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The Informer: The Life and Art of Liam O'Flaherty

Aftermath paperback cover

DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS
Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century

The Informer: The Life and Art of Liam O'Flaherty 

an essay included in the book by Ruth Dudley Edwards

‘I am going ahead with my Dublin story,’ wrote our first and most distinguished thriller writer, Liam O’Flaherty, to his literary mentor, Edward Garnett, in 1924, a propos the extraordinary novel that would become The Informer. ‘It should appeal as a shocker, thriller I mean, to the public that reads detective stories and murder stories.’

Writers of gritty thrillers are long bragged of their colourful lives as lumberjacks, bouncers, bartenders and so on, but who could match the young O’Flaherty for variety and richness of experience, breadth of intellectual exploration, and familiarity with real-life thrills and shocks? His is the kind of life history that makes the rest of us feel we never lived.  And more than most writers, his experiences infused every aspect of his writing.  

While we should note the caveat of Patrick Sheeran, O’Flaherty’s literary biographer, that his memoirs are often contradictory, with ‘a recurring tendency to dissolve the facts in wild fantasy, or to constrain them to fit a pose’, they certainly tell us what O’Flaherty believes we need to know to understand him as a writer.  And though allowances must be made for exaggeration, the basic facts are true enough.  ‘Man is a born liar,’ was the opening line of his 1934 memoir, Shame the Devil.  If he lied while attempting to tell the truth, he added, the reader should blame original sin rather than the deficiencies of his conscience. ‘If not the truth, it will be at least the log of my folly, and as such, perhaps, useful to those of my species who are equally cursed with original sin.’

When he embarked on his first proper thriller, O’Flaherty was 27.  An Irish-speaker from the Aran Islands, eighth of the fourteen children of a smallholder, William (he became Liam in the early 1920s) O’Flaherty was born in 1896 and brought up in great poverty and insecurity in the miserable hamlet of Gort na gCapall, Inishmore, where the inhabitants lived in terror of famine, disease and eviction.  It was as a creator of minutely-observed sketches of the beauty and cruelty of nature that O’Flaherty would first make his reputation.

His gentle mother came, wrote Liam’s brother Tom, from the ‘emotional, soft, witty, story-telling’ Ganleys: their father was from ‘the harsh, quarrelsome, haughty, “ferocious O’Flaherties”’.  A natural rebel and sometime Fenian, who indulged in casual peasant brutality, Michael O’Flaherty once drove a landgrabber’s cattle over a nearby cliff. 

Liam wrote his first thriller before he was ten.  A very brief tale of a peasant whose wife brought him cold tea to the field.  ‘He murdered her with a spade and then tried to bury her in the fosse, or furrow, between two ridges.  The point of the story, I remember, was the man’s difficulty in getting the woman, who was very large, to fit into the fosse.  The schoolmaster was horrified and thrashed me.’  He told the story to his mother as a fact, describing with relish how he had seen a neighbour strike his wife with his spade on the head many times, ‘blaspheming joyously at each stroke, how she sank into a furrow, where she bled so profusely that the ensuing blows made her gore splash into her murderous husband’s face’.  This penchant for bloody, unsparing description would be a distinguishing feature of O’Flaherty’s adult work.

Although his mother was a fine story-teller herself, when she discovered this was fiction, she begged O’Flaherty to cure his mind of this ‘morbid leprosy’ with the help of prayer.  Henceforward, he had a dual personality: ‘The one wept with my mother and felt ashamed of his secret mind.  The other exulted in this mind and began to dream of greatness.  And as my mind grew strong and defiant, I became timid and sensitive in my relationship with the people about me.’ 

Liam’s cleverness was brought to attention of a visiting Holy Ghost priest who offered the thirteen-year-old a virtually free education if he became a postulant at Rockwell College in Tipperary, ‘to be trained as a priest for the conversion of African negroes to the Roman Catholic religion’.  It was, says Sheeran, ‘a curious mixture of an English public school, a French lycée, and a monastery, all held together by reverence for Newman’s ideal of the Catholic gentleman.’  Four years later, when told to don the soutane, he refused:  ‘I had no interest in interfering with the negroes of Africa and I did not want to suffer the humiliation of wearing a priest’s womanly rig.’   

