering for love’s sake. The religious fanatic murders a harlot to discover that he did so not out of anger for her sin, but in jealousy of her lovers. Until madness rescues him from his conscience, he tries as an expression of love to sink into an equal degradation. This dark, meditative book, which may not be sold in Ireland, seems written to prove Verhaeren’s saying, “A masterpiece is a part of the conscience of mankind”.’ (p.24.)

W. B. Yeats (letter to Olivia Shakespear at the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins): ‘It is the cult of sacrifice planted in the nation by the executions of 1916. Read [imp.] O’Flaherty’s novel The Martyr, a book forbidden by our censor, and very mad in the end, but powerful and curious as an attack upon the cult [of sacrifice]. I asked a high government official once if he could describe the head of the IRA. He began, “This is so and so who has [the] cult of suffering and is always putting himself in positions where he will be persecuted”.’ (Letters, ed. Wade, p.809; quoted in part in A. N. Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1984, pp.272-72; also in Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal: the Irish Revolution in Literature from Parnell to the Death of Yeats, 1891-1939, Gill & Macmillan 1977, p.219). Note the further phrase: ‘powerful yet curious attack upon the cult.’ (Letters, ed. Wade, 1924, p.809; quoted in Patrick Sheeran, The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty, 1976, p.249.)

[ top ]

George Russell (AE), reviewing The Black Soul, called it ‘[...] the most amazing thing in modern Irish literature, written with elemental energy from the first page to the last [...] Nothing like The Black Soul has been written by any Irish writer [...] The book reminds us of Dostoyevsky [...] O’Flaherty’s name may be great in Irish literature.’ (Irish Statesman, 3 May 1924; quoted thus in Patrick Sheeran, op. cit., 1976, p.83; for O’Flaherty’s reaction to same in letter to Edward Garnett, see under George Russell in Notes, infra.)

[ top ]

Con Leventhal [as L. K. Emery], ‘“The Primitive”: A Review of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Black Soul’, in To-Morrow, 1 (Aug.-Sept. 1924), p. 7: ‘Mr. O’Flaherty has rid himself of the “malaise” of the century. He is not afraid of passion or of instincts. He is not conscious of complexes or inhibitions. ... [O’Flaherty’s is] a novel which opens new vistas for Ireland and which cannot pass unnoticed in the pale pot-boiler-room of English novelists.’ (Quoted in Bernard McKenna, “Yeats, “Leda,” and the Aesthetics of To-Morrow: “The Immortality of the Soul”’, in New Hibernia Review, 13, 2, Samhradh/Summer 2009, p.21; quoted in Bernard McKenna, “Yeats, “Leda,” and the Aesthetics of To-Morrow: “The Immortality of the Soul”’, in New Hibernia Review, 13, 2, Summer 2009, p.21.) McKenna remarks: ‘Emery predicts a victory for an Irish spiritual revolution over English writing’ (idem.).

[ top ]

Seán O’Faolain (1): ‘[...] Essentially, I do believe O’Flaherty is like every known Irish writer, an inverted romantic. That is, he sets out in the most self-conscious and deliberate way to attack with violence the things that hurt the inarticulate dream of his romantic soul. For he has a romantic soul; he has the inflated ego of the romantic, the dissatisfaction of the romantic, the wild imagination, the response to the magic of nature, the self-pity of the romantic, his masochistic rage, the unbalance. And there are the claws in which he lifts it up to an enormous height and lets it fall with a crash; while we are yet stunned by his gyring flight, and the reverberation of the impact, he then swoops to see if there is anything worth his respect in what he had already destroyed and, screaming, he flies away unsatisfied.’ (The Bell, June 1941, pp.28-29; quoted in Sheeran, op. cit., 1976, p.96.)

Seán O’Faolain (2): ‘Most Irish literature since 1922 has been of an uncompromising scepticism, one might even say ferocity. I will quote but one example, the novels of Liam O’Flaherty.’ (O’Faolain, The Irish, 1947, p.138.)

Seán O’Faolain (3): in an interview-style BBC talk on O’Flaherty [pre-1946], O’Faolain said: ‘The basic thing about Ireland is that it is a peasant country. What we call “polite society” with its firmly established and clearly defined conventions and rules, amounting or mounting to punctilio, exists in Ireland only in enclaves: little islands of convention besieged by the darkness of the peasant mind.’ (q.d.; quoted in Benedict Kiely, ‘Liam O’Flaherty: From the Stormswept Rock ...’, in The Month, Sept. 1949; rep. in A Raid into Dark Corners and Other Essay, Cork UP 1999, pp.192-202, p.193.)

