WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ LIAM O’ FLAHERTY

The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ LIAM O’ FLAHERTY

‘[In the hotel] they bustled around serving mutton chops and potatoes, huge pots of tea…and charging 7 times the normal price for each meal, for even though Kilmurrage was in uncivilized Inverara, it had nevertheless become civilized through contact with priests, bishops, county court judges, Government officials and shopkeepers…to the extent that it had already mastered what is known and appreciated in the civilized world as “the business instinct”’

Thy Neighbour’s Wife (1923) by Liam O’Flaherty

For Inverara read Inishmore in the Galway Aran Islands, and for Kilmurrage read Kilronan which is Inishmore’s biggest village. The Aran Islands were made famous by the playwright and folklorist John Millington Synge (1871-1909) who spent 6 summers there and published his classic Aran travelogue in 1907, and who also fictionalised rural Mayo in his controversial play The Playboy of the Western World which caused riots on its first night in the Abbey Theatre. Liam O’ Flaherty (1896-1984) was born on Inishmore of a politically radicalised father, and after a spell at University College, Dublin, and then renouncing training for the priesthood,  under the name ‘Bill Ganly’ he joined the British army, the Irish Guards, and fought in WW1 on the western front where he was badly wounded. As he had two severe nervous breakdowns from 1933 onwards, it is also possible he might have suffered delayed shellshock.  Returned from the war, he became a founding member of the Communist Party of Ireland and in 1922 he and others seized the Rotunda Concert Hall in Dublin, sited where is now the Gate Theatre. They held it for 4 days in protest at the apathy of the governing Irish Free State, until the latter eventually forced their surrender. Shortly afterwards he moved to London where destitute and workless, he turned to writing and within a year his first novel Thy Neighbour’s Wife was published when he was only 27. It is a compelling and undoubted masterpiece, given that among other things O’Flaherty manages to take a tiny, infinitely obscure community and effortlessly universalises it, so that Inverara/ Inishmore stands as emblematic of anywhere in the world, hamlet or metropolis, where greed, hypocrisy, power wangling, corruption, sexual perversion and sexual jealousy hold sway.

The protagonist is Hugh McMahon, the young, ascetic and troubled island curate, who before joining the priesthood was loved by another Inveraran, the beautiful Lily McSherry. Young Lily had been heartbroken by her rejection in favour of Hugh’s vocation, but eventually was married off by her uncle, the priest Father O’ Reilly, to an appalling businessman in his fifties, Mr McSherry, who had spirited her away at once to South America. The novel starts with the return of the McSherrys to Inverara, somewhere pre-Irish independence, and Lily already looking openly distraught as her awful husband is quite simply out of control. Not only is he a drunk but he is also drunkenly lecherous in public and at her first interview with Father O’Reilly, Lily starts to tell her uncle exactly what her husband did to a woman on the way here…but the priest shouts at her to stop and rapidly urges her to accept whatever cross has been put upon her. And here Lily, who her uncle had taken in when she was orphaned and even sent her to university in Dublin, shows she is no squashed little flower, when she accuses him before his housekeeper of crudely selling her off to an aging drunkard in exchange for extensive funds to refurbish his church. McMahon, observing Lily’s distress at a distance and learning more via the gossip of his housekeeper, suddenly has his priestly feelings turned upside down as he realises he is smitten and in love again with his former sweetheart. And of course, he being a priest and she being married, even to a dissolute monster, makes any kind of romantic reconciliation impossible.

As for Lily’s uncle and McMahon’s superior, Fr O’ Reilly:

‘On steamer days, when he stood down at the end of the Pier, he looked like a well-bred English country gentleman, and many people said he greatly resembled a fox-hunting squire, standing on his hearth rug before a roaring log fire, with fox terriers scattered around the room, and the local gentry singing Tally ho! Tally ho…!’

