Style and Technique

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Fear and tension pervade “The Sniper.” O’Flaherty, making full use of his tight unity of place, builds tension steadily and systematically in several ways. The reader is told that one can hear the thunder of ammunition exploding in the distance. In the immediate milieu that the author creates, bullets whiz by and every simple act, such as lighting a cigarette, must be weighed carefully for its potential danger. The sniper is essentially a schoolboy caught up in a situation over which he must gain control. If he fails, he dies.

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O’Flaherty creates a feeling of tension by his skillful use of short, clipped sentences and simple, direct vocabulary. As the tension is built, each sentence reveals only one bare fact:

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The turret opened. A man’s head and shoulders appeared, looking towards the sniper. The sniper raised his rifle and fired. The head fell heavily on the turret wall. The woman darted toward the side street. The sniper fired again. The woman whirled around and fell with a shriek into the gutter.

The beat of these sentences is like the beating of one’s heart. To read a paragraph so tightly controlled and structured as this one is to have one’s breath taken away.

O’Flaherty, because he has to emphasize how totally on his own the young sniper is, cannot have dialogue in this story. The sniper must be on the roof alone. The omniscient observer must tell everything that happens without being intrusive. O’Flaherty thus keeps a tight rein on a story that is highly dramatic but whose dramatic impact must be made through understatement.

Literary Style

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The setting of “The Sniper” is integral to the narrative, for it draws its action from the Irish Civil War. The story takes place in Dublin, Ireland, in June 1922. At this time, the Irish Civil War has been going on for several months. The Republicans hold the Four Courts judicial building, but the Free Staters are attacking them with heavy arms.

“The Sniper” also takes place between the hours of dusk and dawn. Beginning as “twilight faded into night,” the action of the story instantly becomes more dangerous. The sniper must conduct his battle in the dark. He has only “the dim light of the moon that shone through fleecy clouds” to see by. This lack of clarity has a realistic impact in making his task—difficult even in the light of day—even more challenging. The sniper has to aim at his enemy, about fifty yards away, and get off one fatal shot with a revolver. The lack of light also has symbolic significance: it underscores the murky, ambiguous situation that a civil war poses. The civil war pits friends, neighbors, and even family members against one another. As is borne out by the story’s ending, people cannot see very clearly during such a conflict.

Point of View

The narrative takes a limited, third-person point of view. The action is entirely funneled through the protagonist. The reader sees only through his eyes, hears sounds through his ears, and processes events through his thoughts. Despite this limited point of view, readers can clearly follow the action. The sniper observes the old woman on the street below as she talks to the soldier in the turret of the armored car. “She was pointing to the roof where the sniper lay,” and the sniper—and the reader—knows that she is pinning down his location and that the soldiers may well come after him. When the sniper carries out his plan to trick the enemy sniper into thinking that he is dead, he can tell that he has been successful. For the enemy “seeing the cap and rifle fall . . . was now standing before a row of chimney pots, looking across, with his head clearly silhouetted against the western sky.” Though the story never gets deep in the mind of the enemy, the reader, like the sniper, knows that the Free Stater “thought that he had killed his man.”

This point of view works well with the emotional detachment of the narrative. Rarely does the protagonist show his reaction to the events around him, other than the excitement of the battle and his momentary repulsion at having killed another human being. Even when he learns that the man now lying in a “shattered mass” is his brother, the sniper does not react. Instead, the story ends, leaving the reader to only speculate about his feelings.

Details and Sound

O’Flaherty employs a number of specific details to make his story realistic. He describes the battle sounds taking place around the sniper, and he refers to actual events and places, such as the Four Courts siege and the nearby O’Connell Bridge. The description of the sniper’s first aid efforts is also filled with many concrete details, like the “bitter fluid” of the iodine, the “paroxysm of pain [that] swept through him,” and his need to tie the ends of the bandage with his teeth. Such details help ground the reader in the action.

