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...
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