From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Brian O'Nolan (Irish: Brian Ó Núalláin) (October 5, 1911 – April 1, 1966) was an Irish novelist and satirist, best known for his novels An Béal Bocht, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman written under the nom de plume Flann O'Brien. He also wrote many satirical columns in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen.
Most of O'Nolan's writings were occasional pieces published in periodicals, which explains why his work has only recently come to enjoy the considered attention of literary scholars. O'Nolan was also notorious for his prolific use and creation of pseudonyms for much of his writing, including short stories, essays, and letters to editors, which has rendered a complete cataloging of his writings an almost impossible task -- he allegedly would write letters to the Editor of the Irish Times complaining about his own articles published in that newspaper, for example in his regular Cruiskeen Lawn column, which gave rise to rampant speculation as to whether the author of a published letter existed or not. Not surprisingly, little of O'Nolan's pseudonymous activity has been, or can ever be, verified.
A key feature of O'Nolan's personal situation was his status as an Irish government civil servant, who, as a result of his father's relatively early death, was obliged to support 10 siblings, including an older brother who was an unsuccessful writer. The Irish civil service has been, since the Irish Civil War fairly strictly apolitical, Civil Servants above the level of clerical officer are generally prohibited from publicly expressing political views both by Civil Service Regulations and the service's internal culture. As a practical matter, this meant that commentating in newspapers on current events was, during O'Nolan's career, generally prohibited without departmental permission on an article-by-article, publication-by-publication basis. This fact alone contributed to O'Nolan's use of pseudonyms, though he had started to create character-authors even in his pre-civil service writings. In reality, that O'Nolan was Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen was an open secret, largely disregarded by his colleagues, who found his writing very entertaining; this was a function of the makeup of the civil service, which recruited leading graduates by competitive examination -- it was an erudite and relatively liberal body in the Ireland of the 1930s to 1970s. Nonetheless, had O'Nolan forced the issue, by using one of his known pseudonyms or his own name for an article that seriously upset politicians, consequences would likely have flowed -- hence the acute pseudonym problem in attributing his work today.
O'Nolan wrote prodigiously during his years as a student at University College Dublin, contributing to the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne (Fair Game) 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 extremities of human degradation", instead ekes out a modest living selling cats to elderly ladies and becomes a covert churchgoer without the author's 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'Nolan 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'Nolan'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?
Flann O'Brien novels 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 fantastic plot of a murderous protagonist let loose on a strange world peopled by fat policemen, played against a satire of academic debate on an eccentric philosopher, and finds time to introduce the atomic theory of the bicycle. 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 an assistant barman or 'curate' -- another small joke relating to Joyce's alleged priestly ambitions -- in the resort of Skerries 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 Béal Bocht, (translated from the Irish as The Poor Mouth), which was a parody of Tomás Ó Criomhthain's autobiography An t-Oileánach - in English The Islander.
As a novelist, O'Nolan was powerfully influenced by James Joyce. Indeed, he was at pains to attend the same college as Joyce - University College Dublin, and Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann 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."
Flann O'Brien is rightly considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. The British writer Anthony Burgess was moved to say of him: "If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men. Flann O'Brien is a very great man." Burgess included At Swim-Two-Birds on his list of 99 Great Novels.
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, although the academic Keith Hopper has persuasively argued that The Third Policeman, superficially less radical, is actually a more deeply subversive and proto-postmodernist work, and as such, possibly a representation of literary nonsense. At Swim-Two-Birds was one of the last books that James Joyce read and he praised it to O'Nolan's friends - praise which was subsequently used for years as a jacket blurb on reprints of O'Brien's novels. The novel has had a troubled publication history in the USA. Southern Illinois University Press has set up a Flann O'Brien Center and begun publishing all of O'Nolan's works. Consequently, academic attention to the novel has increased.
O'Brien influenced the science fiction writer and conspiracy theory satirist Robert Anton Wilson, who has O'Brien's character De Selby, an obscure intellectual in The Third Policeman, appear in Wilson's The Widow's Son. In both works, De Selby is the subject of long pseudo-scholarly footnotes. This is fitting, because O'Brien himself made free use of characters invented by other writers, claiming that there were too many fictional characters as is. O'Brien was also known for pulling the reader's leg by concocting elaborate conspiracy theories.
