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Flann O'Brien, fifty years on.

Liam McNulty By Liam McNulty Published on April 18, 2016

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Brian O’Nolan (also Brian Ó Nualláin), one of twentieth-century Ireland’s most influential writers, died fifty years ago this month. Best known for his two novels published as Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, as well as his long-running Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times, O’Nolan found posthumous recognition as one of Ireland’s most distinctive literary voices, often mentioned in the same breath as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

Born on 5 October 1911 in Strabane, County Tyrone, O’Nolan was the third of twelve children, in a talented family of artists, academics, journalists and business people. His father, Michael Victor O’Nolan, was a customs and excise officer from nearby Omagh, and married Agnes Gormley, daughter of a local Strabane shopkeeper.

Before Michael attained sufficiently senior rank to settle, the family moved around, living in Dublin, then back in Strabane, before buying a house 2 miles outside of Tullamore. It was the midlands landscape of County Offaly which is usually taken as the hellish setting for O’Nolan’s posthumously published classic, The Third Policeman.

O’Nolan was home-schooled until the age of twelve, and grew up speaking Irish at home. Later, writing in his celebrated Cruiskeen Lawn column, written under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen, ‘Myles’ relates the absurd tale of learning English at the age of 29! Though clearly an exaggeration, this does capture O’Nolan’s relation to the English language, approaching it in a Joycean mode, as a subversive outsider.

Indeed, this sort of autobiographical smoke-and-mirrors was typical of O’Nolan, who found fame predominately writing as Flann O’Brien and the aforementioned Myles. His own approach to autobiography, again related pseudonymously, can be glimpsed from a comment in a 1957 Irish Times column: “Autobiography is not so bad - indeed it is probably advisable to get in first. But the type of biography that lifts the veil, hacks down the elaborate façades one has spent a lifetime erecting - that is horrible.”

Before college, O’Nolan attended a Christian Brothers school in Synge Street, Dublin, which may explain ‘Myles’s’ later account of “true scenes of brutality and degradation” and his description of the Brothers as “criminals.” The young O’Nolan was more content at Blackrock College, whose notable alumni included Eamon De Valera (who was much talked about) and the radical atheist and some-time communist novelist Liam O’Flaherty (who was never mentioned).

Like Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary alter-ego in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, before him, O’Nolan attended University College Dublin (UCD) and was heavily involved in the prestigious Literary and Historical Society (LHS). Attending UCD between 1929 and 1935, O’Nolan studied under Douglas Hyde, later to become the first President of the Irish Republic. Although he liked Hyde personally, O'Nolan was not enamored of his teaching, and remembered that “skipping lectures while continuing a prim presence at roll-call become a great skill, particularly with poker and billiards men.”

One contemporary and friend, Niall Montgomery, recounts O’Nolan descending upon UCD “like a shower of paratroopers, deploying a myriad of pseudonymous personalities in the interests of pure destruction.” Another remembers him quaintly as a “satanic cherub.”

O’Nolan was an anarchic presence at the already rowdy LHS meetings, developing a particular skill for cultivating “the mob”, as those who stood outside the debating chamber heckling the speakers were commonly known. “The mob,” O’Nolan wrote, defending them against detractors, were “a severe judge of the speakers” and debaters had to be on top form. Fortunately for O’Nolan, his own speeches were heralded for their satirical bent and impressive wit, always on the look-out for pretensions to deflate, while taking care to avoid any definite political commitment.

It was a barely-disguised antipathy, indeed contempt, for politics and politicians which was a constant in O’Nolan’s output. One particular experience which might have coloured his view was losing out to Vivian De Valera, the son of Eamon de Valera whose Fianna Fáil party were then in the ascendant, for the position of Auditor at the LHS. O’Nolan was bitter about his loss, and the novelist Patrick Purcell remembers “a magnificent satirical oration made during the session 1933 to 1934 in which Ó Nualláin equally ridicules all those who took part in Irish politics under whatever party name.”

According to O’Nolan’s brother Ciarán, writing of Brian, it was “only when he went to University that he began to write for the first time.” The main outlet for O’Nolan’s creativity was the Comhthrom Féinne magazine, the main competitor of LHS’s more college-friendly The National Student, and it was here that his creation Brother Barnabas appeared, his first of many pseudonyms.

As O’Nolan’s biography Anthony Cronin has written, his generation was the first to be educated in post-independence Ireland, and his cohort at UCD was a talented one, including celebrated short story writer Seán Ó Faoláin and the historian Robin Dudley Edwards.

