Flann O'Brien Essay - O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) (Vol. 5)

Brian O’Nolan

O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) (Vol. 5)

O'Brien, Flann (pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) 1911–1966

O'Brien was an Irish novelist and humorist whose comic masterpiece was At Swim-Two-Birds. He was best known in Ireland as Myles na gCopaleen, his nom de plume for his Irish Times column. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

When I looked at The Poor Mouth by Myles na Gopaleen—alias Flann O'Brien—I had a sinking feeling that this translation from the Gaelic was going to prove an Important Irish Novel. So I consulted an Irish friend and he confirmed my worst fears: it is an important satire on modern Gaelic literature. 'But,' my friend added, 'it's very funny.' Reassured, I read—and he was right, it is very funny. It is a ludicrous exaggeration of one's worst prejudices about bog-Irish, living with the family pigs, in non-stop rain.

The Poor Mouth tells the story of the life and times of Bonaparte O'Coonassa, Gaelic peasant growing up in the village of Corkadoragha 'in that part of Ireland where only Irish is spoken'; oppressed by the elements and his own Gaelic-ness, drunkenness, idleness, superstition and ignorance; patronised by learned pro-Gael gentlefolk from Dublin; and victimised by English-speaking domination—which begins during his first and only day of schooling, when the master beats him soundly for giving his Gaelic name, and renames him, identically with every other child in the school, James O'Donnell, and ends with his sentence to 29 years in prison, like his father before him, for a crime he did not commit after a trial he could not understand. Occasionally, the inhabitants of Corkadoragha get their own back: O'Coonassa's grandfather, 'the Old-Grey-Fellow', dresses all his piglets up in clothes to qualify for a Government award for all English-speaking children; and when one of the disguised pigs escapes, it wins the family half-a-crown and a flask of whiskey by being mistaken for a real Gaelic speaker by a German linguistics professor with a tape-recorder. But, on the whole, the Gaels suffer continually from the attacks of a malign universe. (pp. 93-4)

Sara Maitland, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Sara Maitland), July 18, 1974.

Always a satirist (often an indignant one), O'Brien could be scathingly funny about causes in which he believed—the value of the Gaelic language to Irish culture, for instance. He was also the most thoroughly literary comic writer since Joyce, lampooning not only the Irish but the clichés of attitude and language with which ten centuries of Irish writers have belabored their compatriots….

If "The Poor Mouth" is not quite a comic masterpiece, it nevertheless shows a comic genius working close to his best capability. Humor of this quality, this intensity, is very rare; as witty in its language as in its invention, it cries to be read aloud.

Peter S. Prescott, "Galloping Gael," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1974, p. 112.

'Tis the odd joke of modern Irish literature—of the three novelists in its holy trinity, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien, the easiest and most accessible of the lot, O'Brien, is the one ignored by the American public. Flann was the boy who stayed in Ireland and masked his corrosive humor under the decencies. He practiced eerie magic within the homespun bounds of Irish myth and folktale, detective story, even out and out comic parody and engaging nonsense in a regular newspaper column. Though in his two great books, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, he would veer respectively toward the experimental play of Joyce and the bleak dead-end dementia of Beckett, Flann was too much his own man, Ireland's man, to speak in any but his own tongue and cheek. And O it's marvelous stuff. A book by this rogue (who will drive you and the branch librarian crazy with his pseudonyms … is tasty as the fairy tales gobbled up in childhood. (p. 1)

What is The Poor Mouth about? The stone, bone-breaking poverty of the Gaelic-speaking farmers of the Irish West, and a hero, Bonaparte O'Coonassa, who spurns these older brethren, takes refuge in fairy tales and through a lark of fate finds himself rewarded with a haven of sorts for his middle age.

Nothing is in the mouths of these potato diggers but sweet Gaelic. And that is the nourishment of "the poor mouth": language. Though translated out of the original into harsher English, the heroic mockery of the tale rings out, rocking even Noah's Ark in its wild waves. I will not spoil a stone sober jest by relating what awaits O'Coonassa in the Irish paradise on top of the mountain, Hunger Stack. I can affirm his words, it is better for a man to die on the heights from celestial waters….

Strains of the Bible and the old Icelandic saga make themselves felt in lines of The Poor Mouth….

