Liam O’Flaherty, Skerrett (1934; Wolfhound Press 1978 Edn.)

This selection has been made in the course of teaching the novels of Liam O’Flaherty; and as such it constitutes an aide memoire rather than republication in any form. The Wolfhound edition is a facsimile reprint.

Keywords, incl. faith; lust; accent; foreign; language; Irish; English; negro; zulu; America; island; earth; League; outrage; freedom, ... et al.] Note occasional resort to authorial first person, I, 215, cf. 142; also our, p.22, p.161.

On a wild day in February 1887, the hooker Cara Lass brought David Skerrett and his wife from Galway to the island of Nara - Amidships in the shallow hold, her passengers lay crouched among their cargoes - the women, with their red petticoats and many-coloured cashmere shawls lashed about their bodies, moaned in great agony of fear and [5] sickness. The men [...] saw a man in the prime of life, tall, of heavy build, with a brown beard that masked the almost brutal coarseness of his countenance. His thick, moist lips curved outwards and his nose was like that of a prize-fighter, being short, thick and flattened at the end. His brown eyes were bold and sullen. A loose oilskin covered him from head to foot.

a lonely and a wild place [6]

‘[...] the marauding Danes and then the robber English came and destroyed everything. They burned the sainst in boiling oil and now there’s only poor people on the island, except a few protestants that are put there by the government to tyrannise.’ [7]

Coonan treated them as he himself had been treated by Skerrett, as a social inferior. They all wore the native costume of the island, rawhide shoes, blue frieze drawers held with a belt, hand-knitted, of coloured threads, a sleezeless frieze waistcaot, blue in front and white at the back, dark blue frieze shirt with white buttons from throat to breast, wide-brimmed black felt hat. Coonan wore shop clothes, a swallow-tailed coat, trousers, boots and a cravat. Although, at birth, his condition had been identical with theirs, he had begun the slow ascent towards the bourgeoisie by virtue of his position as rate-collector; a type of Irish middle-class man in the infancy of that class, when it began to detach itself from the peasant stem. He affected difficulty in pronouncing Irish words when he spoke to them and in almost every sentence he inserted an English word or phrase; just like a slightly educated African negro posing before his fellow tribesmen on his return to the bush from a Christian settlement. Indeed he filled his pipe and began to smoke before he condescended to answer their questions. [9; vide also 197 infra: Coonan ... disapproved of the Irish language and ... republicanism.]

[Coonan:] ‘Sure without English ye’ll remain in misery and poverty and ignorance, same as ye always were. How can ye go to America without English. It’s English gave me bacon of a Sunday morning for my breakfast and gives me tea twice a day ...’ [10]

In the light of the setting sun the island was radiant with a gaunt and fearsome loveliness, but the cloudy eye of this unhappy man saw only its stark and lonely nakedness. [11]

[Of Father Harry Moclair:] a tall man, over six feet in height, a year older than Skerrett, strongly built, handsome in appearance, of striking personality. His shaven face looked subtle and refined, especially his hawk-like blue eyes, which seemed to smile continually. [13]

For three months Skerrett lived in Ballinacarrig as an enemy of the people. He regarded life about him with aversion [..; 19]

No fine feeling or intelligent ambition seemed able to penetrate his soul Her [his wife’s] deformity of motherhood, which softens the most cruel men into pity and tenderness, seemed to have the opposite effect, of arousing a hatred that was quite human. [20]

Nature had struck a mighty blow on the cold anvil of his heart, which hitherto had never moved to love. [...] He could hardly be restrained from shouting and laughing in the bedroom, where his wife lay [...] He was like a drunken man and when he was alone with his wife that evening, he whispered endearments into her astonished ears. / Indeed they were the first she had every heard from him [...] He had taken her without love, finding her handy to his passion - When she miscarried and he found himself tied needlessly to a dull and unattractive woman, indifference became hatred in him.

He merely had found something before which he could humble himself; not his wife, but his infant son. [21]

The instinct of dominant natures is to deck their brows in [21] defeat with the wreaths of victory. And so did Skerrett set about to turn the hell from which he realised there was henceforth no escape into his chosen paradise

even lashing himself to a belated love for the dull wide, whose dry lips and flaccid bosom froze his lust. [22]

[-] He began to learn Irish and saw the island with new eyes that had lost their sullen anger. He no longer looked upon the people as his enemies, nor on the land as alien. rocks lost their nakedness and he saw how they were holy with the imprint of man’s feet thorugh the centuries nad how this barren wilderness could speak beauty to those with ears to listen, of ghostly things long dead but still remaining on the wind and in the earth’s substance - The island became his home and began to draw him towards its savage bosom. [22]

a bit touched in the head [23]