Transferring to Blackrock College in Dublin in 1913 as an ordinary boarder, in his spare time, O’Flaherty organised a corps of Irish Volunteers.  In 1914, at eighteen, he won an entrance scholarship in Classics to University College, Dublin, but as priesthood was still an aspiration - at least for his mother - he became a seminarian at Clonliffe, whose denizens were marked out in UCD by their black suits, furled umbrellas and the bowler hats that were the butt of ridicule and practical jokes.   Not only did the students have to walk in pairs for forty minutes through the Dubin streets every day, but on alternate Sundays, to the merriment of local urchins, they walked to the Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough Street to assist at High Mass, dressed in soutane and soprana (a black wool cloak lined with red silk) and with Roman hats with wide, circular brims lined with white silk.  After a few weeks, ‘I danced on my soutane, kicked my silk hat to pieces, spat on my religious books, made a fig at the whole rigmarole of Christianity and left that crazy den of superstitious ignorance.’  Sheeran believes this account is embroidered, and that the virulent anti-clericalism came a bit later, but O’Flaherty hated being humiliated or patronised, so it would be in character to have resorted to some measure of sartorial violence.

For a few more months, now tarred with the dreaded Irish label of ‘spoiled priest’, O’Flaherty attended lectures in Classics and Philosophy, which at U.C.D was restricted to Thomism - the thought of St Thomas Aquinas - and which right up until the 1960s was taught exclusively by priests.  A Jesuit professor’s throwaway condemnation of Marxism as ‘ridiculous nonsense’ inspired a typically extreme reaction, causing O’Flaherty to read Marx intensively, with other such forbidden fruit as Engels, Proudhon and James Connolly thrown in for good measure.  They convinced him that God - as understood by his mother - was dead, but they were too concerned with materialism then to attract his allegiance.      

For leisure, he and other students often visited the enormous brothel quarter that had made Dublin the red-light capital of Europe.  Bordered by Amiens Street, Talbot Street, Gardiner Street (down which he had paraded with fellow-seminarians) and what is now Seán McDermott Street, it was popularly known as Monto, after Montgomery (now Foley) Street: it would become famous again long after its heyday when in the 1960s the Dubliners recorded Monto (Take her up to Monto)

The area, wrote O’Flaherty in his 1930 memoir, Two Years, ‘was a disgustingly sordid place, and half the men that came there used it as a shebeen purely and simply.’  While it was ‘a merry place, with personality and a great demonish charm’, there was ‘no glitter, hardly any refinement, and a great deal of humanity and turmoil’, and rather than awakening desire, ‘unless a man was utterly drunk or foreign to the most primitive instinct of delicacy, its appearance aroused thoughts of hell and eternal damnation.’  By nature, O’Flaherty found ‘real pleasure only in thought and in the observation of life.’  In time, all that thought and observation would make invaluable copy.  Although Joyce immortalised Monto as Nightown in Ulysses, it was O’Flaherty, who loved and hated it, who would bring it to life in all its gaiety and degradation in The Informer.  

Early in 1916, infected by war fever, but despairing of the prospect of a revolution at home, and just a few months before the Easter Rising and Connolly’s execution, O’Flaherty abandoned university.  An adventurous youth, impelled ‘not through idealism, but with the selfish desire to take part in a world drama’, he joined the Irish Guards as William Ganley.  His plan to desert to the Germans for the sake of the Irish republican cause was soon abandoned, not least because he warmed to the brotherhood of the ordinary soldiers. Although initially horrified by their coarseness, rigidity and foulness of language, he came to appreciate how men operate in extremis:  ‘If war had no further use than that of establishing a bond of friendship between those that fight side by side in it,’ he wrote later, ‘it would still be more attractive to warm-blooded men than the milk-oozing fruits of pacifism.’

