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Remembering Liam and Tom O'Flaherty

Liam McNulty By Liam McNulty Published on August 1, 2016

On the 27th-28th of August, the Liam and Tom O’Flaherty Society will be holding its fourth annual summer school, the Féile na bhFlaitheartach.

The society, founded with the object to “advance education and culture by promoting the writings and work of Liam and Tom O’Flaherty and their life and times,” is based in Galway and will be organising a programme of events in Inis Mór, the birthplace of the literary brothers.

Tom and Liam were born in 1890 and 1896 respectively, in the rural slum of Gort na gCapall on the south-west crags of Aran’s largest island. Though the subject of romantic accounts from J.M. Synge and the Irish literary revivalists, the islanders were in this period under the constant pressure of eviction, disease or famine.

It was not until 1892 that the first telegraph and steamship were introduced to Inis Mór, then still a relatively isolated society, with an oral tradition and folklore almost unique in Western Europe for its continuity.

This folkloric culture was reflected strongly in the work of Liam O’Flaherty in particular. Man’s relationship with nature was an especial theme in his highly-regarded short story collections, in which critic Angeline Kelly detects traces of a pre-Christian animistic view of man subsumed monistically into the life of nature.

Even in the seemingly realistic urban novels, of which 1925’s The Informer is best known, these themes lurk closely beneath the surface. Tormented protagonist Gypo Nolan, on the run from the secretive ‘Organisation’ for selling information, is distinctively animal-like, as he careens around the seedy Dublin underworld, alienated from society and his environment.

The brothers’ father, Michael, had been a Fenian and a Land Leaguer, once driving the cattle of a land-grabber off the cliffs of Dun Aengus. Though Tom reflected that he ‘liked the emotional, soft, witty, story-telling Ganleys [of his mother’s family] better than the harsh, quarrelsome, haughty ‘ferocious O’Flaherties’”, both men would embrace radical politics.

Tom emigrated to the USA in 1912, and would become a prominent left-wing agitator in the communist movement. Expelled from the Communist Party USA for his support for Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition, Tom became a founding member of the Trotskyist Communist League of America. He returned to Ireland in 1934, editing the radical Irish-language weekly An t-Éireannach and publishing a collection of stories, Aranmen all. He would sadly die of heart failure in May 1936.

After a visiting priest noted the intellectual precocity of the younger brother, Liam was educated first in Tipperary and later at Blackrock College in Dublin. With no intention of entering the priesthood, Liam attended lectures in Classics and Philosophy at University College Dublin, then largely restricted to the thought of St Thomas Aquinas.

According to Ruth Dudley Edwards: 

“A Jesuit professor’s throwaway condemnation of Marxism as ‘ridiculous nonsense’ inspired a typically extreme reaction, causing O’Flaherty to read Marx intensively, with other such forbidden fruit as Engels, Proudhon and James Connolly thrown in for good measure.”

Liam then embarked upon an extraordinary journey, joining the Irish Guards in 1916, before being invalided out of the army in September 1917 with shellshock. Following his recovery, Liam roamed around London, failing at an array of unsuitable jobs, then signing up to work on the boilers of a steamer set for Brazil.

Once across the Atlantic, he spent a brief time with Tom in Boston, and the latter encouraged him to begin writing. Upon his return to Dublin, however, Liam found infamy by seizing the Rotunda Concert Hall, and raising the red flag with a group of two hundred followers to highlight the issue of the unemployed.

As Liam recounted, even though he later became disillusioned with Communism, “Ever since then I have remained in the eyes of the vast majority of the Irish people a Communist, an atheist, a scoundrel of the worst type, a man whom thousands would burn at the stake if they had the courage.”

This partly accounts for the decades of obscurity Liam faced, after his initial novels met with some critical and commercial success. In a letter in 1931, Free State minister Desmond Fitzgerald singled him out for particular criticism, writing: “I think if you eliminate Bolshevism and muck-raking from Liam O’Flaherty, you have a very unimportant writer left.”

Nevertheless, in the 1920s, O’Flaherty was invoked with Joyce and Sean O’Casey as evidence of a ‘new realism’. One critic ‘Y.O.’ wrote in Irish Statesman that from “the most idealistic literate in Europe we have reacted so that with Joyce, O’Flaherty and O’Casey, the notabilities of the moment, we have explored the slums of our cities, the slums of the soul.”

In the 1930s, O’Flaherty left Ireland and lived in the USA, where his best-regarded novel Famine was written in 1937. Returning to Ireland in the 1950s, he published relatively little in the last decades of his life. His final novel, Insurrection, was published in 1950. He would die in 1984.

His books were republished by Wolfhound Press in the 1970s and have largely stayed in print, securing Liam belated and mostly posthumous recognition as a singular and important voice in twentieth-century Irish writing.

The work of the Liam and Tom O’Flaherty Society seems destined to guarantee that the brothers’ life and work is not forgotten, and is discovered anew by present and future generations. 

London-based library worker, interested in modern history, socialism and Ireland.