51-year-old O’Reilly is the most powerful person on the island, with only a strictly necessary quantity of spirituality and sanctity, so to speak. He is more famed for his wheeling and dealing, and his always pragmatic approach, one which wins him the loyalty of the fishermen, for with typical shrewdness he allows them to break the Sabbath when there is a glut of fish. Notably he had campaigned to get the Congested Districts Board to buy the land for the fine new Pier from the landlord (even though it was Land League agitation actually did that) though less selfless was the fact he has accumulated estimable sums of money from Government officials for getting the islanders to jump to heel in paying their rents. As a result, this handsomely grey-haired priest who long ago arrived on the island penniless, has:

‘…a greyness that could be associated with a well-fed body…a well-fed priest who knew that his reputation for sanctity was secure, as secure as his bank account, which ran well into 4 figures sterling…and the reddish tinge in his nose, and the pimple on the tip of it, showed according to his enemies he was “a little fond of the bottle”.’

Alcohol, and especially that of the non-taxable kind, the poteen as brewed in Inverara shebeens, is central to the novel, for McMahon whose solicitor father had died in a home for inebriates, has taken a vow of lifelong abstinence. Before Lily came back to Inverara he had been relatively happy with his priestly duties, his token Home Rule idealism, his occasional article for religious journals about ancient Inverara architecture. He had also penned poems published in little magazines, which the islanders, poetry lovers to a man, were very proud of, but which an unkind Dublin critic had dubbed as ‘schoolgirlish’. Now that he is obsessed with Lily and already hating her oafish husband he feels an overwhelming need to drink, and a significant part of the novel deals with his efforts to distract himself and stop himself breaking his vow. But then, worse still, another rival arrives on the scene, in the form of one O’Malley, revered by the islanders as his Inverara line goes back to hoary antiquity, to island heroes, ancient kings and the days of Finn MacCool. O’ Malley, as well as being a handsome and radical Republican, hence contemptuous of Home Rulers and Landleaguers and the kilted Gaelic Leaguers etc, is educated and contributes to Dublin reviews to earn a living, something which O’ Flaherty with his own panoptic view of the various compromised alliances cannot help satirising.

‘And although O’ Malley would rather die than work for his living in Inverara, he was quite content to do so as a journalist in Dublin, and yet was proud of his ancestry as a peacock of his feathers, but he questioned the right of Pat Coleman to be proud of the fact he was a postmaster and of value to the community, or of the right of Mr Mulligan to be proud of the fact he was a publican and sold bad porter instead of unadulterated porter and made money by his cunning…”

McMahon several times secretly observes a budding tenderness developing between Lily and O’ Malley and finally unable to endure it, he goes out at dead of night to a remote shebeen, which functions as a kind of clandestine pub, to get himself some poteen. He had previously beaten Brannigan the poteen maker in public with a stick for his wicked trade (O’ Reilly by contrast always had a bottle put by for those who wanted it at his table) so he has to invent a devious means of acquiring it. Ranting and threatening to put a curse on him in his shack, he commands Brannigan to hand over for destruction all the evil poteen he has in his possession, so that the wily publican gives him 2 big bottles, a fraction of his stock, and sends him on his way. McMahon smuggles the bottles past his housekeeper into the hotel room where he lives, and it takes some protracted agony and deliberation before he can open one, but once he does, he consumes enough on successive nights to go unconscious, and is obliged to miss several early communions as a result. In his drunkenness he wavers between morbidly harrowing guilt and a kind of sublime indifference where he wonders why he ever chose the priesthood in the first place. But his most painful trial is that he cannot give Communion to the islanders unless he has made his own Confession to another priest, in his case O’ Reilly, and of course if he does so he must confess his new addiction. He escapes this partly by feigning illness, and by a stroke of luck O’ Reilly one day has to go the mainland on urgent, meaning worldly affairs. In a succession of set pieces, McMahon then follows deviously in pursuit of Lily and spies on her various rendezvous with O’ Malley, on one occasion being so drunk on his return he falls off his bike and has to be carried home by worried peasants. Miraculously, no one discerns his drink problem, aside from a spectacularly old and deaf physician Doctor Cassidy, who is so inept his wife has to chaperone him everywhere, and she hushes him scandalised for suggesting the curate might be a drinker. Cassidy is one of a range of confidently drawn island eccentrics, including an unworldly Church of Ireland clergyman who gives no services whatever to the 6 Protestants on the island but spends his time lying on his back reading works in ancient Greek. There is also the stinking rich Englishman Mr Blake who has his own yacht for taking his favourites around and says things like ‘Pon my soul’ at every opportunity. Most poignant in the context of McMahon’s approaching tragedy though, is Seameen O’ Toole the island recluse and anarchist, who happens to get in the way one day when the curate is close to confronting Lily and professing his love for her.