[ top ]

The Bell (anon. reviewer of Insurrection, 1951): ‘It might be said that only readers who know nothing of about Easter Week could get the best value out of Insurrection: and that is, perhaps as it should be. But will even such readers take as a matter of course those brief passages in which Mr. O’Flaherty attempts to find philosophical meaning for the desperate act of violence by lifting particular events from the plane on which they have vividness at least to a plane where they are coloured clouds of abstraction?’ (The Bell, Jan. 1961 [sic; prob. error for 1951]; quoted in Patrick Sheeran, The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty, 1976, p.247 [date given as 1961 and here corrected on probability].)

[ top ]

Francis Stuart, Black List, Section H (1971; London: Martin, Brian & O’Keeffe 1975): “You can’t expect a girl to come here and share a tin of sardines with you,” O’Flaherty had told him. O’Flaherty was enjoying a successful phase. He’d shown H the proof of an advertisement his publisher - who was also H’s - was putting in one of the papers that devoted several pages to literature the coming Sunday. it consisted of a good half-column of carefully selected quotations from reviews, and was headed: “Triumph for a great Novelist.” Although O’Flaherty’s novels struck H as stark and gloomy, he repsected the untameable spirit both in them and his friend, and rejoiced in his increasing renown, whose tanglible fruits were lavish entertaining.’ (p.191.) See also remarks about O’Flaherty’s affair with Enid Ankaret [Phillipson], and his own with Honor Maxwell, p.191ff.

[ top ]

Jim Phelan, The Name’s Phelan (1948; rep. 1993) [autobiog.], writes: ‘O’Flaherty was a magnificent speaker, with an ineradicable twist of mischief in his makeup. The organising of a beggar’s legion [...] obviously appealed to him. It did to me too. The thing was to be done in the grand manner, and made much stir [...] Liam wrote the manifesto, it was discussed by the central committee, passed with hardly a syllable altered [...] Posted all over the city, it alone convinced the citizen, even without the army of the hunger-prodded behind it, that Dublin owed a living to Townsend St.’ (q.p.)

[ top ]

H. E. Bates, Edward Garnett (q. pub. 1950): ‘The gods were appearing after Conrad, Thomas, Laurence and Davies and to one of these supper evenings came Liam O’Flaherty, a virile and impassioned Irishman who, rather like me, had a facile demon in him. Together, over supper, we put our signatures as witnesses to Garnett’s will [...] O’Flaherty, true Irish, could talk a donkey’s hind leg off and with fierce, blue unstable eyes would stand up in the middle of the room and begin reciting flowing nonsense from some as yet unwritten book, about “women pressin’ their thoighs into the warm flanks of the horses”, until he codded you that it had really happened and was really true. O’Flaherty had arrived in London with a firebrand swagger, a fine talent and a headful of rebellious fury about the English and had sat down to write pieces of episodic violence about London, which he hardly knew at all. Garnett promptly and rightly sent him back to Ireland to write about seagulls and congers, a peasant’s cow and the flight of a blackbird, and he at once produced sketches of the most delicate feeling and visual brilliance that few, even among the Irish, have equalled. / It was the end of the golden age of Irish literature. Yeats in poetry, O’Casey and Shaw in drama, Joyce and Moore and O’Flaherty in fiction, were giving to Irish literature - though, let it be nnoted, the language of the despised English - the last of the shining glory it has never regained.’ (pp.46-47; quoted in Patrick Sheeran, “The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Nationalism”, NUI UCG PhD. diss. 1972, p.82; publ. as ditto, 1976, pp.85-86.)

[ top ]

Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal: The Irish Revolution in Literature from Parnell to the Death of Yeats 1891-1939 (Gill & Macmillan 1977), remarks and quotes, ‘His range is narrow: “All I know about,” he once confessed to Edward Garnett, “are cows and sea-gulls”.’ (pp.115.)

