The Post Office by Liam O'Flaherty, 1956
THE POST OFFICE
by Liam O'Flaherty, 1956
After serving in the Irish Guards in France, Liam O'Flaherty traveled around the world between the years 1918 and 1921, earning his way in the odd jobs available to a vagabond. These experiences are recorded in "The Post Office," in which he poses the Irish native provincials with the cosmopolitan visitors. An uncharacteristic story for O'Flaherty, "The Post Office" was collected in The Stories of Liam O'Flaherty (1956).
In the story O'Flaherty creates a comical portrait of a clash between wealthy and sophisticated American-Irish and natives of a small Irish town west of Galway in Connemara. It is pension day in the early 1950s, and the villagers, mostly old, come to the post office not only to collect their money but also to entertain themselves at the expense of the postmaster, Martin Conlon. The bane of his existence and the symbol of the new technology is the telegram, which entails use of an anachronistic telephone with a crank handle. Three tourists, a man and two women, arrive in a sky blue Cadillac convertible "of the latest model," asking to send a telegram. This sends the assembled natives into contortions of laughter at the discomfort of Conlon. Somewhat dim-witted without knowing it and naturally incapable, Conlon fears for his position, and he thinks that the handsome young man driving the car is a spy. All three visitors are dressed in the latest expensive fashion, daring and outlandish next to the local women in shawls and aprons.
The American speaks the local dialect of the Gaelic language, but he has no apparent roots in the area. The natives' knowledge of local families extends a hundred years back to the Great Famine, but they do not ask his name or who he is. A "mocker by nature" and a "smiling rogue" who feeds on the humor of the situation, he seems more an American than a "rich Dubliner" or a "Government official," but he knows the local history and temperament.
The visitors are models of sophistication in the languages they speak and in their clothing, car, and worldly experience. The villagers, their hosts, reveal provincial behavior, Irish colloquialism, insults and threats of violence, and ignorance of the world, which is balanced with native wit and humor.
To avoid the devilment of sending a telegram, Conlon tries to persuade the young man of the futility of such a transaction, but he finds himself defeated by the "facts" presented, which are in part inspired by his pronouncing the Cadillac "the king of all motor cars." The young Spanish woman is the daughter of a duke, invited to dine in Dublin with the president of the republic. She desires to send a telegram from the town, Paiseach, because her friend in Los Angeles had a great-great-grandmother who came from there. The natives quickly seize upon the name O'Graudain and provide the family history.
Meanwhile, an old hag wants to know what disease the women, with their painted toenails, have; when told that they were infected while imprisoned in the Brazilian forest, she departs swiftly in terror. Father Tom the priest arrives searching for his dog and, on learning about the telegram, commiserates with the postman using the traditional words of bereavement ("I'm sorry for your trouble") and departs with gales of laughter. Conlon fears that the telegram written in Spanish—a quotation from Federico García Lorca—may be obscene, whereupon the young visitor requests the Spanish girl to recite "avec force." Intelligence for the message means nothing; the listeners are carried away with her dramatics and call out, "God be with you, noble lady!…"Brightness of all brightnesses!" Ironically, what she has said in Spanish was exactly the opposite.
The popular applause persuades Conlon that he must attempt to send the telegram. In speaking on the antiquated telephone, he encounters a roar of thunderous voices, a prankster selling fish, then a person grieving the death of a native after an operation at a nearby hospital. On reporting this to the assembly, he elaborates, "They didn't leave a drop of blood in him that they didn't draw." A soldier, a sensible old veteran of the Boer War, contradicts the consensus about the corpse: "It was no good for him to be alive and the way he was." Conlon, on the telephone again, encounters a schoolteacher with a wrong number, then someone trying to reach Carna by telephone who laughs on finding that he has reached Paiseach, for the town is aptly named. (In Gaelic it means "confusion, disorder, and shapelessness.") He expresses Conlon's philosophy: "We were much better off when we had only donkeys and carts and row-boats."
The triumph of American technology, as represented in the visiting American, reaches its climax at this point, when Conlon collapses in defeat. The American girl steps forward, seizes the telephone, connects immediately, and proceeds to convey the telegram in Spanish with phonetics: "Muerto. M for Mary, U for Una…." The soldier, much impressed, appraises the American girl's physical assets and advises the young man to marry her. The mystery of the young man's identity is only partly solved in his response: "I'm just a poor Dublin lad studying sculpture in Paris."
Conlon, with his telegraph responsibilities discharged vicariously, turns character completely and, amid their good-humored cheers, brusquely orders the audience into position to receive their pensions.
The mixture of nationalities represented by the visitors clashes with the provinciality of the Irish, and the unspoken message is that life and love lie elsewhere. The great opportunity, as the soldier insists, is in the Irish mating with American technology.