These vagaries [of dress] almost brought him into ridicule with the more skittish of the people, until they found that his old brutality still lived strongly under the thin paint of his conversion - And as a man in love adores the ground on which the beloved walks and the people among whom she has her being, if they be serving her from afar, he exalted the virtues of the people whom he had formerly despised as savage and barbarous. [23]

They [John & Barbara Kearney] were in the first joy of their mating, a young and handsome couple of outstanding virtues. The wife especially was very beautiful, tall, slender, with extremely refined features and a grace of movement that resembled that of a young thoroughbred filly. Her voice had a delicious thrill like the singing of a blackbird [...] Nor was her husband’s male beauty less splendid, even though he lacked delicacy, being crude and solemn except when his body was in action with his daily work. [24]

Their [the Kearneys] fields and beasts were things personal and friendly to them and even the savage sea sometimes gave them joy by [24] delivering its riches; or a consciousness of sublime woe when it swallowed a life into its maw [...]

The pure ecstasy of their young love [...] made them holy in pure contact with the hard earth and sea; noble in their simplicity. And he [Skerrett] was sad, seeing himself cut off from such happiness. He ached at the thought of their beautiful young bodies locked in an embrace at night, loin to loin and chest to paps that already swelled with the milk of pregnancy, while he himself lay supine and silent beside one who was repulsive to him. [25]

One evening indeed his lust so gained the mastery of him as he watched young Barbara stoop before the fire that he wished to lie on her He had to rush out of the house and wander over the crags. [25] Then, as he stood looking at them [the sheep], he felt overcome with a terrible pity, not only for the sheep but for himself and for all living things that suffered and were afraid. [26]

It must be remembered that this was the period when the whole of Ireland began to emerge from feudalism, as the result of the guerrilla war waged by the peasants against the landowners. Even in Nara, that remore and poor island, which had experienced no change for hundreds of years and where people still used tools and dwellings of prehistoric times, the will towards civilisation had been stirred into life. And the island had been fortunate in the possession of Father Moclair to direct that will. [26])

He [Moclair] had come at the very height of the Land League agitation and he had at once taken command of the people as a soldier and statesman as well as a priest. Roads, piers, lighthouses, fishing boats came in his trail rapidly and in Ardglas a native trading class came into being, together with a group of petty officials, a rate-collector, a sanitary officer, a harbour master, all tending to give the people an idea of their new importance and dignity. the priest reigning like a boutiful father over a people that worshipped him, more as a god than as a father. [26; follows directly on foregoing.]

[H]e saw nothing but altruistic enthusiasm in the priest’s labours. Yet the devil of avarice had found a place in the priest’s soul from the very beginning. [28]

Although he [Moclair] spoke from the altar with the humility of the lowliest beggar, that humility sat well on his lordly countenance and became the condescension of a king; so that the people gave and bowed down after giving. [...]

Realising the importance attached by our people to political associations of a semi-terrorist nature, he founded a society called the People’s League, over which he reigned as dictator, without committee or rules. [29]

As a true statesman, he set a more distant goal to his own and the people’s ambition, by hinting vaguely that the time would come when the island and indeed the whole country would be the property of the people, when “the tyrants would be over-thrown” and when “freedom would be won”. Without commiting himself to anything so rash, he hinted that the police and the coastguards and the government officials and Mr. Athy, the local Squire, were enemies of God and the people and that they were to be avoided, treated with hostility until the time was ripe to smite them hip and thigh. Yet he himself, being as he pointed out the people’s ambassador, was friendly with all these gentry. [30]

In such ways did he work, so that life became a hymn to labour and to love of his fellows for this strange man, who had come to the island as a surly bear, enchained and snapping at his fetters. [31]

‘faith it was how she made him rampant with fury’ [39]

Yet, when the death wail rose again as they were putting the child in the coffin and he came for a last look at the body, faith died under the weight of his sorrow. His face went gray and his lips fell back from his teeth, like the mouth of a gaping fish. He rebelled and the wild strength of his being sought some violent outlet. [43]

Skerrett found his [Moclair’s] words barren and without comfort. Instead of giving him comfort, they made him feel savage. His faith in [45] in the priest received at that moment a blow from which it never recovered.

