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

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 entire section is 4,208 words.)