O’Nolan and his circle were self-consciously modernist, with knowledge both of Irish and wider European culture. This generation had the misfortune, however, to come of age at a time when the Irish Literary Revival had long since faded, and the poetry of nationalist aspirations was working itself out in the drearily anticlimactic prose of post-independence Ireland. As Fintan O’Toole has written, like Beckett, O’Nolan’s genius “was to find energy, both comic and grotesque” in Ireland’s then entropic state, as an economically closed-off, predominately rural, and culturally conservative state on the edge of Europe.

Unlike earlier modernists, such as Joyce, however, O’Nolan’s circle were not prepared to take the leap in the dark necessary to effect an open break with the increasingly Catholic, authoritarian and philistine ethos of the Free State. As intellectuals, they thus occupied an ambiguous position, as beneficiaries of a state and social order they at the same time resented and lampooned.

Choosing, unlike Beckett, not to emigrate, they thus had somehow to become reconciled with the society in which they lived. Literary activity became introspective, keeping a subversive spirit alive among the already initiated but with no pretence of transforming wider society. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that a key motif of O’Nolan’s work is characters who exalt the virtues of staying in bed.

Reconciliation with Free State society was perhaps easier for O’Nolan than for some of his contemporaries, for he was and remained a Catholic for his whole life, and had grown up in a nationalist political family. In 1935 he followed his father into the civil service, working five and a half days a week, and writing in his spare time.

Nevertheless, as his first novel At Swim-Two-Birds demonstrates, he had no time for the “official Irishness” of the new state, mocking the inheritance of the Literary Revival, with its send-ups of badly-translated Irish mythology and the country’s bardic tradition.

While Joyce had employed literary parody to similar effect in Ulysses, his synthesising process was designed, in Flaubertian style, to re-cast the novel as an immeasurably larger canvass, capable of reflecting the complexities of modern life. There was no such intention with At Swim-Two-Birds, which was in fact the last novel Joyce ever read. It refused to reconcile its literary fragments, and took pains to draw attention to the novel’s form as a deliberate piece of artifice. It has justly been described as an early example of “an anti-novel, deliberately nihilistic in intent as far as the novel-form is concerned.”

O’Nolan’s relationship was Joyce, too, was complex. Though clearly recognising his power as a writer, and his influence, the constant comparisons began to grate, with an exasperated O’Nolan writing: “If I hear that word ‘Joyce’ again I will surely froth at the gob.”

As O’Toole writes, At Swim-Two-Birds has “a strong claim to be one of the founding texts of literary postmodernism” with its “deconstruction of narrative, the replacement of nature by culture, an ahistoric sensibility in which tropes and genres from different eras can be mixed and matched promiscuously, the prominence of pastiche, [and] the notion of language itself as the real author of the work.” It contains a Chinese-box-style novel within a novel within a novel, complete with no fewer than three separate openings and just as many interweaving plot lines, and demonstrates O’Nolan’s mastery of idiomatic Dublin speech.

Though this formal inventiveness has often drawn comparisons to Beckett whose Trilogy of novels are similarly textual and deconstructive, there are also profound differences between the two writers.

Beckett famously told an interviewer in the 1950s that while Joyce was “tending towards omniscience and omnipotence as an artist”, he was instead “working with impotence, ignorance”, using narrative to explore epistemological questions. O’Nolan, too, possesses none of the optimistic modernism of Joyce, and wrote that he wanted to substitute “studied delusion” for what he called “this disastrous faculty or reason.” 

Accompanying this absurdist pose, however, was not so much existentialism as the underlying presence of what Cronin argues is a darkly deterministic Thomistic Catholicism, in which the bleak truths about sin and human nature are settled, and there is nothing seriously new to be said about terrestrial life. This is the world-view which licenses his pessimistic, often nihilistic, view of the world, in which life appears largely futile, and literature purely an end in itself.

At Swim-Two-Birds was published in the name of Flann O’Brien in 1939. The now-famous pseudonym was nearly sidelined, however, as O’Nolan had been using it to conduct an increasingly bad-tempered row with two figures in Ireland’s literary establishment, Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin, and did not want his novel caught up in the controversy. When the Irish Times wrote a negative review of O’Connor’s latest work, Seán Ó Faoláin defended it. O’Nolan and his friend Niall Sheridan wrote to the editor to defend the judgement of the initial review, criticising both men’s “pretensions to high art”. The correspondence lasted for several weeks, with O’Nolan inventing pseudonyms to fuel the flames.