‘He never worked as other men work, with an objective, to raise a family or perpetuate themselves. Seameen just worked to exist…he raised a few sheep and sowed a few potatoes every year, potatoes which he never dug or weeded or sprayed, but scratched a few from the ground when he needed them. He fished most of the time when the weather was fine and when the weather was not fine he slept…’

With his symbolic opposite Seameen idling nearby as indifferent audience, and despite his terrible constraint McMahon attempts to declare himself to Lily. But to no avail.

‘She shrugged her shoulders a second time and taking the tip of her skirt in her right hand, she walked past him into the fort, looking away from him out to sea.’

Meanwhile, shameless McSherry having assaulted one of his young servants and made her flee the house in terror, means that he and Lily no longer have any marital relations, which inevitably makes his drinking worse. Parallel with his gradual dissolution, Lily’s fascination with charismatic O’ Malley reaches a climax on the day of the Boat Race, an event so famous that it attracts visitors from a hundred hamlets and villages on the mainland, not to speak of dozens of itinerant food and drink stalls and those dedicated to holy trinkets, as a rule and bizarrely, manned by Jewish vendors. O’ Malley is the favourite for the race and O’ Flaherty gives a bravura account of the cliff edge excitement throughout.  The island hero wins by a short head, but far from heroically, with his boat collapsed and letting in water, and with the other contender’s prow comically stuck up its stern and shoving it to the touchline.

Shortly after his victory, he and Lily have a passionate rendezvous and they declare their mutual love, O’Malley promptly offering to take her far away from the island, married or not. Lily shudders and demurs at something which even in liberal Catholic terms was well beyond the pale, but the whole thing becomes academic when news reaches them that McSherry has finally dropped dead of a heart attack. In his last few seconds he had angrily confessed that he was a priest’s bastard, though the paternity is not elaborated on and we can only conclude that his alcoholism and hostility to women might have its roots in that well-kept secret. Aware of all this, McMahon decides to resort to something he had read concerning the customs of the monks on this island long ago. Sometimes to test the seriousness of their piety they would set off in coracles into the ocean but without any oars, and simply allow themselves to be blown by the wind. If they were truly pious monks, no matter how bad the weather, they would eventually be blown back to land, but if they were at root evil, they would perish. McMahon sets off drunk to achieve this feat of divination and he goes to the obscurest part of the island called Rooruck which thanks to the Inverara topography was short on sunshine and big on overwhelming grimness and desolation. The village had 6 cabins and a population of 35 and was so remote and unvisited that some inhabitants had never even got as far as Kilmurrage. McMahon prevails upon a Rooruck man called Big John to have his coracle and ends up surlily demanding it, even though as its owner points out the weather is turning terrible and it is his only means of earning a living should it be wrecked. Nevertheless, the drunken curate sets off into a brewing storm in his stupor, unaware that Big John has slung a pair of oars into the coracle at the last minute. The curate duly faces his terrifying Nemesis, and I won’t give away the tense ending, but suffice to say he survives after a fashion and in the end goes a very long way away from Inverara.

If you have read O’ Flaherty at all, it is probably some of his short stories you looked at when you were studying anthologies at school, most likely from his fine 1950 collection The Pedlar’s Revenge. Alternatively, you may have read his most successful novel, The Informer (1925), about a confused Republican who betrays his companions, which won the James Tait Black prize that year, and was made into a film by John Ford in 1935. But O’Flaherty wrote a total of 16 novels, 14 of which appeared between 1923 and 1937, and despite their consistent excellence most of them have long been disgracefully out of print in the UK. The heroic and sad to say late Wolfhound Press of Dublin put them all back into circulation in the 1990s, and I can recommend every one of them and especially: Skerrett (1932) with its quirky and disturbing protagonist, plus the harrowing epic about the potato famines, Famine (1937) and the idiosyncratic Mr Gilhooley (1926) about the spiritual dissolution of a lonely middle-aged man who becomes disastrously infatuated with a teasing, two-faced and faithless young woman.

 

 

 

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