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Books: Man of Aran

4 minute read

THE STORIES OF LIAM O’FLAHERTY (419 pp.)—Devin-Adair ($5).

In the unsmiling Irish eyes of Liam O’Flaherty, man’s fate is as harsh as that of the beasts which he kills in his dependence on them for life. And man’s fate is no less tragic for not being understood.

O’Flaherty, now 59, is best known in the U.S. for The Informer, a novel of “The Troubles,” which inspired one of the greatest films ever made. Perhaps for the good reason that no Irishman, however eloquent, can have any confidence that he will not be interrupted by another eloquent Irishman, Irish writers are at their best when they keep it short. O’Flaherty shares mastery of the short story form with fellow countrymen Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain and Joyce of The Dubliners.

Born & Dies. O’Flaherty’s chosen people are the Aran islanders, who live “in primitive simplicity, as their ancestors had lived for thousands of years.” Turf and cow dung are the fuel, kelp dragged from the sea is the fertilizer; potatoes or fish are the food. A rasher of bacon represents luxury, and a dry cow may make the difference between starvation in winter and life for another year.

In story after story (these 42 represent the best of four collections O’Flaherty has written), O’Flaherty spells out in the arithmetic of prose what the great Yeats, said in the algebra of poetry:

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

One story—The Parting—is characteristic of the rest. It tells of Michael Joyce leaving his remote Aran hamlet for the mainland, where at 13 he will be committed to the life of a priest. On the same boat, the family slings , a bullock they have sold away to Galway. The loading is botched and so, in emotional terms, is the boy’s farewell; the family is torn by an anguish it can only express in hysteria and anger. The boy himself believes that he is being sent to the priesthood to eke out the family income, and his fate, anticlerical O’Flaherty suggests, is little different from that of the dumb ox. In eleven pages the reader gets a minor masterpiece of human misery.

Another, The Child of God, tells of the return from the great world of a gifted boy. Like young Michael, he was meant for the priesthood, but, like Narrator O’Flaherty himself, who ran away from Blackrock College, the boy found another vocation. He is an artist. When he returns with his painting gear to his native hearth, the villagers regard him and his works as the very devil.

“Bloody Woe.” O’Flaherty’s Aran islanders move with a Biblical grace and solemnity. Like Bible stories—also told of a religious, race-proud people of dirtpoor shepherds and fishermen—O’Flaherty’s tales deal with sin and the seasons and, as in the Bible, the enemies of simple folk are the money-changers of the towns and the soldiers of a foreign king.

A few of these 42 stories are worth a hundred novels in which the heart of the matter is cased in a padding of sociological fat. Life, Aran Islander O’Flaherty seems to say, can only be understood in terms of death. Like many another Irishman, he sees the skull beneath the skin, just as his starveling heroes see the sharp rocks gnaw through the thin soil. (“I wish you a happy death,” cries one after another of his characters, as if the wish were the greatest thing life had to offer.) To underline his point that man’s nature is animal, O’Flaherty has written of hawks, cows, rockfish, conger eels and water hens; their biological tragedies are as bitter as the things that go on inside the heart of men who cry “bloody woe!” He is less successful with his beasts (as was D. H. Lawrence, another important modern writer to try to attempt the same thing) than with his people. Man, it can be argued, is a beast. But a beast is not a man.

However, these are great stories. The language, like that of the peasants and fishermen of Aran, is rich and clear as poteen, and like that deceptively pale drink, should be taken in short shots, with a thoughtful pause between.

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