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


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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)

On This Day 23 February 1943 – St. Joseph’s Orphanage fire in Cavan



Long before the Stardust—where forty-eight young people lost their lives in the 1981—there was the Poor Clares fire in Cavan! This is a story very much in keeping with the illustrious Irish tradition of religious run orphanages, mother and baby homes, reform schools and Magdalene laundries.

It was a disaster that could so easily have been avoided, a tragedy of errors, and it cost the lives of thirty-five young orphan girls, and one adult employee, in February 1943.

St. Joseph’s Orphanage and Industrial School, run by the enclosed and contemplative order of Poor Clare nuns, had been a fixture in the centre of the town of Cavan since its establishment in 1869. By 1943 it was a grim, austere building where, on the night of 23 February, a small fire broke out in the basement laundry. This wasn’t noticed until after midnight on the morning of the 24th.

Once the alarm was raised, everyone in the building could have been evacuated immediately. There was still plenty of time to get all the girls, nuns and staff down to the street below. Instead the nuns decided to move all their young charges into one dormitory, and wait until someone put the fire out. The received wisdom at the time was that the Poor Clare sisters were prepared to risk the lives of more than eighty young girls, in order to avoid the embarrassment of them being seen in public in their nightgowns.

Two local men, John Kennedy and John McNally, took it upon themselves to attempt to put the fire out at source. They barely escaped from the laundry with their lives. McNally collapsed and had to be dragged out by Kennedy. As the fire took hold it now became impossible for the girls to be evacuated from their upstairs dormitory through the main entrance.

The town of Cavan in 1943 lacked a formal fire service. Dundalk Fire Brigade was notified, but by the time the fire tender had come from almost fifty miles away it was far too late. It appears that no one thought to contact Enniskillen fire station which was closer to Cavan than Dundalk.

What there was of a local fire service in the town in 1943 did not have ladders long enough to reach the girls in their dormitory. They were encouraged to jump. Three did so, incurring injuries, but surviving. The others, mostly younger children, were too scared to attempt the leap. A number of children managed to escape by a variety of hazardous routes, including a burning fire escape. Five were rescued when a ladder, adequate to the task, was finally found. The rest died when the flames reached the dormitory.

Afterwards there was a public inquiry, which found that the disaster had taken place due to an electrical fault. No one was held responsible. Locals, in the main, blamed the inaction, panic or rumoured prurience of the Poor Clare nuns. Secretary to the Inquiry was one Brian O’Nolan, a Dublin-based civil servant, better known as the writer Flann O’Brien. Along with one of the barristers at the inquiry, future Fine Gael TD and Presidential candidate, Tom O’Higgins, he penned a limerick which captured local feeling on the proper attribution of blame. It went:


In Cavan, there was a great fire

Judge McCarthy was sent to inquire

It would be a shame

If the nuns were to blame

So, it had to be caused by a wire.


Two of the dead girls, Mary Elizabeth and Susan McKiernan, had been placed in the Orphanage at the insistence of a local priest, after the death of their mother. The alternative was being raised by their father, or willing Protestant neighbours. The youngest orphan fatality was Elizabeth Heaphy from Swords, aged four, the eldest was eighteen-year old Mary Galligan from Drumcassidy in Cavan. None of the members of the Poor Clare order died in the fire, despite their own reluctance to leave the building. As members of an enclosed order many of the nuns apparently felt that to do so was a violation of their vows. The only adult fatality was the eighty-year old cook, Mary Smith. Rescuers found enough remains to fill eight coffins, these were then buried in a mass grave.

A fire that claimed the lives of thirty-six people, mostly young orphan girls, began to take hold in the laundry of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cavan, seventy-five years ago, on this day.