Flann O’Brien’s first and most important novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published the year that William Butler Yeats died. The coincidence is notable because the novel was a parodistic melange of styles spawned by the Irish Literary Revival championed by Yeats and because all of O’Brien’s important novels critique literary fabrications akin to those of the revival. The Irish Literary Revival was based on the rediscovery of the special identity of Ireland, especially as this was apparent in the literature of the Celtic legends. In popularizing these legends, the participants in the revival, many of whom—unlike O’Brien—had no fluency in the Gaelic language, were prone to literary extravagance and inflated notions of Celtic nobility. The literature of the revival was instrumental in arousing political energies that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, but after this goal of political independence had been realized, many of the revival’s own literary excesses became apparent. Modern problems such as economic recession, entanglements of church and state, and the entrenched conservatism of an emerging middle class made the essential artifice of the inspiring revival literature especially visible for the first time.
O’Brien wrote none of the important fiction about the Irish Republic of his own day; instead, his major works look back to the earlier mythologizing of Celtic identity and modern Irish culture. At...
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