On This Day – 7 December 1817 Birth of Justice William Keogh



There is probably no such word as ‘effigised’ but in Ireland there really should be. Then when it came to ‘the burning of an improvised model of a reviled political figure which is constructed in order to be damaged or destroyed as a protest’ – the dictionary definition of this popular pastime— we could say that they had been ‘effigised’. Think of how useful it would be in Northern Ireland when the umpteenth effigy of Robert Lundy is burned by Apprentice Boys who are neither apprentices nor really have any legitimate claim to the title ‘boys’.

Aside from Lundy, who was actually a Scottish Protestant who seemed peculiarly anxious to hand over the city of Derry to the forces of the Catholic King James in 1689, who is the most effigised figure in modern Irish history? Someone you’ve probably never heard of and who hasn’t been burned in effigy for more than a hundred years now, William Keogh. But in his day he suffered many a roasting.

Keogh, who in the course of a relatively short life left hardly a principle unbetrayed, was born in Galway in 1817. His mother was a ffrench, from one of those Anglo-Irish families who added a superfluous ‘f’ to the beginning of their names, presumably to avoid being mistaken for a garlic-eating, beret wearing, consonant-dropping inhabitant of the country immediately to the south-east of England on the far side of the Channel.

Keogh was a gifted youth who, despite studying science at Trinity College, went on to make a small fortune as a barrister, becoming a Queen’s Counsel at the age of thirty-two.  In caricatures of the man he looks a little like John Redmond but is remembered even less fondly than the leader of the Irish Parliamentary party in the early 1900s. He was, by all accounts, witty, cultured, a highly impressive speaker and excellent company. He was also self-serving, irascible, insensitive and prone to making unpopular decisions in his own political life and later from the Bench.

In 1847 he became MP for Athlone and campaigned against legislation that would have made it illegal for anyone other than a Church of Ireland bishop to hold an ecclesiastical title. He, and his fellow Catholic Irish MPs of the period, became known, as a result of their campaign, as ‘The Pope’s Brass Band’. Keogh also sided with the Tenant League, which fought for the rights of Irish tenant farmers in the 1850s. So far, so popular. Where did it all go wrong?

Keogh’s problems—at least in terms of his legacy—began when he agreed, in 1852, to be bound by a pledge taken by forty Irish MPs not to accept political office but instead to exploit the possibility of holding the balance of power in the House of Commons. However, Keogh, and the equally reviled John Sadleir, quickly jumped ship and accepted plum jobs in the administration of Lord Abrdeen. Keogh became Solicitor General for Ireland, and later Attorney General. He must have wondered, at times, was it worth it. His name, and that of Sadleir, became a by-word for political treachery.

It only got worse when he became a judge in 1855. He was one of the grumpiest justices who ever sat on the Irish bench. His spectacular quarrels with barristers became legendary. The savage sentences imposed on the rather hapless Fenian prisoners who came before him in 1865 added to his lustre as ‘one of the monsters of mankind’, to quote a description of him on the memorial in Tipperary to two brothers he sent to the gallows for murdering a land agent.

In 1872 in a judgment unseating the victorious candidate in the Galway constituency election he formally handed in his tuba and resigned his membership of the Pope’s Brass band when he lacerated the Roman Catholic clergy and hierarchy from the bench for their interference in the campaign, in a legal decision that took nine hours to read. That was when the effigising began in earnest. He certainly hasn’t been burnt as often as Lundy but he probably holds the Irish record for most effigising in his own lifetime.

As time went on Keogh’s behaviour became more erratic. He was described as ‘eccentric’ a term used to cover wealthy and prominent citizens who are actually stark raving mad. Things came to a head the month before his death in 1878 when he attacked his valet with a razor – one of the old-fashioned ones, not the modern safety type. Jeeves would have resigned on the spot and left Bertie Wooster to his own devices. At least Keogh didn’t end up like Sadleir, who committed suicide after the collapse of his Tipperary Bank in 1856.