[ top ]

Patrick Sheeran, The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism (Dublin: Wolfhound; NJ: Atlantic 1976): ‘[C]ontact with older inhabitants and research in local newspapers and government files dealing with the region revealed a picture of island life which is very diferent from the more generally accepted one. Familiarity with the history and folklore of Galway revealed too that O’Flaherty based a number of his novels on actual events and persons.’ He adds that Hollywood Cemetery and The Return of the Brute are not treated to detailed examination ‘as they do not merit serious critical examination.’ ([p.i]) Further remarks on the novelist’s youthful experience on the Aran Islands and the later [3] years spent in London and Dublin: ‘To simply - the first provided him with his subject matter, the second, a point of view.’ [4]. ‘O’Flaherty was to draw on the “heroic” past of his “family” but in ambiguous ways. At one point the past would act as a foil to the actions of puny politicians, at another become the source of the false posturing and empty rhetoric which vitiated political debate on “Inverrara”, the island of the novels. And “Inverrara” or “Nara” (Aran spelt backwards) was shorthand for Ireland. The ambiguity is further complicated by the fact that he would project himself into his early works as the dispossessed leader of an ancient clan to whom the peasantry remain loyal. This, in spite of the fact that his family were not directly related to The O’Flaherty. [...] Liam O’Flaherty would see himself, not against a social context of class and property, [29] but against a family tradition, a tapestry of wildly romanticised legends and folktales. This perspective had important consequences for his art, for he was to use Aran as the microcosm of the macrocosm that was Ireland. There is too, in all his writing, from private letters to historical novels, a great uncertainty of tone which is ultimately a social uncertainty. The attempt by Mr Johnston’s children [viz., Mr Athy of Skerrett] to recapture some of the magic and status that attached to the ancient name of O’Flaherty by calling themselves O’Flaherty-Johnston has its parallel in another unhappy conjunction - Liam O’Flaherty’s style, which frequently jerks from peasant earthiness to public schoolboy slang.’ (pp.29-30.) [For longer extracts, see attached.]

[ top ]

A.A. Kelly, Liam O’Flaherty the Storyteller (London: Macmillan 1976), ‘Conclusion’: ‘[Persecution] is overcome in Famine, whose central character group shows incredible moral indurance in the face of the most crushing circumstances which threaten not only their existence but their dignity as human beings.’ (p.122; quotes in Margaret O’Donnell, UG Essay, UUC 2003). [See also Table of Contents, under Criticism, supra.]

[ top ]

David Norris, ‘Imaginative Response versus Authority: A Theme of the Anglo-Irish Short Story’, in The Irish Short Story, ed. Terence Brown & Patrick Rafroidi (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979): ‘The earth of O’Flaherty’s Western Isles is neither so dark nor so rich, and love’s bloom in that barren soil is but the span of a day as we see in “Spring Sowing” [in Short Stories of Liam O’Flaherty, Four Square 1966]. The grinding toil of the newly weds’ relationship with the elements permits little in the way of self realization. One brief spark of warmth struck from human passion thaws them into momentary individuality before this too is snuffed out and they return to anonymous peasanthood. Of course it is not only elemental forces that conspire against the development of the individual response. “The Fairy Goose” [in ibid.], one of O’Flaherty’s best stories, bears an allegorical message to fairy geese and white blackbirds of all kinds as to how society and its structures may deal with them. The goose acts as a catalyst, its oddities releasing latent psychic energies in the small village community. It becomes the focus of a struggle for authority between two rival kinds of magic, the ritual anathematizing of the priest and the druid charms of Mary Wiggins, until, a very figure of the rejected artist in its Wildean elegance and refusal to concede to the claims of natural goosehood, its neck is wrung and its innocence trampled by the muddy boots of village louts.’ (p.54.)

[ top ]

Benedict Kiely, ‘Liam O’Flaherty: From the Stormswept Rock …’, in A Raid into Dark Corners and Other Essays, Cork UP 1999, comments: ‘on one side of the pool [...] stood the priest and on the other the patriot, menacing and gesturing above the mirror of the warter until the present was hopelessly confused with the past. O’Flaherty himself, like a very large number of young Irishmen, including myself, was for a while the gesturing patriot and might easily have developed into the menacing priest.’ Kiely goes on to remark of O’Flaherty that ‘his own personal preferences were, according to himself, for battles and blood, for Genghis Khan and her herds of camels, ghosts of horsemen and jewelled concubines; for the storming of Troy and the war for the Bull of Cuailnge, for “all the terrible madnesses of men and women crashing their bodies and their minds againast the boundary walls of human knowledge”.’ (n. source; Kiely, op. cit., p.194.) Further: ‘Professor Zneimer, who has written a perceptive book on O’Flaherty, disagrees with me about this. But then O’Flaherty disagrees with Professor Zneimer. And disagrees, also, with me. So where does that leave us?’ (Ibid., p.197.)

