Surely the drink was no stimulus. O’Brien was, in Denis Donoghue’s words, “a natural alcoholic.” Every prominent Irish writer from the mid-1930s until his death in 1966—on April Fool’s Day, yet—saw him drunk. Nuala O’Faolain was the last, writing in her acclaimed 1996 memoir Are You Somebody? that she “saw Myles na gCopaleen urinate against the counter in Neary’s one night.”
The reader will please pay attention here. Myles na gCopaleen (pronounced “na-ga-paleen”) was the Gaelic penname of Brian O’Nolan, the English spelling for Brian Ua Nuallain, who came to be known as Flann O’Brien, born in County Tyrone in either 1911 or 1912. The name translates into English as “Myles of The Little Horses,” but O’Brien preferred “Myles of The Ponies,” since, in his words, “the autonomy of the pony must not be subjected to the imperialism of the horse.”
“The column” which Kenner thought ruined Myles/Flann appeared for 25 years in the Irish Times. It was once described by a writer for the New York Herald Tribune as “devoted to magnificently laborious literary puns”—many of them maddeningly written in Latin and Gaelic—“remarkable parodies ... and a general air of shameless irony and high spirits.”
Myles the columnist cast a cold and withering eye on any subject that crossed him, up to and often including his countrymen; he once dismissed a seminar on Irish culture as “a virulent eruption of paddyism.” (Many of the columns are collected in The Best of Myles.)
Kenner notwithstanding, Flann wrote his great novels—At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, and The Dalkey Archive. In his lifetime, though, few read either Myles or Flann. Failure or not, no Irish writer has inspired a classier cult following: James Joyce, William Saroyan, Samuel Beckett, John Updyke and William H. Gass, to name just a few.
And Graham Greene, on whose recommendation O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published in 1939. Dylan Thomas, who loved At Swim, called it, “Just the book to give to your sister, if she is a dirty, boozey girl.”
O’Brien blamed the commercial failure of the novel on the damage German bombers had inflicted on his British publisher, preventing the book’s wide release; the story, unlike many of O’Brien’s, may have been true. (Though he was probably exaggerating when he suggested that Hitler started the war to prevent the circulation of his book.)
In any event, At Swim-Two-Birds remained out of print from 1940 until 1960. A description of the plot, if it can be called that, offers a frighten ing glimpse into the mind of Flann O’Brien. An unnamed narrator is writing a book about a character named Dermot Trellis, who, by coincidence is also writing a book. But Trellis’s characters want to be left alone and conspire to keep their author asleep. Trellis defies them and creates a female character, Sheila Lamont, who bears his child...
In truth, I don’t trust my own ability to relate the plot beyond this point. I do know that the story involves the legendary Phinn McCool, some American cowboys, a pooka (a species of human Irish devils endowed with magical powers) named Fergus MacPhellimey and a cellar full of leprechauns.
Ah, yes, I hear you say, that same old story.
The Third Policeman, which should have established O’Brien’s reputation, was rejected by a publisher the year after At Swim-Two-Birds was birthed. The manuscript was locked in his desk until a year after his death and has been described as a phantasmagorical crime story in which a petty thief and murderer finds himself trapped in a cosmic police station where he learns about atomic theory and “the intertwined destinies of men and bicycles.” The narrator, also the murderer, is dead throughout much of the story but does not know it. (Unbelievingly, knowing this is not a spoiler.)
The Poor Mouth was first published in 1941. In a typically perverse mood, O’Brien wrote it in Gaelic, so scarcely anyone was able to read it until its English translation in 1973. It was his bitterest and funniest satire of the Irish propensity for bemoaning their station. On the first page, the young narrator awakens to find his mother gone. “She is gone to a better land,” his brother tells him. “Mean to say we’ll never see her again?” “I do think we will. She’s staying with the old man.”
O’Brien lived to see two more works of fiction in print. The Hard Life (1962), subtitled “An Exegesis of Squalor,” dares to confront such taboo subjects as illicit sex, tight rope walking, and the pressing need for “public toilets for ladies.” The Dalkey Archive (1964) featured guest stars St. Augustine and James Joyce; the latter confesses that Ulysses was written in Paris by a committee of pimps and hooligans.
Together, Myles na gCopaleen and Flann O’Brien, the two aspects of Brian O’Nolan, make up one of the funniest writers in Irish—and thus, by definition, in English—literature. “It’s a rare writer,” says Roy Blount, Jr., “who deserves to be compared to himself favorably.”
Myles’s and Flann’s work is available from the Dalkey Archive Press www.dalkeyarchive.com
Birmingham native Allen Barra writes about sports and culture for numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, American Heritage and The Los Angeles Times.