So bad was Keogh’s reputation that well into the twentieth century, when offered a seat on the Supreme Court by Eamon de Valera, the former Taoiseach, John A. Costello politely declined, citing as his reason a fervent desire not to stand comparison with the place-seeking Justice Keogh.

William Keogh, barrister, politician and popular effigy was born two hundred and one years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 30 November  1667 Birth of Jonathan Swift


His humour was decidedly ‘Swiftian’ – which is fair enough really because he was Jonathan Swift. He is one of those rarities in the literary world who has a writing style or an entire genre named after them – think ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘Orwellian’. Then there is that other validation. The one that drives Irish people mad. That’s when he’s described as an ‘English’ or ‘Anglo-Irish’ writer. Swift was born in Dublin, died in Dublin, was educated in Ireland and spent most of his life here. Yes, he spent some years living in England, but his main connection with that entity was his wonderfully satiric use of their language, often employed to tear strips off them.

By 1700 Swift, a clergyman who catered for the dozen or so parishioners of the Church of Ireland parish of Laracor in Co. Meath, had plenty of time on his hands to indulge in his hobbies of writing and gardening. His interest in the latter resulted in no tangible legacy, but his abilities as a satirist got him into just the right amount of trouble. Let’s face it if you are writing satire and no one is offended then you can’t be very good. When he was appointed to the Deanery of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1713—one of the few meaningful positions to which his enemies in England could not prevent his accession—Swift devoted his pen to a number of Irish causes. He used a variety of pseudonyms to write a series of political pamphlets, satirical essays and allegorical tales, the most famous of the latter being Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, better known to us as Gulliver’s Travels. Most of what happens in Gulliver’s Travelsrefers to political controversies of Swift’s day. The version read to children bears little or no resemblance to the Swiftian original. This includes a scathing reference to the politics of the day when Gulliver discovers that in the land of Lilliput the main difference between the two dominant political factions is controversy over which end of their breakfast boiled eggs to lop off. The dispute had already resulted in eleven thousand executions.

Swift’s most ‘Irish’ philippic is undoubtedly his A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden on their Parents or Country and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick—it wouldn’t go down well as a title today. In A Modest Proposalhe suggests that the Irish poor could make ends meet by raising their children as livestock and selling them to the rich, to be eaten as a delicacy. With anyone else it would be blatantly satirical, but with a misanthrope like Swift there is always a 1% chance that he meant it to be taken literally.


Esther Johnson

A lot of prurient curiosity surrounds Swift’s relationships with two women. The first was Esther Johnston. Swift had met her in England when she was eight, and he was her twenty-one year old tutor. He called her ‘Stella’ and in 1702, by which time she was twenty years of age, he brought her to Ireland. There were rumours that the two were lovers, even that they had secretly married. Certainly, Swift appears to have been extremely zealous in warding off Stella’s suitors. The second woman in question he also met in England, and her name too was Esther. Swift seems to have had a weakness for women of that name. She was Esther Vanhomrigh, daughter of a Dutch merchant family with property in Ireland and England. He gave her the nickname Vanessa. He corresponded frequently with both. Some of the letters to Johnston were published as Journal to Stella, while Vanhomrigh was the inspiration for the poem Cadenus and Vanessa– Cadenus being an anagram of the Latin word ‘decanus’ which means Dean. Need I say more? The poem popularised the, previously unknown, name Vanessa, something for which the Redgrave and Paradis families must be eternally grateful. When Swift returned to Ireland in 1714 Vanhomrigh followed him, living in the family home of Celbridge Abbey. Before she died, at the age of thirty-five in 1723, she and Swift had fallen out. There were, apparently, too many Esthers in the relationship. Five years later ‘Stella’ herself died, with Swift at her bedside.


Esther Vanhomrigh

The later years of Swift’s life were a constant struggle with mental illness. His father had died of venereal disease, and, although Swift never knew the man, one can surmise that congenital syphilis was the sole parental gift bestowed by Jonathan Swift senior on his son. Swift died in 1745 at the age of seventy-seven. Most of his fortune-a sum of £12,000—was left for the endowment of a hospital in Dublin for the mentally ill. St. Patrick’s, founded in 1757, is with us today.

