Eulogy for Patrick O’Flaherty by Bill Rowe
On August 24, 2017, Patrick O’Flaherty was laid to rest. Patrick was a writer, historian, educator, friend, and, to many, an inspiration. In honour of Patrick, Bill Rowe, who gave the eulogy at Patrick’s funeral, has graciously shared his notes with us.
Notes for Eulogy for Patrick O’Flaherty by Bill Rowe (24/08/2017)
I am so honoured, dear Marjorie, and Keir, Peter, and Paddy, to be asked to speak about Patrick, my friend and mentor, because I loved the man. Patrick was a kind and gentle man in person – maybe not so much in his writing – and I saw that side of his nature often, but multiplied many times over yesterday in the family photographs, especially in his interactions with his grandchildren. As one of his sons, Peter, told me, he was very loving and attentive to his children and grandchildren, and he knew how to listen to his grandchildren; he really listened to them.
I have to say off the top, though, that I didn’t realize until I saw the photos in the funeral home how photogenic the guy was. He might have missed his calling: he should have been a heart-throb movie star. I mean, who knew?
I’ve admired Patrick since I first met him in 1958 in my first year at Memorial University on the old Parade Street campus. I was fifteen years old, and what a pleasant culture shock it was to be able to mix with the big men on campus like Peter Neary, Bob O’Driscoll, George Ivany, and others, and Patrick himself. They were all eighteen years old or so, and senior students, and so-o-o intellectually savvy in literature and history. But Patrick, I soon found, had all the time in the world to talk to us in the library and common room, and to edge us in the right direction towards solving the world’s problems.
What attracted me to Patrick most from the beginning was that he always seemed to have a different insight into events, a different take, from everyone else, on happenings around us. I recall that around 1960 D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was removed from state censorship and no longer banned. Everyone was jumping up and down: at last we were going to be able to read what all the risqué fuss was about. But Patrick said to me at the time: “That’s the big problem with banning books. It makes people want to waste time reading what is essentially very boring.”
Patrick always told me how much he loved the old Memorial. He got his BA at 20, his MA at 21, and his PhD in London at 24. Then he was on his way to an incredibly full lifetime of literary criticism, teaching at university, writing books – fifteen in all – and innumerable articles, reviews, letters to the editor, media commentary and programming on radio and television.
His greatest loves, apart from his family, were writing and reading. But was he merely the bookish type? His idol, and one of his great subjects for both reading and writing, was Samuel Johnson, the most bookish of all great men. Johnson defined “bookish” in his dictionary as “given to books, acquainted only with books;” finishing with this zinger: “It is generally used contemptuously.” But Patrick had no fears in that regard.
He was not only a lover of reading and writing books; he was also exceedingly active physically, and down to earth. Patrick was earthy. He spent time vegetable gardening, fishing, sawing wood, and cleaving junks, and he always had a physical project on the go. His last project at their residence in King’s Cove was a splitting table, a piece of furniture used by his own forbears, whom he depicted so well, for survival in their precarious occupation. And far from keeping his nose buried in musty tomes, he loved to watch the Blue Jays.
Patrick was curious about everything in life. Johnson said, “Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” And Patrick had that in spades. But he wasn’t content to just be a receptacle of knowledge; he acted on his observations and findings. I doubt if there was a time in his adult life when he wasn’t writing a newspaper column or commenting in the media, nationally and locally, on public events and developments. His last commentary involved the writing of an article in response to the Economist magazine. That international periodical contained a piece in a recent issue on Newfoundland and Labrador called a “Dodgy Dam in the East” – yes, you guessed it, Muskrat Falls. Newfoundland and Labrador has a history of backing ill-conceived projects, the magazine said, and then went on with a scathing description, some items dubious at best. Patrick never got his chance to correct the misconceptions, but he was intent on it, and you can be sure it would have been a doozy.
Patrick was not a knee-jerk contrarian, but he could not abide “received opinion” or conventional wisdom that struck him as wrongheaded, especially about Newfoundland. He demanded accuracy, and scorned over-sentimental tripe. Witness his takes on some icons and idols of our history in his ground-breaking 1979 book, The Rock Observed: Studies in the Literature of Newfoundland. [I found some conveniently listed for me in a review of the book]: Church of England missionary, Edward Wix, he wrote, “was an ecclesiastical snoop and prig”; famous military engineer, Sir Richard Bonnycastle, represented “imperialist bluster and military pomposity”; our own celebrated historian, D. W. Prowse, “enveloped the history of the country more thoroughly than ever in a cloud of misunderstanding”; writer Harold Horwood succeeded mainly in providing “a distorted picture of Newfoundland to foreign readers”.
And what about the all-but-sainted Farley Mowat? Patrick wrote, “Soon after settling in Newfoundland in 1962, Mowat set about becoming their saviour. He would ultimately find that this was a perilous undertaking….While his analysis contains a germ of truth, the general picture given of developments in post-confederation Newfoundland has to be rejected as simple-minded.” I mean to say, how could you not love this man Patrick O’Flaherty?