Indeed, at the sight of this golden lock of hair, his loss became terribly personal to him, instead of the dull ache it had been until then. [47]

Being essentially a rather stupid man, of very slow understanding, it was vitally necessary for Skerrett to rely on somebody of greater intelligence for a plan of life - The doctor definitely appeared to be a rock to which a drowning man might cling. [50]

[On Melia:] His face was very strong; clear-cut in every feature; quite imperial. It seemed as if his head were hewn from marble and like the head of a statue it was without movement. His eyes were intelligent. His whole face, in spite of its strength, had none of the coarseness of Skerrett’s face. It was the face of a refined and civilised man. His skin was bronzed. Although of fine proportions, he looked clumsy owing to his shyness. [51]

As it were, he was issuing the challenge of his strength to the rocky earth that had struck down his son. [54]

She’s afraid of something [52]

It’s just that she has lost faith in life completely [58]

“What does he [Melia] mean?”, thought Skerrett, “Do I believe in God?” / He had begun to criticise in his own mind the priest’s every action and although he remained outwardly friendly as before, he had lost faith within himself. He listened to the gossip that was beginning to become current on the island about the priest’s growing avarice. [61]

And he hated Moclair for his royal carriage, his magnificent eyes, his endearing smile, his subtlety of speech. He sought out his defects with the lust of hatred and fixed on that pimple which had grown on the priest’s cheek, like a beacon of indulgence. [62]

[Melia:] “All these improvements that are being made, roads, fishing boats, grants from the government, all this new education and new habits of life that are being introduced into this island are only breaking up the peace and happiness of the people. Here in this village of Ardglas, I notice that the people are more degenerate and less happy than anywhere else in Nara, because they are more dependent on money and therefore less free.” [71]

[Skerrett:] “I mean that it’s work like what I’m trying to do is going to make Ireland free and a great country as it should be. It’s only by educating the people and improving their conditions of life that we can help Ireland to become free.” [73]

[Melia:] “This island seems to me a blessed place, because it has survived till now all the changes that have racked Europe. The people have remained the same, living in freedom on their rocks. So I think it’s a crime to try and change them. Even what you are doing is a contradiction, because it you are patriotic you shouldn’t teach them English, thus taking away their old speech, which is so beautiful in their mouths, a storehouse of their folk poetry, while the bastard English they are learning from you is so ugly. It’s all wrong, it seems to me.” [74]

[Skerrett:] “I’ll see everybody in hell before I give in to man or devil.” [75]

Barbara has lost all her fresh beauty. [...] Her husband had also lost his suppleness [76]

the act of breathing became a sensuous pleasure [78]

The terror of the sick cow stood out in sharp contrast against this sweet scene of gentle beauty. [78] The cow writhed in pain [...; 79]

The nickname “trickster” which they bestowed on him showed that they were in no doubt as to his real nature and yet they treated him with respect because of the cleverness with which he earned his living without tilling the soil, or “scalding his thighs in brine” [81]

[Ferris - author of outrages; 82]

His courage, endurance and wiry strength were held up to the young all over the island as a model of excellence. A fierce love of freedom and a passion for justice, even in his [83] most trivial human relationships, set his moral character on as high an eminence as his bodily virtues in the people’s eyes. Yet the man was discontented with life, improvident in his domestic affairs, eager for change. [84]

Skerrett, so heavy and solid compared with this lithe and deer-like islander, struck the road with regular thuds as he went west. [85]

The horror that her drunkenness inspired in him was a form of remorse [...] To our Irish people, nothing appears more shameful than a drunken woman; no crime, no matter how heinous, can inspire such a feeling of shame at the degeneration of a human soul as the sight of a woman brought beside her virtue by the sick sleep of drunkenness. Even a poxed whore in drink, as she is fished from the gutter by the Guards, [86] evokes instead of impudent laughter in the gaping mob, a whispering pity. [87]

Skerrett had made a deadly enemy that night. [93]

[Mrs Turley:] “Ireland will never be free” [98]; Kate was getting a tea-pot ready [98] He felt that complete ruin would at any moment overwhelm him [98] Cf. lying drunk on the floor, half-naked. [122; of Mrs Turley.]

