Liam O'Flaherty

 O'Flaherty and Kitty Tailer, Champs Elysées, 1950
The letters of Liam O’Flaherty (Inishmore, Co. Galway, 1896—Dublin, 1984) are hard going and the going gets ever harder as O’Flaherty grows older. There are some constants down through the years, however: incessant haranguing of editors and agents for money, sad tales of losing money at horse races, tiresome anti-Catholic rants worthy of the letters page of the Irish Times (does anybody read that rag any more?).

Alas, O’Flaherty’s frequent stays in Paris make him impossible to avoid in this opus of ours. He first turned up in Paris in 1915, during the First World War, while on leave from his Irish Guards regiment. O’Flaherty was discharged from the army with shell shock in May 1918, and after a few months spent at home in the Aran Islands, he “set out to conquer the world”, as he put it himself, wandering as far afield as Brazil and Canada before he made it back to the British Isles at the end of 1920. He certainly made a trip to Paris in the late 1920s, for in a letter sent from Dublin to a friend in London in November 1927, O’Flaherty complains that he is “really very hard up as a result of going to Paris”. A trend was being established.

O’Flaherty passed through Paris in 1928 (when he met Sylvia Beach) and 1929. He stayed again in the French capital in September and October 1930, managing to clock up three different addresses in this short period of time, including a bed & breakfast at 9, rue Victor Considérant (14th arrondissement) and the close-by Hôtel de la Paix at 225, Boulevard Raspail (14th arrondissement). On his way to a winter sojourn in Majorca in January 1931, O’Flaherty saw a rugby international in Paris between France and Ireland, which he described as “the most frightful exhibition I ever saw in my life”. In October 1932, O’Flaherty mentions in a letter sent to Francis Stuart from the Aran Islands that he had “gone to Paris for a fortnight with a girl I met here and got fed up with her”—possibly a reference to his Parisian stay in August of that year at 16, rue Denfert Rochereau (now rue Henri Barbusse) in the 5th arrondissement.

 The Hôtel Lutétia
O’Flaherty’s interaction with Paris picked up from the mid-1930s, after he had found fame from the translation of some of his novels and short stories, as well as the filming of The Informer by John Ford. In March 1937, O’Flaherty was staying in the Hôtel Lutétia at 43, Boulevard Raspail (6th arrondissement), moving to the Hôtel Gallia at 63, rue Pierre Charron (8th arrondissement) a couple of months later as he negotiated the filming of one of his novels, The Puritan (the film, Le Puritain came out in France in 1938 and featured Jean-Louis Barrault, one of the stars of Les Enfants du Paradis a couple of years later). After a long stay in the US, O’Flaherty explained to a correspondent, he had “had a look at Dublin, found it uninhabitable as far as I am concerned and came over here”. To his American lover, Kitty Tailer, O’Flaherty described Dublin thus: “A kind of slime was seeping through the streets, it drizzled, the people looked miserably poor, impolite, unhappy.” At the beginning of May 1938, O’Flaherty was staying at the extremely luxurious Hôtel Prince de Galles on the Avenue Georges V (8th arrondissement) and came back to Paris from the south of France in September 1938, with the intention of making it his place of permanent residence.

Always an extremely shrewd political observer, O’Flaherty wrote to Kitty Trailer in December 1938 that “France looks safe for the moment, or a decade, and Quai Louis Blériot [in the 16th arrondissement, where he had rented a flat at no. 38] will probably flourish to the extent of its lease.” Alas for O’Flaherty, his dreams of establishing permanent residence in Paris were upset by one A. Hitler. But he was back again in late summer 1946, staying for a while at his old haunt, the Hôtel Lutétia. 

Literary critic Jeanine Delpech opened her 1946 account of a meeting with O’Flaherty thus: 

“It was seven years ago that I last saw Liam O’Flaherty, a joyful loser, on the race course at Auteuil. And it is from the race course at Enghien that he arrives at my home this evening—still a loser, but ever more joyful. He was back in Europe and the horses had not suffered from the wartime restrictions as much as he had feared.” 

Delpech asked O’Flaherty whether he had time to read. “Yes, I read one newspaper passionately—Paris Turf (equivalent to The Sporting Life newspaper). I work in the morning and go to the races in the afternoon.” 

 The race course at Enghien in the 1930s
O’Flaherty stayed in Paris intermittently from 1946 until the early 1950s, when he frequently went drinking and gambling with his old friend, Francis Stuart. In his diary for March 1950, Stuart writes that in restaurants, “Liam would never order one bottle and another later. He had to have all in front of him. We often found it very hard to get through the lot.” But Stuart was spellbound by O’Flaherty’s prowess as a storyteller. “It was as if he had opened a magic suitcase full of wonderous tales, credible or incredible, they were sheer magic…Stories when he had won one or two pounds would end up with suitcases full of pound notes to that he even couldn’t carry the lot and had to take a taxi and then put the whole lot on a hack and lose it all. He loved to lose, and would never bet on the obvious, the certainty in racing.” Madeleine Stuart was equally impressed by O’Flaherty—not least his ability to sing Lili Marlene in both German and Irish.

Subsequently, with age and health problems creeping up, O’Flaherty began to slow down and he elected a flat in Wilton Place in Dublin as his home base, even though he never seems to have liked the Irish capital (who could blame him) and recognised that “it’s so unhealthy to hate the chief town of one’s own country so much and so constantly”. However, with Kitty Tailer residing in the exclusive rue de la Paix in the centre of Paris, O’Flaherty continued to make frequent visits to Paris. Despite constant complaints about money in his correspondence, O’Flaherty usually chose the best hotels for his Paris hotels—not only the Hôtel Lutétia, but also the Grand Hôtel on rue Scribe (2nd arrondissement).

He also kept up to date with French affairs thanks to his subscription to Le Monde, which he received in Dublin with several days delay. O’Flaherty’s intimate knowledge of French literary affairs can be gleaned from his comment on the death of Louis-Ferdinand Céline in July 1961. “The Jews have finally got poor Louis Ferdinand Céline,” he wrote, “and boy they have gone to town with venomous glee covering the spiritual corpse with gelded fleabites. Le Monde hired three different kikes to wield the dagger….Not that I could ever finish anything he wrote.”

Select Bibliography
The Letters of Liam O'Flaherty (1996)
Ed. A.A. Kelly

Manna in the Morning, A Memoir, 1940-1958 (1984) 
Madeleine Stuart

"Aux courses avec O'Flaherty", Jeanine Delpech, Les Nouvelles littéraires,  May 1, 1937

"Liam O'Flaherty nous dit", Jeanine Delpech, Les Nouvelles littéraires,  Sept. 19, 1946