Despatched to the trenches first in France and then to Flanders, O’Flaherty thoroughly learned the necessary survival technique of killing without remorse.  As he wrote some years later to Garnett, ashamed of having broken off his engagement to a benefactor:   ‘To kill a man is nothing - that does not hurt.  But to hurt some living thing that is kind is ugly.  It’s like murdering a dream.’  In September 1917 he was seriously wounded in the head by an exploding shell which left him unconscious for three weeks and gave him shell-shock.  Diagnosed with melancholia acuta, he was invalided out in May 1918 with a small pension.  His memoirs speak of having ‘to go through life with that shell bursting in your head’: his fiction would draw on his terror of going mad.

After a few weeks convalescing in Aran, he went to Dublin under his assumed name, ‘deciding to cut myself adrift from everybody I knew’ and spent a fortnight failing to learn shorthand and typing.  The £5 he had when he quit the business college went on a horse he had fancied for some time, won him another £15 and triggered his flight to London, where he arrived ‘very excited, conscious that I was beginning the great adventure about which I had dreamt all my life, practically, my attempt to conquer the world’.   

O’Flaherty had enough money to keep him independent for quite a while if he were frugal, or - and this would be an important theme of his Dublin novels - ‘using my money as a bait, I could purchase the companionship of the poor.’  Being the man he was, he spent the lot in 48 hours: ‘there are times when a debauch is as consoling to the weary spirit as its mother’s milk is to a hungry child.’  But this was no pointless debauch, for the war was reaching its climax, ‘there was madness in the air’ and O’Flaherty was undergoing a profound experience.  He roamed London ‘watching, listening, talking to people, frenzied with happiness because I was beginning an amazing adventure.’  He ‘was adrift on the face of the earth, walking about on the heart of civilisation, listening to its ponderous throbbing, watching the great veins of violent blood coursing towards the gigantic organs.’ There were hosts of young men prowling about, recuperating from wounds or on leave from the front, ‘trying to drown in wild enjoyment the horrors they had recently experienced and the pricking consciousness that life might hold for them only a few more hours.’  He was soothed at finding himself ‘among a host of men whom despair had made as callous as it had made me, laughing, drinking, scoffing at the black ghost that had taken possession of us all.’

Although much of this period was a blur, for O’Flaherty it was one of the most vital and influential of his life: ‘Because I changed in its course as deliberately as if some preposterous devil had thrust his hand down my throat, gripped my gizzard and turned me inside out.’  Until then, he had been terrified of life and shocked because God failed to reward good and punish evil.  ‘The lesson of the war, bringing cynicism and despair with it, had remained until then like a poisoning drug rushing through my system, which refused to assimilate it and was trying to expel it, still hoping that the idealistic dreams of youth had truth in them.’  Now he surrendered to this drug and ‘came to understand that ‘experience was good and innocence evil.’ 

It was partly that perspective that would make many of his books so original and make it possible for him to identify with characters who appalled respectable readers.  ‘Perhaps I lack a moral sense, but I feel no fundamental repugnance against murderers, thieves, and scoundrels of all sorts, simply because they are beyond the law.’  It was the same with prostitutes.  ‘The harlot retails what the respectable woman sells wholesale for a fixed annuity, and various other emoluments, personal and social.’  It was society’s hypocrisy that caused whores to rob and generally maltreat their customers, for it ‘persecutes the harlot with one hand while it tolerates her with the other, thus making her skittish in her code of honour, and imbuing her with a stupid anger against those that traffic with her.’  Yes, personally, he thought her ‘a mean, scavenging, lying, thieving, filthy and odious being; but she attracts me as an artist, in the same way that criminals and other objectionable human types attract me, to arouse that remorse of conscience which is the necessary prelude to a bout of creative energy.’  O’Flaherty was nothing if not conflicted.

It was from the perspective of innocence being evil that - now penniless and having to resort to pawning his overcoat - he set out to embrace what London could offer.  Finding a job was easy for a good-looking discharged soldier.   Despatched to a brewery, he was led into a ‘monstrous, dark place’, full of noise and an acrid stench.  Discovering that that he was being trained to replace the terrified, sick-looking foreman so he could be called up, made him feel ‘an utter scoundrel and an interloper.’  There was no solace to be gained from contact with the deferential workmen, for the experience was second-hand:  ‘I am like a scientist watching bees.  No matter how closely I watch I can only see the bees and write about them from the point of view of a person who may be a clever scientist but is not a bee.  A bee of moderate intelligence could tell much more, if it could be persuaded to down honey and take to writing.’ Like Jack London before him and George Orwell after him, O’Flaherty was to gain his greatest inspiration from living life at its most raw.