[ top ]

Richard Fallis, The Irish Renaissance: An Introduction to Anglo-Irish Literature (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1978): ‘[...] the novels are marred by outrageous melodrama and moral judgements as intense as they are obvious. In all of these novels, as in so much of O’Flaherty’s work, one feels a powerful imagination but a failure of technique to sustain fully the imaginative vision. In that sense, he is almost reminiscent of William Carleton a century before, another writer who knew the people he described intimately but often seemed to fail somewhere between vision and expression.’ (p.210; quoted in Kate Connelly, MA Dip. Essay, UU 2003.)

[ top ]

John Broderick, ‘Roots’, reviewing Famine, in The Irish Times (19 Jan. 1980), calls it ‘[a book] without which we can have but an imperfect understanding of the country in which [it] is set.’ Broderick praises the character of Mary Kilmartin, who has been ‘singled out by two generations of critics as one of the great creations of modern literature’. He adds, ‘O’Flaherty himself is clearly in love with her’. He summarises, ‘Mary survives with her baby, to join her husband on a ship for America. [...] The old people die; the district is laid waste; and the gombeen men survive to form the backbone of Catholic Ireland down to the present day.’

[ top ]

James Cahalan, Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel (Syracuse, NY:Syracuse UP 1983): O’Flaherty began but did not finish a novel in Irish, Coirp agus Anim [Body and Soul] (133). Several details of his life appear in his brother Tom’s book, Aranmen All (1934). His father was an early Sinn Féiner, and harrassed the island land-grabbers; his mother an inverterate story-teller; ed. Rockwell College, Cashel, 1908-13; organised the student corp of the Republican Volunterrs at Blackrock College; scholarship to UCD, 1914; joined Irish Guards, served in France and Belgium, and suffered injury in shell-blast, 1917; told Doyle that his reasons for joining the Army were disillusionment with the Republican movement, desire for excitement, and fear of losing his scholarship; received BA from UCD in 1918 on the basis of special provisions for ex-servicemen; travelled 1918-20 on shipping; returned from South America on hearing of the Sinn Fein Republic, declared in 1918, but soon drifted off on a ship to the Mediterranean; involved in obscure arms deal in Smyrna; sailed to Canada via Gibraltar; hobo-ed, lumberjacked; engaged in trade union activity (Industrial Workers of the World); visited siblings in Boston; inhabited New York Bowery; returned to Aran, poor and ill, 1921; joined Republicans in Dublin, 1922, and seized the Rotunda with a small force of unemployeds; raised the Red Flag; driven out in four days, fled to Cork, then London; in London 1922-24 he encountered his literary mentor Edward Garnett, reader at Jonathan Cape; returned to Ireland & obtained patronage of George Russell, 1924 [but see under Russell]; travelled to Russia, 1930 (133f.).

[ top ]

James Cahalan, Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel (Syracuse, NY:Syracuse UP 1983): O‘’Flaherty started To-morrow [but see Notes, infra], a radical alternative to The Irish Statesman. He wrote to The Statesman that he “consider[ed] the whole policy of passive resistance to be ghostly, associated with philosophy and death and not with the creative vitality of a living people”. O’ Flaherty compared Ireland to England in Shakespeare’s day: ‘His race was emerging, with bloodshot eyes, lean, hungry, virile, savage, from the savagery of feudalism into the struggle for Europe [...] Ours is the wild tumult of the unchained storm, the tumult of the army on the march, clashing cymbals, rioting with excess of energy׃ [quoted in John Zneimer, The Literary Vision of Liam O’Flaherty, Syracuse UP 1970, p.8; here p.138; given more extensively under Quotations - Irish Statesman, infra.) Note: Cahalan also quotes O’Flaherty’s reaction to a good review of The Black Soul by George “Æ” Russell as in Quotations under Russell, infra.]

