Two Lovely Beasts by Liam O'Flaherty, 1948

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by Liam O'Flaherty, 1948

Liam O'Flaherty has been described as "a poet in prose, who chose the short story as a medium" and as someone who "probably has more faults than any of the other outstanding Irish writers of short stories." The faults are clear: an inclination to slide into melodrama and sentimentality, a proclivity to humanize his animal subjects and either to beastialize or idealize his humans, and stylistic uneasiness. It is equally clear why he should have been described as a poet. Most of his stories are set against the backdrop of the harshness of the natural world and present an impassioned picture of humans and animals imbued with violent and elemental passions and struggling for survival.

"Two Lovely Beasts" is more characteristic of the strengths than the weaknesses of O'Flaherty. There is at times a somewhat jarring movement from dialectal speech ("God between us and harm … what happened to you?") to the Latinate syntax of the narrative voice ("It was some time before Kate desisted from her lamentation"). In addition, O'Flaherty's use of animal imagery in characterization is evident. Colm Derrane, for example, "was a big awkward fellow with pigeon toes and arms that were exceptionally long, like those of an ape." There are moments when the placing of the heroically enduring peasant against the hostility of the natural world seems familiar if not clichéd:

His shoes were in tatters. His frieze trousers were covered with patches of varying colours. His grey shirt was visible through the numerous holes in his blue woollen sweater…. Yet he looked splendid and even awe-inspiring, in spite of his physical ugliness and his uncouth dress, as he stood poised that way on the brink of the tall cliff above the thundering sea.

The story presents a complex and impressive picture of an impoverished community eking out a subsistence living at the mercy of fate, bad luck, and the weather. The traditional nature of the society is evoked in the separate meeting places for men and women where communal decisions are made and collective norms asserted. There is a desperate shortage of arable land, and life is a matter of backbreaking, unremitting toil as people attempt to scrape out a living from land that is more rock than soil. Andy Gorum enunciates the social realities:

That's how we live here in our village by helping one another. Our land is poor and the sea is wild. It's hard to live. We only manage to live by sticking together. Otherwise we'd all die. It's too wild and barren here for any one man to stand alone. Whoever tries to stand alone and work only for his own profit becomes an enemy of all.

Colm Derrane, however, does attempt to stand alone and work for his own profit so that he can leave his people behind, "still land-slaves and at the mercy of everyone else." "Two Lovely Beasts" is the story of a man who escapes from the peasantry by hard work and imagination but who also has to deny the needs of traditional society. Derrane has to face social ostracism, and, in the process of transforming himself into O'Flaherty's and Ireland's most hated figure, the "gombeen man," he loses his humanity and warmth, terrorizes his wife, starves his children, and turns his back on the natural compensations and joys that his life had offered. For example, in taking on the feeding of a second calf Derrane deprives the town of milk, flouts traditional wisdom, and breaks "the law of God and of the people."

"Two Lovely Beasts" is a story of a peasant community and a microcosm of the world of capitalism. By putting his individual ambition before the communal needs of the people, Colm Derrane leaves a socialist world to become a capitalist. He sacrifices everything to feed the calves, yet even when he has enough and more than anyone else, he still wants more and completes his removal from the people by becoming a town-based shopkeeper. There is nothing remarkable about Derrane except his willingness to work and his unwillingness to "turn aside from an opportunity to earn an extra shilling." The reader experiences horror and revulsion at the choice he makes and its human consequences, but the reader is equally filled with admiration for his courage, imagination, energy, and persistence and with sympathy for his desire to escape the slavery of his existence. This is what makes the story satisfying.

Like Satan cunningly whispering in Christ's ear in the temptation in the desert and offering him the earth, Kate represents temptation: "You'll be the richest man in the village. You'll be talked about and envied from one end of the parish to the other." His conflict is presented as a conflict between two mortal sins; it would be a sin to let the neighbors go without milk and a sin to have the calf slaughtered. The resolution is presented, however, in terms of something more elemental. There is a mythological element in the Homeric description of the "young bull-calf that had a wine-dark skin." Colm Derrane becomes "intoxicated" with the idea of possessing both calves, and the text makes it clear that this is the kind of divine intoxication that leads to the sin of hubris. Derrane is tempting the gods, but the ironic basis of the story resides in the fact that the gods of trade bless him with success, which casts doubt on traditional wisdom:

If what he is doing is bad, why does he prosper? Isn't it more likely that God is blessing his effort to rise in the world. Maybe it's us that are wicked on account of our laziness.

There is, of course, damnation and a price to be paid for Derrane's ambitions, although he does not perceive this. As Derrane achieves his dreams, he becomes "cold and resolute and ruthless," and in O'Flaherty's terms he suffers the ultimate punishment of a living death—inhumanity and separation from all that is vibrant and energizing in life.

—Anne Clune