Sunday 18 February 2018

Banned treasure sees the light


Liam O'Flaherty

Nuascéalta Teo, €9.00

The House of Gold by Liam O'Flaherty was the first book to be banned by the Irish Censorship of Publications Board, which in 1930 denounced the work as "obscene."

Although the story made the front page of the New York Times at the time, the book was never reprinted and soon faded into obscurity.

The novel, complete with scenes of lust and corruption, outraged the new rulers of the fledgling Free State by portraying them as mediocre opportunistic gombeen men.

The novel also had strong words to say about the Catholic Church, which, in the eyes of the author, lent the new order legitimacy.

Set in Galway and the writer's native Aran Islands, the action revolves around the fictional town of Barra and its illustrious swaggering new rulers who have displaced the old Big House grandees.

The new order is described in the book's introduction by novelist and poet Tomás Mac Síomóin as an "oppressive native gombeen ascendancy, buttressed by the Catholic Church".

The central character is straight out of Irish central casting; the greedy, land-hungry politically well-connected Ramon Mor Costello, and his clerical accomplices who are in awe of his wealth.

Graced with an exotically beautiful wife Nora, who despises Ramon, she becomes the catalyst for a series of violent events that lead to an unexpected climax.

Greed, priestly lusts, sexual frustration, alcoholism, and murder are the themes woven together in this intriguing tale.

In a scene which had vintage Irish readers gasping into their porridge a priest friend of the family beds the wilful Nora, who has been unfaithful to her husband with a penniless Irish revolutionary:

"Lord have mercy on me. I am being swallowed in the abyss of lust. My will is weak. Take this apple of evil from my sight." He implores the heavens before continuing anyway.

A bestseller when it was released in 1929, it was denounced the following year as an obscene publication.

Inis Mor-born Liam O'Flaherty fought on the carnage-strewn Western Front during World War One and was badly injured. He later returned home to revolutionary Ireland suffering from shell shock.

The pointlessness of the First World War left a lasting impression on the author, who lost his faith in both man and God. He later became a committed socialist and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Two days after the foundation of the Irish Free State, O'Flaherty and a group of supporters famously hoisted a red flag over the Rotunda Hospital which blew in the breeze for three days.

On failing to spark a workers' revolution of the proletariat, the writer gave up on Irish politics altogether and concentrated instead on establishing his reputation as a writer. After The House of Gold was banned, he largely gave up on Ireland too. Ironically, O'Flaherty emigrated to America and moved to Hollywood of all places.

His cousin, the famous film director John Ford, introduced Liam O'Flaherty to the Irish- Americans who at that stage ran Tinseltown, and turned his novel, The Informer, into a major motion picture.

The 1935 movie, which starred Victor McLaglen, cemented the author's international reputation as a world-class writer.

In later life O'Flaherty renounced the Communist Party and eventually returned to the Catholic faith. Now, after an 83-year wait, O'Flaherty's forgotten masterpiece, The House of Gold, has been republished and readers can once again enjoy the gem which has lost none of its relevance in the intervening years.

Sunday Independent

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