The Irish Civil War and Society

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1912

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.

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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 hand, this battle between the two snipers represents the larger battle between the Republicans and the Free Staters. The Republican sniper becomes engaged in fighting both the Free State sniper on the opposing rooftop, as well as Free State forces in the streets below. When the Republican sniper descends from his rooftop at the end of the story, even more Free States forces at the end of the street fire upon him with their machine guns. However, it is the enemy sniper who emerges as his main foe. This is the man whom the Republican sniper most fears and who seems to have the most capability of either killing him or cutting off his escape. The two soldiers thus become engaged in a deadly battle, for the Republican sniper must kill the other if he wants to get off the rooftop alive. O’Flaherty creates the men as mirror images.

Both men have positioned themselves on opposing rooftops, thus reinforcing the idea of similarity. Both men are good shots; the enemy sniper delivers his bullet to the center of the sniper’s cap, while the Republican sniper kills his enemy with a single revolver shot from fifty yards away, which is “a hard shot in the dim light.” The sniper even notes that he and his enemy may have been in the same company before the disintegration of the Irish army into Republican and Free State companies. O’Flaherty’s artistic decision to make the two men so similar reinforces the idea that the civil war has broken strong ties throughout Ireland and shows the extent of the division in Ireland’s current political situation. Men in opposing armies only become enemies because they disagree over the governing of their country. If not for this problem, these men could have been colleagues or friends—even brothers. O’Flaherty’s subtle demonstration of the snipers’ similarity underscores that this disunity is occurring throughout the country and destroying the very fabric of society.

Through O’Flaherty’s writing, the Irish civil war also emerges as a battle between individuals. All citizens must take sides. The old woman who alerts the Free State soldier to the sniper’s presence on the rooftop becomes an enemy in this act. By pointing out the sniper’s location, she directly involves herself in the battle. Because of it, she pays the ultimate price with her life; the sniper kills her with a bullet from his rifle. This detail points to the way that the Irish civil war affects all of Ireland, not merely those directly involved in warfare.

While the civil war holds all the Irish people in its clutches, the fighting has a much greater effect on the combatants, significantly dehumanizing them. The sniper on the rooftop is driven by fear and excitement—at the beginning of the story, O’Flaherty writes that “his eyes had the cold gleam of the fanatic.” The sniper also operates superbly, but more like an automaton than a man. When the sniper gets shot, he feels no pain, “just a deadened sensation”; the arm becomes symbolic of the numbness that he must make himself feel to take part in the war at all. Despite the pain, the sniper proceeds to apply his own field dressing to his broken arm and come up with a plan to kill his enemy. Throughout these events, up through the death of his enemy, the sniper carries himself coolly and efficiently. No doubts about his actions or about the war itself distract him, not even when he kills the raggedy old woman who dies like a dog in the gutter. Only after the gunfire is over, however, after “the lust of the battle died in him,” does the sniper show any human response to the deaths that he has caused. “[R]evolted by the sight of the shattered mass of his dead enemy,” he shudders, sweats, and becomes “bitten by remorse.” He even, for a brief moment, “gibber[ s] to himself, cursing the war, cursing himself, cursing everybody.” This lapse into human feeling is momentary, however. His nerves soon steady, at which point he even laughs—a gesture that may strike the reader as stunningly inappropriate, though, in fact, it may be a reaction to the insanity of war.

The most significant detail that shows how the civil war disunites the people of Ireland does not emerge until the very end of the story, however. Unbeknownst to them, the two snipers—neither of whom can see the other’s face—are brothers. Throughout the ordeal, the sniper had remained true to his cause and pursued the sole aim of vanquishing his enemy. While the men battled it out, the enemy sniper had no individuality; he was simply a Free State soldier. Not until the enemy is dead and his selfhood thus eradicated does the sniper feel a spark of curiosity as to the man’s identity. Only when the other man ceases to be a threat does the sniper acknowledge his status as another human instead of merely an enemy soldier.

O’Flaherty chooses to end his story with this surprising sentence, “Then the sniper turned over the dead body and looked into his brother’s face.” The reader is left to wonder about this unexpected development. What kind of relationship did the brothers have? How did two members of the same family come to take opposing sides in the civil war? How will this incident affect the sniper and his future? While these questions remain unanswered by the narrative, the reader sees in this simple statement the breach that the civil war has caused in Irish society. No longer are neighbors, friends, or even family members united. And this dissent, though perhaps with less extreme results, is playing out in other households across Ireland. Further, this dramatic ending highlights the terrible stakes of the civil war. The sniper will carry for the rest of his life the knowledge that he has killed his brother.