[Of Coleman O’Rourke:] the bull-necked type of Irishman; a type that is extremely rare among us, though quite common in England. He had all the characteristics of that type, strength, ferocity, obstinacy, courage and unbridled passion. In spite of his Gaelic name, he resembled in no way what is generally accepted as the Gael, having the short split nose of a Norseman and the Norseman’s flaxen hair, together with the beefy neck and body and fully belly of a Saxon. But in our country, the confusion of bastardy through refcurring invasions and bloody civil tumult has made a sport of race. [101]

Pigott[,] a Protestant who was henchman of the old régime disturbed by the Land League [104]; policeman called Twig [104]

[O’Rourke:] “We threw the landlords off our backs and there is this beggar priest riding us instead.” [107]

his friends [...] all spoke bastard English [109]

Yet the peasants of the western villages, especially Michael Ferris, had a wild beauty in their carriage, and in their rich language, which the Ardglas people lacked. There was something pure and complete in their whole bearing; like that of a noble Zulu, in his war paint, compared to a wretched knock-kneed English trader, whose borrowed cunning serves to build an Empire on the bent backs of defeated but magnificent warriors. [110]

[Of Irish policemen/RIC:] representatives of the distant and unconscious imperial race that held the island in subjection. [110]

[History of the landlord Athy:] About the year 1800 a man called O’Malley came to Nara from the mainland and married a woman of Kilchreest [...] His son Cormac [...] became tenant [sic] of all the good land in Kilchreest [...] grabbing holdings [...] married a Dublin woman of good family and changed to the Protestant faith - genuine feudal baron - all manner of rights, including flogging and copulation. [112] And he was well worthy of his position, by virtue of his manly beauty, his intelligence and his courage; so that even though the people hated him as a land-thierf, a traior to his faith and his race, they held him in high respect. [113]

County Cess; Relief Committee [Chaps. 13-15]

It was ironical that he, who swore to make the Ballincarrig people learn English in a month, now ceased to use that language altogether, except when he had to in school. He even taught through the medium of Gaelifc. The Gaelic League had been started in 1893 [125] and a wave of enthusiasm for the language was spreading over the country, with the growth of militant republicanism. Scholars began to visit Nara - [126]

The new gospel of love for their language and traditional mode of living, together with a longing for national freedom, which he began to preach to them, made no appeal to these peasants, who, like all peasants, were only too eager to sell any birthright for a mess of pottage. And Father Moclair - had the pottage. [126]

[Melia:] “The whole of life is based on love” [127]

“He’s [Skerrett] now forty-six years of age -” [136]; His body, becoming very fleshy around the neck and belly, stood out arrogantly among the crowd of lean, wiry islanders that surrounded him [138]

[Coleman Kelly sinks the curragh:] A very extraordinary thing had happened [141; cf., extraordinary things continued to happen, 206]

Among those who attempt to improve society ther are always two groups; revolutionaries and reformers. The latter aim at leading the people towards the desired goal by reasoned and gradual progress. The former try to effect the change by violence, by sneering and an affectation of superiority, which is generally a token of defeated ambition or os some abnormal passion, akin to insanity. Skerrett had begun as a reformer and he was now forced by Moclair’s cunning into the other group. And as there was only a thin dividing line between a revolutionary and a reactionary, in face of general popular hositility Skerrett soon became a complete crank, criticising every social activity and custom on the island. [143]

[Moclair of Skerrett:] “He’ll hang himself by his own folly” [144]

a woman fled in terror from his nakedness and reported - that he had exposed her person to her [144]

Even though they admitted that they were just as enslaved by the new-born gombeen-man class, “of their own flesh and blood”, as they had been by the landowners, they went their way and shrugged their shoulders. People do not go back to primitive communism merely because it is proved to them that progress towards capitalism is slavery. [145]

the doctor created a public scandal [146] Athy’s ruin [147]

There he was himself cut off from all sexual pleasure, a prisoner on this rock among a hostile people, while the doctor was lose on the great American continent, with a pleasant young concubine to bed [148]

All decent human intercourse between them [Skerrett and wife] had entirely ceased. - With all the cunning of a perverted person, .. she made a science of baiting him [150]

With all his old obstinacy, he persisted in his rude methods of trying to restore order and meeting with no success he [Skerritt] threw all idea of following the prescribed curriculum to the winds, turning his school into a platform for Republican nationalism, anarchism, and the cult of the Irish language. [153]

There he [Skerrett] was, in spite of his force, conquered by the island, which he had tried to dominate. Like a malicious sea-monster, the island had at first toyed with him, giving him promise of greatness. Now it was crushing him into a weak, defeated thing, a subject for the most common man to mock. [153]

The priests, even though it was manifestly their own business and not Skerrett’s, gave him no assistance with the work [of catechism]. Indeed, nothing in our national ife is ore odd than the manner in which our large army of priests relegate to the school-teachers the business of expounding Christian doctrines. Our large army of priests costs the country many millions a year for maintenance, yet the school-masters are forced to do their work. [161]

