Liam O’Flaherty (oh-FLAHRT-ee), a writer of extraordinary storytelling ability and powers of observation, was born on August 28, 1896, in Gort na gCapell in the Aran Islands of Ireland, a stormy, desolate region that was to influence his writing both in style and in subject. An outstanding student, O’Flaherty was educated at the Junior Seminary at Rockwell, Blackrock College, and Holy Cross College, a diocesan seminary in Dublin. Whether the priesthood was his intention is not known; he later wrote that he gave up the idea of being a priest while at Rockwell. He won a scholarship to University College, Dublin, and began studying medicine.
In 1915 O’Flaherty left University College to join the British army. He served with the Irish Guards in Belgium and France, suffered shell shock at Langemarck in September of 1917, and was consequently invalided from the army in 1918. He returned to Ireland briefly, then roamed the world for the next two years. He worked as a seaman on ships in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and traveled and worked in Canada and the United States. His brother Robert O’Flaherty, living in Boston and himself a writer, encouraged Liam to write about his experiences, and O’Flaherty attempted several short stories but, dissatisfied with his results, burned many of them.
In 1920 he returned to Ireland. O’Flaherty had always been politically active; as a schoolboy at Rockwell, he had organized a corps of Republican Volunteers, and at University College, he had joined the college Irish Volunteers corps. Back in Ireland again after war and wandering, he became active in communist and socialist causes. He also broke with the Catholic Church. On January 18, 1922, during the Irish Civil War, O’Flaherty led a group of unemployed in occupying the Rotunda in Dublin and raising over it the Communist Party flag. His political activities eventually forced him to flee Ireland for London, where he began to write seriously. His early efforts, a 150,000-word novel and several short stories, did not meet with much success.
In January of 1923, his short story “The Sniper” was published in The New Leader and brought him to the attention of the critic Edward Garnett. Garnett became a sort of literary mentor for O’Flaherty and was instrumental in getting his novel Thy Neighbour’s Wife accepted by Jonathan Cape, a London publisher. O’Flaherty’s first published novel is technically awkward, and his characters are not entirely credible or engaging, but his portrayal of the Aran Islands setting (which he calls “Nara”) is detailed and compelling, a precursor of the acute rendering of his native environment that was to become one of O’Flaherty’s literary hallmarks.
The Informer was his first major critical success. In it, O’Flaherty skillfully evokes the atmosphere of lower-class Dublin: sordid, grimy, hopeless. His characterization of the Dublin slum dwellers is incisive, and the novel won many literary prizes for O’Flaherty in England and France. During the 1920’s, O’Flaherty wrote voluminously, publishing several novels and an abundance of short stories. In 1926 he eloped with Margaret Barrington; in the same year, Mr. Gilhooley was published. In this disturbing tale of loneliness and destructively jealous love, O’Flaherty continues to develop the talent for portraying heightened psychological and emotional states which he had first demonstrated in The Black Soul and The Informer.
O’Flaherty moved restlessly–to Dublin, London, France, and rural Ireland. A man of extreme if changeable views, he was as turbulent and emotional of temperament as many of his characters, and he was to suffer two nervous breakdowns during his literary career. In 1930 he visited the Soviet Union, an experience which left him disaffected with communism and which he was to record the following year in I Went to Russia. O’Flaherty and his wife were separated in 1932. That same year, he and several other prominent writers formed the Irish Academy of Letters. Three of his novels were filmed in the 1930’s, including The Informer, which won two Academy Awards in 1935. During this period, he produced what many critics believe are his best novels, Skerrett and Famine. He continued to produce volumes of short stories, many of which deal with life in rural Ireland or with the animal kingdom.
During World War II, O’Flaherty traveled extensively in the Caribbean and South America; he also lived for a time in Connecticut. He returned to Europe after the war and moved between Ireland, England, and France, finally settling in Dublin in 1952. Dúil, a collection of short stories in Gaelic, was published in 1953.
O’Flaherty’s range of style and subject and the erratic quality of his prose make it difficult to characterize his work simply. His writing is at times almost clinically objective; at times it verges on melodrama. Deeply rooted in the Irish experience, he wrote almost exclusively of Irish history, culture, and themes. However, his minutely detailed observations of the struggle for survival and harmony in a harsh and demanding nature–and in a human society which is often hostile and oppressive–transcend boundaries of place and time and merit O’Flaherty a place among the great narrative talents of the twentieth century.