Study Guide

Liam O'Flaherty

by Liam O’Flaherty

Liam O'Flaherty Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

To experience the full range of Liam O’Flaherty’s stories, one must deal with the exceptions in the collection The Stories of Liam O’Flaherty, notably “The Mountain Tavern,” which, like his historical novels, treats the revolutionaries in the 1920’s, and “The Post Office,” a humorous account of visitors’ attempts to send a telegram from a small Irish town. The bulk of his stories, however, deal with nature and with people close to nature. In his publication entitled Joseph Conrad (1930), O’Flaherty distinguishes himself from Joseph Conrad and other novelists, saying, “I have seen the leaping salmon fly before the salmon whale, and I have seen the sated buck horn his mate and the wanderer leave his wife in search of fresh bosoms with the fire of joy in his eye.” Such firsthand observance characterizes twelve of the forty-two stories in the collection, for all twelve are animal stories with little or no intrusion of a human being.

The raw guts of nature, its tenderness and its viciousness, appear in these stories, with both wild and domesticated animals. A cow follows the trail of its stillborn calf to where it has been thrown over a cliff, the maternal instinct so strong that, when a wave washes the calf’s body away, the cow plunges to her death in pursuit. A rockfish fights for its life against a fisherman’s hook, winning the battle by leaving behind a torn piece of its jaw. A proud black mare overruns a race and falls to her death; a huge conger eel tears up a fisherman’s net in making his escape; a wild goat, protecting its kid, attacks and kills a marauding dog. In “Birth,” the people watch through the night for a newborn calf. Among several bird stories, a blackbird, proud of his song, barely escapes the claws of a cat; a baby seagull conquers fear and learns to fly; a wild swan’s mate dies and, forlorn and desperate, he woos, fights for, and flies away with another mate. A wounded cormorant, outcast from its flock, tries to gain acceptance, but the others tear at it and destroy it. A hawk captures a lark to feed his mate and by his very presence, drives peaceful birds out of the territory; but then the hawk loses his life in attacking a man climbing up to his nest, and the man captures the mate and takes the eggs.

Yet the objective study of nature, impassioned alike with tenderness and viciousness, yields a delicate study of erotica. The laws of nature are so closely observed in primitive living conditions and so necessary to the barren efforts of survival that any slight aberration seems marked by a higher intelligence. In O’Flaherty’s stories, this phenomenon seems to take two directions. Ordinary living conditions become bound by rigid customs so that anything not traditional, the peasants say, has “the law of God” against it. Some creatures, however, respond to a different divinity. In these cases the law of nature may permit more individuality than does social custom or the Church. Caught between these baffling natural and socioreligious forces, the people may switch their allegiances with remarkable speed and use the same kind of logic to support two different kinds of action. Some of O’Flaherty’s best stories—“The Fairy Goose,” “The Child of God,” “Red Barbara,” “Two Lovely Beasts”—deal with the reaction of the people not so much to adversity as to difference. “The Red Petticoat” and “The Beggars” deal with people who are different.

“The Fairy Goose”

The title creature of “The Fairy Goose” from before its birth evokes undue emotion; sitting on the egg with two others, an old woman’s pet hen dies. Of the three eggs, only one hatches, into a scrawny, sickly thing obviously better off dead. The woman’s husband intervenes with his admonition of “the law of God” not to kill anything born in a house. So unlike a goose is its subsequent behavior that the people begin to treat it as a fairy, adorn it with ribbons, and bestow other favors. Regarding it as sacred, O’Flaherty writes, “All the human beings in the village paid more respect to it than they did to one another.” On the basis of its supernatural powers, its owner becomes a wise woman sought far and near, but jealousy intervenes: A woman who herself casts spells informs the local priest. He destroys the goose’s nest and calls its admirers idolators. Confronted with the powers of the Church, the former adherents of the goose now denounce it and threaten to burn the old woman’s house. Only those villagers hitherto unconcerned manage to restrain the threatened violence, but eventually young men during the night approach and kill the goose. The old woman’s only defense, a traditional curse, seems to linger in the air, for thereafter the villagers become quarrelsome drunkards.

“The Child of God”

No doubt based on his own disaffection with the Church, O’Flaherty’s stories do not present priests as dispensers of benevolence or wisdom. For the people themselves, religion, custom, and superstition equally comprise the law of God. Tradition, moreover, curbs the active intelligence and promotes baleful ironies; a thing may be blessed and cursed in rapid succession. Such is the career of Peter O’Toole in “The Child of God.” The farmer O’Toole and his wife, in their forties, have an embarrassing “late from the womb” child. The baby’s uncommon ill health provokes the first accusation that he is a fairy child, but the mother maintains that he is a child of God. The wife’s unusual attention to the child seems in itself to be a miracle and alters the conduct of the father, who gives up his drinking bouts. The mother believes the child will bring prosperity to the house, and she makes the older children take jobs and save. At age ten, as if to confirm the mother’s faith, Peter announces his ambition to become a priest—an honor higher than his parents could have dreamed for him. After six years, however, with the family driven into debt to support his education, Peter is expelled because, as he explains later, he does not believe in God. Further, they learn upon his return home at age nineteen that he has become an artist. To their horror, his books of pictures show “naked women like French postcards.” Peter’s difference becomes a threat, and the artist, like the satirists of old, becomes feared for his sketching the people in unflattering poses.

After some six months, an “orgy” occurs at a wake. It would be bad enough for Peter as a participant, but it is much worse for him when the people discover that he is stone sober. As if spellbound, they watch while he sketches the entire shameful scene; afterward outraged, they call his art sacrilege and threaten to stone him. His mother now believes he has brought a curse with his birth, and...

(The entire section is 2787 words.)