James Cahalan (Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel, 1983): - cont.: ‘O’Flaherty admired O’Casey because “he is an artist, unlike the other bastard writers I met here.” He criticised The Plough and the Stars because he though that O’Casey abused Pearse and Connolly, himself believing 1916 to be the most glorious gesture in the history of Ireland; nevertheless, the play greatly influences the opening street scenes in Insurrection. O’Casey records O’Flaherty’s attempts to draw him into his radical circle, and his own refusal, on the grounds that O’Flaherty appeared to have Yeats’s arrogance without Yeats’s genius.’ (p.138.) Further: ‘Seán O’Faolain called him an ‘inverted romantic’. In Shame the Devil, he gives this account of himself: “A godless hermit, I began my communion with the cliffs, the birds, the wild animals, and the sea of my native land.”’ Also quotes O’Flaherty’s reflections on his occupation of the Rotunda with others: “Ever since then, I have remained, in the eyes of the vast majority of Irish men and women, a public menace to faith, morals and property, a Communist, an atheist, a scoundrel of the worst type [...] Crave forgiveness? Clip the wings of my fancies, in order to win the favour of the mob? To have the property and be esteemed? Better to be devoured by the darkness than to be haunted by dolts into an inferior light.” (pp.21-22, p.23.). ‘O’Flaherty’s Famine deals centrally with the Kilmartin family, Martin and Mary and their baby [all] of whom survive to sail to America. O’Flaherty’s knowledge of Famine-lore reinforced by his reading of Rev. John O’Rourke’s The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847 with notices of Earlier Irish Famines (1875), which was most concerned of all early histories of the event with the plight of the ordinary people.’ (Sheeran, 1976, p.205).

James Cahalan (Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel, 1983) - cont.: ‘In Famine, Daniel O’Connell’s constitutional politics are lampooned in the figure of O’Connellite politician McCarthy Lalor, whom the parish priest inwardly repudiates (“the demagogue O’Connell had professed himself a pacifist and a loyal subject [...] now [...] starved bodies [...] would pay for the craven sin of pacifism”) (Famine, p.328). The novel is interspersed with sardonic socialist polemics, and contains an extreme representation of the landlord’s agent, Chadwick, who seduces and ruins Ellie Kilmartin, and exclaims against the peasants, “I’m going to root them out like a nest of rats” (ibid., p.172). When Brian Kilmartin dies, his dog dies with him, “nestled against the old man’s shoulder” (ibid., p.448)’ (Cahalan, op. cit., p.142.) Further: ‘O’Flaherty’s ideal for the novel, expressed in a review of 1925, “In order to be a work of genius, a novel must offer something more than a perfect style, the imprint of a cultured mind, and gentleness of soul. [...] It must be a relentless picture of life, as lashing in its cruelty as the whip of Christ when there were moneychangers to be beaten from the Temple, as remorseless as the questions of a jealous lover. It must have the power to invoke great beauty or great horror in the same breath as it calls forth laughter from the lips.”’ (Quoted in Zneimer, p.9; here p.139.). Note that O’Flaherty admired Theodore Dreiser (Cahalan, op. cit., p.153.) [The use of this extract is accredited by the author.]

[ top ]

Seamus Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature (London: Hutchinson & Co. 1986): ‘O’Flaherty’s insistence on the elemental nature of existence, his concentration on the primitive and on the primary forces by which his islanders, peasants and revolutionaries are moved, contribute to the impression that the realism here is in service to the most melodramatic of all myths of solidarity, namely that the only enemy is finally the fear of defeat itself.’ (p.218; quoted in Kate Connelly, MA Dip., UU 2003.)

[ top ]