Near Swift’s burial site in St. Patrick’s Cathedral is his epitaph, inscribed in Latin, and composed by the Dean himself. The most famous translation was provided by W.B.Yeats – it goes …


Swift has sailed into his rest;

Savage indignation there

Cannot lacerate his breast.

Imitate him if you dare,

World-besotted traveller; he

Served human liberty.


Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patricks Cathedral, satirist, poet, essayist and troublemaker, was born three hundred and fifty-one years ago, on this day.


On This Day – 16.11.1939 – The Birth of Luke Kelly


Nobody has ever possessed, or will ever be blessed with, a voice like Luke Kelly’s. He may not have been a choir boy, but he was a one-man choir. He may not have been perfect, but he had perfect diction, and perfect pitch. He was a Dubliner, in the broad and narrow sense of the word. He was born in Ireland’s capital city and he was one of the leading lights of the legendary folk group named after that city. If you’re too young to remember him, think of him as a sort of Christy Moore, but with a banjo, and more hair

Kelly’s date of birth is disputed, his birth certificate apparently claims he was born on 16 December. His mother always insisted that was a mistake and the family celebrated his birthday on 16 November. He came from a working-class background and it was his father, also called Luke, who gave him an early love of music. Kelly was largely self-taught, though he left schools at the age of thirteen he was a voracious reader. He emigrated to England in the late 1950s, lost at least one job when he demanded higher wages, and developed the socialist principles that he never abandoned during his short life. His political convictions helped to inform much of the Dubliner’s repertoire and he was also a vocal supporter of the Irish Traveller Movement and a variety of left-wing causes.


He returned to Ireland in the 1960s an accomplished banjo player, albeit an imitator of the styles of Pete Seeger and Tommy Makem. Although the 60s are noted for the inexorable rise of rock and roll, the folk music scene was also expanding and Kelly decided to try his luck with the ‘ballad boom’. Centered around venues like the Abbey Tavern in Howth and O’Donoghues Pub in Merrion Row, singers and musicians like Ronnie Drew, the Fureys, and Andy Irvine were beginning to shine, and to thrive. The Dubliners began life as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group—legend has it that for one gig they were even billed as the Ronnie Drew Ballet Group—but they became the Dubliners after the inclusion of Ciaran Bourke and Barney McKenna, and later John Sheahan. The group appears to owe its name to the fact that Kelly was, at the time, reading James Joyce’s famous volume of short stories. Would musical history have been very different had he been reading Jane Austen? We shall never know.

When you have heard Kelly singing certain songs you just couldn’t be bothered ever listening to anyone else singing them again. Even a Scottish song like Peggy Gordon, included in his repertoire in deference to his Scottish grandmother, can hardly be improved on after getting the Kelly treatment. The same goes for the great American socialist anthem, Joe Hill, which Kelly rendered with the utter conviction of a former member of the Young Communist League. I defy anyone to nominate a better version of Raglan Road than Kelly’s (though Glen Hansard comes close). When Patrick Kavanagh heard Kelly sing he urged him to put the poem to music—an old Irish folk song called The Dawning of the Day— and to record it. Thankfully Kelly didn’t just ignore the normally irascible poet.

In his relatively brief career he, and his fellow Dubliners, did it all, Top of the Pops, the Ed Sullivan Show, world tours, getting Seven Drunken Nightsbanned by the BBC, Kelly himself even played Herod in a Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar. When Phil Coulter briefly became the Dubliners’ manager his collaboration with Kelly produced two of their most memorable songs, The Town I Loved So Well and Scorn Not His Simplicity.

His life was tragically cut short by a series of illnesses, to which he greatly contributed by consuming copious amounts of alcohol. In that respect he didn’t differ from his fellow band members, but somehow the raucous lifestyle didn’t have quite as adverse an effect on the constitutions of the other Dubliners as it seemed to do on Kelly.

Luke Kelly was born seventy-nine years ago, on this day.








On This Day- 9 November 1875 Art collector Hugh Lane is born in Cork.



