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Liam O’Flaherty: Land

This novel starts in 1879. It is a period when prices have risen after the famine, described in O’Flaherty’s earlier novel of that name, and farmers have benefited. However, landlords have raised rents. When a couple of poor harvests affected the farmers, the landlords did not lower the rents and now there are more evictions. Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell will form the Land League. This novel is set against the background of those events.

The novel is set in and around the aptly named town of Clash. (Clash – there is a town of that name in county Kerry – has nothing to do with conflict but comes from the Irish word clais meaning ditch or channel.) The St George family had been the local landlords for many years, living in Manister House. The father of Raoul St George, who is the last surviving male St George, had had to sell the House when his rents fell during the famine. In addition, he had felt very guilty about the suffering of his tenants and had converted to Catholicism. His daughter Elizabeth had also converted, feeling that a woman had to obey. His son Julian had been reluctant to do so but his father had beaten him into submission. Raoul, the eldest, was away at university in Dublin at the time and his mother has persuaded him not to convert, so he remained Protestant. Raoul, however, had become very sympathetic to the abuse of the Irish and had had to leave Ireland and go to France when he risked trouble with the authorities. While in France, he consorted with left-wingers, including Bakunin. Elizabeth had stayed behind and had nursed her brother Julian and parents, all of whom had died. Raoul, with his daughter Lettice, has now returned to Ireland, the three living in Manister Lodge. Manister House had been bought by Captain Butcher, an Englishman. On buying the property, Butcher had evicted many tenants to make way for cattle. This had led to bitter fights, resulting in attacks on Butcher. An Irishman, O’Dwyer, had been arrested and hanged. We will learn during the course of the book that he had been betrayed by another Irishman.

The book starts with Elizabeth hearing shots. Captain Butcher, whom the St Georges had not previously met, arrives at the front door and demands to search the place, as he has tracked down a man who had tried to kill him. Butcher is injured but is determined to get his man. Raoul is horrified by his arrogance but lets him look around but he finds no-one. After he has departed, the maid, Annie Fitzpatrick, reveals that she has hidden a man who turns out to be the assailant and is Michael O’Dwyer, son of the man who had been hanged. O’Dwyer is slightly hurt and Raoul not only tends to him but soon befriends him. Raoul is very sympathetic to the cause of the Fenians, of which Michael O’Dwyer is a member, and soon agrees to help him. He also becomes chair of the local branch of the Land League. As in earlier O’Flaherty books, there is considerable opposition between the Fenians and the Catholic priest and his supporters, with the priest being somewhat sympathetic to the plight of his parishioners but decrying any sort of organised opposition to the authorities.

There are several plot strands. O’Dwyer and his Fenians oppose Butcher and the evictions and fight hard to get what they see as their rights. The man who betrayed Michael O’Dwyer’s father is also seen as an enemy. The whole book follows the story of Michael O’Dwyer and his fight with Captain Butcher, culminating in a western-style showdown. Raoul works out a clever way of dealing with the enemy, avoiding direct confrontation. He calls it isolation but, by the end of the book, it will have changed its name, thanks to another victim of this isolation, Charles Cunningham Boycott. There is also the tug for control of the Land League, between those supporting the Fenians and those supporting the priest. We also follow the story of Fenton, the local police inspector, an Englishman who hates being in Ireland and whose life is made worse by the fact that he has fallen in love with Barbara Butcher, Captain Butcher’s wife. There are other love affairs, a weak link in this book, as O’Flaherty resorts to standard clichés to describe them. Once again, O’Flaherty’s sympathies are clear though he does manage to occasionally show some positive aspects to the authorities.

O’Flaherty is a good writer and tells an excellent story of the local perspective of events sweeping the whole country. Raoul St George, effectively a renegade, is a most interesting character. While Butcher and O’Dwyer are somewhat stereotypical, it is fascinating to watch the two with their mutual hatred and their plotting against one another. The other characters tend to be in somewhat of the shadow of the main ones but still round out what is certainly a good if not great novel.

Publishing history

First published 1946 by Victor Gollancz