Margaret Kelleher, ‘Irish Famine in Literature’, in Cáthal Portéir, ed., The Great Irish Famine [Thomas Davis Lectures Series] (RTÉ/Mercier 1995), espec. p.241-42: ‘Liam O’Flaherty’s novel, Famine is the most famous of Irish Famine stories; translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and German, it remains in print; [see also] 221n: one of the earliest reviews of the novel, Seán O’Faolain declared: ‘It is tremendous. It is biblical. It is the best Irish historical novel to date.’ (Ireland Today, II, 2 Feb. 1937, pp.81-82.) First published in 1937, Famine emerged while the new state was still in the process of self-definition and as a particular version of the ‘national chronicle’, the Irish Constitution, was being written. The novel’s powerful immediacy, from its detailed opening chapters to the quiet tragedy of Brian Kilmartin’s death makes it, for this reader, the most successful Famine narrative; as the Irish Book Lover reviewer in 1937 noted: ‘there are moments in it that have the heroic quality of sudden piercing lines in an old saga.’ [“M.L.”, review in Irish Book Lover, Jan.-Feb. 1937, pp.22-23.] Much of the novel’s historical detail comes from Canon John O’Rourke’s The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847 with Notices of Earlier Irish Famines, first published in 1874; in terms of causation, O’Flaherty shares O’Rourke’s interpretation that the famine demonstrated England’s ability and unwillingness to ‘save the lives of five million of her own subjects’; The novel displays some difficulty in combining historical explanation with individualised characterisation; some of the historical comment is introduced quite awkwardly while the centre of investigation increasingly moves to the dilemmas and horrors experienced by female victims such as abandonment of children, prostitution and infanticide; thus a domestic sphere deflects political and socio-economic analysis. / Both the challenges faced by famine representations and O’Flaherty’s particular successes may be seen in his memorable final chapter which tells of the death of Brian Kilmartin [241] in quiet yet piercing detail. [quotes ‘He clutched the handle of the spade [...] &c.; .../... Famine’s first reviewers recognised its mythic aspect, suggesting that O’Flaherty had “in some sort fulfilled a destiny by writing this book”.’ (Idem; Kelleher, p.242.)

Margaret Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine: Expressions of the Inexpressible (Cork UP 1998), writes of Famine that through Captain Chadwick, O’Flaherty ‘signals the degenerate nature of English rule’ in its critical responsibility for the devastating character of the famine. (p.138; quoted in Patrick Meehan, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

[ top ]

Hedda Friberg, An Old Order and a New: The Split World of Liam O’Flaherty’s Novels [dissertation] (Uppsala UP 1996), characterises Dr. Hynes in Famine as battling ‘between two sets of allegiances, the New-Order urban civilisation in which he received his education and the Old-Order values of his native village to which he has returned.’ (p.217.) Friberg remarks on ‘wide range of people who think, talk and act believably.’ (p.204; quoted in Jessica Penkal, ENG507 Essay, UUC 1999.)

Hedda Friberg (An Old Order and a New ... Liam O’Flaherty’s Novels (1996) - cont. [on Skerrett]: ‘There is no going back, then, to a Gold Age of peasant innocence and nobility, no returnign to an Old Order. Neither is it, in Skerrett’s case, possible to go forward, to find a better system, a new order, for the people of Aran. There is no lasting comfort to be had, even among the good people of Cappatagle. There is no comfort at all, except the absolute equality which is inherent in the cold indifference of the crags, the unconquerable earth. / In its stark intensity, Skerrett surpasses every other novel in O’Flaherty’s produciton The novel’s unflinchingly honest scrutiny of man’s condition and its defiant beauty make it a masterpiece. By the time O’Flaherty wrote the novel, he had attained a considerable degree of technical skill as a novelist as well as a new detachment from his material. No longer compelled by his tortured soul to write a novel the chief purpose of which is to relieve anguish with a scream, he nevertheless retained the intensity of his more youthful books. In his journey from the periphery to the centre, from an Old Order to a new, he had not yet lost his strong imaginative bonds, his open lines of communication, to that Old-order culture of origin which fills Skerrett with poetry.’ (p.176.) ‘O’Flaherty [.] shows us generation chafing against generation, New-Order forces breaking in on Old-Order ones.’ (Friberg, op. cit., .208; quoted in Gail Oliver, ENG507 Essay, UUC 2002.)