On 12 April 1956 two Dublin students, Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty, walked into the Tate Gallery in London and stole an old master, Jour d’Êté (Summer’s Day) by the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. The fact that Hogan arranged to have himself photographed with the painting as he walked out of the Tate suggested this was no ordinary theft. It was not undertaken for profit, neither was it a student prank. Hogan and Fogarty were incensed at the very presence of the Morisot and thirty-eight other paintings in London. As far as they were concerned the entire collection of priceless impressionist pictures should be in a gallery in Dublin, because that was what their owner had ordained in his will, more than forty years before.


The owner was the collector and dealer Hugh Percy Lane. Born in Cork in 1875 he was the nephew of the playwright and joint founder of the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory. He originally worked in art restoration before starting to buy and sell paintings himself. He soon had his own commercial art gallery in Dublin, opened in 1908. The following year he was knighted for his servcies to art at the tender age of thirty-three. Through frequent visits to Aunty Augusta’s home in Coole, he also became acquainted with most of the leaders of the so-called ‘Irish Renaissance’. These included the poet W.B.Yeats, who made a veiled reference to Lane in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’ in the line ‘great art beaten down’ – a reference to the long dispute over the building of a home for the connoisseur’s collection.

Lane was like one of those people who bought shares in Apple … in 1977. He developed a taste for impressionists—not of the Oliver Callan type. These were artists whose work had originally been compared to wallpaper, to the detriment of their paintings. Land had rapidly acquired a personal collection which included works by Degas, Manet and Renoir. Just as no one knew that the dream of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would turn into a multi-billion dollar corporation within two decades, the impressionists in the early 1900s were still something of an acquired taste, one which might quickly give way to the ‘next big thing’, causing artists like Renoir and Monet be completely forgotten, and leaving Lane with a few dozen mediocre canvasses albeit with really nice frames. But that’s not how it turned out.

Lane wanted to leave his collection to the city of Dublin, but the reluctance of the City Fathers to spend any money on a building to house his increasingly valuable paintings, caused him to change his mind. Instead he decided that London was more deserving and the whole lot was bequeathed to the National Gallery there. At some point, however, he appears to have changed his mind again. He drew up a codicil to his will which meant that, in the event of his death, the collection would, after all, be left to Dublin. He then set off, in 1915, on a long sea journey without having the codicil witnessed.

Lane returned to the county of his birth in May 1915, but only as one of the twelve hundred fatalities on board the ill-fated RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale by a German U-Boat. On his death the National Gallery in London claimed his pictures. When the codicil came to light they chose to ignore the obvious implication of the document, on the basis that, as Lane had not had the codicil witnessed, it was invalid. Possession was nine tenths of the law, and they had both possession and the law on their side.

And that is how the matter stood until the intervention of Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty. The two novice, but highly efficient, art thieves held on to their Morisot for four days before getting some friends to hand it in to the Irish Embassy. They had achieved their objective by drawing attention to the injustice of the entire collection residing in London, contrary to the expressed (but unwitnessed) desire of their owner. Three years later a compromise arrangement was reached between London and Dublin, which allowed the collection to be split. This arrangement was changed in 1993 and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin now has permanent possession of thirty-one of the thirty-nine paintings.

Hugh Lane—‘Bequest’ is not actually part of his name—was born one hundred and forty-three years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 26 October 1831 – Birth of painter Nathaniel Hone



Nathaniel Hone the Younger (Yes .. I know he doesn’t look very young – and ‘Pastures at Malahide’)

The birth of Nathaniel Hone the Younger on 26 October 1831 affords an excellent opportunity to ignore him almost completely, and talk about his far more interesting great-grand uncle, Nathaniel Hone the Elder.

To dispatch Younger as rapidly as possible, he began his career as a railway engineer but proved himself to be a true Hone when he took up painting as a profession and went to study in Paris … where else? How come nobody ever studied art in Basildon or Southend?  He also married a member of the Jameson distilling family and settled in North Dublin, making him far more of a truly Irish artist than his more celebrated and controversial ancestor of the same name.