Patrick’s retirement at 55 from Memorial to concentrate entirely on his writing and commentary was a courageous move. He gave up a secure position after 30 years, wherein he’d been a professor and head of the Department of English, and much beloved by students who had flocked to his legendary Newfoundland literature courses. And he said back then with a laugh that he was now a “recovering academic.” He had to live entirely by his wits now, he told me, and he therefore hoped that he would only half-starve.
But long before that, the placid groves of academe could scarcely contain him. He had to run in politics – twice, once federally and once provincially. In neither case did he seek out a seat for a party where he was sure to win. In the 1979 federal election, for example, with the polls showing Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals on the skids, he chose to run, not only for those very Liberals, but against the incumbent Tory juggernaut in St. John’s West, John Crosbie. He didn’t win, but he came second to John with over 10 thousand votes, beating Tom Mayo, the excellent NDP candidate, who’d come second to John in the previous election. Quite a feat for Patrick, really, and a clear indication of how ordinary mortals regarded this dynamic down-to-earth campaigner who, on the hustings, as I’d witnessed myself, and as Keir certainly did, was in no danger of being mistaken for an ivory-towered highbrow.
Patrick was a mentor by nature. He ranged from acting as a judge for Reach for the Top, where he was known for his inspiring pep-talks to competitors, to encouraging and advising emerging Newfoundland writers. He was co-founder of the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador for the support and camaraderie of other writers. WANL, in gratitude made him an honorary life member.
I know he was a great help to me and others in getting our own books out, often simply in encouragement and talk – a note in the mail box or an email saying what he liked about a particular volume, a constructive mention in a column, a long gab over a coffee about our respective projects. Modest and self-effacing himself, I remember his warning to me that writers should not become too full of themselves. (I don’t know where that came from.) He cited his beloved Dr. Johnson in that regard: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
The last big chat we had was at Coffee Matters not long before he and Marjorie left for King’s Cove for the summer. I was just finishing a book on our worst and best political leaders, to come out this fall. That’s good, he said, you’ll now be rid of those last few political friends you’re still saddled with.
Patrick himself was recognized across the nation as a magnificent writer. I once asked internationally admired author, Jane Urquhart, when she was writer in residence at Memorial, who she thought were among the best of Newfoundland writers, and she replied in the blink of an eye with… Patrick O’Flaherty.
He covered the gamut brilliantly from history and memoirs to genres of fiction. Many of his short stories are inspired. When I read Hardest Christmas Ever and other Stories, a year or so ago, I found them all admirable, but I had to send him an email stating in inflated prose that the story “Stuck on Ophelia,” was a masterpiece. I was tickled pink when he wrote back to ask if he could use my statement as a blurb for a book cover.
Like many, I was also delighted to read in the same volume the strong dose of reality in his story, “The Hawker,” modelled on the Newfoundland-Canadian poet E.J. Pratt. In it, as a young man, Pratt walks along Patrick’s part of the Newfoundland coastline flogging bottles of snake-oil, called Universal Lung Healer, to powerless, desperate Newfoundlanders suffering from consumption. You can imagine how Patrick treated that, and it was not with the light-heartedness of some who have marveled with amusement over how far the great poet forged ahead in Toronto after those first twenty-five years in Newfoundland.
One of the marvels of Patrick’s scholarly non-fiction was how eminently readable it was. Yet, he was certainly true to Dr. Johnson’s dictum that “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” The staff at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies can surely testify to that. The titles of Patrick’s histories give you good hint of his drift: the evocative Old Newfoundland; then Lost Country: the Rise and Fall of Newfoundland – no grey areas there; and the third, Leaving the Past Behind, following the advent of Commission of Government. Eminent historian at MUN, Professor James Hiller said in a review that “Old Newfoundland is an opinionated, provocative, and idiosyncratic book, with a markedly nationalist slant.” That’s excellent: I think James nailed it, and he was spot-on again when he added, “Old Newfoundland can be recommended as a fluent, well-written history that deserves a wide readership.”
And who could forget Patrick’s welcoming Visitor’s Guide to the Island of Newfoundland: Come Near at Your Peril. In this droll, and maybe even slightly cantankerous, work, I don’t recall that he echoed Dr. Johnson’s comment about some place in the British Isles: “Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see.” Patrick loved and enjoyed and respected this place far too much to say that. The book has gone into several editions.
Born and brought up in and around Long Beach, in a secluded, often neglected part of Conception Bay, all so magically conjured up in his memoir, Paddy Boy, Growing up Irish in a Newfoundland Outport, Patrick became a fully rounded, complete, and brilliant man of many interests and talents. I’d say “Renaissance man,” except that I know he’d take me to task for employing such a woefully overused, overstuffed, description.
He had a full and active life to be celebrated and honoured, and it has been, and is being, and will be. Among other awards were membership in the Newfoundland Arts Hall of Honour, an honorary doctorate from Memorial University, and national recognition in the Order of Canada. He was taken from us far too early with much left to be done, but like the essentially outdoors man he was – hiking, fishing, boating, gardening, swimming, all with Marjorie – he left us while pursuing exactly the kind of outdoors activity he loved best.
We extend our deepest condolences to Marjorie, and to Keir, Peter, and Paddy, and to all Patrick’s extended family, especially his beloved grandchildren.