At first glance one might imagine that the chapters of The Poor Mouth … are simply Irish tall tales. Only deceptively and stealthily Flann O'Brien has been dropping the seeds of a fabulous vine in his wake and it suddenly appears in full flower, the spine of a grim plot waving in your face as you put the book down. Its crown may be high in the cirrus and cumulus of fable, but its roots grip the rocky bottom of Corkadoragha…. It is a parable of doom for the Irish-speaking folk of the West spun out of the stuff of anecdote, joke, side-of-the-mouth sarcasm, in which the old heroic literature, The Tain, can be heard, twisted to modern usage. Half child's tale, half political cartoon, there is a far off reverberation of Dean Swift's gifts in it all. (p. 3)

Mark Jay Mirsky, "Gael Force," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 19, 1975, pp. 1, 3.

The recurring case of Flann O'Brien alias Brian Nolan, a civil servant, alias Myles na Gopaleen, a newspaper columnist, seems to end up with the same verdict—quite possibly a major comic writer. But a forgettable one, apparently, who has to be rediscovered every time a book of his swims into our ken…. This present hilarious book ["The Poor Mouth"] was written in Gaelic in 1941 for an Irish audience about a local situation. You read with a hypothetical American kibitzing over your shoulder and he seems to laugh at the wrong places. The reasons are cultural and amplify a chronic minor ache of Irish lit.—how American (and English) readers misinterpret the writing of a small rural country in ways that suppress its truest voice, its rootedness in a culture as alien as Aztec or Senufo, to which the Irish language gives immediate access….

O'Brien [uses] the language itself with a hard-edged almost Swiftian precision. He knew Irish (and French) literature backwards (his puns in Gaelic are Joycean), had a pub's-eye view of the world, and a savage streak of misanthrophy. He brought irony along with him into the closed Gaelic Revival universe much as the Captain Cook brought measles to the Easter Islanders. (p. 25)

In the original, [the story] is conveyed in a Gaelic distinguished by its purity of locution, its supple phrasing, its precision of meaning and double-meaning. The language itself is both subject and vehicle of the story and so suffers a double compression that constantly tests its toughness and delicacy. The references raise a whole Atlantis of Gaelic literature … only to destroy tracts of it, but in the process adding the best modern book ever written in Gaelic. The man who blessed the language by so using it was of course designated an enemy of the people or rather of the revivalists who never forgave him for producing at their expense what they all wanted to see—a masterpiece in Gaelic….

In English the purity of the folk-style comes up a little too wide-eyed. The finest uses of that style are the parodies of the Irish sagas in O'Brien's best book, "At Swim-Two-Birds" (1939), and in James Stephen's "The Crock of Gold" where the simplicity is successfully estheticized.

The original was written in a moribund language about a moribund language for a vanishing audience. Yet for almost any Irishman, the language calls up a primary culture, a lucid and devious state of mind to which only the language gives access, and which is compromised by most of the Irish literature fitted so handily into English lit. courses in this country. O'Brien's very modern ironies give as much access to that world as anyone who doesn't have Gaelic can get. And for the generations that suffered the excesses of the language revival, the book is a mythic construct, a sort of companion to the "Portrait of the Artist," in which the hero—the Irish language—suffers bitter repressions before it is exalted. (p. 26)

Brian O'Doherty, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 19, 1975.

The Poor Mouth is a very unlikely piece of fiction. To begin with, it was originally written in Modern Irish—Gaelic, if you prefer—a language used by only a few thousand people. Second, it is actually a parody of a literary genre known only to fanatics on Irish literature, namely Autobiographies Dictated by Illiterate Gaelic Peasants. And, most unlikely of all, even if you know none of these facts, it's a fine book, hilarious, moving, gorgeously written.

Brian O'Nolan … probably would have become much more widely known had he chosen to write in English. He did write a very popular newspaper column in English for The Irish Times under the name of Myles na Gopaleen. But his fiction, published in Irish under the name Flann O'Brien, "went down the bung-hole," as the Celticist Frank Kinnehan recently put it. Irish was O'Nolan's adopted language; he used it because he loved it. His small audience of Irish readers did not love his fiction, however, because he vigorously satirized all forms of Irish vanities, including venerated literary traditions. His books did somewhat better in English translation, and greatly appealed to other writers, such as Dylan Thomas, S. J. Perelman, and James Joyce.

