Brian O’Nolan Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Flann O’Brien had as many names as writing styles. As a novelist, journalist, playwright, critic, and short-story writer, he was known as Myles na Gopaleen, Brother Barnabus, the Great Count O’Blather, John James Doe, and George Knowall. Born Brian O’Nolan in Strabane, Ireland, on October 5, 1911, he was the third of twelve children. Because his father’s job required travel, the O’Nolans moved from Strabane to Dublin several times before they finally settled in Dublin in 1923. It was there that O’Brien began his formal education, a process he found neither challenging nor enjoyable.{$S[A]O’Nolan, Brian[ONolan, Brian];O’Brien, Flann}{$S[A]Gopaleen, Myles na;O’Brien, Flann}{$S[A]Barnabus, Brother;O’Brien, Flann}{$S[A]O’Blather, Great Count[OBlather, Great Count];O’Brien, Flann}{$S[A]Doe, John James;O’Brien, Flann}{$S[A]Knowall, George;O’Brien, Flann}

His family spoke both Irish and English, and O’Brien was fluent in both languages. As a student at University College, Dublin, he majored in Celtic studies, writing his master’s thesis on modern Irish poetry. During this time, O’Brien also wrote his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. His background in Irish literature profoundly influenced his first novel, often referred to as an antinovel. Although critically acclaimed as a landmark in comic creativity when it was published in 1939, it had little popular success.

After finishing college, O’Brien worked as a civil servant. As Myles na Gopaleen, he also began writing a column for the Irish Times, “The Cruiskeen Lawn.” Despite his busy schedule, by 1940 O’Brien had written The Third Policeman, the tale of a surreal journey through Hell. This novel marks a significant change in his style. He imposes a less convoluted structure on the novel, making the plot easier to follow, and he begins to move away from the literary devices that set At Swim-Two-Birds apart from the mainstream. Nevertheless, he could not convince his publisher that The Third Policeman would be more accessible to a wide audience than his first novel, and a disheartened O’Brien hid the unpublished manuscript, fabricating tales of its loss. It was not published until 1967, after his death.

Despite his disappointment, O’Brien quickly wrote his third novel, this one in...

(The entire section is 958 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Flann O’Brien was born Brian O’Nolan on October 5, 1911, in Strabane, county Tyrone, Ireland. He was the third of twelve children of Michael Victor O’Nolan, a customs officer, and Agnes Gormlet O’Nolan. O’Brien’s family was frequently relocated in the course of his father’s profession, and this postponed his early formal education. His family was extremely literate, however, and in the home O’Brien developed early fluency in Irish Gaelic as well as English and also some familiarity with Latin and Greek classics. It was only in 1923, when his father was transferred to Dublin, that O’Brien was enrolled, at the age of twelve, in the Synge Street School run by the Christian Brothers. In 1925, his father was appointed a revenue commissioner in Dublin Castle, and this advancement permitted the family to settle permanently in Blackrock, a southern suburb of Dublin, in 1927. In that year, O’Brien was enrolled in Blackrock College, a preparatory school. In 1929, he entered University College, Dublin.

At University College, O’Brien was a success in his studies and in extracurricular literary activities. In 1933, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in English, Irish, and German; won the school’s gold medal for debate; and was awarded a scholarship for study at the University of Cologne. After a year in Germany, he returned to University College and earned his master of arts degree in 1935 with a thesis on Irish poetry in Gaelic. The early intimations of his literary career, however, were more apparent in his nonscholarly activities. In 1931, he invented the persona Brother Barnabas for the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne. A subsequent series of...

(The entire section is 690 words.)