O’Flaherty also uses details to emphasize the darkness. The sniper can see only by the “dim light” from the moon and, later, approaching dawn. Even the flare from lighting a cigarette is easily seen. The sniper decides to risk the cigarette, striking a match, taking a drag on the cigarette, and then putting out the light. Though this process takes only a matter of seconds, if that, “almost immediately, a bullet flattened itself against the parapet of the roof.”

Although the story is rooted in reality, O’Flaherty employs descriptive sound imagery to emphasize the stillness and dark of the night. Throughout Dublin, the machine guns and rifles “broke the silence of the night, spasmodically, like dogs barking on lone farms.” When the sniper gets shot and drops his rifle with a clatter, he “thought the noise would wake the dead.” Once his personal battle is over and he has killed all his immediate enemies—the soldier in the turret, the old woman, and the other sniper—“Everywhere around was quiet.” This technique emphasizes the danger of the situation, as well as the sniper’s complete isolation and his need to vanquish his enemies on his own.


A. A. Kelly writes in Liam O’Flaherty: The Storyteller that “The Sniper” “with its surprise ending based on coincidence is in the older tradition of Maupassant and O’Henry.” Such an ending hinges on an unexpected revelation at the end, be it lighthearted or tragic. Few writers have been able to employ the surprise ending effectively. However, O’Flaherty does so successfully because he has already engaged the reader through the fast-paced action and the unique detachment of the protagonist. The shocking ending seems likely to challenge that detachment, but O’Flaherty refuses to reveal the sniper’s reaction to the knowledge that he has murdered his brother. Instead, O’Flaherty leaves it up to the reader to draw conclusions and to wonder how, or if, this event will affect the future choices the sniper makes.

Themes and Meanings

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“The Sniper” emphasizes one of the greatest ironies of civil war: Brother is pitted against brother. In this story, Liam O’Flaherty deals with a strife that has divided Ireland for more than sixty years and still shows few signs of moderating. The Republican sniper in the story is young, and his youth is emphasized. However, under conditions of war, this youth is growing up fast, probably too fast. He has the look of a fanatic, and he is forced to develop the cunning of a seasoned warrior. If he fails to develop that cunning, he will not live.

In the course of two hours, the young sniper kills three people, one his own brother—who, ironically, is poised to kill him if he is given the opportunity. The Republican sniper outwits the Free Stater into being careless, and this carelessness costs the Free Stater his life.

In a sense, carelessness also costs the man in the turret of the armored car his life. He should not have responded to the old woman who came to give him information. Had he not exposed his head, he could not have been killed, because the car’s armor would have protected him. In a moment of relaxed security, he makes himself vulnerable and loses his life. In the next instant, the sniper kills an old woman.

O’Flaherty demonstrates the impersonality of war: one shoots the enemy, not people. When the sniper is doing his killing, it is the enemy at whom he is firing. The enemy, however, becomes a person when the protagonist sees the opposing sniper’s body fall to the ground. He is sickened at the thought of what he has done, and one can only speculate on the implications for him of discovering, ultimately, that it is his own brother he has killed.

O’Flaherty is saying that soldiers grow up fast or not at all. There is no question that the sniper does what he has to do, and at the beginning, there is a great adventure in what he is doing. The adventure, however, depends on anonymity. No one in this story has a name, and everyone, even, to an extent, the protagonist, is seen from a distance. Once one is killing people, the whole impact of what war is about crowds in on the killer.

Although one perhaps cannot go so far as to call “The Sniper” a pacifist tract, certainly it depicts several of the worst horrors of war. It shows that war makes life seem cheap. It shows that war also hardens the hearts of those who participate in it. In the end, the story shows the absurdity and futility of fighting against individual human beings.

Both snipers in this story are pawns of forces larger than themselves, and these forces split families, shatter loyalties, and pervert the very causes that they purport to be fighting to preserve. The first irony is that men will kill other men. The second and greater irony in the O’Flaherty story is that in this case the two men are of the same parents.