One of Younger’s best-known pieces is ‘Pastures at Malahide’ which has lots of cows in the foreground and is otherwise composed of cute fluffy clouds. He was also related to the 20thcentury artist Evie Hone. And I hope that’s enough on Nathaniel Hone the Younger.

Now let’s get on to Nathaniel Hone the Elder, who was something of a lad and, with one painting at least, quite literally, brought bitchiness to a fine art.


Nathaniel Hone the Elder (Yes … I know he looks younger than Nathaniel Hone the Younger. Confusing isn’t it?)

The first Natty Hone was an 18thcentury artist, son of a Dutch merchant based in Wood Quay in Dublin. At an early age he moved to London, married the daughter of the Duke of Argyll and established himself as a portrait painter before moving to Rome for further study. Once again neither Basildon nor Southend getting a look in.  One of Hone’s most famous sitters was the founder of Methodism, the great preacher John Wesley.  Hone was so highly regarded that he was one of the founder members of the Royal Academy, established in 1768. So far, so good.

But, in 1775 he painted a picture which rests not too far from here, in our own National Gallery. It’s called The Conjuror and depicts an aged Sir Joshua Reynolds in a distinctly unflattering light. Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, was the most celebrated portrait painter of his day. Unfortunately his day was the same as Hone’s. Which meant that Hone, had he played a violin, would have been second fiddle to Reynolds. Both men were founders and members of the Royal Academy, but Reynolds got to hang out with the likes of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Charles James Fox, in a group known collectively as ‘The Club’. Another member of his set was one of only two female members of the Royal Academy, the Anglo-Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman. That both Reynolds and Kaufmann held each other in high regard is undeniable. That they were lovers is also likely. That Hone loathed both of them can hardly be disputed either, given the subject matter of The Conjuror.

Reynolds had a habit of ‘quoting’ from the classical canon in many of his portraits, a practice that Hone could not abide.  In The Conjuror– whose full title was The Pictorial Conjuror, displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception-an elderly bearded man, meant to represent Reynolds, sits in front of a cascade of classical portraits. A young smiling girl rests her elbows on his right leg. The young girl is intended to depict Angelica Kauffman, who was considerably younger than Reynolds. But that wasn’t the real problem, or the only representation of Kauffman in the original painting. In the top left-hand corner Hone added a group of naked artists in procession, waving paint brushes in the air. In the middle of this claque is a naked woman dressed only in black stockings. When the painting was presented to the Royal Academy for exhibition Kauffman objected, on the grounds that the scantily-clad female was clearly intended to be her. The painting was rejected by the Academy. Had Reynolds been the duelling type a challenge would almost certainly have followed. Dash it all, the honour of a woman was at stake! Hone spent a lot of time apologising and claiming that he had never intended any insult to Angelica Kaufmann. Nobody believed him, though it didn’t seem to do his career much harm.

Hone later exhibited a redacted version, with the nude figures painted out. This is the one that hangs in our National Gallery. The painters in the altogether were replaced by what looks like an image of the members of ‘The Club’ assembled around a writing table. This was displayed in a retrospective Hone exhibition, the first of its kind to be devoted to a single artist. The event’s lustre is slightly diminished, however, by the fact that it was all organised by Hone himself. He died in London in 1784 at the age of sixty-six.

Nathaniel Hone the Younger, his esteemed great-grand nephew, was born, one hundred and eighty-seven years ago, on this day.


‘The Conjuror’ by Nathaniel Hone (the Elder)  – sublime bitchiness 




On This Day – 19.10.1955  Ireland v Yugoslavia – John Charles defied


Given that Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina have all got pretty useful international soccer teams it’s hardly surprising that when they operated together as Yugoslavia old Tito’s boys could hold their own with the best. The Yugoslavs were good enough to come to Dublin in October 1955 and beat Ireland 4-1 at Dalymount Park.

