Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2787
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 his father believes God will strike all of the villagers dead for what Peter has done. The priest intervenes and dispels a stone-throwing mob; but, exhibiting no more compassion, benevolence, or enlightenment than do the people, he denounces Peter for having brought a curse on the parish and banishes him. The mother, left alone, weeps for her lost child, not aware of the irony that her son’s creativity indeed makes him a child close to God.
Between the alternatives of a blessing or a curse, one who thrives—provided he is not too different—surely must be blessed. So Barbara’s second husband in “Red Barbara,” although a weaver and a flower grower, gains acceptance until his marriage proves unfruitful; then he proves himself limited to the prevailing viewpoint. Barbara, accustomed to beatings and violent lovemaking by a frequently drunken husband, shrinks from Joseph’s gentle touch and soon despises him as a “priestly lecher.” Sharing the people’s belief in the importance of a family, he grows fearful of his own failure to father a child, becomes strange, solitary, and emaciated, and eventually dies deranged. Barbara returns to her wild ways with her third husband, and Joseph is remembered only as “a fable in the village.”
“Two Lovely Beasts”
So closely knit is a small Aran community that the owner of a cow shares its milk, free, with his neighbors. Thus a crisis occurs in “Two Lovely Beasts” when Colm Derrane consents to buy a motherless calf from a poor widow and feed it alongside his own calf. The widow, Kate Higgins, assures Colm that he is different from everybody else. The difference in his decision to raise a calf on the people’s milk definitely breaks the law of God and of the community, and the family becomes outcast. Kate herself cannot find another cow to buy, uses the sale money to feed her children, and turns against Colm with the accusation that his money was cursed. Forcing his family to live frugally in order to feed both calves, Colm beats his wife into submission; this evidence of male sanity restores her confidence in him. Hereafter all the children work hard to save, the tide of public opinion turns as the family prospers, and now the people say that God has blessed the family’s efforts to rise in the world.
Two of the Higgins children die without proper nourishment; the distraught mother, removed to an asylum, leaves behind a plot of grassland which Colm rents through a difficult winter. He demands of his starving and threadbare family another year of sacrifice while the two beasts grow into bullocks and he can save money to open a shop. At last, with the community’s belief that God blesses those who prosper, the shop brings financial success, and the calves become champions on fair day. Envy intrudes, also, but as Colm and his family drive away to open a shop in the town, he appears unaware of the people’s hostility and derision. “Two Lovely Beasts” in this way shows the possible rise of a merchant class, who as money lenders became known as the hated gombeen men—those who live off the peasants by buying their produce at low prices and selling it elsewhere for a profit, a topic O’Flaherty treated in The House of Gold.
“The Red Petticoat”
Most of the stories, however, relate the peasants’ situation at home—their contention with the forces of nature, their primitive living conditions, and their sensitivity to social order and ideals. Often conditions seem to be fixed at the close of a story, but occasionally good wit or good fortune alters the circumstances, at least temporarily, as in “The Red Petticoat” and “The Beggars.” The ankle-length skirt of red or blue wool called a petticoat is a colorful part of the native costume of women of the Aran Islands. Often paired with a heavy, long shawl, it stands out against a somber background of rocks and grey houses. “The Red Petticoat” begins with Mrs. Mary Deignan and her four children, with no food in the house, trying to think of a way to obtain provisions. This unusual family does not work consistently, although all work valiantly when they have work; they enjoy laughing together and composing poems, some of them satires against their enemies. Unlike most residents of Aran, they can laugh in the midst of near-starvation. Out of such a background and the family’s rehearsals come the expediency that Mrs. Deignan contrives to relieve their want—a melodrama spawned in her own brain, using the stock character of a witch or “wise woman,” and acted out against the village storekeeper.
