Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Once upon a time, and a very long time ago it was, Flann O’Brien (aka Myles na Gopaleen, aka Brian O’Nolan, his real name, sometimes gaelicized to Brian “ Nualláin) saw a woman hopping along the road in the Irish countryside. What was interesting about this woman was that she had only one leg.

As Anthony Cronin, O’Brien’s biographer ( No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien ), describes it:

With no crutch or any other kind of support, she was executing giant hops along the road, a form of progress broken by occasional periods of rest on a bank or in a ditch. “Cow jumps” was how Ciarán [one of O’Brien’s brothers] later described these leaps. On enquiry they were told that it was in this manner that she accomplished the two-mile journey to Mass every Sunday. Some people who lived by the roadside told them that they had often seen her pass thus in the snow. In wet or dirty weather when she could not sit down by the roadside she would rest by standing and holding onto a wall or gatepost every 50 yards or so. It appeared that she . . . had never possessed or learned to use a crutch.

This kind of brutal poverty in the Gaeltacht part of Ireland angered Flann O’Brien enough that he wrote a novel in Gaelic called An Béal Bocht , later translated as The Poor Mouth , which made fun of the romanticization of the Gaeltacht begun by Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge. Though himself a lover of the Gaeltacht, and brought up in a Gaelic-speaking-only household, O’Brien, according to Cronin, “had come to recognize quite clearly how romantics, conservationists and racialists can combine to stultify and degrade the objects of their enthusiasm.”

So O’Brien wrote a comic novel wherein the Gaels live in huts with their pigs and it rains, literally, all the time, and the hero, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, born and raised in Corkadragha, likes to say often, “I do not think that the like will ever be there again.” The novel is both affectionate toward its subject and withering in its view of its ignorance, but especially scornful of those who celebrate and study them. Such as the “gentleman from Dublin” equipped with a gramophone who, through circumstances too complicated to go into, ends up recording the “speech” of a pig dressed as a man. This gentleman then takes his recording to Berlin, where “the most learned ones of the Continent” give him “a fine academic degree.” Meanwhile, as Bonaparte O’Coonassa says, “In one way or another, life was passing us by and we were suffering misery, sometimes having a potato and at other times having nothing in our mouths but sweet words of Gaelic.”

This kind of moral concern was one of the things that differentiated O’Brien from the figure who haunted him all his life, James Joyce. O’Brien seems to have greatly admired Joyce and his work while also criticizing him for his art-for-art’s-sake stance and hating the comparisons that were made between the two writers. Flann O’Brien wanted to make money and to write great books. He succeeded in writing two of the latter, but all his life he struggled with making enough of the former.

Not that he started off this way. He was raised in a comfortable if not rich family, and when he graduated from college he applied to and was accepted into the Irish Civil Service, a refuge of sorts for Irish intellectuals who weren’t academics. But the day in 1937 he got this job was the day his father died, and so his salary, because of his instant dependents, was immediately severely stretched.

In college, O’Brien had shown a flair for satirical humor both in speech and writing. In 1939 his novel At Swim-Two-Birds was published. It is a hilarious send-up of Gaelic romanticism, literary culture, even of narrative itself. A never-named young man attending college, an orphan who lives with his uncle (who is always ridiculing him, asking if he ever cracks a book open), is writing this book, At Swim-Two-Birds, which is partly about a man writing a book, the characters of which decide to rebel and kill him. Interwoven through this double narrative are wonderful examples of “Dublinese” and long passages devoted to the legendary Irish hero Finn McCool. It is a novel that deconstructs itself but also manages to have moments of surprising emotion, as when the narrator’s uncle congratulates him for graduating from college. Graham Greene praised it by comparing it with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy , and Anthony Cronin writes, “The two principle devices of At Swim-Two-Birds were the juxtaposition of myth with sordid contemporary reality and the novel within a novel.” Both of these are propelled forward by the narrator and his double within the novel, both of whom, Oblomov-like, spend much time in bed.

Here is a taste of the richness of O’Brien’s book, taken from the beginning of the last passage:

Conclusion of the book, ultimate : Evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is a full stop. When a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed, he punctuates and gives majesty to the serial enigma of the dark, laying it more evenly and heavily upon the fabric of the mind. Sweeney in the trees hears the sad baying as he sits listening on the branch, a huddle between the earth and heaven; and he hears also the answering mastiff that is counting the watches in the next parish. Bark answers bark till the call spreads like fire through all Erin. Soon the moon comes forth from behind her curtains riding full tilt across the sky, lightsome and unperturbed in her immemorial calm. The eyes of the mad king upon the branch are upturned, whiter eyeballs in a white face, upturned in fear and supplication.

