by Flann O'Brien

Comic Genius - Sad Life

It was the 'Cruiskeen Lawn' (the full little jug) newspaper column he wrote for the Irish Times for a quarter of a century under the name of Myles na gCopaleen (later na Gopaleen - Myles of the Ponies, the original comic rogue hero of Dion Boucicaults 1860 melodrama The Colleen Bawn) which made Flann O'Brien's name - as far as that can be said of someone using names like masks. Ireland's comic genius of the twentieth century, was born Brian O'Nolan (or Nuallain) in Strabane, Co Tyrone, in 1911. At university in Dublin, he contributed to the student magazine Comhthrom Feinne under the nom de plume Brother Barnabas, before he started his own satirical magazine, Blather, adopting the pseudonym Count O'Blather for his writing - all apprentice pieces for his later Irish Times column.

In 1939, he published At Swim-Two-Birds, and was hailed by James Joyce as "a true comic genius", yet only 142 copies of this comic masterpiece were sold. Most of the stock of the first edition burnt to cinders when the publisher's warehouse was bombed in World War II. At Swim-Two-Birds is a hilariously intricate novel within a novel, where fictitious characters plot and rebel against their author, where mythology and reality live happily side by side - a book not satisfied with one beginning or, for that matter, one ending, and providing several of both. It mapped out what Declan Kiberd called "the democratic programme .... for the modern novel", allowing every character "a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living." The book is famous - among other things - for its bunch of Ringsend Cowboys and, of course, Jem Casey, the working man's poet and his pome 'The Workingman's Friend', better known as 'A Pint of Plain' (... is your only man) - a poem that breathes "permanence"...

A fluent Irish-speaker, Myles na gCopaleen published An Beal Bocht (The Poor Mouth, 1941), his only book in Gaelic: "a subversive anti-pastoral" novel (Kiberd), translated into English only in 1964.

The Third Policeman, his other comic masterpiece, was written shortly after the first novel, but rejected by various publishers. In his frustration, Flann O'Brien (this name adopted for the novels), kept the manuscript locked away - and it was only published posthumously in 1967.

From 1940 onwards, he contributed to the Irish Times, satirising 'The Plain People of Ireland', becoming a master of the non-sequitur in 'Chapman and Keats', and inventing 'The Brother' (later to become a celebrated one-man show for Eamon Morrissey!) - all in the 'Cruiskeen Lawn'.

While, in the early 'fifties, the "Joyce industry" started, washing wave after wave of American academics ashore in Dublin, Brian O'Nolan's hardest time began. Surviving as a hack, supplying his colums to the Irish Times - and other columns under other pseudonyms to provincial papers - he just about made ends meet for himself and his wife whom he had married in 1948.

Heavy drinking - Flann O'Brien was a level-drinker, starting with the market pubs in the early morning - and a bohemian life-style had led to his enforced retirement from the civil service in 1953. The tone of the columns towards the end of the 'fifties often takes on an air of bitterness and petty bickering...

Then, all of a sudden, At Swim-Two-Birds is published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1960, becomes a bestseller and makes its author (Flann O'Brien rather than Myles na Gopaleen) famous! He returns to novel-writing: The Hard Life is published in 1961; 1964 sees the publication of The Dalkey Archive, containing his comic revenge on Joyce, having him as a barman in Skerries (north of Dublin) writing Catholic tracts in his spare time, fiercely denying any involvement in "dirty books" like Ulysses or Finnegans Wake which were, according to your man, concocted by filthy American academics to besmear his good name...

But that flourishing of creative productivity was already overshadowed by painful illness and, irony of ironies, on April Fool's Day 1966 he died of cancer.

Brian O'Nolan's life was, in the title of Anthony Cronin's biography of him, "no laughing matter". Literally under the shadow of James Joyce, tied to his self-created comic persona and the needs to sustain himself and his family through his journalism, his genius as a novelist could not fully unfold; and when the dourest period of his life seemed to have come to an end, bringing him fame and acceptance as an artist, cancer struck and carried him off.

Still, sad as the unrealised fulfilment of his talent is, what we have between the covers of The Best of Myles, Stories and Plays, and particularly the three novels, belongs to the best of comic writing in the English (and Irish) language.

It was back in the 1943 when Myles na Gopaleen/Flann O'Brien undertook his three ventures into the realm of the theatre. (The Dalkey Archive, later, was successfully adapted by Hugh Leonard for the Abbey in 1964 under the apt title When The Saints Go Cycling In).

Faustus Kelly, a satirical look at the running of local authorities (drawing on his own experience as a civil servant with responsibilty for local government) was staged at the Abbey. A 'Faustian pact' with the devil is resolved when, finally, the devil rejects the Irishman - because an Irishman would make hell too hellish even for the devil himself! The Insect Play, an adaptation of Karel Capek's play, employing a huge cast, ran for five nights at the Gate Theatre. And in the same year, he started work on another full-length play, of which only the first act got completed. This first act is Thirst - yet, most peculiarly, there seems nothing incomplete about it!

A homage to story-telling with hints at deeper ritualistic patterns, Thirst is a serious study of after-hours drinking in a Dublin bar...