In crafting his first published short story “The Sniper” O’Flaherty took as his setting and dramatic impetus an issue that he knew well: the Irish civil war of the early 1920s. In this story, two snipers on opposing sides of the conflict face off in a duel. The hero of the story prevails. He kills his enemy, thus assuring his survival, at least for the moment. Only after his enemy is dead, however, does the sniper make a startling revelation: the enemy sniper is his own brother.
The story does not address the problems of the civil war from any historical perspective; notably, O’Flaherty makes no mention of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that sparked the civil war or the ongoing problems the native Irish had with the British rulers. O’Flaherty need not do so, for the Irish and British reading audience in the 1920s was well versed in the ongoing troubles that surrounded Ireland and its relationship to the United Kingdom. Modern readers, as well as non-Irish readers, however, likely may need to be reminded that in the spring of 1922, fighting broke out in Ireland over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This agreement would make southern Ireland an independent state within the British Commonwealth and leave the six counties in northern Ireland part of Great Britain. Free Staters, who supported the treaty, and Republicans, who opposed it, took up arms and fought for control of Ireland’s government and national spirit.
O’Flaherty—who fought for the Republicans at the famous Four Courts rebellion—wrote “The Sniper” within months of this incident; “The Sniper” first appeared in a London magazine in January 1923. So, at the time of the story’s writing and publication, the civil war was still going on. The Four Courts Building in Dublin, Ireland, seen here in 1922, is the location of the standoff described in the ‘‘The Sniper’’ cease-fire between the two Irish armies was not called until spring of that year. This detail of timing may cause readers to more closely examine O’Flaherty’s story for a political message about the civil war. It also immediately renders more provocative O’Flaherty’s choice to create a narrative with what A. A. Kelly, writing in Liam O’Flaherty: The Storyteller, calls a “controlled emotional response.” Many readers will be struck by the sniper’s emotional detachment from the violence around him and the very deaths that he causes. There are different reasons O’Flaherty may have chosen to treat the subject this way, however. By making the sniper less of an individual and more of a type character, O’Flaherty imbues him with him greater symbolic meaning. The sniper comes to represent all soldiers, both Republican and Free Starters. Indeed, the sniper could be any soldier, caught up in any deadly conflict. O’Flaherty’s stylistic device also shows his lack of interest in using his writing as any sort of political propaganda. He does not try to use words and thoughts to win the reader into siding with the sniper, though the man served in the same army as O’Flaherty. Nor does he try to manipulate the reader into feeling that the sniper is a monster. Instead, with his carefully chosen words he presents the situation in as straightforward a manner as possible and then retreats, allowing the reader to draw conclusions. He even resists temptation to comment on the sniper’s discovery that he has killed his brother. Instead, O’Flaherty ends the story on this devastating, potentially life-altering fact.
Such narrative detachment is in keeping with O’Flaherty’s choice not to present an overall picture of the Irish civil war. O’Flaherty does not describe such incidents as the raging battles, the Four Courts seizure and bombing, or the assassinations of major leaders from both sides of the conflict. Instead, O’Flaherty creates only four characters—two of whom appear only briefly—and selects a few specific details that show the effects of the conflict on Irish society. O’Flaherty begins this task in his opening paragraph, describing the noise from the machine guns and rifles that “broke the silence of the night, spasmodically, like dogs barking.” O’Flaherty also references the sniper’s nearness to the “beleaguered Four Courts [where] the heavy guns roared.” However, despite having comrades on the ground who work as a unit in their fight, the Republican sniper faces the conflict alone. He is pinned on a rooftop by the enemy sniper across the street and the armored cars and soldiers down below. Thus in a few sentences, O’Flaherty effectively sets the scene, both for the battle that lies ahead, as well as for the sniper’s supreme isolation.
On the one...
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Liam O’Flaherty, at the age of thirty-two, has written five novels, four volumes of short stories, a biography and a large number of sketches and short stories soon to be gathered together in another collection. His reputation, however, is commensurate neither with this record of sustained creative energy nor with the easily recognizable distinction of his work. Literary popularity is never a matter of significance in speaking about a serious artist; but the reasons behind the critical apathy in the present instance are more interesting than usual. To consider them is to discover something about the mechanism of literary popularity at any time. It is also one excellent means of approaching certain of the essential features of this writer’s contribution to the literature of our age. For the two things which are responsible for the neglect of O’Flaherty are at the same time inseparable from the deepest meaning and value of his work: his nationality and his fondness for melodrama.
