Flann O'Brien Analysis
by Brian O’Nolan

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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Flann O’Brien was the pen name used by Brian O’Nolan for the four novels he wrote in English, and so it is used here, although his work in other forms appeared under other names. He was a talented and prolific journalist as well as a novelist. He began to write satiric essays for student publications at University College, Dublin; a sampling of this student work was reprinted in the “Flann O’Brien Number” published by the Journal of Irish Studies in 1974. Although a civil servant by profession, O’Brien also wrote a famous column for The Irish Times under the name Myles na Gopaleen. This column continued on a regular basis for twenty-five years; selections were reprinted in Cruiskeen Lawn (1943), The Best of Myles (1968), and The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman and the Brother (1976).

Throughout his career, O’Brien sporadically produced skits for theater, essays other than journalism, and short stories. These are most conveniently located in two posthumous collections. Stories and Plays (1973) reprints two dramatic skits, two short stories, an essay on James Joyce called “A Bash in the Tunnel,” and the seven existing chapters of an unfinished novel called Slattery’s Sago Saga. A Flann O’Brien Reader (1978) includes examples of his journalism, short fiction, and essays, along with excerpts from his five novels.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Flann O’Brien’s contemporary reputation rests on the rediscovery of his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, an event that occurred about twenty years after the novel was published. The novel had received praise from James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, and Graham Greene, among others, but its possibilities for broad critical and popular success were thwarted by the onset of World War II. His next novel, The Third Policeman, could find no publisher until after his death, and his third novel, The Poor Mouth, was written in Gaelic and thus limited to an extremely small audience. These three novels are now considered to be O’Brien’s most important works.

About 1960, O’Brien’s work was rediscovered by American writers S. J. Perelman and William Saroyan. Their praise, principally of his journalism, led to a reissue of At Swim-Two-Birds and critical recognition of it as an important novel. In response to this renewal of interest in his fiction, O’Brien wrote The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, but neither of these later novels is as interesting nor as important as his three earlier novels. O’Brien’s journalism, in posthumous collections, is the source of most of his popular appeal today, particularly in Ireland. The focus of almost all critical interest in his work, however, is on his novels, especially At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. O’Brien is now universally recognized as the most significant Irish novelist of his generation.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Asbee, Sue. Flann O’Brien. Boston: Twayne, 1991. This volume includes a chapter of biography followed by solid discussion of O’Brien’s major prose fiction. Includes chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.

Clissmann, Anne. Flann O’Brien: A Critical Introduction to His Writings. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1975. An exhaustive discussion of all the author’s writings in English, with lengthy chapters on the major novels. Contains a bibliography.

Clissmann, Anne, and David Powell, eds. “A Flann O’Brien-Myles na Gopaleen Number.” Journal of Irish Studies 3 (January, 1974). A special issue devoted to O’Brien’s work. Contains juvenilia, stories, critical essays on O’Brien, and the texts of two of his short plays. Also includes a selection of O’Brien’s letters and a valuable checklist of his publications.

Clune, Anne, and Tess Hurson, eds. Conjuring Complexities: Essays on Flann O’Brien. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1997. A solid volume of critical essays on O’Brien’s work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Cronin, Anthony. No Laughing Matter. London: Grafton, 1989. As close as there is likely to be to a conventional biography of the complex and somewhat reclusive O’Brien. The focus is on the man, rather than on the work, and some little-known personal details illustrate the narrative. A thorough treatment of a difficult subject.

O’Keeffe, Timothy, ed. Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan. London: Martin Brian and O’Keeffe, 1973. An invaluable source of biographical information and critical commentary on O’Brien. Contains reminiscences by friends, colleagues, and one of the author’s brothers. Among the critical commentaries, the essay by J. C. C. Mays, “Flann O’Brien: Literalist of the Imagination,” stands out.

Shea, Thomas F. Flann O’Brien’s Exorbitant Novels. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1992. A chapter on early experiments followed by discussions of O’Brien’s major fiction. Includes notes and bibliography.