Not good enough for Archbishop John Charles McQuaid however. He didn’t like Communists very much whether they wore suits, uniforms or football boots. In fact in 1952 McQuaid had successfully lobbied the Football Association of Ireland and prevented an equivalent fixture from taking place at all. On that occasion the FAI had actually consulted the archbishop and asked him if it was all right to play the Yugoslavs, who, in 1947, had jailed Archbishop Stepinac, an erstwhile supporter of the Croatian Fascist Ustashe regime. In 1955 the FAI went ahead with the fixture without consulting McQuaid, who only found out about it a few days before it was due to take place. The Archbishop obviously wasn’t a big reader of the sports pages or he would have become aware of it a lot sooner.


McQuaid managed, indirectly, to get Radio Eireann to pull out of covering a game with one of the world’s top rated sides when the station’s soccer commentator, Phillip Greene, declined to lend his vocal chords to a fixture of which the Archbishop disapproved.  This prompted one newspaper headline, ‘Reds turn Greene yellow’. Around 22,000 people showed up in the 40,000 capacity stadium to see the game – there’s no point in calling it a match because, as the scoreline suggests, it wasn’t.

Archbishop McQuaid’s illustrious sporting career – as in his tendency to interfere with anything of a sporting nature that offending his moral or religious sensibilities – went back to the 1930’s when he occupied the only slightly less exalted position of President of Blackrock College.  In 1934, for example, he took issue with the notion of girls and women being allowed to compete in the sport of athletics.

In 1928 women had been admitted to the Olympic Games for the first time but McQuaid came from the same school as the founder of the modern Olympiad, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that ‘women have but one task [in the Olympics] that of the role of crowning the winner with garlands’. In 1934 the National Athletic and Cycling Association [grandparent of Athletics Ireland] was contemplating adding a women’s 100 yards dash to the national championships. McQuaid, principal of an all-male rugby playing school, was profoundly unhappy. And when he was displeased he liked to share. He wrote a letter on the subject to the Irish Pressnewspaper on 24 February 1934 in which he observed that:

‘mixed athletics and all cognate immodesties are abuses that right-minded                  people reprobate, wherever and whenever they exist.’

He then proceeded to invoke one of only two superior beings he recognised, by pointing out that ‘God is not modern; nor is his Law’. Women who sought to compete athletically in the vicinity of men were ‘un-Irish and un-Catholic’, and the entire phenomenon was a ‘social abuse’.  He concluded by quoting from the only other superior being he acknowledged, the Pope, who was, apparently, of the opinion that:

‘ …in athletic sports and exercises, wherein the Christian modesty of girls must be, in a special way, safeguarded … it is supremely unbecoming that they flaunt themselves and display themselves before the eyes of all.’

So that was pretty conclusive, God, the Pope and John Charles were on the same side and the option of Catholic women competing in burqas was not available. The NACA decided not to include female athletes … even for the ten or eleven seconds it would have taken them to run 100 yards. To their eternal shame the Irish Camogie Association supported McQuaid, although that may have been not unconnected with the fact that its secretary was a man, Sean O’Duffy. He promised that his association:

‘ …would do all in its power to ensure that no girl would appear on any            sports ground in a costume to which any exception could be taken. If  they remained Irish in the ordinary acception [sic] of the word they could not go wrong.’

He never quite explained where he had come across the word ‘acception’.

Not until 1956 did Maeve Kyle become Ireland’s first female athletics competitor at the Olympics. It probably helped that she was a Northern Protestant and therefore an utterly lost cause.

The Archbishop further expanded his sporting horizons at a later date when he expressed concern about the dangers of hockey for women. He feared that the frequent twisting movements would lead to infertility, or what he called ‘hockey parturition’. The sport of lacrosse, which he believed to involve less midriff action, was encouraged in Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the Dublin archdiocese. The fact that lacrosse had originated among Native Americans using the heads of defeated opponents did not seem to occur to him as making it in any way unsuitable. Without doubt the intervention of Sean O’Duffy on behalf of the Archbishop in the Hundred Yard Dash controversy of 1934 had resulted in McQuaid refraining from expressing similar anxieties about the bendiness of the sport of camogie.

All of which illustrates that the Archbishop’s interest in sport did not just emerge from a clear blue sky when he took on the Dublin soccer public in 1955, something for which he was criticised at the time.

