It was November 1932 and Richmond resident John O’Flaherty had a complaint. It was not an earth-shattering complaint, nor an urgent one, not big enough to bring to the attention of the city council for instance, but he wanted to know if other people agreed or disagreed with his characterization of the situation. It was the type of thing you might tweet (or thread?) about. This being 1932, not 2023, O’Flaherty, who had found himself in this situation before and seemed to like to “poke the bear” as it were, did not have social media, or at least he did not have internet-based social media. What he did have was a “Letter to the Editor.”
“Sir,” O’Flaherty wrote to the editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch, “I hate to rap any public institution but on this occasion I cannot refrain from taking the Richmond Public Library to task.”1 In the seven paragraphs that follow (while Twitter might have a 280 character limit, the Voice of the People had a 200 word limit, but only on weekdays ) O’Flaherty opines on the trouble he had locating a book by “this Castilian” author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.2 The long-winded epistle includes a description of his hunt (“a labryinthian maze…in Stygrian darkness”), a misogynistic comment about a particular female librarian, his confusion about book carts (those “absurd and useless” “little bookshelves on wheels”), and at least four mentions of his Irish nationality.3 The letter ends with O’Flaherty calling out anyone who would like to disagree with his complaints with “Come on, ye public rap my article!”4
O’Flaherty was a self-proclaimed “vox popper,” a regular contributor to the newspaper’s “The Voice of the People” column (the nickname is taken from the Latin translation of the column title which is vox populi). Many pertinent and important subjects were addressed and debated in these columns but there were also some individuals (today we would call them trolls) who seemingly just wanted to start something.
O’Flaherty himself was a vocal and frequent contributor. Whether his pugnaciousness was real or a persona, he leaned heavily into the “fighting Irish” stereotype. Although there are few possibilities in the records for a man by that name in Richmond, it is possible that someone was simply playing a stereotyped “character,” as many other contributors wrote in under pen names.
Either way, O’Flaherty did not take himself too seriously, or at least he loved to provoke. He filled “The Voice of the People” with over-the-top praise for Ireland, taunting another contributor in 1933 who had mocked his patriotism by comparing it to the Nazi slogan “Deutschland uber alles,” saying that “he [the other contributor] utters ‘Ireland uber alles’ because he realizes that Ireland leads the world in wit, wisdom, learning and all branches of science.5 He gives up his attempt to equal the Irish and indicates his failure by saying ‘Ireland above all; Ireland over everything.’”6
In fact, the first person to respond to O’Flaherty’s library complaints, William Edward Harris, accuses O’Flaherty of writing with the “deliberate attempt to start an argument” but nevertheless, he takes the bait and gives O’Flaherty the “notoriety” that he seeks.7 Harris then proceeds to tell O’Flaherty that the problem is not of the library’s making, but O’Flaherty’s own ignorance of how “to use the card catalogue.”8 Harris suggests O’Flaherty look up “Ibanez,” stop picking on such a “tame subject as the library” and instead, if he wants a “hot” debate to pick something like religion instead.9
But by December 2nd the floodgates had opened. Brian Kolreavey jumped into the fray to taunt O’Flaherty in mock Irish dialect and one “El Tamal Caliente” (“Hot Tamale”) points out that the author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez is not Castilian but Valencian.10
El Tamal Caliente also cannot believe that O’Flaherty could possibly be serious about his complaints regarding book carts but must be trying “to take us for a little ride on the library furniture.”11 However, El Tamal Caliente happily joins in O’Flaherty’s misogyny by praising the beauty of the aforementioned librarian and other “toothsome nymphs.”12
By Saturday, December 3rd, O’Flaherty found time to reply to his original critic, Harris (time moves slowly in pre-internet Twitter). O’Flaherty willingly takes Harris up on the suggestion that they argue religion instead and as only the best trolls can, seems to pick the argument that he thinks will most upset his respondent.
