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)