It was this sort of high jinks in the letters pages of the Irish Times which was to lead to O’Nolan’s long-running Cruiskeen Lawn column. Editor R.M. Smyllie had noticed how O’Nolan’s mischievous correspondence was increasing the paper’s circulation, and spotted an opportunity to widen the Irish Times circulation beyond its declining Protestant readership. O’Nolan would write the columns, as Myles na gCopaleen, in both Irish and English, until near the end of his life, hammering them out on a typewriter on Sunday afternoons.

For most of his time at the civil service, O’Nolan tread a fine line between his professional neutrality, and his opinionated public persona. Pseudonyms certainly helped, and O’Nolan usually only expressed his hostility to politics in general terms, avoiding criticisms of particular parties or individuals.

Yet, as well as a professional convenience, pseudonyms were an intrinsic part of O’Nolan’s wider as aesthetic as a writer, as evidenced by Myles na gCopaleen’s 1964 declaration that: “Compartmentalisation of personality for the purposes of literary utterance ensures that the fundamental individual will not be credited with a certain way of thinking and fixed attitudes. No author should write under his own name nor under one permanent pen name.”

In the late 1930s, O’Nolan’s work-rate was prodigious, and he finished his second novel, The Third Policeman, in 1940. O’Nolan suffered a huge blow when his publisher, Longmanns, rejected the book. His correspondence in this period shows an insecure man, who took the rejection of the novel very hard. To avoid embarrassment, he put around the story that the manuscript had been lost. It stayed in the drawer even when the re-issue of At Swim in 1959 found a ready audience, though parts of it were recycled for 1964’s The Dalkey Archive.

An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) followed in 1941, under his Myles pseudonym, and was a sympathetic Irish-language satire on the genre of Gaeltacht autobiographies from the west of Ireland. It was immediately hailed an Irish-language classic. Plays followed, including Faustus Kelly, Thirst and The Insect Play.

However, the pressure of his civil service job was slowing his output. In 1948, O’Nolan was promoted to acting principal officer at the Department of Local Government and married Evelyn McDonnell, to the surprise of his friends who presumed he was not interested in women. By now, O’Nolan was increasingly afflicted by alcoholism, ill-health and a series of unfortunate accidents which led to absences from both work and writing. The impressive attendance record of his earlier career had long since gone, not helped by his use of the local pub, the Scotch House, as his ‘office’.

Throughout the 1950s he wrote very little apart from his column, and would increasingly complain of edits and censorship of his work. The novelist Jack White, who was working for the Irish Times, was sent to coax him back after his many resignations, and remembers that “in terms of sheer scurrilous abuse I have never seen anything quite like those letters” sent by O’Nolan to the paper.

The column was increasingly bad-natured, polemical and potentially libelous, and his controversial opinions finally caught up with him in 1953. His attacks on the newly-established An Tóstal festival to celebrate Irish culture, his relentless campaign against the lord mayor of Dublin, Andy Clerkin, and his knowing abuse of his own minister, Fianna Fáil’s Patrick Smith, proved a step too far. By then, he was relieved to be asked to resign, though his small pension made him financially independent on his troubled column.

In the years after his early retirement, O’Nolan resorted to hack journalism in provincial newspapers, plays for television and even attempts to write advertising copy for Guinness, to improve his financial situation. At a low point in 1959, he was contacted by a representative from the publisher MacGibbon & Kee with an offer to republish At Swim-Two-Birds. It was a success, and was even translated into French and German. This prompted O’Nolan to begin work on The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor, which was published in 1961, and celebrated by his friend Brendan Behan as a “gem”. It was dedicated to Graham Greene, one of O’Nolan’s literary supporters, who had greeted At Swim as “one of the best books of our century.”

Despite this last burst of creativity, O’Nolan’s latter years were tragic. He caught himself up in legal battles, including a row with the Inland Revenue over the taxing of his royalties, which expended his already limited reserves of energy. He suffered increasingly from neuralgia, and was spending most of his time in bed and in hospital. In September 1965 O’Nolan was diagnosed with cancer. He died in hospital on April Fool’s Day, 1966, and presumably would have appreciated the dark humour.

Sadly, O’Nolan remained a somewhat marginal figure throughout his lifetime, his achievements only patchily recognised, and his influence confined to narrow literary circles. Yet, following his death, his originality, inventiveness and genius as a humorist and a satirist have been recognised by readers and critics alike, and his cult status in twentieth century Irish literature assured. 

London-based library worker, interested in modern history, socialism and Ireland.

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