So he lost interest in learning the job, annoyed the manager, had a furious row and left.  As a hotel night porter, he took instant objection to ‘senseless drudgery’ required of him, cleaned nothing, wiped the guests’ shoes perfunctorily, fell out with the manageress, was briefly attracted by a buxom, dark-haired Irish waitress until she became possessive, and after two nights shouted at an expostulating resident that he was a ‘red-faced ape’ who should clean his own damn boots, threatened to thrash him and was fired amid a great tumult, avoiding arrest because the policeman charged with dealing with him had also been in the Irish Guards.  

O’Flaherty was temperamentally even less equipped for his third job - as a clerk, ‘a cipher, whose duty it is to be polite and to play with formulas of words and figures, to bow, to say sir, to be clean, to speak correctly, to efface his humanity… he must starve himself in order to keep his trousers pressed.’

Filing did not suit O’Flaherty, but others did it for him while he read newspapers and chatted, mainly with a charming Scotswoman who appalled him because she had brains but no originality and perfectly illustrated the deficiencies of civilisation, which ‘murders individual thought’, which is vital to progress:  ‘When a society becomes perfectly civilised it inevitably falls a prey to a more primitive society.’  ‘“Don’t you ever feel that you want to do something different,” he asked her, “to stay in bed instead of coming to the office, to blow up the office, to poison the managing director, to rob the cashier, or even to arrive in the morning dressed in a suit of black silk pyjamas?” She almost fainted with horror. And then she said: “You Irish people have an amazing sense of humour.”’

O’Flaherty’s contention that ‘all good comes from unrest and dissatisfaction’ led her to conclude he was a Bolshevik, an accusation he refuted on the grounds that Bolshevism would civilise the working class even more thoroughly than did capitalism and therefore further diminish them.  ‘If I want to find human companionship, gaiety, humour, I go to where the workers amuse themselves in taverns, dance hall, and at games’, he told her, for there could be heard ‘laughter, song, jokes such as might be heard in Elizabethan times’ and which were wholly lacking among the civilised. 

Goaded into denouncing him as preposterous and illogical like all his compatriots, he accused her of envying the Irish. ‘We are all where your working class is to-day, and where the whole English race was in Elizabeth’s time.  We are all violent, disorderly, inefficient, intemperate, and full of the poetry of life ... I tell you that all this humbug about civilisation and cleanliness and contentment is rot preached by stupid mediocrities in order to justify themselves.’   

When she again denounced him as a Bolshevik, he decided that a man needed a god and that without realising it, he had been coming to the conclusion that Bolshevism was the gospel of the new God: his place therefore lay in the army of the workers.  ‘I was a communist.  I swore allegiance to my new god.’  He had been in the job a fortnight when on 11 November, the night of the armistice, he tramped the streets among rejoicing crowds gazing around him with horror: ‘That barren and inglorious war, whose record is mud and noise and obscene poison, ended in a common debauch of drunkenness, gluttony, and fornication.’  So the following day he signed up as a trimmer on a tramp steamer to Rio de Janeiro, tending the three fires in the three enormous boilers.  He enjoyed it as he hardened. ‘I no longer minded the stifling heat, or the terrific work.  I felt equal to my comrades, and could use oaths as foul as theirs.  My habits became just as coarse.’  On board he knocked out a thieving enemy; in a public fight with the man’s mate, though knocked down twenty-seven times he refused to surrender; and he went after an officer with a hammer, avoiding a severe punishment because he played the shell-shock card with the kindly captain.

