Liam O’Flaherty was a child of the 19th century, and a man of the twentieth. Born in rural poverty, he died in urban comfort. Passionate in his love of nature, he abhorred everything brutish in man. An exquisite short story writer about man and beast on Ireland’s western seaboard, ironically he is best known for The Informer, his novel of squalid Communist intrigue in the back streets of Dublin (thanks largely to the famous film version by his cousin John Ford). Yet Famine, calmly dispassionate on the horrors of the Great Hunger, is regarded by all his readers as his greatest work. He was a man with a divided nature; even the Gaelic language of his childhood village was not the language his father wanted in the home. Solitary, he tried for many years to gain a foothold in crowded Hollywood. An individualist to the core, spontaneous and restless, by inclination a wanderer, he espoused the fervent Communism so typical of those early 20th century writers who were filled with generosity and purity of heart; he was still reading Sartre and Le Drapeau Rouge in the last years of his life. Yet it was a cause that failed him, as it did so many other admirers of Lenin and Trotsky. In touch to his nerve ends with the tides and eddies of creation, he loathed with great bitterness all organised religion, yet spent years studying for the priesthood. In the end he died with the blessing of a priest, reconciled with God if not with the institution he had so long rejected.
O’Flaherty was a strange, often contradictory man, unique among his contemporaries in Irish literature. In his writings we can see the beginnings of much that is now being done in both Gaelic and Irish literature. Though often neglected in the sweep of modern Anglo-American criticism, he was widely appreciated on the continent; and his own love of France and admiration for Russian literature suggest that he was more truly a European writer. From the dying remnants of an ancient culture, from the shattered fragments of a modern life, he composed the unities of his art.
Works of Note:
- The Sniper