Liam O’Flaherty, novelist, short story writer, and a major figure in the Irish literary renaissance, is born on August 28, 1896, in the remote village of Gort na gCapall on Inis Mór, one of the Aran Islands of County Galway. He is involved for a time in left-wing politics, as is his brother Tom Maidhc O’Flaherty (also a writer), and their father, Maidhc Ó Flaithearta, before them.
At the age of twelve, O’Flaherty goes to Rockwell College and later University College Dublin and the Dublin Diocesan teacher training college Holy Cross College. It is intended he enter the priesthood, but he joins the Irish Guards in 1917 under the name Bill Ganly. Serving on the Western Front, he finds trench life devastatingly monotonous and is badly injured in September 1917 during the Battle of Langemarck. It is speculated that shell shock is responsible for the mental illness which becomes apparent in 1933.
He returns from the front a socialist. Having become interested in Marxism as a schoolboy, atheistic and communistic beliefs evolve in his 20s and he is a founding member of the Communist Party of Ireland. Two days after the establishment of the Irish Free State, O’Flaherty and other unemployed Dublin workers seize the Rotunda Concert Hall in Dublin and hold it for four days in protest at “the apathy of the authorities.” Free State troops force their surrender.
O’Flaherty then leaves Ireland and moves first to England where, destitute and jobless, he takes to writing. In 1925 he scores immediate success with his best-selling novel The Informer about a rebel with confused ideals in the Irish War of Independence, which wins him the 1925 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Four years later his next short novel Return of the Brute, set in the World War I trenches, proves another success. He then travels to the United States, where he lives in Hollywood for a short time. The well-known director John Ford, a cousin, later makes a film of O’Flaherty’ first novel. The novel is also the source of a 1929 film of the same name directed by Arthur Robison.
Many of his works have the common theme of nature and Ireland. He is a distinguished short story writer, and some of his best work in that genre is in Irish. The collection Dúil, published towards the end of his life, contains Irish language versions of a number of stories published elsewhere in English. This collection, now widely admired, has a poor reception at the time, and this seems to discourage him from proceeding with an Irish language novel he has in hand.
In a letter written to The Sunday Times in later years he confesses to a certain ambivalence regarding his work in Irish, and speaks of other Irish writers who receive little praise for their work in the language. This gives rise to some controversy. His First Flight, a short story which symbolizes the nervousness one experiences before doing something new, is regarded as one of his most famous works. In 1923, O’Flaherty publishes his first novel, Thy Neighbour’s Wife, thought to be one of his best. Over the next couple of years he publishes other novels and short stories. In 1933 he suffers the first of two mental breakdowns.
He travels in the United States and Europe, and the letters he writes while travelling have now been published. He has a love of French and Russian culture. Before his death he leaves the Communist Party and returns to the Roman Catholic faith. O’Flaherty dies in Dublin on September 7, 1984, and many of his works are subsequently republished. He is remembered today as a powerful writer and a strong voice in Irish culture.