Patrick O’Flaherty has been a mentor of sorts to me for many years. No, I never sat under his teaching as a professor of English at Memorial University. But I have profited immensely from his many books. I return time and again to his The Rock Observed as I continue to read the literature of Newfoundland.
At this moment, he stands in the enviable position of having two books published at virtually the same time.
“This was not intentional,” he explains to me in a recent email, “but this is just the way it is.”
One is Scotland’s Pariah: The Life and Work of John Pinkerton, 1758-1826, published by the University of Toronto Press earlier this year. A revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation, it is the first book to examine the Pinkerton oeuvre.
I was torn as I read it, for I wanted desperately to like the subject of O’Flaherty’s biography. Pinkerton was all and more of the following: antiquarian, poet, cartographer and historian. On the other hand, he epitomizes less noble characteristics as forger, serial adulterer, bigamist and religious skeptic.
“He was,” O’Flaherty summarizes, “an ornery character.”
Pinkerton knew and was admired by literary masters such as Edward Gibbon and Horace Walpole. Pinkerton himself was a man of letters, who left an astounding array of writings.
O’Flaherty follows this remarkable life from his youth in Scotland to his exile in Paris.
I finished reading Scotland’s Pariah with keen appreciation for the man O’Flaherty dubs “a neglected, deeply flawed, but intriguing human being.” For who among us would dare to deny his fallibility as a creature of Earth?
O’Flaherty’s second book to be released this year is an autobiography, Paddy Boy: Growing Up Irish in a Newfoundland Outport, published by Nova Scotia’s Pottersfield Press. In the same way that the author seeks in Scotland’s Pariah to untangle the skeins of Pinkerton’s life, he sets out in Paddy Boy to recall the disparate threads that make up his own life. And in this he succeeds admirably.
My friend, the late Benjamin W. Powell, Sr., of Charlottetown, Labrador, an author in his own right, often told me that a good writer takes his readers on a journey. If this is true, then O’Flaherty is a writer par excellence and a faithful guide to his personal journey, from his birth in 1939 to the end of his childhood in 1954.
O’Flaherty grew up in Northern Bay, the midpoint of the Northern Shore which, he explains, “was and to some extent remains a place apart,” despite the scant heed written Newfoundland history pays to it.
Meanwhile, he refuses to sentimentalize what to him is a special place. The Irish of his generation, he writes, resemble “the Galapagos turtle, an evolutionary oddity, a mutation developing in isolation from the rest of its species.”
Children sang songs like “The Wearin’ of the Green” and “Kelly, the Boy from Killanne.” They were aware of Ireland’s existence, which, O’Flaherty adds, “was more than what the Irish knew or cared about us in Newfoundland, which was zero.”
Paddy Boy is imbued with many flashes of humour. One example will suffice.
O’Flaherty’s Uncle Eddy Howell was a “dirty” berry picker. Businessman Philip Johnson, disgusted with the detritus among the berries, quipped, “Keep on pourin’, Eddy. I see another blue one comin’.” There should be an exclamation mark after this sentence!
The topics under the author’s purview are broad ranging, from history to geography, history to religion, politics to business, fishing to farming.
He was influenced by an all-pervasive religious sensibility which, he recalls, “intruded into everything we did and gave a meaning to life.” He was patently aware of “a distinct consciousness of religious difference.” His entire being was informed by the Catholic faith. Not surprisingly, after having divested oneself of the trappings of religion, one laments, “Who can say...that he does not feel a sense of loss?”
Much of Paddy Boy is given over to describing a Shangri-La-like childhood, a lost idyll, untrammeled by undue restraint, a life of glorious freedom, whether swimming, attending school, playing games, reading, or performing in plays and recitations at concerts.
Patrick the Professor is never far from the surface. There are 30 footnotes, though Paddy Boy is not intended as an academic treatise. There are judicious quotations from, among others, Philip Henry Gosse, Webster’s Dictionary and Francis Fukuyama. There are allusions to Mark Twain, John Kenneth Galbraith, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. All serve to anchor O’Flaherty’s unique journey.
O’Flaherty bridges the old separate country of Newfoundland and its new status as a province of Canada. He remembers his father taking a “valiant stand” in the 1948 Confederation debate.
“What mattered to him was the opportunity to make money for his family, and he saw in Canadian union the prospect of an end to hard times.”
O’Flaherty himself adopted his father’s pragmatic view.
The end of childhood morphed into “a strange new world.” Here’s hoping O’Flaherty has at least one more book in him, a sequel to Paddy Boy, recreating his post-childhood life and times.
I have to ask, though, where are the “snaps”? There’s nary a one between the covers. As I read Paddy Boy, I tried to visualize how specific people looked. Photographs would have brought the author’s word pictures into sharper relief.
So there you have it, two lives of note representing two different centuries – Pinkerton and O’Flaherty – brisk reads both and well worth the investment.
Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts and can be reached at email@example.com