Joyce probably admired O'Nolan's fiction because in certain ways it resembled his own. Like Joyce, O'Nolan used his abundant imagination to spin together complex mythological themes and archaic literary styles. He especially enjoyed producing parodies of ancient sagas, which he wrote in Old Irish—impressive labor, especially when one considers that the language which Old Irish most closely resembles is Sanskrit. (Both tongues have the same ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, their major differences being that Sanskrit has its own form of written script and is easier to learn. In fact, the only language that surpasses Old Irish for sheer complexity is Navajo.) You might think that a writer using so many problematic devices would produce rather pedantic books. Actually, most of O'Nolan's Old Irish parodies show up in a work called At Swim-Two-Birds, which Brendan Behan called "just the kind of book to give to your sister—if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl." Not pedantic.

In The Poor Mouth, O'Nolan mostly stuck to Modern Irish, but not the variety now taught in all Irish schools by government decree. (This official Gaelic only came into existence after the Revolution of 1916, and is a thoroughly artificial language seldom used in real life.) O'Nolan wrote in genuine Modern Irish, a direct descendant of Old Irish which has survived only in a few small areas in the western part of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht. The people who live in this remote section preserved their ancient speech and customs throughout centuries of British oppression mainly because the British found them totally useless. They had nothing, they did nothing: they just lived in abject poverty and spoke pure Irish. In the days of the Irish literary revival, Anglo-Irish authors like Yeats and Synge took a great interest in these living relics of Ireland's past. Synge even went to live with some of them in the Aran Islands, where he found much inspiration for his plays.

O'Nolan did something quite different. In The Poor Mouth he adopted the language and persona of a Gaeltacht native and wrote a memoir from that point of view. Through his own words we follow the life of Bonaparte O'Coonassa from his birth to his incarceration in a British jail for a crime which, naturally, he never committed. Until that sad day, O'Coonassa lives with his grandfather, the Old-Grey-Fellow, in a fictional place known as Corkadoragha and characterized chiefly by potatoes, poverty, and torrential rain. Pigs die from their own stench; people drink, dance, and starve themselves to death; and the Sea-Cat, a horrible beast, goes on periodic rampages. This may not sound funny, but Corkadoragha turns out to be the world headquarters for gallows humor. (pp. 116-17)

The Poor Mouth jigs along a narrow path that winds between outright horror and downright blather but whose foundation is historical reality. O'Nolan based his narrative on the actual memoirs of Gaeltacht residents, published in the 1930s. His book not only satirizes Irish life in general, but he specifically parodies the style of these memoirs….

O'Nolan did not save the Irish language itself with books like The Poor Mouth, a fact he laments…. But by writing in Irish, O'Nolan did preserve the spirit of its great tradition, in much the same way Isaac Bashevis Singer has rescued the spirit of the old Yiddish traditions from oblivion. These are generous acts for writers to perform. (p. 118)

David McClelland, "Spuds and Rainwater," in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the February, 1975 issue by special permission), February, 1975, pp. 116-18.

An Béal Bocht [published in English as The Poor Mouth] is a satire; the object of the satire is the Gaelic language, or more properly the Gaelic language revival; but since the book was written in Gaelic and is itself a product of that revival, the satire inevitably turns in upon itself in ways that defy unerring passage through nuances and shades of meaning (and double meaning) from one language to another. We are told, for example, in a brief preface, that O'Brien is at times parodying the style of certain modern Gaelic writers—Máire (Séamus O Grianna and Tomás O Criomhthainn)—but to readers ignorant of Gaelic and unfamiliar with the originals, the parody, if recognizable at all, is not likely to mean much….

Poverty, famine, flood, drunkenness, squalor and thievery are the principal coordinates of existence in [Corkadoragha, the fictional setting of The Poor Mouth, and the] worst of all possible worlds. Bonaparte, a Gaelic Candide, accepts his existence as if he were, as indeed he is, one with the rocks and the rain and the bogs and the sea, one for whom calamity is a natural condition of being, one of those creatures whom Yeats, describing the inhabitants of William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, spoke of as "only half-emerged from the earth."