By presenting his stark ending but not exploring it, O’Flaherty also emphasizes the universality of civil war. History abounds with examples of how civil wars have broken up families. In the American Civil War, for instance, one man might have fought for the Confederate states while his brother may have enlisted in the Union Army. O’Flaherty’s story could exist, with details and locations changed, and tell the tale of any civil war. This universality allows “The Sniper” to be a universally applicable condemnation of civil war. This additional layer only enhances the literary richness of “The Sniper” and makes it a tale that surpasses borders and time.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “The Sniper,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2005.

The Position of Liam O’Flaherty

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2951

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 affords the theme. To appreciate his state of soul it is always necessary to remember the peculiar ambient of shame and horror that surrounds his crime in Ireland. Although low enough down on the moral scale of society, Gypo Nolan proves himself at bottom hopelessly loyal to the one code of morality that he can understand. How his guilt makes him give himself away at every turn, at every word, every movement, until he is finally shot down on his own doorstep, is told with a profound command of the Judas psychology. The Informer is a study in conscience; it might even be described as a melodrama of the conscience.

In The Assassin, his last published novel, O’Flaherty essays the most ambitious study of the revolutionist psychology yet attempted in fiction. Here the object of the action, its specific political or social aspects are completely ignored. Also, the whole explicit action is subordinated to the conflict of motives, sometimes clear, sometimes strangely obscure, operating in the mind of the chief conspirator. Every step in Michael McDara’s procedure from the moment of his return to Dublin—his selection of confederates, his preparations for the deed, his conduct after the deed—is described in a minute and exciting manner. At the beginning he is presented as the perfect and idealized archetype of the tyrannicide. As such he is thoroughly contrasted with each of his colleagues: Ketch, the professional thug, expert in murder as a trade; Tumulty, a mouthy sentimentalist, an inveterate patriot of the old order. Neither is able to rise to the hard purity of McDara’s own philosophy of revolution. “Nobody had the idea,” he explains, referring to the past. “Without an idea behind it, every political act becomes immoral and unnecessary. Such an act as this should be done in cold blood, not for motives of revenge or greed or for the purpose of seizing power or for anything else. Merely to cut off the head that is blocking the foreward movement of the mass. . . . This act must also be directed against the idea of God.” In such speeches as this McDara is sustained by his reason and his eloquence; but at other moments he reverts to his peasant origin, remembering his own mother and the creed of his childhood, feeling suddenly terrified at the enormity of the gesture he is making against society. In the finest scene of the book the contrasted mental states of the three conspirators are shown as they sit about in a cheap furnished room on the eve of the murder. Here the closeness of observation is consummate; no movement, no vibration of the tense atmosphere is left unobserved as a possible source of intimate revelation. The style is attuned to the mood of the situation with a precision calculated to make the reader also share in the physical suspense. Ketch lies stretched out on the bed; Tumulty moves about nervously, talking foolishly to conceal his terror; but McDara, at the climax of his dream, ruminates on the sordidness of his surroundings, the cowardice and worthlessness of his companions, the essential waste and futility of his scheme.

If The Informer was a melodrama of the soul, with conscience as the principal protagonist, this last novel of O’Flaherty’s is a melodrama of the intellect, founded on the immemorial strife between the will and the memory, between what the mind would determine and what life has decreed. At the end McDara is not strong enough to unbind the cords of tradition and sentiment which chain him to his emotional past, to whose aggregate symbol, on bended knees, he finally succumbs: “Mother, forgive me!” He has been clever enough to make his escape after the assassination quite certain; but the train which hastens him away from Ireland, of whose every beauty he is now made suddenly aware, bears an outcast and a failure. Suicide awaits him as soon as he reaches London.

Mr. Gilhooley represents an interesting effort on the part of O’Flaherty to extend his range of interest into a new sphere of Dublin society, the more quiescent, distinctly more bourgeois, society that is now forming out of the old. Gilhooley is a successful, middle-aged engineer who has come back to Ireland to recover his health after twenty years spent in South America. His is a full-length portrait of l’homme moyen sensuel. The sure sense of a wasted capacity for strong feeling, the depression of autumnal yearning make him ripe for his affair with the girl whom he picks up one night on the pavements. The differences in age and sensibility make the relationship impossible from the beginning. Tragedy becomes certain when Gilhooley’s affection burns gradually into the fierce passion of middle-age. Perhaps the meaning of their last terrible scene in the flat, with its resolution of the theme into the familiar nightmare of jealousy and death, can be felt only by recognition of the man’s age and essential normalcy. The girl’s betrayal is for him the defeat of his life. But about this book as a whole one feels a lessening of strain, especially of poetic strain, as though O’Flaherty were telling Mr. Gilhooley’s story more out of duty than out of any profound desire of the imagination.