Historical Context

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The English in Ireland

In the twelfth century, the English monarch, backed by a large army, declared himself overlord of Ireland. For the next several centuries, English rule was generally confined to the area around Dublin. The English monarchy, however, continued efforts to subdue the entire island, resulting in ongoing Irish rebellion. In the early 1600s, the monarchy overthrew the native Irish political system, bringing the entire country under its control. For the next hundred years, the English created colonies in Ireland. As part of this effort, they drove many Irish from their land and gave estates to English landowners. Religious problems arose as well, since most Irish were Roman Catholics, while the new English settlers, who mainly lived in the north, followed the Protestant faith. Laws continually favored Protestants over Catholics.

By the late 1700s, Irish rebels were making repeated efforts to gain some kind of independence. Their efforts were to little avail, and in 1801 the Act of Union formally united Great Britain and Ireland. This law abolished the Irish Parliament; instead, Ireland voted for representatives who served in the British Parliament.

Beginning in the 1870s, a Home Rule movement was on the rise among Irish nationalists, most of whom were Catholics. Supporters demanded some form of self-government. They were opposed by Irish Protestants, who were called unionists because they wanted to preserve Ireland’s status in the United Kingdom. Irish political leader Charles Parnell, who sat in the British Parliament, led a nationalist party and demanded a separate Irish Parliament. Later, in 1902, a new nationalist political party known as Sinn Féin was formed. Its goal was to secure Irish independence.

Because of these nationalist efforts, by the 1910s, the British Parliament enacted a Home Rule bill. While most of Ireland supported this bill, Protestants in Northern Ireland vowed to resist any home rule by force; they feared that the island would become dominated by the Catholics. The onset of World War I, however, delayed the enactment of home rule in Ireland.

The Easter Rising

Irish home rule supporters were frustrated by this delay. In April 1916, a rebellion known as the Easter Rising began in Dublin. About 1,000 Irish forces rose against British rule. Over the next week, street fighting sprang up throughout Dublin, and Republicans seized some government offices. British soldiers, however, forced the Republican leaders to surrender and executed some of the leaders.

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when the elections of 1918 took place, Irish voters backed many members of the Sinn Féin political party as their representatives in the British Parliament, over members of the more moderate Irish party. Sinn Féin advocated complete independence for Ireland, and instead of taking their seats, these Irish Republicans set up a revolutionary government and formed an Irish assembly called Dáil Éireann in Dublin.

Until 1921, a brutal war rocked Ireland. The newly created Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought against the British, resisted efforts to renew British rule, and forced Britain to recognize the Irish government. They relied on guerrilla tactics, to which the English government, represented by the police force known as the Black and Tans, responded with brutal reprisals.

During this period, the divisions between north and south grew, with northern unionists threatening to rebel if they were cast free from Britain. In response, the British government passed the Government of Ireland Act in 1920, which called for two separate parliaments for Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Finally, in 1922, leaders of the Dáil Éireann signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Britain. This treaty made twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties into the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations, while the six counties of Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.

Irish Civil War

Within Ireland, not everyone supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The British prime minister had even threatened open war on Ireland if the treaty was not accepted. Republicans particularly objected to the oath of allegiance that members of the Dáil Éireann would have to make to the British monarch, as well as the provision that allowed Northern Ireland to remain out of the Irish Free State. Eamon de Valera, head of the Dáil Éireann, would not support the treaty, and he resigned. Elections were held for the new Irish Parliament, which led to the ousting of most of the Republicans. Before the new Parliament could meet, a civil war had broken out between supporters of the treaty, known as Free Staters, and its opponents, called Republicans. In April 1922, Republican forces occupied Dublin’s justice buildings, the Four Courts. They came under siege from the Free State forces. For several days in June, the Free Staters bombarded the Four Courts. They retook the buildings and captured the enemy leader. Before their capture, however, the Republicans blew up the Four Courts. Despite this Free State victory, battles continued to take place in Dublin until early July, when Free States forces gained control of the city.

