The last of Liam O’Flaherty’s banned novels to see the light

■ Liam O’Flaherty, The Martyr, Nuascéalta, 2020

With this sensational republication of The Martyr, Nuascéalta completes its epic task of restoring the remaining three major O’Flaherty novels banned by the Irish state. The other two novels reprinted were the first book to be banned under the Censorship of Publications Act (1929), the Galway novel The House of Gold and O’Flaherty’s insightful and scathing Hollywood satire, Hollywood Cemetery.

This publication makes available for the first time since the 1930s the entirety of Liam O’Flaherty’s novelistic work and moves towards a restoration of the panorama of this author’s work for a global audience.

Banned writings were dangerous to come by for many decades, and the long-term effect of such an establishment ban on literary works radiates to this day, as once-censored novels can still be rare on library and bookshop shelves.

O’Flaherty’s novels, mainly written in the 1920s and 30s, address significant events in Irish history and the newly emerging Free State, a fundamentalist Catholic state in which books were banned and a whole people systematically kept in ignorance—a state betraying the ideals of independence.

Nuascéalta’s return of The Martyr to the reading public comes at a time when we commemorate—controversially—the centenary of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

The Martyr gives O’Flaherty’s view on the battle to control the country’s destiny. The novel, written only ten years after the Civil War, brings to life the nationwide Free State attack on the anti-Treaty forces. One such offensive was the landing at Fenit, Co. Kerry. O’Flaherty fictionalises this incident at “Carra Point” and “Sallytown” (Tralee).

Events concerning the Free State army landing and its sequel are seen through the eyes of Sallytown’s defenders and its townspeople, clerical and lay. In the author’s imaginative reconstruction, professional Free State troops face Sallytown’s ill-trained, badly led and poorly equipped volunteer defenders.

O’Flaherty’s point of view is always informed by his understanding of class and class interests. He writes from the point of view of the ordinary people, fishermen, peasants, workers. As part of this perspective he leaves no doubt about which side in the Civil War the gombeen class stood: “Every one of these peasants felt that Tracy was fighting for Ireland and that Sheehan was not. Down in their souls they felt it, by instinct . . . It was all very well for posh fellows in Dublin, he felt, to mock at these ignorant poor people; but all the same the poor people’s instincts were always right in the long run.”

O’Flaherty presents the reader with the complexities of each class as erstwhile comrades find themselves on opposing sides of this tragic conflict; Sheehan “was about the same age as Tracy and he had an equally brilliant record as a guerrilla fighter. He came from a village on the coast of Cork and he had been a fisherman before he became a revolutionary. He had been admitted into the ranks of the Republican Brotherhood for a very skilful landing of some arms right under the eyes of a British gunboat.”

This central conflict of the novel, between Tracy and Sheehan, comments memorably on how differently the Civil War could have ended: Sheehan refuses to kill Tracy and defies any military order to do so.

The group of revolutionaries around Tracy as their central player is diverse. Some, like Rourke, are simply farmers; others, most prominently Crosbie, are devout Christians; others again have been soldiers, guerrilla fighters, and have been imprisoned. There is also an informer among them.

The Martyr is the rare Irish Civil War novel that presents some fighters on the anti-Treaty side as informed by the socialism of Connolly, indeed declared atheists and communists, and Tracy and Sailor King have most in common with O’Flaherty’s own thinking. However, O’Flaherty combines all these diverse people into a group around Tracy to shape a group hero, as opposed to the idealised individual hero that dominates the bourgeois novel. This band of revolutionaries includes women, though there is a certain degree of stereotyping in these female characters, including the rather startling portrayal of Constance Markievicz.

Brian Crosbie, Sallytown’s ineffectual Republican leader, is also based partly on a historical character: Terence MacSweeney. Crosbie, who becomes the martyr after whom the novel is named, is central to the plot. MacSweeney was a devout Catholic who described Ireland’s struggle for independence as a religious crusade and his goal as a new Catholic state. Laid out in his coffin, he wore underneath his IRA uniform the rough brown habit of a Franciscan monk.

Crosbie’s ineffectuality arises from his Catholic nationalism, an issue of immediate relevance to O’Flaherty at the time he wrote the book. An extensive dialogue between Crosbie and his Free State army torturer, Tyson, reminiscent of Satan and Christ in the desert, paves the way for the novel’s shocking ending.

This raw novel provides a gripping contemporary account of events that defined Irish history. It contradicts revisionist presentations of those times and suggests that, at a time when history is being removed from school curricula, one should read literature. It is unlikely to find favour among the descendants of the “Stater” camp, and could make for an uncomfortable reminder for the modern offspring of the anti-Treaty movement.

Following the recent general election, the media, along with the politicians of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, trumpeted about overcoming the divisions of the past, in an effort to exclude from government the party that aspires to achieve the goals of the anti-Treaty party of the Civil War. O’Flaherty reminds us of what this was all about.

The Martyr is available from Amazon.