As Myles na gCopaleen (or Myles na Gopaleen), O'Nolan wrote short columns for The Irish Times, mostly in English but also in Irish, which showed a manic imagination that still astonishes.
His newspaper column, called Cruiskeen Lawn (transliterated from the Irish crúiscín lán, "little brimming jug"), has its origins in a series of pseudonymous letters written to The Irish Times, originally intended to mock the publication in that same newspaper of a poem, "Spraying the Potatoes", by the writer Patrick Kavanagh:
The letters, some written by O'Nolan and some not, continued under a variety of false names, using various styles and assaulting varied topics, including other letters by the same authors. The letters were a hit with the readers of The Irish Times, and R.M. Smyllie, then editor of the newspaper, shortly invited O'Nolan to contribute a column.
The first column appeared on 4 October, 1940, under the pseudonym "Myles na gCopaleen" ("Myles of the Little Horses"). Initially, the column was composed in Irish, but soon English was used primarily, with occasional smatterings of German, French, or Latin. The sometimes intensely satirical column's targets included the Dublin literary elite, Irish language revivalists, the Irish government, and the "Plain People of Ireland." The following column excerpt, in which the author wistfully recalls a brief sojourn in Germany as a student, illustrates the biting humor and scorn that informed the Cruiskeen Lawn writings:
Ó Nuallain/na gCopaleen wrote Cruiskeen Lawn for The Irish Times until the year of his death, 1966.
'Capall' is the Irish Gaelic word for 'horse', and 'een' (spelled 'ín' in Irish) is the diminutive used especially in female names, e.g. Róisín ("little rose") Mairín (or Maureen - "little Mary"). The prefix 'na g...' is the Irish genitive, so Myles na gCopaleen means "Myles of the Little Horses". 'Copaillín' is also the Irish translation of the English word 'pony', as in the name of Ireland's most famous and ancient native horse breed, the Connemara pony.
O'Nolan himself always insisted on the translation "Myles of the Ponies", saying that he did not see why the principality of the pony should be subjugated to the imperialism of the horse.
As "Myles na gCopaleen"
The Cruiskeen Lawn columns have been published in a series of collections:
- The Best of Myles
- The Hair of the Dogma
- Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn
- Flann O'Brien At War: Myles na gCopaleen 1940-1945
- Myles Away from Dublin
- Myles Before Myles
- At War
As "Flann O'Brien"
- At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
- An Béal Bocht / The Poor Mouth (Irish: 1941), (English: 1973)
- The Dalkey Archive (1964)
- The Third Policeman (written 1939-40, published 1968)
- The Hard Life
- Clune, Anne, and Tess Hurson, eds., 1997. Conjuring Complexities: Essays on Flann O'Brien. The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queens Univ. of Belfast. ISBN 085389678X
- Cronin, Anthony, 2003. No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien. New Island Books. ISBN 1-904301-37-1
- Curran, Steven ‘“No, This is Not From The Bell”: Brian O’Nolan’s 1943 Cruiskeen Lawn Anthology’, in Éire-Ireland, 32, 2 & 3 (Summer/Fall 1997), pp.79-92.
- Curran, Steven ‘Designs on an “Elegant Utopia”: Brian O’Nolan and Vocational Organisation', Bullán, V, 2 (Winter/Spring 2001), pp.87-116.
- Curran, Steven ‘“Could Paddy Leave Off from Copying Just for Five Minutes?”: Brian O’Nolan and Éire’s Beveridge Plan’, Irish University Review, 31, 2 (Autumn/Winter 2001), pp.353-76.
- Guinness, Jonathan 1997. Requiem for a family business. Macmillan, London. ISBN 0-333-66191-5 at pp.8-9.
- Hopper, Keith, 1995. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Postmodernist. Cork University Press. ISBN 1-85918-042-6
- Wappling, Eva, 1984. Four legendary Figures in At Swim-Two-Birds. Uppsala. ISBN 91-554-1595-4
- Riordan, Arthur, and Bell Helicopter, 2005. Improbable Frequency. Nick Hern Books. ISBN 1-85459-875-9