Flann O'Brien

From Academic Kids

Flann O'Brien was the best known pseudonym of Brian O'Nolan (October 5, 1911 - April 1, 1966), who also published under the name Myles na gCopaleen. He was a twentieth century Irish satirist and humorist.


Early Writings

O'Nolan wrote prodigiously during his years as a student at University College Dublin, contributing to the student magazine Comhthrom Finne under various guises, in particular the pseudonym 'Brother Barnabas'. Significantly, he composed a story during this same period entitled "Scenes in a Novel (probably posthumous) by Brother Barnabas", which anticipates many of the ideas and themes later to be found in his novel At Swim-Two-Birds. In it, the putative author of the story finds himself in riotous conflict with his characters, who are determined to follow their own paths regardless of the author's design. For example, the villain of the story, one Carruthers McDaid, intended by the author as the lowest form of scoundrel, "meant to sink slowly to absolutely the last extremeties of human degradation", instead ekes out a modest living selling cats to elderly ladies and becomes a covert church-goer without the authors consent. Meanwhile, the story's hero, Shaun Svoolish, chooses a comfortable, bourgeois life rather than romance and heroics:

'I may be a prig,' he replied, 'but I know what I like. Why can't I marry Bridie and have a shot at the Civil Service?'
'Railway accidents are fortunately rare,' I said finally, 'but when they happen they are horrible. Think it over.'

In 1934 O'Brien and his student friends founded a short-lived magazine called Blather. The writing here, though clearly bearing the marks of youthful bravado, again somewhat anticipates O'Brien's later work, in this case his Cruiskeen Lawn column as Myles na gCopaleen:

Blather is here. As we advance to make our bow, you will look in vain for signs of servility or of any evidence of a desire to please. We are an arrogant and depraved body of men. We are as proud as bantams and as vain as peacocks.
"Blather doesn't care." A sardonic laugh escapes us as we bow, cruel and cynical hounds that we are. It is a terrible laugh, the laugh of lost men. Do you get the smell of porter?


Under the name Flann O'Brien, he published a series of novels that have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour and Modernist metafiction. At Swim-Two-Birds works entirely with borrowed (and stolen) characters from other fiction and legend, on the grounds that there are already far too many existing fictional characters, while The Third Policeman has a superficial plot about an Irish country youth's vision of hell, played against a satire of academic debate on an eccentric philosopher, and finds time to introduce the atomic theory of the bicycle. The philosopher in question, De Selby, is based on Giambattista Vico, who had been a fascination of James Joyce's, and the importance of the bicycle recalls Samuel Beckett. The Dalkey Archive features a character who encounters a penitent, elderly James Joyce (who never wrote any of his books and seeks only to join the Jesuit Order) working as a busboy in the resort of Dalkey and a scientist looking to suck all of the air out of the world. Other books by Flann O'Brien include The Hard Life (a fictional autobiography meant to be his "misterpiece"), and An Bal Bocht, (translated from the Irish as The Poor Mouth), which was a parody of Toms Criomhthain's autobiography An t-Oilenach .

As a novelist, O'Nolan was powerfully influenced by James Joyce. Indeed, he was at pains to attend the same college as Joyce, and Joyce biographer Richard Ellman has established that O'Nolan, fully in keeping with his literary temperament, used a forged interview with Joyce's father John Joyce as part of his application. He was none the less sceptical of the Cult of Joyce which overshadowed much of Irish writing, "I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob."

At Swim-Two-Birds is now recognized as one of the most significant Modernist novels before 1945 indeed it can be seen as a pioneer of postmodernism. Anthony Burgess included it on his list of 99 Great Novels. It was the last book that James Joyce, who was almost blind at the time, read and he did much to publicise it on the continent. In the United States, the novel has had a very troubled publication history. In recent years, Southern Illinois University Press has set up a Flann O'Brien Center and has begun publishing all of O'Nolan's works. Consequently, academic attention on the novel has been increasing.


As Myles na gCopaleen, O'Nolan published a regular column entitled "Cruiskeen Lawn" in The Irish Times, usually in English, but sometimes in Irish, sometimes in Latin and sometimes in a strange English-Irish hybrid of his own invention. The columns introduce a regular set of characters, such as the "PLAIN PEOPLE OF IRELAND," who periodically interrupt Myles' flights of fancy to demand clarification or explanation; the poets Keats and Chapman, whose adventures always end in an elaborate pun; "the Brother," and "the Da". Numerous ingenious inventions and schemes for the improvement of the Irish nation are described. These pieces have been collected into a number of books such as The Best of Myles and Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn (an example of bilingual humour, which O'Nolan often used. His pen name means "Myles of the little horse," and Cruiskeen Lawn means "the small full glass"). Having satirised a government minister in the column O' Brien was forcibly retired from the civil service and due to his spiralling alcoholism never regained the heights of his early work, dying from cancer in 1966. O'Nolan had been one of the first proponents of the study of Irish, and yet as a newspaper columnist he consistently satirized Irish nationalists for their zeal. Some of the characters introduced in the "Cruiskeen Lawn" column (in particular The Brother) are explained in The Hard Life.

Flann O'Brien's writing is sufficiently creative that he counts as a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. Like others whose primary output was periodical, his work has only recently been receiving wide attention from literary scholars.

Further reading

  • Cronin, Anthony. No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien. Grafton Books (1989).

External links

de:Flann O'Brien ga:Flann O'Brien it:Flann O'Brien


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