Patrick Sheeran, The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism (Dublin: Wolfhound; NJ: Atlantic 1976)

See also Sheeran, “The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism” [ Ph.D. Diss.] (UCG 1972), comprising extracts from Sheeran’s discussion of O’Flaherty and Romance (p.160-69) with relevant quotations from American criticism of the genre [attached].

Introduction

‘[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 different 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.’

Sheeran 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])


Chapters

[Sheeran 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.)

‘This, then, was the world of O’Flaherty’s youth, a world of explosive contraditions. The folk culture was beginning to disintegrate and the shaping forces within society were incapable of establishing an alternative. Provincial rootedness was everywhere giving way before a rising, ruthless middle [54] class. The broken world and its broken traditions scared the boy and young man who was sufficiently at home with the locals to absorb their unspoken assumptions and expectations. Yet he would remember the islands as a lost Eden to which, repeatedly, he would try to return. Things a great deal less tangible than the social and cultural forces we have outlined would draw him back. There was the extraordinary beauty and ferocity of nature and natural life which surrounded his youth. It so imposed itself on his mind and imagination that in London, New York or Paris he could write delicate, evocative sketches, minute in their detail, of a wave or seagull or the terror of a hunted rabbit. Nature, red in tooth and claw, one species preying on another, the hunter and the hunted, supplied him with an image of the human condition which survived all the complexities that Marxism, Nihilism and all the other -isms he was to espouse, introduced into his thinking.’ (pp.54-55.)

‘There is something extraordinarily figurative in [the] end to O’Flaherty’s artistic career - a novel in Irish called Body and Soul, and unfinished! In a sense all the Anglo-Irish novelists were striving to write a novel with just that title. That it should have been attempted in Irish and remained unfinished is oddly consonant, not only with the whole tendency of O’Flaherty’s artistic career, but with the broken culture from which he derived.’ (p.94.)

‘O’Flaherty the novelist is everywhere at work to show how the appearances falsify the reality. His theme is the contradictions within Irish society. It is a bitter, unrelenting expose of all the social classes, creeds or causes to which an Irishman might give his allegiance.’ (p.105.) ‘Thus the parish priest [in Famine] emerges as a man concerned only with consolidating his own power to which all ideas and culture pose a threat’ (p.106.)

[On Famine:] ‘a picture of the Irish peasant clinging to a ramshackle social structure’ (p.141.)

‘O’Flaherty blame[s] a hierarchical, capitalist system that had its roots in British imperialism but whose key agents were Irish landlords, bailiffs, shopkeepeers, and priests.’ (p.143.)

‘The works, when related to the time and place of their subject matter, gather an added resonance and interest which is lost by a purely aesthetic approach. Experience of life in Galway and Connemara shows us that there are certain situations, for instance the transfer of a schoolteacher or of a village post office - where the characters are as firmly established as the characters in a morality play and the plot as formalised as that of the Japanese Noh [plays]. Gombeen men, Grabbers, Greed and Politics act out their accustomed roles. O’Flaherty is writing about such near-stylised incidents in the regional romances. We must seek to understand both the artist’s and the regional societies’ principle of selection and emphasis.’ (p.125; quoted in Máirín Nic Eoin, An Litríocht Réigiúnach, Baile Átha Cliath: An Clóchomhar Tta 1982, p.205.)

‘[A]s hunger and disease take their toll, custom and ceremony break down. It is this, more than the simple fact of starvation which destroys the people’ (p.220.)

[Sheeran comments on the element of liebestod in Liam O’Flahertys Insurrection and The Martyr:] ‘[T]theme of death-in-love as it is revealed in Tristram and Iseuld [sic], in Romeo and Juliet, in Heloise and Abelard has to do with personal relationships, in the fate of lovers who refuse to live except by the best they have known and choose death rather than a diminution of their great passion (an Anglo-Irish example would be Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows). An Ireland variously personified as Kathleen ni Houlihan, Roisin Dubh, Banba, seems to inspire in her devotees a similar dark passion. The young girl with the walk of a queen is part of the impenetrable quality of much nationalist rhetoric, whether in the writings of Pearse or the imaginative [244] works of O’Flaherty, that what is said is not couched in political terms, often not even nationalistic, but mystical. [...] The images and the terminology of sexual love are here displaced from their more normal personal context to a public one, often with grotesques effect.’ (pp.243-44.)

[Sheeran quotes a review of Insurrection in The Bell - given in Commentary, supra.]

‘Liam O’Flaherty’s best work is to be found in those novels which have been grouped together under the heading of “Regional Romances”, and after these come Famine, The Martyr and Mr Gilhooley. All of these books - bleak and crude as they often are - offer an unmatched imaginative portrayal of the contradictions and disharmonies that have at once enriched and impoverished our culture and society. O’Flaherty’s best work occurs at the fracture point of a broken world; Irish and English, oral and written, folk culture and “civilisation”. Increasingly, he will probably be seen as a key figure in the development of Anglo-Irish literature if and when the emphasis falls on the “Irish” rather than “Anglo” part of that troublesome hybrid. He is not a novelist of the first rank; he lives more in the mind for what he tried to do rather than for what he actually accomplished.’ (p.301; concludes with a quotation from Francis Stuart, Black List, Section H.)

Sheeran writes of O’Flaherty’s constant theme as ‘man against the political, economic and religious forces which maimed the lives of the people.’ (p.211.) [Part the foregoing quoted in Una Devlin, UUC 1999. Further citations from Sheeran’s study can be found elsewhere on this website.]

 

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