- 09 May 19
“Everything he wrote was intended to be funny, and most of it succeeded.”
Who better than a good pal who was there at the time - and a dab hand with the pen and paper himself – like Anthony Cronin to capture the life and times of the great genius of Irish Letters, Flann O’Brien (other appellations are available)?
Describing Brian Ó Nualláin’s childhood in Strabane, Inchicore and Tullamore – his later vision of hell was based on the landscape around Offaly’s capital town. Having grown up there, I can only nod in agreement – two factors are flagged with importance. Irish was O’Nolan’s language, “he heard little English spoken for a number of years except for occasional visitors to the house and passers-by in the street, and O’Nolan’s father Michael, a civil servant, was a great man for buying books, and Brian, according to his brother, “had every book in the house read.”
O’Nolan had what used to be called a great college career in UCD, well-known for his contributions to the politicised Literary & Historical Society where he was more about poking fun than political points – “he was a licenced satirist and jester whose aim was to deflate and to amuse” and his first literary stirrings in the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne under what would become only one of many pseudonyms, Brother Barnabas. Scenes In A Novel, from this period, shows an author arguing with his characters, a device that would be recycled in the novel O’Brien was already deeply entangled with. Like manys the college man before and after him, he was reluctant to leave and enter the real world, and stayed on to do a lackadaisical M.A. on Nature In Irish Poetry.
It is the great artistic hat-trick of At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman and An Béal Bocht that O’Nolan is rightly remembered for. Birds – a dazzling intellectual triumph combining ancient myth with contemporary life which genuinely turns the form of the novel on its arse - was apparently the last book that James Joyce ever read and one he felt was worthy of mention alongside his own tomes, after O’Brien had persuaded a Paris Honeymooning mate to slip a copy to the great man. Joyce had already heard tell of it from one Samuel Beckett, then working as Joyce’s amanuensis. The Third Policeman’s combination of gallows humour and quare quantum physics would go on to brief fame as the only clue that might help one make sense of the car-crash-in-the-mushroom-factory that was the TV show Lost. An Béal Bocht, or The Poor Mouth, mercilessly satirises Gaeilgeoirs who might take themselves a bit too seriously, and the language revival in general, and pulls the rug out from under works like The Island Man and Peig - the bane of every leaving cert student for decades. On a personal level, twenty-four years after O’Brien’s death, one - or perhaps all three, I can’t quite remember – of these masterpieces resulted in this reviewer being temporarily barred from the library in Maynooth University for repeatedly laughing out loud.
The inconvenient outbreak of World War II put paid to any hopes for success for Swim and, in a move that remains incomprehensible to this day, publishers rejected The Third Policeman. Cronin’s central tenet is that O’Nolan never got over this, the fire being put out just as it was getting going, and it was all downhill from there. That being said, there is still plenty of sport to be had from the mischievous magic of the Myles na gCopaleen Cruiskeen Lawn columns in The Irish Times, and even the civil service battles and the boozy decline have incidents to raise a grin such as O’Brien’s description of Patrick Kavanagh, who he had a grudging respect for, as “The Monaghan Toucher” and his departure from government employ “in a final fanfare of fucks”
Complete with a foreword from Kevin Barry – another fella who knows how to use a pencil - this is a detailed, funny and fair account, although The Dalkey Archive doesn’t quite warrant the kicking Cronin gives it.
A joy, if you ever open a book at all. He is still yer only man.