Sunday 15 April 2018

Liam O'Flaherty - Four Books

Liam O'Flaherty - Four Books
Skerrett / Return of the Brute / Famine / Insurrection

I have long been aware of Liam O'Flaherty and a huge admirer of what short stories I have read. Indeed, when picking four short stories to write about HERE I chose one by O'Flaherty. For some reason, however, I never moved on to reading any of his novels, until this year when, having read one, I ended up reading four.

I started out with Skerrett, the story of a teacher who gets a job on one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, called Nara in the book. The book opens with Skerrett and his wife heading out from Galway towards the "dismal, sea-lashed rock". Skerrett is described as through the eyes of the islanders sharing the boat trip "They saw a man in the prime of his life, tall, of heavy build, with a brown beard that masked the almost brutal coarseness 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."
We learn from a conversation with the rate collector that Skerrett has no Irish and is heading out to a place where they have very little or no English. Skerrett sees himself as their better. O'Flaherty draws an ambiguous, unflattering portrait of a man with many flaws and many victims, himself not least among them.

I followed this up with Return of the Brute, a First World War novel which clearly draws on O'Flaherty's own experience. He came home from the war with shellshocked and the novel is stark in it's representation of the horror of trench warfare. I described it somewhere as like Beckett in the trenches and it is probably my favourite amoung the four novels.
"It was all to no purpose. In the pitch darkness, orders, officers, Sergeant-Majors, trenches, positions and the enemy, with his rival organisation of officers, orders, trenches and positions, all disappeared and became meaningless, just as reality becomes transformed in a wild nightmare. They were lost in No Man's land, floundering in the mud, while the ceaseless rain fell upon them with a monotonous drone.
Mud, rain, darkness and babbling men!"

"God forbid me, I have bad news."
Famine is the novel which seems to have the greatest reputation amoung O'Flaherty's novels and the vividness of his portrayal of the physical world of the time is memorable. The gradual defeat of the family at the heart of the novel is imbued with a sort of tragic inevitability and the sweep of the novel is that of a classic novel from the nineteenth century.
"Their faces were unlike those of children. The queer, unholy wisdom begotten of hunger had already made them look old and unhappy."

"One can't describe things that are purely sensual. They are beyond words. Passion is silent."
While he seems to have ben able to write of Famine and World War 1 without the weight of history bearing down upon him I did feel at times that Insurrection was burdened by the romantic notions of the Easter Rising of 1916, to which the title refers.

Maybe I was sensitised to that given the sonorous tones that came over radio and TV presenters when they were announcing many of the raft of tributes in the centenary year, which is when I read these books, and started this post..

Rather than leave it here in the drafts folder gathering a century of dust I have decided to set it free, without much addition or tidying.


  1. One of these days I'll have to make up for lost time with all these great Irish novelists I mostly know through reputation only. When that time comes, I hope I remember O'Flaherty's name. A "Beckett in the trenches" sounds pretty all right to me.

    1. I would certainly recommend Return of the Brute, and Flaherty's Short Stories.