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Liam O’Flaherty: Skerrett

David Skerrett is a gruff, dour man. He is a school teacher and, as we later learn, lost his previous job in an altercation with the parent of a student. He has now been sent to the fictitious island of Nara. It is presumably no coincidence that this is Aran back-to-front. Nara is Irish-speaking and Skerrett speaks no Irish and, indeed, is determined that all instruction should be in English as Irish is a backward language and will serve no use in the modern world (the novel opens in the late nineteenth century). Skerrett is married to Kate and she is pregnant. The marriage is not a happy one. Kate will help teach the younger children. The school, like many other aspects of the island, is essentially under the control of the local Catholic priest, Father Moclair. Father Moclair, while liking to be in control of the island and have things done his way, is also very pragmatic and is very concerned at improving the lot of the islanders. He does a lot of good deeds, getting work for the islanders and helping the most downtrodden. He will however clash with many of the more outspoken people on the island, including Skerrett.

When he first arrives, Skerrett is ferocious with the children and their parents. He is not adverse to using physical threats and even physical force to get the parents to send their children to school. He also uses capital punishment most freely. He adopts bad habits, drinking and even chasing women, ignoring his wife. But it all changes when she gives birth. His view was that he was not keen on having a child but, once Michael is born, he becomes a changed man, devoted to his son, more caring of his wife, more religious and renouncing drink. Everything seems to be working for a while, till Michael is seven years old. He then has an accident, from which he dies. Both parents are, of course, devastated. Kate has a breakdown and becomes an alcoholic, which Skerrett tries, unsuccessfully, to control. He himself becomes more dour and hard. He becomes friends with the new doctor, Dr Melia, an Englishman. His relationship with Father Moclair changes. He is at times supportive and close, at times in bitter opposition to him.

Times are changing. Prosperity has come but, as a result of changed climate and market conditions, things start going badly. In the past, several of the inhabitants had been involved in the Land League, culminating in driving twenty-five of the landlord’s cattle into the sea off a cliff. As a result, a tax is now being levied on everyone to pay for some of the compensation to the (Protestant) landlord. There is naturally opposition to this and the group opposed to it try to enlist Skerrett’s support against the priest. Skerrett is reluctant to join them and so the tax revolt fails. Skerrett had initially been opposed to Irish but had come round to the view that Irish was important, given the likely future independence of Ireland. As a result he had not only learned Irish but had become something of an expert on Irish and Irish culture. Initially, the people respect him for this but he is later considered something of an out-of-touch crank.

O’Flaherty has made it very clear that Skerrett is, ultimately, not a reformer but a revolutionary, by which he means a man that will go head-to-head with the established order and that is just what Skerrett does. Kate goes downhill, his relations with the populace of the island are not what they used to be, Dr Melia runs off with a young woman and his other pig-headed friends abandon him. It is a straight fight between Skerrett, the revolutionary, and Father Moclair, the church representative. It is a fascinating account of blind stubbornness, a man sticking to his principles which, to most readers, will seem misguided, against the wiles of the Church. Skerrett is not a likeable man and not, in O’Flaherty’s eyes, a sensible, rational man, but he is a man of great passion, determination and toughness and it is that that makes him interesting.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Victor Gollancz