Fighting continued outside of Dublin, and the Irish government (still controlled by Free Staters) initiated official military operations. The government took strong measures to quell the civil war, including executing Republican leaders. Within a few months as well, the Dáil Éireann met to draft and ratify a new constitution for Ireland.

The Irish Free State

The Republican resistance became less organized. By early 1923, Republican forces had ceased fighting. De Valera, the Republican leader, ordered a cease-fire. A few years later, he reentered the Irish political scene. He formed a new political party and served several times as Ireland’s prime minister. In 1937, De Valera drafted a new constitution that made Ireland into a new state, called Éire, which was a republic in all but name. In 1948, Ireland finally gained complete independence. The six counties of Northern Ireland, however, remained part of the United Kingdom.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Many Irish have long been unhappy with this situation. In the late 1910s, Irish forces rebel and begin fighting with British forces. They seek independence from British rule.

Today: Four-fifths of the island of Ireland makes up the independent Republic of Ireland, or Eire in the Irish language. Northern Ireland makes up the rest of the island, and it is part of the United Kingdom.

1920s: Republicans and Free Staters engage in a deadly and destructive civil war. Republicans refuse to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which makes southern Ireland a dominion within the United Kingdom, known as the Irish Free State. The Republicans want all of the island of Ireland to have independence. Free Staters, however, support this treaty. The civil war carries on from 1921 until 1923, when a cease-fire is declared, with the Free Staters victorious.

Today: After decades of fighting between Protestants in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army—the paramilitary arm of Sinn Féin—the two sides agree to a cease-fire in 1998. Troubles, however, still brew in Ireland over the division of the island. In 2004, Protestant and Catholic political parties struggle over ways to share power, and allegations of kidnapping and violence on the part of the IRA still take place.

1920s: Irish political leaders are all men, such as Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, and Arthur Griffith.

Today: Women take a much more active role in politics. In 1990, Mary Robinson becomes the first woman to serve as president of the Republic, and women serve as leaders of political parties.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Calahan, James M., “Politics,” in Liam O’Flaherty, A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 30–40.

Doyle, Paul A., “Liam O’Flaherty,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162, British Short Fiction Writers, 1915–1945, edited by John H. Rogers, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 282–92.

Kelly, A. A., “Urban and War Themes,” in Liam O’Flaherty: The Storytellers, Harper & Row Publishers, 1976, pp. 23–36.

O’Brien, James H., “The Short Stories,” in Liam O’Flaherty, Associated University Presses, 1973, pp. 92–117.

Troy, William, “The Position of Liam O’Flaherty,” in Bookman, Vol. LXIX, March 29, 1929, pp. 7–11.

Further Reading

Bates, H. E., “The Irish School” in The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey, The Writer, 1972, pp. 148–62. Bates, himself a writer of numerous novels and short stories, places O’Flaherty’s work within the context of other important twentieth-century Irish writers.

Brewer, Paul, ed., Ireland: History, Culture, People, Courage Books, 2002. This volume provides an illustrated introduction to Ireland, focusing on its history through the early 2000s, its people, and its culture.

Doyle, Paul A., Liam O’Flaherty, Twayne Publishers, 1971. Doyle’s work provides a good overview of O’Flaherty’s entire body of fiction, both short stories and novels, as well as a detailed biographical chapter.

Kiely, Benedict, Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique, Golden Eagle Books, 1950. Kiely discusses the preeminent Irish writers of the first half of the twentieth century and dubs O’Flaherty a romantic.

Ranelagh, John O’Beirne, A Short History of Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 1995. This updated edition covers Irish history from ancient times through the end of the twentieth century.

Zneimer, John, The Literary Vision of Liam O’Flaherty, Syracuse University Press, 1970. Zneimer’s detailed work investigates O’Flaherty’s personal life, the themes of his work, and specifically analyzes his body of short fiction.

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Critical Essays