O'Flaherty, Liam (1896–1984), writer and political activist, was born 28 August 1896 at Gort na gCapall on Inis Mór, one of the Aran islands, eighth child and second surviving son among fourteen children (of whom only eleven survived) of Michael O'Flaherty, smallholder, and his wife Margaret (née Ganley; of protestant descent). He was baptised as William O'Flaherty; he adopted the form ‘Liam’ in the 1920s. A bright boy, he was educated at first on Aran in the national school at Oatquarter; but in 1908 he was sent away to Rockwell College. He was intended for the priesthood and the missions of the Holy Ghost Fathers, but this vocation failing, he moved from Rockwell to Blackrock College. He still intended to be a priest and after leaving school he studied at Clonliffe for a time in 1914, later taking philosophy and classics at UCD. He was subsequently awarded a War Service BA by the NUI.
At Blackrock he had become involved in the National Volunteers. Always restless, he claimed to have tired of waiting for a rising. So instead he joined the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards in the spring of 1916 as ‘William Ganley’ and served in northern France and Belgium. He was seriously wounded at Boesinghe in September 1917 during the third battle of Ypres. Like many soldiers of his generation he never fully recovered from the trauma of the great war. He returned to Dublin suffering from ‘shell-shock’, and after treatment in a military hospital, he was released into the care of his family with a disability pension. O'Flaherty had a good record as a soldier, and was intensely proud of his association with the Irish Guards. To the end of his life he carried his big-framed body with a soldier's bearing.
He travelled the world for two years (1918–20) as a sailor, working in Canada and the USA, and teaching for a time in Argentina. He returned to Ireland in late 1921. In the USA he had been involved with the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World), and joined the communist party. He now involved himself in organising the Dublin unemployed, many of them ex-servicemen like himself. He came to wide public attention when he and his group seized and held the Rotunda in Dublin for some days in January 1922. He was a founder with Roddy Connolly (qv), son of James Connolly (qv), of the first Communist Party of Ireland in November 1921.
After the fall of the Four Courts he fled to London. There he was encouraged to write and began publishing short stories. He soon came under the influence of Edward Garnett, the chief editor in the publishing firm of Jonathan Cape, who encouraged many Irish writers of the day. O'Flaherty worked fitfully in journalism. As a creative writer he made his mark with his second novel, The black soul (1924), which had an introduction by AE (George Russell (qv)); followed later in the year by Spring sowing, a remarkable collection of short stories, which reflected many aspects of his life to that date.
Back in Dublin he was one of a group of younger writers around W. B. Yeats (qv) and AE; and was involved with the publication of To-Morrow (1924), a literary magazine which closed in controversy. He added to the scandal by running away with and marrying the writer Margaret Barrington (d. 1982), then in a marriage blanc with Edmund Curtis (qv), professor of history at TCD. Later divorced, they had one daughter, Pegeen, born 1926. He had another daughter, Joyce, by an Englishwoman, in 1930.
O'Flaherty achieved both critical and popular success with The informer (1925), a novel of the Dublin underground in the aftermath of the civil war. He published in quick succession many books and stories in the decade between 1922 and 1932. He was a leading figure of the post-Yeats generation, along with Sean O'Casey (qv), Frank O'Connor (qv), and Sean O'Faolain (qv). His short stories are esteemed as among the finest ever written. His novels have been less admired; The informer is the one work with which his name is popularly linked. The subtlety and power of observation – especially of nature and animals – of his stories gives way in the novels to grim parables, often of urban life, filled with maimed characters, brooding passions, and violence. In their own way these novels, with their themes of lust and murder, have more in common with German or French novels of the period, than with Irish ones, and are a revelation of the inner psyche of the Free State as seen by the author. Many of these books were banned by the Irish censorship board. O'Flaherty always had a satirical bent, shown best in A tourist's guide to Ireland (1929), a fierce attack on many aspects of Irish life which he hated, especially the catholic church. He travelled to Russia in 1930, but returned disillusioned by what he saw of the Soviet system.
His marriage separation, a breakdown, and a change of publisher did little to alter the thrust of his work, the best book of this period being Skerret (1932), the story of a feud drawn from Aran life at the end of the nineteenth century. Going to Hollywood, where John Ford (qv), who claimed to be a relative, was remaking a film version of The informer, he was involved in film writing, which he continued occasionally into the early 1950s. His novel about Hollywood is, however, a disappointment. He was also involved in the making of other films from his novels Mr Gilhooly and The puritan with the French director Jeff Musso.
Supported by his American partner, Kitty Tailor, he lived in Connecticut, where he wrote Famine, published in 1937 with a dedication to John Ford, and considered by many critics to be his finest novel. During the early years of the war he was active with other Irish nationalists and republicans in New York in supporting Irish neutrality.
Returning to Europe after the war, he finally settled in Dublin in 1952. He published very little new work during the last decades of his life. His later novels Land (1946) and Insurrection (1950) were less well received than his earlier work. A significant book, however, was a volume of short stories in Gaelic, Dúil (1953; published under the Gaelic form of his name, Liam Ó Flaithearta), which was widely read in schools. The film scripts of this period included Josephine, set in Belfast, written with Patrick Campbell (qv). However, thanks largely to his Irish publisher Wolfhound Press, his books and stories were reissued in the late 1970s and kept in print. He was once more recognised as an important Irish writer. Many of his books were translated, and he was especially admired in Germany and France. He lived in a flat maintained by Kitty Tailor in Wilton Place, Dublin, and also spent a great deal of time in France, and in travelling. He died in Dublin on 7 September 1984, survived by Kitty Tailor and his daughters. His ashes were scattered on the cliffs of his native Inis Mór.
There is no full-length biography, but Peter Costello's Liam O'Flaherty's Ireland (1996) contains the essential facts, along with many pictures, portraits, and a full bibliography; the background to his best writing is covered in The heart grown brutal (1977). The edition of O'Flaherty's letters by A. A. Kelly (1996) includes material from many collections and is fully annotated. A photographic portrait (1924) by E. O. Hoppé is held by the E. O. Hoppé Trust, Pasadena, California; a portrait in oils by Harry Kernoff (qv) is in the collection of Nigel O'Flaherty, Dublin; a bronze by Anthony Stones is also in existence.