The great novelist and short story writer Liam O’Flaherty was born on 28 August 1896 in the remote village of Gort na gCapall on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Island. His ancestors were members of the famous O’Flaherty clan of Connemara. His father, Michael O’Flaherty, was a leading Fenian on the Aran Islands and a campaigner in the land war.
Liam began his schooling on Inishmore, where he developed a keen interest in education. As a boy of 12, he met a Holy Ghost priest who was visiting the island. He obviously made an impression on the cleric, as the priest made arrangements to have O’Flaherty enrolled at Rockwell College in County Tipperary and later University College Dublin as a diocesan seminarian student.
While his family were ‘anti-clerical’, studying for the priesthood was the only way to ensure an education because of his modest background. However, he seems to have been pleased with the decision and worked diligently at his studies.
However, his life changed with the onslaught of the Great War in 1914. He abandoned his studies in 1915 to join the Irish Guards. He enrolled in the Irish Guards under the name Bill Ganly. Following a training period, he was sent to the Western Front, where he experienced to brutality of trench warfare. O’Flaherty was badly wounded in 1917 during a German bombardment of his position. He was hospitalised and suffered from shell shock. His condition was such that it continued to affect him after the war.
O’Flaherty began travelling immediately after the war, making his way to South America, and to countries such as Turkey and Canada. He found work as a deckhand for a time and worked as lumberjack in Canada. He also spent time as a beachcomber and even travelled as a hobo. This was possibly how he entered the United States illegally in 1920.
While in America, he joined the Communist Party, whose politics he supported for most of his life. In 1921, he returned to Ireland at the height of the ‘troubles’, but he had different ideas for Ireland. He formed a revolutionary socialist army, something thatone would not readily identify with a young man who had studied for the priesthood.
However, even as a youth, O’Flaherty had an interest in Marxism, and it seems the war strengthened his resolve as a socialist. In the days following the foundation of the Irish Free State, he and a number of others occupied a public building in Dublin, from which they flew a red flag. His bid to politically socialise Ireland was not at all successful and a short time later he made his way to London.
While living in the British capital, O’Flaherty began writing short stories in Irish. However, one of his first works in his native language failed, which prompted him to write in English. His first novel, ‘The Neighbour’s Wife’, was published in 1923. Some believe that it was one of his best works. The following year, he produced ‘The Black Soul’. In 1925, he published one of his most famous novels, The Informer’. This book was awarded the ‘James Tait Black Memorial Prize’ for fiction. It was also produced as a film under the Hollywood director John Ford, who was related to O’Flaherty.
During this period, O’Flaherty met a young woman named Margaret Barrington. They were married in 1926 and had one child, a little girl named Pegeen. O’Flaherty was fond of a nomadic existence and began travelling throughout Europe, the United States and South America. He had a great fondness for French and Russian culture.This unsettled way of life did not suit his marriage and was possible the cause of his separation from Margaret in 1932. He also produced ‘Skerrett’that year. A year later, he suffered two nervous breakdowns.
In 1937, he published ‘Famine’a compelling story centred on one of the darkest events in Irish history. In that same year, O’Flaherty met Kitty Tailer, who became his lifelong companion. They moved to the United States as war loomed over Europe. They remained in America until the war was over and returned to Europe in 1946.
O’Flaherty continued to travel and write prolifically into the 1950s. During his travels around Ireland in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he spent much of his time in Galway, staying at the Great Southern Hotel in Eyre Square (Hotel Meyrick).
O’Flaherty always enjoyed staying at the hotel and he became friendly with the late Tom Flanagan, who was the Head Porter at the time. Tom would supply him with pots of coffee well into the night as he worked away on his books. It is believed that one of his books was actually written in the hotel. The present day O’Flaherty’s Bar in the basement of the hotel is named after him.
During his time in Galway, O’Flaherty also visited the Aran Islands. In 1952, he took Kitty to Dublin where they settled. However, his flare for writing was beginning to diminish and much of his so-called ‘new’ later works were really collections of his earlier productions.Many of the letters that he wrote while travelling have since been published.
In 1983, he paid his last visit to the Aran Islands, a place that inspired him and left an imprint in his heart.
Liam O’Flaherty died in Dublin on 7 September 1984.Hehad resigned from the Communist Party prior to his death. O’Flaherty had also returned to the Catholic Church, which he had neglected over the years. He was a brilliant and talented writer, who completed over 150 works in this lifetime.
Some of his productions have already been mentioned, others include: The Short Stories of Liam O’Flaherty (1937); Funny The Way It Is (1925); Mr Gilhooley (1926); If You Think About It (1926); Return Of The Brute (1929); The Ecstasy Of Angus (1931); Shame The Devil (1934); Land (1946); Two Lovely Beasts and Other Stories (1950); Insurrection (1951); The Pedlar’s Revenge and Other Stories (1976). He was also a distinguished and ‘breathtaking storyteller’. Some of his short stories include The Sniper, Civil War, Going Into Exile, A Red Petticoat and The Shilling. His works reached a wide audience, with some of his novels translated into German and French.
In 1996, the author Peter Costello compiled a wonderful book on the great writer titled, ‘Liam O’Flaherty’s Ireland’, which was published by Wolfhound Press. It was to commemorate the centenary of O’Flaherty’s birth. Costello described O’Flaherty as, ‘An individualist to the core, spontaneous and restless, by inclination a wanderer, he espoused the fervent Communism so typical of those early twentieth-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’.
Liam O’Flaherty was honoured in 2006 with a memorial garden in his native village of Gort na gCapall. A plaque describing his life and writings was also erected in the memorial garden. His work touched many people at home and abroad, including his nephew, the author Breandán O hEithir.
Events of note: An open invitation has been extended to anyone interested in attending an event to organize a commemoration of the life of Liam O’Flaherty on 29 November in Galway City Library. It will take place between 6pm and 8pm and people are asked to attend and share stories, information and ideas about commemorating the great writer.
The St Bridget’s Terrace Residents’ Association is organising a Christmas party for 14 December at 8pm in the Western Hotel, Prospect Hill. (Sit-down meal €15) It is part of the 100 years anniversary celebrations and tickets are available from Brian Kennedy on 091-562495.