Conflicting cultures and two languages shaped O'Flaherty as man and artist

 

A HUNDRED years after his birth, critical opinion about the literary standing of Liam O'Flaherty remains warily respectful. Many acknowledge the power and often mesmeric beauty of nature stories such as The Cow's Death, The Black Bullock, The Blackbird's Mate, The Wounded Cormorant, The Foolish Butterfly and others without grasping the daunting extent of his intense and diverse range from island landscapes to Dublin slumland.

His weakness for melodrama, Lear-like railings against fate, rhetoric, his treatment of women as invariably "tall and slender" sex objects and his forensic, near-obsessive attention to physical detail - the first reference to any character often extends to almost page-long descriptions - does alienate readers and most of his 15 novels remain overshadowed by his short fiction.

Famine (1937) is an acclaimed epic, and is his most vivid, moving and deliberate novel, thanks to its depth of characterisation, while Skerrett (1932) is a classic study of a culture resisting change, never mind a metaphor for colonialism. O'Flaherty the novelist continues to bow to the short story writer.

It remains too easy to confine a reading of O'Flaherty's highly cinematic art to 150 often superb, short stories - many of them fables which present him as an intense primitive, preoccupied with the brutal inevitably of nature in its dealings with animal and man while missing out on the political and socio-cultural dimension of his vision. O'Flaherty never forgot the landscape and lifestyle of his island home but through his travels soon became quite cosmopolitan.

Born 100 years ago today in the village of Gort na gCapall (`the field of horses') on the largest of the Aran Islands, Liam O'Flaherty, both as an individual and as an artist was shaped by, and caught between, two conflicting cultures and two languages. Though a native Irish speaker, he wrote almost exclusively in English with the late exception of Duil (1953), a collection of 18 Irish language stories. The failure of an early play in Irish as well as the tragic example of Padraic O Conaire, whom he admired, alerted O'Flaherty to the hardships encountered when writing in Irish. Even from his earliest days as a writer in London, his instinct was balanced by a commercial shrewdness sharpened by his awareness of writing for an international audience. Nevertheless, the curiously rugged grace of his English prose owes much of its richness to the Irish language.

The fact he was a second son with nothing material to inherit, combined with his obvious academic intelligence, ensured he would be destined for a life beyond Aran. His headmaster at the local national school suggested O'Flaherty's suitability for the priesthood. This resulted in the boy being dispatched at 12 to Rockwell College where he soon impressed. However, aside from his scholastic gifts, O'Flaherty also demonstrated an independence of thought. On refusing to take the first steps towards ordination, he was transferred to Blackrock College. Later, drawn back towards a vocation, He entered Holy Cross College and began a BA at University College,

Dublin.

Gifted, yet temperamentally erratic, O'Flaherty finally abandoned the priesthood and then university itself to join the Irish Guards. His early life provides some understanding of the energy, confusion and passion which undercuts so much of his work. O'Flaherty's universe is one built on turmoil; the raging seas battering the west coast are well matched by the inner hells of guilt, desire and failure inhabited by many of his characters.

Psychological intensity is central to most of O'Flaherty's narratives, none more so than his second novel, The Black Soul (1924). The Stranger, Fergus O'Connor, arrives on the island of Inverara hoping to recover from shell shock but also to reach some semblance of inner peace. Having wandered "around the world for two years after the war, trying to find somewhere to rest - Canada, the Argentine, South Africa" and then arriving back in Dublin, "burrowing in the bowels of philosophy, trying to find consolation one day in religion, next day in anarchism, next day in communism, and rejecting everything as empty, false and valueless. And at last, despairing of life. The restless, unhappy Stranger, desperate for love yet repulsed by it, is clearly based on O'Flaherty.

It is his most autobiographical novel, providing a key to the preoccupations of his art. Many of the Stranger's experiences later reemerge in the autobiographical accounts Two Years (1930) and Shame The Devil (1934).

The self-absorbed Stranger figure is obsessed with his sexual problems. He is drawn to two contrasting women: Little Mary, the beautiful, unhappily married peasant girl eager to give herself to him, and Kathleen O'Daly, who has been to college and plays the violin. Though certainly flawed and weighted by O'Flaherty's love of extremes, his intensity and liking for frenzied interior monologue, The Black Soul is deceptively insightful and conscious of the subtle social hierarchy of island life. O'Flaherty repeatedly describes his islanders as "peasants". The narrative swings rather obviously between the Stranger's civilised savagery and savage civility of the natives.

Far less typical of much of his writing is his debut, The Neighbour's Wife, an entertaining burlesque revealing an earthy humour rarely associated with O'Flaherty although it is to later resurface to fine effect in Oifig An Phoist (from Duil). Synge and O'Casey are often echoed in O'Flaherty's work so too is Dostoyevsky's frenzy, if not his spirituality. The Informer (1925) and The Assassin (1928) together with the earthier, more offbeat Mr Gilhooley (1926) certainly confirm the suspicion that O'Flaherty equated cities with the ultimate corruption.

Yet, while The Informer and Assassin are linked by similar psychological tensions and quasi-political themes undercut by basic human failing, Mr Gilhooley crudely focuses with terrifying results on a major O'Flaherty preoccupation, the utter incompatibility of men and women. Relationships in his work are based either on passion or hatred. It is hard to credit Yeats's view of Mr Gilhooley as "a great novel", but it is a violently vivid and racy portrait of complacency shattered by circumstances.

As early in his career as 1930, O'Flaherty had written a study on Joseph Conrad, followed within a year by his Swiftian pamphlet, A Cure For Unemployment. Politically, he appears to have been a reactor rather than a thinker; his views are explosive outbursts, not calculated theory. If there is a dominant tone to be found in his fiction it is one of exasperated sympathy. His non-fiction, however, is largely sustained, if not generated, by anger and sarcasm. The autobiographies exude bombast and swagger. With Famine, dominated by the Kilmartin family and the unforgettable villain, Chadwick, he had published his masterwork. Land (1946), also a historical novel, proved a disappointingly weak reflection off Famine. By then O'Flaherty had settled in Dublin. Insurrection followed in 1950 and The Wilderness 28 years later. Yet, as the tormented visionary appeared to find peace, the compulsive writer, freed of his inner rage, stopped writing.

In common with most of his generation, he saw his work banned in Ireland. He died at 88, on September 7th, 1984, respected in Ireland but never an icon, not even now. At its best, his fiction as in Famine and Skerrett and any number of short stories, has an elemental, moral grandeur, a visual beauty seldom achieved in prose and above all, an understanding for the complexities of human nature. His is a powerful, still unsettling legacy.