Although sunshine and painted shutters made the brothel quarter in Rio look better than the Monto, at a deeper level it depressed O’Flaherty as much: he was repelled by its whores, the drunkenness and violence he encountered frightened him, and after abandoning his ship and finding himself a penniless vagrant, he spent a night weighing up the pro and cons of Jesus Christ, decided against him, and determined to conquer Brazil as a god of a different type, ‘assuming the quality of Genghiz Khan, Julius Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon Bonaparte, men whose virtue lay in their brutality, courage, endurance, greed, and intelligence.’ Instead, again as a trimmer, he joined a tramp steamer bound for Liverpool, as he ached to see if Europe was in revolt. 

After three disappointing weeks in Cardiff submerging his consciousness into that of the mass of wage-slaves, he went to sea once again and then to Italy, Turkey, Greece and finally Montreal, from whence he wandered about Canada working for a day here, a few days here and the odd week as - yes, a lumberjack - and also as a maker of tinned milk (he briefly became an idiosyncratic worshipper of machines), then on the railroad, where his habit of beating up his colleagues in the evening caused some coolness, then as a copper miner, dock labourer and ‘hobo carpenter’.  From November 1919, travelling in the United States - which he had entered illegally - he was inter alia a farm labourer, pastry maker, telegraph messenger, house-porter, dishwasher, waiter in a boarding house, dynamite worker, shipyard worker, plumber’s assistant, printer’s assistant, tyre maker and a labourer in a biscuit factory, and - having linked up in Boston with his brother Tom, a socialist revolutionary in the James Connolly Club - he became briefly an activist for the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World, who sought the violent destruction of capitalism) and tried and failed to be a commercial writer. 

In the midst of all that, in New York, O’Flaherty broke his heart over a beautiful, brilliant émigré Russian anti-communist, in an affair unconsummated because ‘I can only love a woman whom I can master’, and when she had left him, signed on in Long Island as an oyster fisherman, where he promptly called a strike in outrage at being called a Bolshevik and was thrown off the boat.  He left America in the grip of ‘an inner madness’, conscious that he was ‘a wreck’ not because of the war, but because of his nature.  Physically fit, with his nerves ‘in good order’, he had a depression which caused his journey to Europe to become ‘a debauch from port to port … So that when I arrived home I was like a ghoul, speechless, gloomy, a companion of the rough winds and of the breakers.’ 

After a period in Aran musing ‘on the indefinability of the paregoric, the uncertainty of life, and the constant tribulation to be met in the world’, in late 1921 he joined the febrile left in Dublin, editing and selling the Workers’ Republic on the streets, trying vainly to persuade the party to back workers who were seizing workplaces and setting up soviets, and organising the Dublin unemployed - many of whom were ex-servicemen.  In January, after the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil, O’Flaherty - now Liam - the Chairman of the Council of the Unemployed, seized the Rotunda Concert Hall with two hundred followers and raised the red flag.  After three days, threatened with violent ejection by the authorities, and having no taste for pointless bloodletting, he ordered the men to evacuate the building and fled south.  He was back in Dublin after the outbreak of the civil war in June, in a unit of the Irish Citizens’ Army in Vaughan’s Hotel on the corner of Parnell Square.  The unit was disbanded as the Free State gained control and on 5 July he stood south of O’Connell Bridge watching the capture of the republican headquarters and heard an old woman thanking God that ‘that bloody murderer, Liam O’Flaherty, is killed.’

Later he would have a vision of himself in flight, ‘a lean man with terrified, furtive eyes, wearing a shabby trench-coat, with a revolver strapped between his shoulder-blades, arriving in Liverpool on a cargo-boat.’   Strangers took him in and encouraged him to write, and after rejection slips for a ‘trashy’ novel and equally unsuccessful short stories set in London, he realised he should write of what he knew. Thy Neighbour’s Wife was a melodramatic exploration of the conflict between sex and religion, but led Edward Garnett, publishers’ literary adviser, to take O’Flaherty in hand and help him write The Black Soul, which achieved critical acclaim in Ireland.   

