The rather pastoral title of this story suggests that it might deal with animals and nature, two subjects common to Liam O’Flaherty’s writing. As the reader quickly discovers, however, the “two lovely beasts” are of only minor importance, for the true concerns of this story revolve around their human masters.
The story opens with the misfortunes of Kate Higgins, a widow whose cow has calved and then died. She brings her tale of woe to the kitchen of the Derranes, a neighboring family whose own cow has just given birth to a calf. Kate, in wild hysterics, begs Colm Derrane to buy her calf, so that she might purchase another cow. “I must have a cow for the children,” she tells Colm. “The doctor said they must have plenty of milk. . . . They are ailing, the poor creatures.”
Because “traditional law” allows only one cow for each family, Colm refuses her at once. Grazing land is scarce—there is only enough grass on each household plot to support one cow. By the same token, the milk is shared with those in the community who have been struck by misfortune—people such as Kate Higgins. As Mrs. Derrane, Colm’s wife, tells Kate, “We couldn’t leave neighbours without milk in order to fill a calf’s belly.”
Eventually, Colm agrees to allow his cow to feed her calf until she can find a buyer. She rejoices at this news, but soon she begins to tempt him again with the idea of owning two calves. “You’ll be the richest man in the village,” she whispers into his ear. “You’ll be talked about and envied from one end of the parish to the other.” Colm refuses her again, but with far less conviction than before.
The seed of temptation has been planted, and it comes into full blossom the following morning when Kate comes to him with the news that she can find no buyer. “Unless you buy him,” she tells Colm, “I’ll have to give him to the butcher at Kilmacalla.” He refuses her one last time but is unable to sleep at night because of the idea of owning two calves. The idea, O’Flaherty writes, “gave him both pleasure and pain. The pleasure was like that derived from the anticipation of venery. The pain came from his conscience.”
Despite the objections of his wife, the following day Colm buys Kate Higgins’s calf. There is an immediate uproar in the community. Andy Gorum, the village elder, remonstrates with Colm about his decision, but Colm is adamant: He will keep the two calves, no matter what laws he is breaking. In the end, Gorum says that he has little choice but to have the rest of the community ostracize the Derranes. He predicts a dark fate for Colm and his family. Even Kate Higgins, who is unable to buy a cow, turns against Colm.
Instead of giving in, however, Colm becomes harder, more determined “to rise in the world.” Every drop of milk from his cow goes to the mouths of his “two lovely beasts”—even at the expense of feeding his own children. The family, living on a diet of potatoes and salt, soon begins to starve. When his wife confronts him and threatens to beat him to his senses, Colm in turn gives her a savage beating.
Suddenly and inexplicably, she no longer sees Colm as an obsessed fool, but as someone who is trying to better their family. She and the children, despite a few setbacks, stand firmly behind him. They and their cows survive the next two winters, and slowly the villagers begin to turn away from the counsel of Gorum—whom they see as a jealous old fool—and come to get the advice of Colm. In the meantime, Kate Higgins has gone completely insane and has been taken away to a lunatic asylum.
In the final scene of the story, Colm has decided to start a shop in his cottage. He knows that the start of the “Emergency,” as World War II is known in Ireland, will bring about a great demand for all sorts of foodstuffs. Though this means even more prolonged hardship for his family, they accept his decision. It is a successful decision because, before long, “there was full and plenty in the house. The little girls had ribbons to their hair and dai-dais to amuse their leisure. His wife got a velvet dress and a hat with feathers. There was bacon for breakfast.”
Ironically, his great wealth alienates him once again from the community. However, this isolation does not trouble him, for he is planning to open a shop in the town. As Colm is leaving his farm—having sold his two lovely beasts—Andy Gorum and his neighbors jeer him. Colm, however, is “completely unaware of their jeers. His pale blue eyes stared fixedly straight ahead, cold and resolute and ruthless.”
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