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Oration honouring Patrick O'Flaherty

There is a sense, no slight sense, in which Patrick O'Flaherty's life track follows that of his great academic subject, Dr. Johnson. So the public orator must, for these brief moments and on this great stage, be his Boswell.

Johnson came out of a small community to university, took up teaching, took up journalism, took up writing, took up criticism and biography, and wrote his masterwork, The Dictionary of the English Language.

O'Flaherty came into St. John's from Long Beach, a small place of settlement adjacent to Northern Bay, first to school and then on to university. Unlike his illustrious predecessor who did not, O'Flaherty took his degree with great distinction and extraordinary rapidity: BA at 20, MA at 21, PhD at 24.

Like Johnson he too became a teacher, first at the University of Manitoba, then at Memorial and, as his students will attest, taught with great power, skill and learning. For 30 years he was a regular on CBC, as well as in the local and national press. He has published two novels and two collections of short fiction.

He started his writing career as a critic of the work of Dr. Johnson and then moved on to the literary history of Newfoundland and Labrador. But his masterwork is the three-volume history of Newfoundland of which the final volume has just arrived from the printers for a launch next week.

Now that is only a citation of achievements and does not really get at the substance of his contribution to this our university, to this our country.

Permit a dilation on the real matter of the man. Patrick O'Flaherty has undergone several transformations in the course of his career and been remarkably influential in the development of Newfoundland studies in its broadest form. Starting out as a literary critic (of Samuel Johnson), he became a literary historian (of Newfoundland) and then a historian (also of Newfoundland). In each of these stages of his career he distinguished himself by the quality of his analysis and of his prose. But he saw his role in the academy as more than that of a first-rate scholar for he challenged his students, developed new programs, served as editor to his colleagues, and found an audience beyond the university in his journalism.

His pioneering study of Newfoundland writing, The Rock Observed opened a range of opportunity not just in terms of texts to be read but of studies to be done. O'Flaherty developed the first undergraduate and graduate courses in Newfoundland literature and steadily students began to work in the field, producing dissertations and articles.

This, in its turn, fed the local writers and can be seen as having stimulated the current lively literary scene.

His next scholarly enterprise was to propose the creation of a journal, Newfoundland Studies, to showcase the new scholarship related to work on this place. He not only founded the journal but also served as one of its editors until his retirement. Determined that it would cover all aspects and would be accessible to the general reader, he had set himself a difficult task. That the journal is now firmly established and well-regarded both inside and outside the academic world says much for his academic initiative, the standards he set and the example he provided.

What is unquestionably his major work is his history of Newfoundland. Despite remarkable and groundbreaking work by historians in the 20th century none of them had taken on the task of writing a general history perhaps because Prowse's monumental work remained, for over a century, the definitive study.

O'Flaherty not only immersed himself in all the recent scholarship but also revisited the primary sources. He took the work of his colleagues in history and geography, economics and folklore and, while treating that work with critical respect, was able, because of the depth of his own research, to challenge some of their findings.

Among other things, this resulted in a re-assessment of William Coaker – regarded by many Newfoundlanders as something of a secular saint – and of A.B. Morine – regarded by those same Newfoundlanders as an unregenerate rogue.

Heresy, but then this was the man who, earlier, had questioned the Newfoundland credentials of our greatest poet, E. J. Pratt.

Historian, literary critic, editor, public scholar, novelist, journalist, Patrick O'Flaherty has taken his learning from the campus to the country; he has had a major impact on the development of Newfoundland and Labrador studies and, in all his writing, displayed a remarkable capacity for scholarship and for the presentation of that scholarship in superb and striking prose.

Recognized by the arts community in the Newfoundland Arts Hall of Honour, recognized nationally by the Order of Canada, vice-chancellor, I ask the university to recognize Patrick O'Flaherty by conferring upon him the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa.

Shane O'Dea
Public orator