Another Garnett protégé, H.E. Bates, recalled decades later this ‘virile and impassioned Irishman’ with ‘a firebrand swagger, a fine talent and a headful of rebellious fury about the English, and ‘who, rather like me, had this facile demon in him … true Irish, he could talk a donkey’s hind-leg off and with fierce, blue unstable eyes would stand up in the middle of the room and begin reciting flowing nonsense from some as yet unwritten book, about “women pressin’ their thoighs into the warm flanks of the horses”, until he codded you that it really happened and was really true.’  It was Garnett who inspired him to write the delicate, brilliant sketches about nature that Bates said ‘few, even among the Irish, have equalled.’

O’Flaherty settled in Dublin and 1924, eloped with the beautiful wife of a Trinity medieval historian, and along with a group of young radicals like Austin Clarke and Francis Stuart engaged in fierce literary assaults on W.B. Yeats, Oliver St. John Gogarty, AE, and anyone else O’Flaherty considered one of the ‘old fogies’.  His attempt to recruit Sean O’Casey failed, for O’Casey considered that quite apart from being a lesser talent than Yeats, ‘O’Flaherty, in a way of arrogance and sense of being a superior being, was worse than Yeats, without the elder man’s grace and goodwill’.   

It was Yeats who in 1926 took on the Abbey audience who became violent over  The Plough and the Stars: in an allusion to the scenes twenty years earlier over Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, he said, ‘You have disgraced yourself again, is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?’  ‘One of the strongest attacks (if not an entirely coherent one) came from the novelist Liam O’Flaherty,’ wrote Roy Foster in his biography of Yeats, ‘himself an avant-garde socialist-realist whose work was considered offensive to conventional opinion.’  Considering O’Casey’s play concerned the sufferings of tenement-dwellers caught up in the Easter Rising, O’Flaherty’s denunciation in a letter to AE’s The Irish Statesman, that ‘Yeats’s protest against the protest of the audience was an insult to the people of this country’, might have seemed baffling - not least because it lined him up with such forces of reaction as the Catholic Bulletin - but it was not quite contrariness for contrariness’s sake.  After all, while O’Casey was on the side of the little people whose lives were ruined by ideologues, O’Flaherty, as he explained in his letter, admired anyone who died for an ideal, however impractical.  He had been ‘cut to the bone’ by this ‘bad play’, because it did not do justice to those who deserved credit for ‘the most glorious gesture in the history of our country’. 

Of course, there would also have been jealousy, for at the time O’Flaherty was increasingly debt-ridden, his mistress was pregnant, he had more enemies than he could cope with and was ‘violently oppressed’ because he felt his first thriller, The Informer, had been a commercial failure, not least because - contrary to his pleas - his publisher had insisted on publishing it as a literary novel. His inspiration for the form had been J.B. Priestley, who advised him that there was such competition for contemporary writers that ‘spectacular conduct of some sort is necessary to draw attention to one’s talent.’ 

O’Flaherty had worked out the plan of The Informer, ‘determined that it should be a sort of high-brow detective story and its style based on the technique of the cinema. It should have all the appearance of a realistic novel and yet the material should have hardly any connection with real life.  I would treat my readers as a mob orator treats his audience and toy with their emotions, making them finally pity a character whom they began by considering a monster.’  And so Gypo Nolan, the enormous, grotesque, brainless brute was born, for £20 betrayed his fellow revolutionary in the (presumably Communist) ‘Revolutionary Organisation’, was tracked by the pitiless intellectual Commandant Dan Gallagher, who sought ‘the satisfaction of one lust, the lust for the achievement of my mission, for power maybe, but I haven’t worked that out yet.’  During the hours before he was killed, Gypo rampaged around Monto, squandering his blood-money on the company of the poor, and engaged in several violent encounters with his enemies. 

‘The literary critics,’ wrote O’Flaherty sneeringly in a memoir, ‘almost to a man, hailed it as a brilliant piece of work and talked pompously about having at last been given inside knowledge of the Irish revolution and the secret organizations that had brought it about.’  Yet there was much to admire, including the shocking exposure of the dreadful condition of the Dublin poor that the authorities kept well hidden and O’Flaherty’s uncompromising depictions of squalid places and the desolation and cruelty of lost people: ‘It was only a ragged old woman of ill fame, with a debauched face and melancholy eyes.  She paused drunkenly in front of him, muttering something unintelligible.  Then she bared her ragged teeth.  She spat and passed on without speaking.’  It would win the 1926 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, be translated into several languages and there would be four film and several stage versions.  To O’Flaherty’s fury, it is for this flawed melodrama that he is best remembered when better novels and his magnificent short stories are largely forgotten.  

