O'Flaherty, Kathleen Mary Josephine (1916–94), French scholar, was born 26 December 1916 in Mayfield, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, the youngest of the four children, two sons and two daughters, of Bernard Joseph O'Flaherty, a prominent and well-to-do solicitor, and his wife, Frances Mary (née Lewis). She received her secondary education in the Ursuline convent, St Mary's, Waterford, and, following an independent year of study at the Université Catholique de Lille, entered UCC in 1935, where she was to remain as student and teacher until her retirement in 1982. She graduated in 1938 with a first-class honours BA in English and French and, having won the Peel memorial prize and the French government medal (being the first graduate to be awarded the latter), obtained an MA for a dissertation on A. E. Housman written under the supervision of Daniel Corkery (qv) (d. 1964) in 1939. She was awarded the travelling studentship of the NUI in 1941, but as the war prevented her from taking up this award abroad, she obtained a Ph.D. from the NUI in 1943 for a dissertation on Chateaubriand, which ran to 900 pages. Following her first appointment to a part-time post in 1943, she also taught for a time in Scoil Íte, the school founded in Cork in 1917 by Mary MacSwiney (qv) and her sister Eithne.
These years were a period of intense and formative activity. She maintained a rapid rate of production with the publication of her first two books, Voltaire: myth and reality (1945) and Paul Claudel and ‘The tidings brought to Mary’ (1948), both written at the prompting of Alfred O'Rahilly (qv). From 1945 to 1953 she was assistant editor of Cork University Press, where she worked closely with O'Rahilly, by then president of UCC, to whom she also acted as assistant and who was a strong influence on her thinking at this stage in her career: she published on a wide range of topics of French interest in several catholic journals, including Blackfriars and Studies. From this time, she shared a home with a fellow lecturer in French, Yvonne Servais (b. 1904), with whom she lived for the rest of her life. Together with Servais, O'Flaherty worked to fashion undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, deeply informed by the most prestigious French models. So generations of students were trained in the discipline of precise and careful textual analysis and the judicious appreciation not only of classic French literature but, increasingly in later years, of modern and contemporary writing.
She was appointed lecturer in 1954 and then to a readership in 1968, before becoming professor of French in 1970. She was a figure of authority: the wide circle of those with whom she came into contact throughout the college and beyond regarded her with respect, awe, and – on occasion – acute apprehension; yet her dealings with students and colleagues alike were characterised by generosity and humour on her part. Her appointment to the chair coincided with a renewal and a shift in direction in her writing, the fruit of years of intensive reading. Her essay The novel in France: 1945–1965 (1973) points to a strong concern in her mature teaching and writing with the value of literature in an era of formidable doubt: the novel in particular emerges as a form by means of which we endeavour ‘to reach hope through despair’, through the struggle to attain to a disabused awareness of ourselves. This book characteristically closes with an extended meditation on why we read literature.
O'Flaherty and Servais went to Paris several times a year where they would make a point of seeing as many new plays as possible; they collected an excellent library which they were to leave to UCC. They had a house in Rosscarbery, Co. Cork, where O'Flaherty swam in the sea in winter and summer. She was created a chevalier in the Ordre national du mérite by the French government in 1972. After retirement, she returned to Chateaubriand and in her final work, Pessimisme de Chateaubriand (1989), by showing how his ‘tristesse décorative’ was often nothing more than a characteristic pose, she displayed this key dimension of his writing in all its complexity and its dynamism. Following Servais's death after a brief illness in June of that year, Kathleen O'Flaherty died 21 July 1994 in the Bon Secours Hospital, Cork.