He escaped from Soviet-occupied Estonia, settling first in the United Kingdom, and then moving to Canada in 1953.
Viirlaid published 9 novels and several collections of poetry. His first novel, Tormiaasta (The Year of Storms) was published in 1949. In 1952, he published Ristideta hauad (Graves Without Crosses), which has been translated from Estonian into seven other languages.  The English translation appeared in 1972, with a preface by John Diefenbaker. His 1965 novel, Sadu jõkke (Rain for the River) has also been translated into English.