The most powerful argument against Christianity is the plurality of religions. Can the Christians prove beyond reasonable doubt that theirs is the true religion – the ideal for the whole world? Why, no! The religion of the Chinese or Hindu is just as plausible and as sacred to him as the Christian’s is to him. Why do the Chinese and Christians and Hindus have their own separate beliefs? Because their forefathers have drilled this religion into their heads as with a hammer…The Christians are always ‘butting in,’ trying to convert people to the Christian faith…Mr. Harris will say I am an atheist or infidel or agnostic. If he says so he will not be speaking the truth. I am a Roman Catholic and a follower of the Christian religion, but have a marked tendency toward skepticism.13
However, despite the headline “Harris vs. O’Flaherty” in the December 7th issue, Harris states “that any opposition to [O’Flaherty’s] views on religion will have to come from other sources…for I agree with you most heartily on the subject.”14 Although this particular thread ended, someone else took the bait, causing a whole other sub thread (if you will) regarding religion which continued until at least January 20th of the next year, intermingled with O’Flaherty’s next attempt at poking the bear by asking if Scotland or Ireland was the “most beautiful, romantic or historic” country.15
Returning to the original discussion, E. M. Edwards believes he can solve O’Flaherty’s original book search problems by providing him with the exact location of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s books in the Richmond Public Library, the “first shelf facing north on the west side of the library, immediately back of the desk” is where O’Flaherty will find the author’s books “nicely piled together on one of the bottom shelves indexed under the letter ‘B.’”16 Although Edwards says he has never failed to find the librarians helpful, “the system of filing the books is difficult to understand, and seems to be just a haphazard system.”17 He questions why Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s books are under “B” and not “I.” “Perhaps the janitor filed the books away on his day off and thought that the author’s name was ‘Blasco’ and not ‘Ibanez’” is Edwards’ guess but he hopes O’Flaherty will find the books at the location he mentioned “before the library staff corrects their error” and re-shelves them “correctly.”18
A pile-on occurs after Edwards’ mistake as multiple people write in to defend the library’s classification system, given that in Spanish “the good Valencian’s name [is] Vicente Blasco y Ibanez.” El Tamal Caliente even does so in rhyme,
Blasco was his father’s name,
Ibanez his mother’s –
So if you wish to find his books,
Look in the “B’s,” my brothers.19
One reader ponders if O’Flaherty was in fact looking under “I” instead of “B,” if he has the right to call Blasco y Ibáñez his favorite author.20 At this point, like many a Twitter thread, political affiliation is randomly brought into the argument as O’Flaherty is called “that old Sinn Feiner.”21 Another letter signed “Panurge” ponders if “the Irishman” might be wrong in claiming that the debated author ever wrote anything that could even be considered a classic.22
O’Flaherty supposedly had the “intention of retiring from the verbal battle” but could not let this swipe pass him by.23 “Friend Panurge,” O’Flaherty writes, “has evidently been reading the obscene classics of the satirist Rabelais…I cannot understand why he chose for his pen name that of the cowardly and licentious Panurge.”24 He also defends his mistake of looking for the author under the name “Ibanez” by revealing his credentials, namely that he had studied “the Spanish language at Dublin University…[and] he is always referred to as Ibanez and never as Blasco…and the name is rarely hyphenated.”25 He also pushes back on the idea that he ever referred to “Blasco-Ibanez” (he is now hyphenating the name) as his favorite.
The arguments, asides, and trivial nit-picking is similar in many ways to arguments we see play out online every day, yet these men had to actually write and mail in their replies. There is another interesting difference, however; in the midst of this “Armageddon of Vox Pop” (as one participant called it), The Richmond Times Dispatch hosted a dinner get-together for its frequent letter-writers at the Jefferson Hotel where they had to interact face-to-face.26 Although John O’Flaherty could not attend (“Typical Irish luck!”, he opined), George Ludlow White, who did, was surprised at the congeniality of the evening given the sparring amongst many of its participants.
…after the meeting I could not help but feel that the pen is mightier and much more vitriolic than the spoken word, but then, who could voice words of iconoclasm, bitterness or prejudice after being so well filled with roast, turkey, cranberry jelly, and all the fixin’s.27
As the main characters in this drama moved on to other topics, the last word on the subject of the library comes a few days later, December 18th, under the headline “Library is Applauded.” Submitted by an individual with the penname “A Constant User,” they reminded everyone that “The people of Richmond are indeed fortunate, I think, to have at their disposal a 100,000 volume library which is constantly growing…should the library not have the volumes desired, then one may put in a request for their purchase.”28
1. John A. O’Flaherty, “Library Staff Taken to Task in Book Hunt,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 27, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 3.
5. John A. O’Flaherty, “‘Interpreted,’” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 19, 1933, sec. The Voice of the People, 25.
7. William Edward Harris, “That for You, Irisher!,’” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 30, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 6.
10. Brian Kolreavey, “The Irish Multiply,’” Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 02, 1934, sec. The Voice of the People, 12; El Tamal Caliente, “Now the ‘Castilians'”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 02, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 12.
11 El Tamal Caliente, “Now the ‘Castilians'”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 02, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 12.
13. John A. O’Flaherty, “The Irishman Retorts”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 03, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 6.
14. William Edward Harris, “Harris vs. O’Flaherty”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 07, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 8.
15. John A. O’Flaherty, “John ‘Proves’ He’s Great”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 17, 1933, sec. The Voice of the People, 6.
16. E. M. Edwards, “More on Ibanez”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 03, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 6.
19. El Tamal Caliente, “That Old ‘Sinn Feiner’, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 07, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 8.
22. Panurge, “Ibanez, O’Flaherty, Clarke”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 07, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 8.
23. John A. O’Flaherty, “Rabelaisian Signatures”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 14, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 8.
26. El Tamal Caliente, “Now the ‘Castilians'”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 02, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 12.
27. John A. O’Flaherty, “Shure ‘n We Missed You”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 29, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 8.; George Ludlow White, “‘All the Fixin’s'”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 28, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 6.
28 A Constant User, “Library is Applauded”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 18, 1932, sec. The Voice of the People, 33.