Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Liam O'Flaherty

A box-set of Liam O'Flaherty's Complete Short Stories as a Christmas present has made me think again about the possibility of writing a biography about him some time.
It is surprising that such a prolific writer who led a peripatetic and adventurous life has never been subject to a full biography before.
He was born on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, in 1896 and was brought up speaking English and Irish and developed a reputation as a story teller when he was child.
He was sent to a Catholic boarding school when he was 12 on the understanding that he would eventually be ordained into the priesthood but later admitted that he had no vocation. Despite this he was admitted to UCD but dropped out to fight for the British army in the First World War.
He was wounded and suffered from shell shock for many years. O'Flaherty fictionalised his wartime experiences in the novel Return of the Brute.
In 1918 he began a period of world wondering after signing up as a crew member on a cargo ship.
He sailed to the Mediterranean and to the port of Izmir in modern day Turkey where he went on a massive bender. From there O'Flaherty sailed back to Britain and then on to South America where he jumped ship in Brazil.
He managed to hitch a lift back across the Atlantic until he joined another ship and sailed to Canada from where he made his way to New York and became involved in the trades union movement and joined the Communist Party.
By 1921 he was back in Ireland and became involved in a fringe anti-Treaty group during the Irish Civil War and seized the Rotunda in Dublin where he raised the red flag.
He managed to escape before the Free State army overran the Rotunda and while standing outside the GPO in O'Connell Street overheard a woman saying: "Did you hear that bloody murderer Liam O’Flaherty is killed, thanks be to God.”
He fled to London, with a pistol strapped to his back and it was there that he started writing short stories and novels.
O'Flaherty continued to travel widely and went to the USSR and spent a lot of time in France. He also spent many years in Los Angeles working as script writer.
As well as his novels and short stories he wrote a number of biographical books. Two Years tells about his time travelling on the cargo ships, while Shame the Devil (which he inscribed 'I offer this dagger to my enemies') recounts another nervous breakdown during the 1930s brought on by writers block. Shame the Devil also revisits some of the key moments of his life.
I think he also wrote a satire about one of the periods he spent working in LA as a script writer called Hollywood Cemetery. He was there in the 1935 and during most of the Second World War.
O'Flaherty returned to Europe in the late 1940s and eventually settled in Dublin where he lived until his death in 1984, although for the last 30 years of his life he did not produce any new material.
His novels are uneven and critics have accused O'Flaherty of never really mastering the format although The Informer, which made into a film by John Ford (a cousin), The Assassin and Famine are still in print.
My own favourite is his early novel The Black Soul, which was partially biographical, and tells of a shell-shocked individualist suffering from a nervous breakdown among a close-knit, superstisious community on an island of the west coast of Ireland.
O'Flaherty's writing can be a bit gauche sometimes and even The Black Soul is a bit ropey in parts. However, it is always passionate.
However, his real achievement was his short stories. There are around 120 in my new box set, including those from Dúil, which was written in Irish, and their English translations.
The best of them are brief, uncluttered pieces steeped in nature or something that seems to capture a pivotal moment in someone’s life and that seems to define everything else that will ever happen to them.
Like so much else about him O'Flaherty's personal life was complicated. He married a divorcee and they had one daughter and he had another daughter with an American woman and various other liaisons.
First-hand witnesses would be hard to come-by now, although there are sure to be some people still alive who knew him well.
The various volumes of autobiography and his collected letters would provide some decent source material, however, using these sources could entail falling into a trap which O’Flaherty himself set for future biographers.
On the very first page of Shame the Devil he writes: “No-one knows what is truth. And therefore, if I lie in attempting to tell the truth in this book, let the blame lie at the door of original sin rather than at the door of my conscience.”
The only thing that resembles a biography to date is a coffee table-style book called Liam O’Flaherty’s Ireland by Peter Costello which includes some biographical material, stories and extracts from his novels and pictures of O’Flaherty, Inishmore and scenes that intended to illustrate his writing.
In his introduction Costello writes: "[O’Flaherty] 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 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. 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. "


Fionnchú said...

Please write that biography! As you probably know, although John Zweibel wrote a lit-crit study a long time ago, and A.A. Kelly another, as well as editing his letters, there's no solid "life." Perhaps the problem with an storyteller who purports to tell his own tale as an unreliable narrator?

I tried years back to find out about his California stint, as the conjunction of my hometown with that peripatetic Irishman intrigued me, but there's barely a reference to it in the letters or studies; "Hollywood Cemetery" does not appear to have been a success, and whatever ideas he or John Ford had of working together don't appear to have come to much.

Tony Bailie said...

I think key to any O'Flaherty biography would be the Hollywood years. The first half of his life is well documented and I think could be written using his own books as source material and for example. A good trawl through various Irish literary biographies and even English ones would I'm sure turn up enough material to flesh him out. But there does seem to be a blindspot when it comes to his time in LA. Perhaps his estate are holding diaries and letters or these may already be with a university somewhere and no-one has really bothered to trawl through them.
He seems to have been spent as a writer in his final 30 years - I wonder if the years in Hollywood disillusioned him or if he just burned out.
A biography is something I keep coming back to but shy away from because of the commitment it would require... some day

dsnapoli said...

Are you familiar with the novel Mad Hatter's Village by someone called Mary Cavendish Gore? The book was published in 1934 and is set on a beach outside Los Angeles. The protagonist, a starving writer, is a dead ringer for O'Flaherty. I suspect he wrote the book as well. That actually might be possible since, as you say, no one knows what he was doing during his time in Hollywood. -- Don Napoli