Not that his other Dublin novels were his best, though like The Informer, they all benefited from his passion for Conrad and Dostoyevsky - who could well also be classified as writers of psychological thrillers - as, of course, from the understanding of degradation, passion and ruthlessness that O’Flaherty had learned about at first-hand during his extraordinary youth.  Like Joyce and O’Casey, O’Flaherty was exploring a Dublin that shocked the reading public.  Mr. Gilhooley, the eponymous anti-hero of what actually marketed as a ‘thriller’, was a retired engineer who had returned home from South America: a ‘lonely voluptuary’, his misery was worse than that of the hungry, the diseased or the homeless, for he had neither ‘hope nor a sense of righteousness’.  

Wandering around the hostelries, Mr. Gilhooley moved among post-Civil War moral ugliness, where hatred, corruption and poverty reigned and opportunist priests were taking over.  Obsessed by the waif Nelly, whom he loves and hates, and who in turn is obsessed by her lost lover, he experiences sexual shame, goes mad and ultimately commits murder and suicide.  It was often brilliant and sometimes absurd, but always powerful.  The generous Yeats referred to The Informer and Mr Gilhooley as ‘great novels and too full of abounding life to be terrible, despite their subjects’. 

The Assassin (1928) was inspired not just by the murder in 1927 of Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice, but also by O’Flaherty’s creditors, to whom the book was dedicated.  With the help of disappointed republican dissidents, Michael McDara - who had been born a peasant, shell-shocked in the war and travelled the world as a seaman - sets out to murder a republican strong man known as ‘HIM’, mainly on the grounds that strong men in power were to be struck down by true revolutionaries before they made slaves of the masses.  Filled with the ‘intoxicated consciousness of the romance of his intended act’, he found his appetite whetted by the slums:  ‘Everything here excited a savage hatred of society in him: barefooted children with a hectic flush on their pale, starved faces, tottering old people with all manner of disease scarring their wasted features, offal in the streets, houses without doors and with broken windows, a horrifying and monotonous spectacle of degrading poverty and misery everywhere.  The foetid air reeked with disease.’  There was much tedious Nietzchean philosophising about the duty of the revolutionary to create a ‘superior type of human being’, as well as a brilliant assassination scene, but essentially the book is about aspects of O’Flaherty’s life and intellectual torments, right down to his 1922 flight to Liverpool.

The Puritan (1932) had fascinating insight into the hypocrisy and zealotry that had taken control of post-revolutionary Ireland, but Francis Ferriter, the psychopath at its centre who murders a prostitute, is too one-dimensional and alienating a character to carry the book and the violence and debauchery seems more of the same.  And in any case, O’Flaherty’s satirical A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland (1929), was much more effective in his castigation of priests and politicians. Yet Yeats, who was fighting valiantly fight against authoritarianism and repression, thought it a masterpiece: ‘I must make a fight for this book’, he said publicly, when it was banned by the Censorship Board.  His friend Desmond FitzGerald (father of Garret) disagreed profoundly:  ‘if you eliminate Bolshevism and muck-racking from Liam O’Flaherty you have a very unimportant writer left.’ 

O’Flaherty was an uneven writer, but never unimportant.  His Dublin thrillers would probably not work for many modern readers, but they are still of interest to those who want to smell the Dublin underworld as it was in the 1920s or gain insights into the unintended consequences of revolution.  Like such writers as Gene Kerrigan and Declan Hughes, who peer under the stones of contemporary Dublin, O’Flaherty used a new but unfashionable vehicle to go where respectable novelists feared to tread. He deserves respect as the father of the Irish psychological thriller.  Irish crime writers should find some way of honouring him. 


Ruth Dudley Edwards is a Dubliner who lives in London. A prize-winning historian and satirical crime novelist, she is also a journalist and broadcaster.  Her latest book is Aftermath: the Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice, for which she won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction.

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