[ top ]

Mary Campbell review of Liam O’Flaherty reprint edns., in Books Ireland (q. iss., 1993): of Shame the Devil (1934; first unbanned printing in Ireland, Wolfhound 1981), The Assassin (1928), Skerrett (1932); Insurrection (1950), and a descriptive bibliography by George Jefferson (Wolfhound 1993), 176pp. In Shame the Devil O’Flaherty tells of his lying tale, in childhood, of a neighbour who murdered his wife with a spade, for which he was punished; Shame the Devil is prefaced, ‘I offer this dagger to my enemies’ and promises in a world where ‘man is born a liar’ to tell the truth. The Informer received the James Tait Memorial Prize, and was filmed by John Ford. Quotes: ‘I was born on a storm-swept rock and hate the soft growth of sun-baked lands where there is no frost in men’s bones. Swift thoughts and the swift flight of ravenous birds, and the squeal of hunted animals are to me a reality.’ [“Conrad”, as in Quotations, supra.] Self-styled Chairman of the Unemployed, he led a crowd of dockers to declare an Irish Soviet Republic in Rotunda, hoisting a red flag. ‘I owe Edward Garnett all I know about the craft and a great deal of all I know about the art of writing.’ [Cont.]

Mary Campbell (Books Ireland, 1993) - cont. [on Garnett’s lessons:] ‘To the artist everything that exists justifies itself by the fact of its existence [...] no rhetoric, no philosophy, no bias.’ Married Margaret Barrington, had dg; formed a Radical Club of young writers in Dublin; Hollywood Cemetary 1936) was called ‘shockingly bad book’; Famine (1937), his masterpiece; Gollancz said, ‘A pity about Liam but I never really bank on a Liam manuscript until it is actually on my desk, and even then I often have the fear that it will vanish while I am out of the room.’ Campbell writes of him as ‘a legendary writer whose tales are wild and primitive evocations of savage creatures human and animal [...] His “black souls” - Macdara from The Assassin, Francis Ferriter from The Puritan, Mr Gilhooley and Gypo Nolan are closely related to Rakolnikov in Crime and Punishment.’ Notes that O’Flaherty’s works were reissued by Seamus Cashman of Wolfhound, with letters an autobiographies. Skerrett, set in Nara with Skerrett, schoolmaster, and Fr Harry Moclair, PP. Of the title-character Skerrett, O’Flaherty writes: ‘He aimed at being a man who owns no master. and such men, though doomed to destruction by the timid herd, grow after death to the full proportion of their greatness.’ V. S. Pritchett, reviewing in 1932, gave as a serious fault that fact that ‘his creatures have no minds’. O’Flaherty published a study of Conrad, in which he said that the artist was a cold-eyed adventurer looking over the brink of chaos. He wrote to Garnett in 1925, that he was unaware of making any judgement at the moment of writing, ‘and of course that has the drawback of all instinctive writing [...] that it appears to be unfinished, just like a natural landscape.’

[ top ]

Liam Harte, ‘Liam O’Flaherty’, in W. J. McCormack, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Irish Literature (Oxford 1999; 2001): ‘[...] His short stories contain his best writing, especially those inspired by his awed admiration for human and natural beings driven by a pure, primal energy, which he renders in sensuously pictorial prose.’ (p.442.)

[ top ]

Colm Tóibín, ‘The mystery of Inis Meáin’, review of Walls of Aran [photographs by Sean Scully] in The Guardian (12 May 2007): ‘[...] In 1927, the writer Liam O’Flaherty, like his nephew Breandán Ó hEithir a native of the largest of the Aran islands, found himself on an island off County Donegal. He wrote to his London publisher: “Life here is simpler than on my island. The people are less intelligent, and they have practically no imagination. Their speech is abrupt, considered and very realist. They are more straightforward, more kindly and less astute than my people. My people ... are all born aristocrats with all the vices of aristocracy and some of its virtues ... There are no ruins here, no churches, forts or works of art as in my island. It is a serf of a place.”/ Yet in the same year, when he found himself back on the island, O’Flaherty felt that the power of the Aran Islands came from the landscape rather than the people. He wrote to his publisher: “It was splendid on Aran. The island has the character and personality of a mute God. One is awed in its presence, breathing its air. Over it broods an overwhelming sense of great, noble tragedy. The Greeks would have liked it. The people are sadly inferior to the island itself. But the sea birds are almost worthy of it. The great cormorants thrilled me. And while fishing on the brink of a rock, a great bull seal rose from the sea in front of me. He looked at me with brutal, drunken eyes and then dived.”’

