No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien Summary

Anthony Cronin


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Flann O’Brien was a novelist; Myles na Gopaleen (properly na gCopaleen) was a newspaper columnist and author of one short novel in Irish; Brian O’Nolan (sometimes Nolan, sometimes 0 Nuallain) was, for more than eighteen years, a civil servant in the Local Government Office of the Irish government. All three were the same person—Brian O’Nolan, to give him his birth name. Anthony Cronin has well handled both the combinations of the three and the distinctions among the three.

Cronin’s choice of the name Flann O’Brien for his subtitle clearly suggests the emphasis of the book—on the novelist. While by no means neglecting the other personas, Cronin is clear that the significance of this many-faced writer is to be found principally in his accomplishment in the novel, an accomplishment based on only four novels: At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)—the title is a literal translation of the place-name Sna’mh Da Ean, a resting place of King Sweeney in Irish mythology;The Third Policeman (1967), written by 1940 but rejected by the publisher and not published until after O’Brien’s death; and The Hard Lfe (1961) and The Dalkey Archive (1964), both of which were written in his last years while he suffered various physical maladies exacerbated by drink.

Though all these novels differ widely in their ostensible subjects (from Irish mythology to a Dublin man’s desire to provide public conveniences for women), they have a number of similar characteristics. The most notable is that all are fantastic or wildly impossible. Also—unusual for “modern” novels—they are almost entirely devoid of sex and have little place for women at all. In addition, as Cronin points out, while they may be witty in parts, they are not very good at dialogue; this was a weakness that asserted itself in latter years when O’Brien, in need of money, attempted to write scripts for Irish television comedies. In a deeper vein, all the novels are characterized by Cronin as postmodern, suggesting a grim universe, an avoidance of the traditional methods of novel construction, and a generally existential vlew. For example, it is not at all uncommon in contemporary novels to see the writer using the ploy of basing his story on a writer who is writing a novel about a writer who is writing a novel and whose characters take on lives of their own. Yet this technique was certainly something new and different in 1939, when O’Brien published At Swim-Two-Birds. In a sense, just as Laurence Sterne’s Thistram Shandy (1759-1767) prefigured many of the devices of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), 50 O’Brien created for his novels structures and a worldview that it would take other modern novelists thirty years and more to catch up with.

The very organization of Cronin’s biography makes a pointed and ironic comment on the life of its subject. There are four sections to the work, of which the first, “Origins,” is a fairly straightforward account of O’Brien’s antecedents and upbringing. The second chapter, “The Brilliant Beginning,” is by far the longest, covering O’Brien’s life from his entry into University College, Dublin, to age thirty-five, at the end of World War II. This chapter is longer than any two other chapters put together and is just under half of the whole text. The third chapter, “The Dubliner,” is heavily anecdotal, filled with Dublin names, among them that of Anthony Cronin.

The final chapter, “The Close,” is short and sad, as O’Brien’s health declines and his drinking and need for money grow. This organization indicates, as indeed Cronin’s text makes clear, that after the brilliant beginning there was, sadly, little development and no glorious close.

Flann O’Brien was born (as Brian O’Nolan) in 1911 in Strabane, County Tyrone, now in Northern Ireland. His father was a civil servant in the Customs and Excise, and the family moved several times, finally settling in Dublin. From his father, who died in 1937, O’Brien seems to have inherited his own spirit of exactness and even pedantry. His father also was a dedicated Irish speaker and transmitted his love for and skill in that language to his son; Irish was the language of the household for many years. His father’s disapproval of schools conducted in English led him to keep his three eldest sons (Brian was the third) at home until they had moved to Dublin, where the three were finally sent to an English-speaking school; apparently the father did not object by this time.

O’Brien attended University College, Dublin (UCD), obtaining his B.A. in 1932 in Irish and German. He went on to take an M.A. with a thesis entitled “Nature in Irish Poetry.” He was well known at UCD for his efforts in student debating societies and for his contributions to college publications. In 1935 he also applied to, and was accepted by, the Irish Civil Service. He spent the next eighteen years rising through the ranks of civil servants in the Local Government Office. He was, until near the end of his career, a conscientious and able official, achieving regular promotion and good recommendations from his superiors.

With the death of his father, O’Brien, as the eldest son living at home and the only one bringing in a steady income, became the main support of his mother and his nine younger brothers and sisters. It is from this time that money worries began to plague him. Though his salary from the Civil Service was quite sufficient for a bachelor living at home, it did not go all that far toward keeping up a house and providing for a large family. It must be said, however, that this was a responsibility that O’Brien clearly accepted and did not try to escape.

His career as novelist was now under way (At Swim-Two- Birds would be published in 1939 by the English firm of Longman’s upon the advice of its reader, Graham Greene); he continued to be the proper and meticulous civil servant; and in 1940 he took a new name, Myles na Gopaleen, for a...

(The entire section is 2447 words.)