This is not what our English cousins would call a jolly book, and some of our Irish cousins—those with minds more literal than literary—would hardly think it a funny book. But to those who know the folly of which even a good man in a good cause is capable, The Poor Mouth is a small Gaelic classic in the classical tradition of satire that ranges from Juvenal to Swift, to Voltaire, to Joyce, to—God help us—even to Evelyn Waugh. The deadliest weapon, the sharpest blade in the armory of satire is irony, the talent for turning the world upside down or, failing that, standing men on their heads so that true, or at least fresh, perspective is possible and there is once again a chance of knowing what the world is actually like to look at. The satirist in this is like those prophets of the Old Testament who lashed men from their idolatries—whatever image man's pride takes in whatever age—back into human shape again. Flann O'Brien is here deflating the heroic myth of the Gael (which was anyhow largely the contrivance of non-Gaelic Anglo-Irishmen) and at the same time instructing the Irish establishment of his day that a language, even the sweet, melodious tongue of the Gael, is less important than the men and women who speak it; that the Gaeltacht—those areas in which only Irish is spoken—cannot continue to exist as linguistic ghettos; that Gaelic made compulsory (as it was in Irish schools until a few years ago) is pointed in the direction of eternity where, like Latin and Greek, it may embalm a culture but can no longer express the life of a people.

The final irony in The Poor Mouth is of course that while it pokes fine (and unrefined) fun at the Gaelic revival, it is at the same time proof of the success and continuing vitality of that revival—on se moque de ce qu'on aime—a success and vitality sufficient to have stimulated and sustained a satiric work of the first rank. (p. 312)

Kevin Sullivan, "'A Bad Story about the Hard Life'," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 15, 1975, pp. 311-12.

O'Nolan (hereinafter to be called O'Brien) was something of a seannachie—a Gaelic word for that singular Gaelic person, the storyteller. But he was not the sort of seannachie who writes novels. His novels are no more novels than Carroll's Alice books are, being vehicles for a play of wit and fantasy, lyrical, satirical, and surreal. Flights and gags and conundrums are preferred to plot, character, and conclusion, and set up a system of internal relations which resembles the structure of a symbolist poem. It is of Carroll that his novels (hereinafter to be called novels) vividly remind one—as much as of Joyce, by whose works, and legend, and devoted tribe of simpleton American thesis-writers O'Brien seems to have been obsessed. For Myles na Gopaleen, O'Brien's journalistic self, James Joyce was "a complete prig, a snob, and a person possessed of endowment unique in the archives of conceit": this might be the voice of a wounded love. Thirteen years earlier, in 1944, the same journalist had asserted that, apart from Joyce and Yeats, Irish writers were "literary vermin, an eruption of literary scabies."

Irish writers were faced, in the Thirties, with a choice between contributing to a nationalist concern with the protection of Gaelic culture and the folk tradition, and siding with those who wanted to be Modern and to follow Joyce into a literal or figurative exile. This seannachie, who was also a Gaelic scholar, stayed at home: but he did not side with the nationalists, and what he wrote, in Gaelic and out of it, was distinctively Modern. Irish literature since Yeats and Joyce has known a striking austerity—evident in the novels and plays of Beckett, the verse of Patrick Kavanagh, and the stories of O'Brien: three grim men, who appear to bring news, among other things, of a society in which sex is wrong and in which violence and drunkenness are more widely honored than they are in most places. (pp. 31-2)

Pleonasm is a use of language which displays elaboration or excess, and at different levels his was a pleonastic art. His novels contain duplication and repetition, and incorporate parodies of other people's writings; one subplot is mirrored in another; doors open into the room you are about to quit. (p. 32)

O'Brien's cresslike cresses, pointed points, an imaginary title like The Closed Cloister, his elaborations and embellishments, his seemingly unending cycles and recurrences—these can look like a fulfillment of the hereditary patterns and predilections of Celtic art. His excesses recall, and occasionally imitate, the rhetoric of classical Gaelic poetry, the grace notes of bagpipe music, the convolutions and circularities of the illuminated manuscript, of the brooch, of the Celtic cross. The snakelike snakes of his stories have a way of swallowing their own tails: his interest in such shapes, and in bicycles, being that of a man who is interested in eternity (he is also interested in hell).