[ top ]

Bernard McKenna, “Yeats, “Leda,” and the Aesthetics of To-Morrow: “The Immortality of the Soul”’, in New Hibernia Review, 13, 2, Samhradh/Summer 2009, pp.16-35: ‘Liam O’Flaherty’s short story in the August 1 issue of To-Morrow, “The Red Petticoat” offers a more lasting example of creativity as a transformative force in the face of violence. The story’s protagonist, Mary Deignan, uses her ingenuity [31] to blackmail a merchant into providing food for her family O’Flaherty introduces Mary and her children as an “extraordinary family.” He writes that the mother “was a remarkable woman. . [T]hey were gifted by the good God who governs all things with the divine capacity for enjoying life” (RP, 1) [...] The Deignans combined their sense of joy with a creativity that faces threat in a manner reminiscent of the famous Irish poet satirists; both the ancient poets and the Deignan family “laughed and sang and composed poems, satires on all their enemies” (RP, 3 ). However, the Deignans find their art insufficient to sustain them physically and spiritually: “Until now they had bravely kept up courage . but the hunger was telling on them that bitter cold day” (RP, 3). They face a crisis, a conflict in which physical needs overwhelm aesthetic desire. Responding to that conflict, the mother uses her “creative mind” to transform the “violent objectivity” of her family’s experiences.’

Bernard McKenna, “Yeats, “Leda,” and the Aesthetics of To-Morrow [...]’, 2009, pp.16-35: ‘Mary Deignan’s antagonist,moreover, represents a culture ruled by monetary goals and rewards. The Deignan’s circumstances offer an interesting counterpart to the historical circumstances of August 1924 , and Yeats’s concerns about a looming labor action. O’Flaherty writes that “Mrs.Murtagh was a hard woman and could drive a hard bargain” (RP, 4). She “had a little general shop, that sold everything which a peasant could be expected to buy, and bought everything which a peasant could be induced to sell” (RP, 4). [.] Mrs. Murtagh stands “terrified” facing Mrs. Deignan, as she [quote:] “let her shawl fall back from her shoulder and trail behind her. She had let her lean, wrinkled yellow-skinned hands go limp. She had allowed her face to go lax and loose and then gradually it began to curl and form convolutions like milk getting ready to boil in a saucepan on a slow fire. Gradually, her face gathered itself together, her throat became alive, her bosom gave signs that something devilish was forcing its way upwards from her middle and was finding great difficulty in reading her throat. In fact, Mrs.Deignan looked as if she was going to give birth to something awful. She did. She began to talk. The first word came out with great difficulty, emerging from her wrinkled yellow lips in curves and spirals with the grinding sound of a knife being sharpened on a whetstone. Then her words began to gather speed until they came pounding out of her mouth, with the sweet sharp cadence of a rushing stream. ‘Hypocrite, robber, receiver of stolen goods,’ she cried, ‘Oh woman that has denied God, virtue, charity, and all the good deeds of the holy ones ... you would stomp on another woman.’ (RP, 4-5).”’ [Cont.]

Bernard McKenna, “Yeats, “Leda,” and the Aesthetics of To-Morrow [...]’ - cont: Mary Deignan embodies the characteristics of an individual under religious possession, communicating with a hidden world and channeling insights. [.] Her ability to mimic possession convincingly suggests that themask of art is powerful enough,when combined with ingenuity, to transform reality. Mrs. Murtagh reflects that the “one black spot on her character, her illicit affair with the bachelor tailor, was discovered by this virago of a poetess. And Mrs. Murtagh kept thinking of the number of times Mrs.Deignan would go away with a shawl full of groceries on her” (RP, 6). Mary Deignan reverses her physical circumstances through creativity. Moreover, she does so in a way that does not result in bitterness; Mrs. Murtagh’s final thoughts are “of the tailor” and not concerned with Mrs. Deignan (RP, 6). Mary Deignan redeems the value of art in such a way that Yeats would see in it a resonance with his true mask of the twenty-third phase. The conflicts and doubts resulting from the Deignan’s poverty result in an expression of “the immortality of the soul” and offer a model of how art, in the spirit of To-Morrow ’s aesthetic, can stand against the forces of then-contemporary cultural expression of art that dismisses the soul.’ Note: in additional remarks, McKenna compares the theme of the story to various points in Yeats’s Vision (1925), which was completed at the same time as he urged on the editors and contributors to To-Morrow while contribute his own poem “Leda and the Swan”. - viz., Yeats’s true mask with its “delight in all that breathes and moves” his fascination with mysticism and the occult.’ [Communicated by the author.]

[ top ]