The stories in Spring Sowing and The Tent should make their appeal even to those readers who are unable to respond to the larger patterns of the novels. The trained intensity of style, the economy of detail, the exact sharpness of perception appear here with special appropriateness and combine to place these stories among the most distinguished of our time. Almost every phase of Irish life is touched on, although for the most part they deal with the land. Such stories as “Milking Time,” “Three Lambs” and the title-story of “Spring Sowing” are themselves like the rich exhalations of the soil; “Going into Exile” is a record of its tragedy, “The Bladder” and “The Old Hunter” of its robust humors. Perhaps the most perfect in achievement of all these little stories is “Birth” (published in the limited edition entitled The Fairy Goose), which is the simple account of a group of peasants gathered together near a meadow at night to attend the birth of a calf. But the most individual are those in which O’Flaherty writes about a lost thrust, or the capture of a fish, or a sea gull’s first flight—unsentimental studies of animal life written with a fastidious interest usually reserved for human beings alone. From all of O’Flaherty’s stories, however, one takes away a similar impression of the profound solidarity of nature, all of her manifestations being of equal importance to the artist who admits her superiority.

This conviction of the impenetrable identity of all physical nature receives its grandest expression in The Black Soul, the second, and the most majestic, of O’Flaherty’s novels. “The Black Soul overwhelms one like a storm,” wrote AE, but closer is the resemblance to a symphony, a vast prose symphony, whose most proper divisions are the four seasons of the year. The setting is Inverara, “the island of death, the island of defeated peoples, come thither through the ages over the sea pursued by their enemies”; its characters are its people, seated “on the cliffs dreaming of the past of their fathers, dreaming of the sea, the wind, the moon, the stars, the scattered remnants of an army, the remains of a feast eaten by dogs, the shattering of a maniac’s ambition.” Into this world comes the Stranger, bringing with him the sick body and tired soul of one who has lived too long on the mainland. The whole tempestuous drama of the book is in full process in Fergus O’Connor’s brain before it is realized in explicit action. There begins at once his long struggle to yield himself to life as life becomes crystallized for him in his love of Little Mary, the wife of the peasant with whom he has taken lodging. Mary is a kind of island Cybele; she has no more character, in the usual sense, than nature herself; she is as hard, as wild and as beautiful. But Fergus is obliged to bore down through every layer of sentiment, culture, illusion which buries the reality of his being. The old conflict between nature and the intellect—the single underlying theme of all O’Flaherty’s novels—here is staged against the most opulent background of physical nature, elaborated with all the resources of a rich, poetic prose, and resolved finally in one of the most powerful scenes in modern fiction. During the fierce struggle with Red John in the cleft of rocks on the coast, Fergus is made to see the meaning of life through the meaning of death. Through action he is at last able to free himself. It would be much closer to a certain tradition of romantic fiction to have Fergus, instead of Red John, meet his end in this scene. But such a solution would cause the deeper implication of the novel to be lost. The victory of Fergus is essential if the positive import of the theme is to be established: the complete reaffirmation of physical experience as the means of bringing man back into harmony with his universe.

The Black Soul is the best of O’Flaherty’s novels because of the grandeur and sonority of the theme and because of the abundance of those qualities of language and perception for which his work as a whole is distinguished. These qualities are essentially of a poetic order and, as such, difficult to define or describe by means of any available critical equivalents, although plainly manifest on every page. Moreover, they are qualities which should make a potent appeal to any modern reader. (The theme of The Black Soul, for example, is profoundly modern, but it is also more than modern.) Nature, not as the dark intoxicant of the earlier romanticists, but as something apprehended in the flesh, may come to be more and more accepted by our writers as the superstructure of our intellectual world crumbles about their feet. In the meantime, when most of our novelists seem to be frantically entrapped among the ruins, the reading of O’Flaherty is like a tonic and a promise.

Source: William Troy, “The Position of Liam O’Flaherty,” in Bookman, Vol. 69, March 1929, pp. 7–11.

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Critical Overview