<JohnGabree.com (Some) Writing>

"The Famine"
by Liam O'Flaherty

Review by John Gabree

Because he was famous as a participant in the Irish Civil War (in 1922, he raised a red flag over the Dublin Rotunda) and because his best-known book is Liam O'Flaherty"The Informer," Liam O'Flaherty is regarded primarily as a novelist of the Irish rebellion. In a letter to the Irish Statesman, he celebrated "the wild tumult of the untamed storm, the tumuilt of the army on the march, clashing its cymbals, rioting with excess of energy." Like our own Theodore Dreiser, he was capable of being crude, grandiose and melodramatic, and he was often swamped by his own rhetoric. But he was also capable, far more than Dreiser, alas, of reaching and expressing astonishingly delicate perceptions of the human soul.

At his best, O'Flaherty was one of the great natural forces of 20th Century literature. Like Jean Giono or Knut Hamsun, when writing about the land, the sea and the simpler creatures, including here peasants and seamen, his writing takes on the elemental forcefulness of classic folk tales. "Famine," his greatest work in this mode, is matched only in his best short stories. It reads as freshly today as it did when it was first published 45 years ago.

In 1845, the population of Ireland was estimated at 8.5 million. By 1851, it had been reduced by two million, half of whom had died and half of whom had fled, mostly to the U.S. and other former British colonies. The raw numbers do not do justice to the magnitude of the catastrophe that had befallen Ireland. In large parts of the south and west, traditional culture had been uprooted and destroyed.

Focusing on a family of County Galway tenant farmers, the Kilmartins, "Famine" inserts us into the horror of the "great hunger." A study of the uses of power -- by the old English ascendancy, by the rising middle class of usurious merchants, by the embattled (and mostly defeated peasants), it records the final days of an ancient, ritualistic society, unhinged by the destruction of the customs and traditions that had given shape and meaning to life. It is also about survival, especially that of Mary Gleeson Kilmartin, who fights for her family with fierce determination.

["Famine" was first published in 1937 but was never available in soft cover until a handsome edition was offered by David R. Godine's line of quality paperbacks, Nopareil, which also published works by Benedetto Croce, Edmund Wilson, Paula Fox, William Gass and Stanley Elkin. It was thought at the time that the publisher might be moved to reprint O'Flaherty's excellent short story collections, "Spring Sowing" and "The Tent." If you can find the Nonpareil edition, buy it; it is avaialble now in a version from Interlink.](1985)

Buy The Famine by Liam O'Flaherty



<home> - <bio> - <creativity> - <links> - <writing>

I accept payment through PayPal!, the #1 online payment service!