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New Hibernia Review 7.1 (2003) 45-55

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Liam O'Flaherty and Dúil

John Cronin

On October 15, 1927, Padraic Colum contributed a substantial article titled "Letter from Ireland" to The Saturday Review of Literature. A full three columns in length, this was a linguistic and literary review of the current state of writing and the arts in general in the recently established Irish Free State. One brief passage, almost an aside, provoked heated responses from several people, including most notably the writer to whom Colum made direct reference—novelist Liam O'Flaherty. Discussing Ireland's two linguistic traditions, Colum wrote that

So far, in spite of the patronage of the state, no writer worth translating has appeared in Gaelic, and it is disappointing to note that the one literary man who has come out of the Gaeltacht, Liam O'Flaherty, writes in English, and in an English which has not even a Gaelic flavour. 1

This produced a response in The Irish Statesman of November 19, 1927, from one Walter Chambers writing from New York, who used the occasion to proclaim his conviction that Irish as a literary medium was completely inadequate for the modem novel:

The fact that a writer of O'Flaherty's unquestionable ability . . . should write in English in preference to Irish is by no means surprising. The truth of the matter is that modem Irish is entirely inadequate as a means of literary expression .. . however vast his acquaintance with Irish is, or was, he could not find words in that language as it is spoken today to give readers of Irish such psychological studies as his novels contain. 2

To this purposefully monocular manifesto, the editor of The Irish Statesman, George Russell ("Æ"), appended a brief note clearly intended to introduce a measure of pragmatic practicality into a potentially troublesome debate: [End Page 45]

There may be another explanation. Mr O'Flaherty probably desired to be published and read. We doubt if he could have found either publisher or readers for his realistic novel. At present the books for schools are the only books in Irish sure of a swift sale. 3

Inevitably, Walter Chambers's provocative letter produced the predictably fervent Gaelic response, which came in The Irish Statesman of December 3, 1927, from Una McC. Dix. She instanced Fr. Peter O'Leary and Pádraic Ó Conaire as writers whose achievements, in her view, clearly contradicted Chambers's charges against the Irish language as a suitable medium for conveying psychological states:

That inimitable story, "Séadna," which I can read with never-failing pleasure again and again, is primarily a study of character, giving a moving and vivid picture of the eternal drama of right and wrong in the human soul. "Deoriacht," P.O'Conaire's great work, is also a psychological novel and a very powerful one. 4

She then, rather unwisely, went on to misrepresent Russell's remarks about O'Flaherty's desire for publication by stating that the editor had suggested monetary reasons for O'Flaherty's decision to write in English. This earned her an immediate but characteristically courteous reproof from Russell, who appended to her letter yet another editorial note: "We did not suggest that Liam O'Flaherty wrote his tales in English for monetary reasons, but because he wished what he wrote to be published and read. Our correspondent must not insinuate a reason which was not intended." 5

Russell's gentle remonstrance pales into insignificance by comparison with the next contribution to the debate. On December 17, 1927, O'Flaherty himself came roaring into the fray in a lengthy, choleric, and typically intemperate diatribe, in which he unfairly settled on Una McC. Dix as the villain of the piece, although she had, as we have seen, been anxious only to defend the Irish language as a proper medium for psychological explorations in fiction. O'Flaherty's letter, too long to quote in full, recalls in its furious tone that section of Joyce's A Portrait ofArtist as a Young Man in which Stephen Dedalus, engaging in an identical linguistic debate, pours...