The disadvantages of being an Irish writer today would be numerous even were it possible for the English reviews to be less loyal to their country and their class. Liam O’Flaherty has had at least as much to overcome in detaching himself from the settled mist of the “Celtic renaissance” as the writers of that movement had in detaching themselves from the earlier schools of Lever and Boucicault. The unfortunate result is that O’Flaherty has perhaps suffered more than he has gained by the association. It would seem pretty definite that the critical portion of the public is as avid of novelty as the common reader; and both certainly have had reason of late to become rather stalely habituated to the periodic emergence of ambitious talent in Ireland. At any rate an unmistakable tone of weariness has become the custom in whatever is written about this writer in the few literary journals which do not altogether ignore him. Actually, O’Flaherty’s relation to the double tradition of Anglo-Irish literature is unique and distinct. He is on the side of Synge and Joyce, as against the side of Swift and Shaw; but he does not belong unreservedly with either of those writers. Neither intellectual refinement nor the impedimenta of culture and religion operate to confuse the complete identification with nature which is the predominant feature of his work. He is closer to the unknown writers of the early Gaelic folk literature than to any of his contemporaries. He is less the product of any modern school than of that period when European culture had not yet entirely lost its innocence.
There can be no question that all the novels of O’Flaherty belong to the category of melodrama; there can be equally little doubt that judgment of their value has been affected by the prevailing distrust of this mode. The objections to the mode have never been clearly formulated, although adherence to it has often been enough to discredit much of the work of Conrad and Dostoievski in the eyes of some critics. In the Greek sense, a melodrama meant simply a play with music; but the term was never used to differentiate such entertainment from a tragedy by Æschylus, for instance, which has nevertheless most of the objectionable features of a modern melodrama. Today we signify by the term any composition in which the element of action seems exaggerated or strained beyond certain vaguely determined limits. What we probably mean is the extension of action beyond the boundaries to which we are accustomed in normal social experience. This restriction may apply with considerable justice to certain works of drama and fiction of inferior merit; but applied to other more pretentious works of the imagination it seems to involve an inconsistency. Perhaps the misconception rests on a failure to determine the nature of the relationship between action and theme, on the failure to recognize that the treatment of certain themes requires the extension of action on a more strenuous and heroic plane than the normal.
Melodrama, so considered, might be accepted as the elaboration of human motives on a grand scale, against immense backgrounds, and to the accompaniment of enormous music. In terms of function, one might discover in this form the most appropriate medium for the working out of certain crises or highly intensified human situations, the proper conditions for which depend on a heightening of the common laws of circumstance. However, any such defense of melodrama as a legitimate mode has nothing to do with its value in comparison with other recognized modes or with any possible system of values of its own. It is possible to write good melodramas, like Macbeth or The Duchess of Malfi; it is also possible to write bad melodramas, like any number of plays written in Shakespeare’s time or like any number of books written in our own. It is part of O’Flaherty’s distinction as a novelist that he has had the courage, throughout all his five novels, to adopt what is at once the most dangerous and the most unpopular of literary modes.
The fact that all of O’Flaherty’s novels, from Thy Neighbour’s Wife to The Assassin, adhere to the one mode suggests that it is inevitable for the particular pattern of life that has shaped itself in his imagination. His themes dictate the choice, themes which resolve themselves always into the larger and more violent conflicts of melodrama. Should this explanation prove insufficient, there remains the exceptional nature of the background against which these themes are represented. Modern Ireland is a portion of the earth’s surface which it would be necessary to imagine if it did not exist. The Aran Islands, in which O’Flaherty was born, are not unlike those western islands around which Odysseus sailed and adventured; and Dublin, in the civilized modern mind, often takes on the colors of the Elizabethan version of the Italian cities of the Renaissance. It is clear that whatever temperamental predilection O’Flaherty may have had toward the writing of melodrama was strengthened by the inherent conditions of his environment.
For convenience O’Flaherty’s work may be divided into those novels and tales which have Dublin, and those which have his native Aran, for their setting. Of the Dublin group, The Informer, The Assassin, and two earlier stories, “The Sniper” and “Civil War,” are based on real or imagined circumstances of the period of insurrection and disorder through which that city has passed in the last twelve years. As a whole they constitute the most remarkable record of the period which we are likely to receive: the most complete because derived largely from personal observation and participation; the most reliable because written without any other bias than that of artistic selection.
The Informer, as the title suggests, is a novel of the revolutionary half-world, the story of Gypo Nolan who betrays his friend to the police for twenty pounds. Less than one page is devoted to the actual capture and death of the betrayed man. All the interest is centered on the subsequent psychological history of The Informer; his failure to liberate himself from the consciousness of the crime except through the expiation of death...
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