Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Year of Publication
Sniper," Liam O'Flaherty's first published work, is a short story. It was
printed in London in the January 12, 1923, issue of a weekly socialist
publication, The New Leader.
Sniper" takes place in Ireland's largest city, Dublin, on the country's
east coast on Dublin Bay, an inlet of the Irish Sea. The time is nightfall
in June after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The sniper
posts himself on a rooftop in central Dublin near the Four Courts building,
which houses the high courts of Ireland, and O'Connell Bridge, which spans
the River Liffey. The Liffey divides the city into two sections as it runs
eastward to Dublin Bay.
IRA Sniper: Man posted
on a roof in Dublin.
Enemy gunman posted on a roof across from the IRA sniper.
Turret Gunner: Man
shot by the IRA sniper.
Old Woman: Informer
who betrays the position of the IRA sniper to the turret gunner.
Unseen Machine Gunner:
Person who fires at the IRA sniper after the latter leaves the roof.
wrote "The Sniper" in limited third-person point of view, in which he presents
the thoughts of the IRA sniper but does not present the thoughts of any
other character. He wrote "The Sniper" while Ireland was embroiled in sectarian
1919, the newly formed Irish Republican Army launched guerilla warfare
during the Irish War of Independence to liberate Ireland from the British.
Unable to contain the rebels, London agreed in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty
to create an Irish Free State. However, the agreement would recognize the
Free State only as a dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations. Moreover,
it would permit six counties in northern Ireland to withdraw from the Free
State, allow the British to maintain ports in the south, and require the
Free State to pay part of the debt Britain incurred in waging the war.
Consequently, not all Irishmen accepted the agreement, the provisions of
which became effective in 1922. (The six northern counties seceded, as
expected.) Once-united Irish fighters were now split into two factions—disgruntled
IRA members and supporters of the Free State—and fought a civil war. O’Flaherty,
himself a member of the IRA, centers his short story on a scene of fighting
in Dublin in which an IRA sniper shoots at Free Staters from a rooftop.
Michael J. Cummings...©
nightfall in Dublin, heavy guns and small arms boom and crack intermittently
near the River Liffey as Republicans battle Free Staters. From a rooftop
near O’Connell Bridge, a Republican sniper with fanatical eyes observes
the scene while eating a sandwich and swigging whiskey.
an armored car pulls up fifty yards ahead, he does not shoot at it, realizing
that bullets will not pierce heavy armor. An old woman stops to inform
the car’s turret gunner of the position of the sniper. When the gunner
emerges from his dome, the sniper kills him, then the woman. The armored
car speeds away.
from the opposite roof then wounds the sniper in the arm. He drops his
rifle as blood oozes from his wound, although he feels no pain. His arm
is numb. He opens
a first-aid kit and drips iodine onto the wound. Now there is pain. Then
he places cotton on the wound, bandages it, and thinks about his predicament.
He can no longer handle his rifle. He has only his revolver to defend himself.
If he tries to get off the roof, he will be an easy target for the gunman
across from him. A plan occurs to him, and he executes it immediately.
Placing his hat on the muzzle of his rifle, he pokes the barrel over the
roof parapet. A bullet zings through the hat. The sniper tilts the weapon
so that the hat falls onto the street. Then he hangs his left hand limply
over the roof. A moment later, he drops the rifle to the street and slumps
to the roof, dragging his hand back over the parapet.
crawling to a new position, he peeks out and sees his enemy standing up
and looking across, apparently believing he killed the IRA man. The latter
brings his revolver into position, holds his breath, and fires. The enemy
reels on the roof, drops his rifle to the street, and falls to the pavement.
sight drains the sniper of his “lust for battle," the narrator says. “Weakened
by his wound and the long summer day of fasting and watching on the roof,
he revolted from the sight of the shattered mass of his dead enemy. His
teeth chattered, he began to gibber to himself, cursing the war, cursing
himself, cursing everybody."
disgust, he throws the smoking revolver to the roof. It discharges, sending
a bullet past his head. The shock of the near miss sobers him, steadies
his nerves. Then he laughs, swigs whiskey, and gets off the roof via a
skylight and a house beneath. On the quiet street, he is curious about
the other sniper, who was a very good shot. Who was he? Could he have been
a member of his own company before the army split into rival factions.
