The Irish Civil War and Society
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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