Mrs. Deignan, known as “Mary of the bad verses” because her poems are “scurrilous and abusive, and at times even indecent and in a sense immoral,” is not powerless when she sets forth wearing her shawl and her new check apron to visit Mrs. Murtagh, the local storekeeper who has somewhat the character of a gombeen. In her “wise woman” role Mrs. Deignan terrifies Mrs. Murtagh with a hissing account of Mrs. Murtagh’s sins in the traditional style of name-calling, out of which eventually Mrs. Deignan shoots a question: “Where is the red petticoat you were wearing last Sunday night, when you went to visit the tailor?” Tricking Mrs. Murtagh into denying it was red and admitting it was a black skirt, Mrs. Deignan now has what she wanted—the means of blackmail. Mrs. Murtagh launches into a vicious battle with Mrs. Deignan and knocks her into a corner but attracts passersby. Mrs. Deignan only pretends to be unconscious and, at the propitious moment, she changes character and becomes a pitiful beggar, blessing Mrs. Murtagh for having agreed to provide whatever she wants on six-months’ credit. The neighbors understand that something is wrong, but they are totally mystified. Mrs. Deignan returns home with her shawl turned into a grocery sack slung over her shoulder; Mrs. Murtagh knows she will be subject to further blackmail but comforts herself with thoughts of spending more time with the tailor.
“The Beggars” features as protagonist a blind man who with “priestly arrogance” exhorts people to beware the hour of their deaths, although he knows from experience that a church is not a place to beg alms; cemeteries and missions are better. His repeated cry, totally incongruous with his surroundings, earns him nothing near the gateway to a racetrack. Changing to angry curses when he thinks a man jeers at him, the beggar gains the sympathy and the aid of other beggars—a tipster, a singing woman, and an accordionist. The honor and generosity he finds among beggars seem sufficient to confirm his dream that he would find good fortune in a strange place on this day; but then the formerly cursed man returns to count into his hand five one-pound banknotes, part of two hundred pounds earned from an intuitive flash at the sight of the blind man and the memory of a horse named “Blind Barney.”
“The Mountain Tavern”
In “The Mountain Tavern” O’Flaherty records some of the political upheaval caused by the Act of Partition in 1921. Three Republican revolutionaries trudge through a night snowstorm to reach a tavern and obtain aid for their wounded. When they arrive, the tavern is a smoking ruin, destroyed in a shootout between the Republicans and the Free Staters. Their incredulity on finding that the destitute survivors can do nothing for them parallels the anger of the tavern owner’s wife, who tongue-lashes them for the three years she has suffered in their war. The wounded man dies and the other two are taken prisoner.
“The Post Office”
In an opposite and humorous vein, O’Flaherty in “The Post Office” assembles on old-age pension day the most traditional elements of a small Gaelic town; to them, the telephone, a newfangled gadget, complicates former lives of simplicity which relied on donkeys, carts, and rowboats. Three tourists speaking French and arriving in a New York Cadillac have a tourist’s reason for sending a telegram to California—a friend’s ancestor is from this town—and create great humor and confusion because the postmaster considers telegrams the bane of his existence. Even a priest forgets to be scandalized by the two women’s clothing when he learns the visitors’ purpose. The local old people take the male visitor to be a government spy because of his fluent Gaelic, consider that the women’s painted toenails are a disease on their feet, believe the Spanish girl to be a duke’s daughter, and appraise the American girl for her obvious reproductive capacities. The postmaster refuses to send a telegram in Spanish because it may be obscene, relents upon a recitation of Lorca’s poetry, and tries to place the call to Galway; but he finds himself on the telephone at first cursed as a fishmonger, then receives news of a neighbor’s operation and death, and finally hears a wrong-number grievance from a schoolteacher. “We are all in it,” say sone native upon pronunciation of the town’s name, Praiseach Gaelic for confusion, disorder, and shapelessness.
The best character, the mocking young man who has graduated from his native background, lends himself to the confusion for the humor of it, reads a letter to oblige an old soldier, and with quick wit constructs tales appropriate for the native credulity. O’Flaherty’s depiction of the clash of two cultures, his ear for the local diction, and his intelligence for the local logic and laughter here show him at his very best.
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