He decides to have a look at the man. When he dashes across, a machine
gun opens fire but misses him. He drops to the pavement next to the body
as the gunfire ceases. When he turns over the body, he sees the face of
and short-story writer Liam O'Flaherty was born on August 28, 1898, in
a poverty-stricken village on Inishmore Island in County Galway on the
western coast of Ireland. He was the ninth of ten children of Michael and
Margaret O'Flaherty. A good student, he studied for a time for the Roman
Catholic priesthood. However, he later renounced his religion. .
1915, he enlisted in the British Army during the First World War and suffered
a serious injury two years later in a bomb explosion at Langemarck, Belgium.
After he recovered, the army discharged him because he had developed severe
depression. He traveled widely, visiting South America, North America,
and the Middle East and working at various odd jobs.
he returned to Ireland, he embraced communism, became an atheist, and joined
the Irish Republican Army in its campaign to liberate Ireland from British
rule. In 1921, Britain and Ireland forged a treaty creating an Irish Free
State. But because the document made the new Irish state part of the British
Commonwealth of Nations rather than a fully independent entity, O'Flaherty
and his IRA compatriots broke with fellow Irishmen who supported the treaty.
Several of O'Flaherty's novels center on the effects of war, revolution,
and social upheaval in Ireland in the early twentieth century and in the
nineteenth century. O'Flaherty died on Sept. 7, 1984, in Dublin.
War reduces human beings
to mere objects. They have no names, no faces. They are targets, nothing
more, to be shot at from a distance. To support this theme, O’Flaherty
refrains from naming any of his characters.
War knows no boundaries—age,
sex, location, time of day, family ties.
The IRA sniper is a young man, and the informer is an old woman. The fighting
takes place in the heart of a city after sundown. The IRA sniper unwittingly
shoots and kills his own brother.
climax occurs when the IRA sniper discovers the identity of the enemy sniper.
prose is straightforward and easy to understand. In "The Sniper," he frequently
uses short sentences to maintain suspense, as if the sentences are quickening
heartbeats. Here is an example:
turret opened. A man's head and shoulders appeared, looking toward the
sniper. The sniper raised his rifle and fired. The head fell heavily on
the turret wall. The woman darted toward the side street. The sniper fired
again. The woman whirled round and fell with a shriek into the gutter.Here is
was a small hole where the bullet had entered. On the other side there
was no hole. The bullet had lodged in the bone. It must have fractured
it. He bent the arm below the wound. The arm bent back easily. He ground
his teeth to overcome the pain. Sound
and Sight Imagery
sound and sight imagery is likewise uncomplicated and easy to understand,
as the following examples illustrate:
and there through the city, machine guns and rifles broke the silence of
the night, spasmodically, like dogs barking on lone farms.
face was the face of a student, thin and ascetic, but his eyes had the
cold gleam of the fanatic.
was a flash and a bullet whizzed over his head.
sniper could hear the dull panting of the motor.
sniper fired again. The woman whirled round and fell with a shriek into
the dying man on the roof crumpled up and fell forward. The body turned
over and over in space and hit the ground with a dull thud.
story ends ironically when the IRA sniper realizes that the enemy he killed
was his own brother. But there are larger ironies here: first, that all
of the sniper’s Free State enemies are his brothers, for they had been
comrades in arms fighting for the same cause; second, that all men are
brothers as descendants of Adam and Eve. When they fight, they become Cain
and Abel. No doubt, the IRA sniper wonders about the identities of the
turret gunner, the old woman, and the person manning the machine gun.
Questions and Essay Topics
1. After researching
the life of O’Flaherty, write an informative essay explaining the extent
to which he based “The Sniper" on his own.experiences.
2. Does urban warfare,
like that in "The Sniper," affect the outlook and mental stability of combatants
differently than battlefield fighting?
3. Is modern Ireland
still influenced by the outcome of the violence in the early 1920s?
4. In an informative
essay, write a short psychological profile the IRA sniper.
5. Can the tactics
of urban guerrillas—sniping, sabotage, terrorist
bombings—be morally justified?