These interests may be interpreted as belonging to an art which is practiced for its own sake, which is austere, self-sufficing, pure. But there may be those who interpret them with reference to the circumstances of O'Brien's own late-Gaelic society, and who insist that this is an art of tautology, a gratuitous art, a celibate's art, in the sense that it appears to belong to a country in which climaxes are considered disgraceful, and who are reminded, by a purple patch of O'Brien's about an arsenal of bombs and guns, of the pure and austere mutilators who compose the IRA. Here, it might be thought, is an art which repeats itself, goes in circles and does not end, and which gives a picture of the neverendingness of Ireland, of its over and over again, its forever after and its waiting for Godot. It is both an old and a new art: each of his works, in the self-sufficing Modern way, lies enclosed in the cloister of its peculiar language, but that language, to the extent of its capacity for piety and for parody, opens onto the works of the ethnic past, each with its own enclosures and excesses.

The truth is that O'Brien's excesses, and those which have preceded them, are a complex business, and are difficult for a foreigner to interpret. There are occasions when this abundance can seem like a figure of speech for its opposite—for scarcity or dearth. We seem then to be in a world—any one of a succession of Gaelic worlds—where watercress is as good as a feast because there is not much else to eat, and where one thing can hardly be compared to another because there is only the one thing. (pp. 32-3)

The Poor Mouth is a copious treatment of the subject of scarcity, and it reaches its climax, such as it is, in an imagined abundance, a magic windfall feast complete with fairy gold. History does not exist for the people of the tale. The present has swallowed the past, there has always been dearth, and the folk mind thinks hard about potatoes.

This wonderful book was published in 1941 … [and] is a better book, in my view, than either At Swim or The Third Policeman. All three books represent collections of episodes, but The Poor Mouth, copious but short, has more of a point, a pointed point. It has none of the desultoriness which the unending can produce, and which is produced in the other two works. It even has an ending. At Swim appears, significantly enough, to have been cut down to publishable size by another hand (so, of course, was The Waste Land). O'Brien prided himself on the "plot" of The Third Policeman, but this may have been codology. He also talked, in the same breath, of the narrator's being in hell, and of his being a heel and a killer. But the narrator is experienced by the reader as courteous, forlorn, and delightful, and he does not appear to experience the pains of the damned. (p. 33)

No one who is curious about the three Gaelic literatures should fail to read The Poor Mouth. (p. 34)

Karl Miller, "Gael in Wonderland," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), May 1, 1975, pp. 31-4.

You would eagerly buy and read … [The Poor Mouth] if you had read At Swim-Two-Birds (O'Brien's best) or The Third Policeman. If you have not previously read O'Brien's English novels, you might still be interested in The Poor Mouth's subject, the Gaelic language movement and its effects on the Irish. But even if you aren't, the treatment of this subject deserves the attention of all punsters, tall-tale lovers, fanciers of farce, enemies of cliché, and just plain people who like a good laugh. O'Brien's comic style, here as in his other works, is incredibly elastic. It stretches characters and events to their utmost—and then goes further. Gaelic is as intelligible as pig Latin? Well then, who should speak "Gaelic which was so good, so poetic and so obscure" but a drunken piglet in breeches? Of course the poor true swindling Gaels in O'Brien's always-raining Corkadoragha all live like swine and eat potatoes. As Flann O'Brien in his novels and as Myles na gCopaleen in his Irish Times columns, Brian O'Nolan was a satirist who saw that the Irish habit of mythmaking is destructive when it aggrandizes and glorifies the unworthy. But he could also see that these myths, taken as works of language art, are glorious testaments to the continual supremacy of the Irish way with words. James Joyce forged an Irish myth to capture the conscience of his race and in so doing he captured many other men's consciences as well. O'Brien's works strongly affirm such achievements and they further them too. "A real writer, with the true comic spirit," Joyce says in a rare dustjacket puff. It's too bad that for 25 years very few have paid attention. Do read O'Brien. He's a really funny writer. Believe me if you don't believe James Joyce. (p. 681)

Rosa Cumare, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June 20, 1975.