Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

It is impossible to consider a story about Ireland in which snow covers the land without thinking of James Joyce’s masterpiece from Dubliners (1914), the concluding story entitled “The Dead.” In Joyce’s story, however, the snow “general all over Ireland” is a symbol of reconciliation and transcendence. For Liam O’Flaherty, the snow is an emblem of nature’s power to restore tranquillity after man has devastated the realm (the white over the black), which has a tangential correspondence to Joyce’s use of snow in that it represents a comforting return to a state in which all is unspoiled. The snow is also, however, a symbol of obliteration. His story is a rueful commentary on three centuries of internecine struggle that has accomplished nothing, and a sad, prescient vision of the Isle of Erin as a land suffocated by sectarian strife well into the late twentieth century and beyond. In this vein, the snow symbolizes the chill blankness of mindless hatred.

Throughout its history, in written literature and in great oral tradition, Ireland has proclaimed itself a land of talk, drink, and song. The tavern of the story’s title is a figure for Ireland’s hospitality and community, a place where the stranger is welcome from the storm and where men and women might gather to share words and feelings that inspire and give one the courage to face the burdens of an often harsh existence. Through famine, colonization, and grinding poverty, the “indomitable Irishry,” as William Butler Yeats calls them, offered the world a version of communal civility and singing life. However, for O’Flaherty, the soul of this people is in danger because of the fierce hatred that threatens to overwhelm what Yeats called the “terrible beauty” born of revolutionary fervor. The tavern has been burned, its managers driven mad with grief, no longer able to offer comfort to their countrymen in time of need. The snow, with its persistent whiteness, is a chilling, suffocating substance that has transformed the Emerald Isle from its green, fertile, misty glory into a plain of blankness and featureless desolation. The story is a vivid presentation of the obscene stupidity and destruction of any war anywhere, and a lament by O’Flaherty for the losses wreaked on the people of Ireland, his countrymen, by a war that seems never to end.