[Of Devitt:] He strode up to the house, delighted that such a terrible thing had happened. He was a man of splendid physique and although he was an arrant coward, gave the impression by his carriage that he was an unconquerable giant. He seemed to carry something huge and heavy under the breast of his tunic, which looked like a bird’s stuffed gullet. He swung his great arms like clubs. He brought his heels to the ground furiously as from a great height, drawn by a magnet. [189]

[began to] to barge the other women [191]

Moclair had made money even by the bombing of his house [192]; the finishing touch [192]

Although an ardent Catholic and mildly nationalist, Coonan severely disapproved of the Irish language and of the republicanism with which it was associated. [197]

‘the manager of the school’ [198]

[Skerrett:] “What could be better than these tales of ancient heroes, their ancestors, who spoke their language and lived in the same country in freedom? You want me to teach them things they’ll never need when they turn their backs on this school. I’m damned if I will. Maybe these children will be free. Even if they never will, the children will be free. I’m sowing the seeds for the growing of a free race.” [201]

Skerrett looked so menacing in his exaltation that a braver man than Coonan would have been afraid of him [202]

[Skerrett’s] whole face became a mirror of weariness. [...] He lost the power to set his speech in order and could not remember what he wanted to say [...] Like a wounded bull in the arena, when death approaches [202]

[Skerrett:] “I defy him, even if he brings the Pope of Rome to drive me from this place.” [203]

The naked rock glistened in the sun. all was still and grey, [203] except for the brilliant gleams of mica in granite boulders scattered here and there. Somehow, he though these shining light among the rocks were the eyes of devils grinning at him. Suddenly, he thought that the earth was a living being, making fun of his defeat. All was so silent and [mysterious and] unapproachable. He thought how puny and weak was man, wandering haphazard on this cruel earth, pressing its face with his feet, burrowing in its bosom and then passing to his death, when the vain quests of his life have dissolved in horrid annihilation. And it was made manifest to him as he watched the glistening crust of sun-baked rock [granite], beneath its dome of sky, that there was no God to reward the just or to punish the wicked, nothing beyond this unconquerable earth but the phantasies born of man’s fear and man’s vanity. And he began to laugh softly to himself. / For the first time his arrogant soul took wing into complete freedom and he decided that henceforth not even a belief in God would make him subservient to Moclair. He would kneel no more in confession to that demon - [204]

For the first time his arrogant soul took wing into complete freedom and he decided that henceforth not even a belief in God would make him subservient to Moclair. He would kneel no more in confession to that demon. Rather than sink into the bosom of this grinning, unsympathetic earth, to which all beings were the same, the bones of the wicked as the bones of the just, than mount into a fantastic paradise on the passport of Moclair.

[conts.] Furtively, he looked at the forbidding rocks and his eyes were comblre with the dark wisdom that had suddenly come to him; but his being was intoxicated by a strange force that was singing in the distance; singing in the future, when his mind should be accustomed to being a law unto itself. / Then, like an old man, timid and uncertain of movement, he walked back into his school and told the children to go home. [...] And then he heard a loud cry which filled him [204] with a strange terror, as he heard it in his imaginiation making howling circles in the air. And he understood this cry meant that death threatened him. / He raised his head, shrugged himself and cried out: / “I refuse. I’m not beaten yet. [...] “I’m sick”, he said, “talking to myself [...] Don’t send for a doctor,” he cried excitedly. “Send for Michael Ferris. Send for Kearney too. Let my friends gather round me.” Thene began to rave.’ [205]

extraordinary things continued to happen [206] unbelievable cruelty [207]

Catholic Ireland [206] relations in Dublin [209]

contemporaries will remember that the press gave considerable space to the outrage [207]

In spite of his sickness, although he was unable to walk without the assistance of a heavy stick, he had lost none of his courage [209]

Ferris: ‘Bravo - you’re a man and I admire a man - you have the courage of a lion’ [209]

conquered by the simple charity of these people as he had never been by the most cruel blows of fate. - “[-] Very happy indeed.” [212]

the people tittered [211] “Good people, the happiness of the world comes from freedom like this” [212]

wounded beast in the herd [215]

women - in primitive communities are the carriers of superstition to a far greater extent than the men. [216]

peasants are the least prone to conviction of all human beings on matters that affect their material lives. It is only in matters dealing with the supernatural that they are credulous. [217]

He had become a wild, brutal man as he had been when he first came to the island; but with the difference that his brutality was now the child of despair. [221]

[Epilogue:] [...] Moclair’s virtues were of the body, allied to the cunning which ministers to the temporal body’s wants, so do they wither quickly into nothing[ness]. Whereas the nobility of Skerrett’s nature lay in his pursuit of godliness. 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. [224; END.]
[ back ]  
[ top ]