To the consternation of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid Ireland met, and were soundly trounced by Yugoslavia in a friendly soccer international sixty-three years ago, on this day.

On This Day – 5 October 1911  Birth of Brian O’Nolan


flann o brien.jpg

It might have been a mistake for Brian O’Nolan not to become an exile. The fact that he remained in Ireland all his life and could be seen trotting in an out of Dublin pubs any time of the week meant that he never quite managed to acquire the cachet of that famous resident of Paris, Samuel Beckett, not to mention that citizen of most of the major cities of Europe, James Joyce.

While Beckett, famously,  observed via one of his protagonists, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien, especially in his sarky Myles na Gopaleen persona, was more of an ‘ah will you go on out of that’, sort of writer. He lacked the minimalism of Beckett and the maximalism of Joyce, but he was still a fine writer at his best and worthy of almost as many PhD theses as his more illustrious compatriots. They could do worse than start with one of O’Nolan’s observations ‘I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob.’

Born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone in 1911 he was raised in an Irish-speaking family and educated in Blackrock College in Dublin. There his English teacher was the President of the College and future Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. The young O’Nolan was known to imitate McQuaid’s walk, a highly distinctive gait with one lowered shoulder. On one occasion McQuaid is said to have caught O’Nolan in the act, and pointed out that he was dipping the wrong shoulder.

Because his father died young O’Nolan, with a job in the Civil Service, was obliged to help support a family of ten siblings. The nature of his employment was one of the reasons for his many pseudonyms,  though if you wanted to find out who Flann O’Brien, or Myles na Gopaleen was, it would not have been too difficult.


He was fortunate in that the reader appointed by the publishers, Longmans, to peruse his first novel, At Swim Two Birds, was an enthusiastic Graham Greene. There his good fortune ended, however. Although subsequently celebrated as a work of genius, the first edition, published in 1939, sold barely two hundred and fifty copies and the rest of the print run was obliterated by Nazi bombers in the Blitz. As a sworn enemy of satire, decadent fiction, surrealism and just about anything remotely interesting, Adolf Hitler would probably have approved of this act of censorship, had he known of the existence of the novel. It was in At Swim Two Birds that O’Nolan wrote the immortal line ‘Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man.’

O’Nolan was at his most popular in the guise of Myles na Gopaleen (a character from a 19thcentury Irish novel and subsequent Dion Boucicault play). Myles was the scribe behind the Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times– it translates as ‘the full jug’. Here O’Nolan argued constantly with the highly opinionated ‘Plain People of Ireland’, composed dozens of exquisite puns in his tales of ‘Keats and Chapman’, and created a mythical agency for handling the books purchased by the pretentious Dublin middle classes so that they would look as if they had actually been read. The first column appeared in 1940 and it continued right up until his death in 1966. The column, though avowedly satirical, was mostly surreal humour, though O’Nolan was, occasionally, capable of biting the hand that was feeding him, as when he observed that ‘The majority of the members of the Irish parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at a crossroads.’  O’Nolan also wrote a humorous column for the Nationalist and Leinster Times under the glorious pseudonym of George Knowall.

One of his best-known works, An Beal Bocht, later translated as The Poor Mouth, was first published in Irish. O’Nolan once observed of the language in his Cruiskeen Lawn column … ‘If Irish were to die completely, the standard of English here, both in the spoken and written word, would sink to a level probably as low as that obtaining in England, and it would stop there only because it could go no lower.’

O’Nolan, who suffered from alcoholism for most of his adult life, died on 1 April 1966, April Fool’s Day.  Perhaps one of his most piquant observations comes in his earliest and greatest work At Swim Two Birds

A wise old owl once lived in a wood,

The more he heard the less he said,

The less he said the more he heard,

Let’s emulate that wise old bird

Brian O’Nolan, alias Flann O’Brien, alias Myles na Gopaleen, alias George Knowall, and alias God knows who else, was born one hundred and seven years ago, on this day.


Setting out on the first—post-Bloom —Bloomsday, with some mates (including Patrick Kavanagh and a young Anthony Cronin)