This is rather dark compared with some passages in the book (the one about the Irish cowboys, for instance, herding cattle through Dublin and fighting rustlers), but it points to the darkness of O’Brien’s second novel, The Third Policeman (1940), rejected by Longmans, Green & Co., the publisher of At Swim-Two-Birds . O’Brien was always dependent on the approval and encouragement of others. When his second novel was rejected by Longmans and his agent could not place it elsewhere, he simply gave up on it and in the same year turned to the writing of his famous column for the Irish Times , “Cruiskeen Lawn,” Gaelic for “Overflowing Little Jug.” O’Brien wrote these under the name Myles na Gopaleen, about whom S.J. Perelman said, he was “the best comic writer I can think of.” There are several collections of these, but the best to start with is The Best of Myles (1968).

O’Brien, under the Myles pseudonym, published The Poor Mouth in Gaelic in 1941 but did not publish another novel in English, The Hard Life , until twenty years later. We can only speculate on what he might have written if either Longmans had accepted The Third Policeman or if O’Brien had had more self-confidence, perhaps too if he had had more of Joyce’s hardheadedness. (According to Cronin, by the way, Joyce went “to some trouble” to promote At Swim-Two-Birds , which was “the last novel he ever read.”)

It’s too bad, because, like At Swim-Two-Birds , The Third Policeman is a masterpiece. It is as if Kafka had written a work set in Ireland. There is the same sense that you are dwelling in someone’s dream, a dream quickly becoming a nightmare. And yet all the while there is much comedy.

The novel tells the story of a man (another orphan) who comes into his inheritance of the family farm but cannot get rid of the caretaker, John Divney, who, at first helpful, turns very sinister. Divney involves the narrator in a crime after which the world of the story turns nightmarish. Keith Donohue, in his introduction to The Complete Novels , describes the story “as a hallucinatory existential murder mystery, with footnotes.”

Here is a passage from Chapter Three of The Third Policeman , in which our unnamed hero first begins to realize something is different in his world:

The road was narrow, white, old, hard and scarred with shadow. It ran away westwards in the mist of the early morning, running cunningly through the little hills and going to some trouble to visit tiny towns which were not, strictly speaking, on its way. It was possibly one of the oldest roads in the world. I found it hard to think of a time when there was no road there because the trees and the tall hills and the fine views of bogland had been arranged by wise hands for the pleasing picture they made when looked at from the road. Without a road to have them looked at from they would have a somewhat aimless if not a futile aspect.

O’Brien’s every sentence is alive, startling. Very odd, too, but never boring.

O’Brien’s subsequent novel, The Poor Mouth , was well-received but only within its necessarily small Gaelic-speaking audience. The Hard Life (1961) came next. He had been inspired it seems by the republication of At Swim-Two-Birds in 1960, which had received much praise by, among others, V.S. Pritchett, who wrote, “It looks as though his [O’Brien’s] idea was to knock the regionalism out of Irish literature by magnifying it.” In spite of this, O’Brien continued to call the novel “mere juvenilia.”

Cronin calls The Hard Life “a small masterpiece,” and Brendan Behan called it a “gem.” It is about two brothers, orphans again, taken in by a Mr. Collopy, whose hobbyhorse is to provide the women of Dublin with public lavatories, of which they are so unjustly deprived. His best friend is a certain Father Kurt Fahrt, S.J., with whom he argues theology and the best strategy toward achieving the relief of the women of Dublin. Meanwhile the narrator’s older brother drops out of school and begins a correspondence school on anything he can think of. He writes booklets on how to walk a tightrope, for instance.

He also operated the Zenith School of Journalism, which claimed to be able to explain how to make a fortune with the pen in twelve “clear, analytical, precise and unparagoned lessons.” As well he was trying to flood Britain with a treatise on cage-birds, published by the Simplex Nature Press, which also issued a Guide to Gardening, both works obviously composed of material looted from books in the National Library.

I leave it to the reader to imagine the scene wherein the Brother, as the narrator calls him, Mr. Collopy, and Father Fahrt go on pilgrimage to Rome and have a private audience with the pope.

O’Brien was a hard drinker, and, according to Cronin, in his later years his day was often over by 3 p.m. He also suffered from complications brought on by a broken leg he suffered in a car accident and from pleurisy and neuralgia. Despite this and his own psychological hurdles, he managed to write one more novel, The Dalkey Archive (1964), in which he recycled parts of The Third Policeman . It is the least successful of his novels but still well worth reading and very funny. In it St. Augustine and James Joyce both make appearances, Joyce tending bar in a vacation town and denying he wrote Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake and wanting the narrator’s help to join the Jesuits as a late vocation.

I don’t know if I should admit this, but I have never finished reading Ulysses and have not done more than dip into Finnegan’s Wake . But I read Flann O’Brien’s The Complete Novels all the way through and not just because I planned on writing about them. I will probably reread O’Brien before tackling Ulysses again, and the main reason is because his writing makes me laugh and astounds me with its strangeness. Perhaps, too, because I lean toward O’Brien’s Manichean version of Catholicism and admire his ambition to write great books and make a living as a writer. Joyce is a greater writer as an artist, but O’Brien is more approachable and a lot more fun. Even Joyce himself is quoted as saying that O’Brien is “a real writer, with the true comic spirit.”

Franklin Freeman is a writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.


Flann O’Brien: The Complete Novels

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles