Last week, Rome had the honour of holding the second International Flann O’Brien conference. It was a great opportunity for Brian O’Nolan fans to come along and talk about Myles Na Gopaleen. If you’re a little confused, don’t worry – you’re meant to be.
Perhaps it’s his Catholic upbringing which led Brian O’Nolan to embody a holy trinity all of his own. We have Brian, the civil servant – Flann, the novelist – and Myles the columnist and I’m here to tell you why you should get familiar with at least two of the three.
He practically invented post-modernism with At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s a book about a student who spends his days drinking in Dublin’s bars when he really should be studying. That’s the short description. The book is comprised of several parallel narratives – each one crazier than the last – ranging from retellings of Irish legends to pioneering experiments in meta-fiction.
Though they were mutual admirers of each other’s work, O’Nolan wasn’t above poking fun at his literary counterpart. In the Dalkey Archive, Joyce is cast as a disgruntled barman furious that some imposter has been using his identity to publish sacrilegious filth. The filth in question is, of course, Ulysses.
For Irish people of a certain generation, the very utterance of the name ‘Peig’ can still provoke horrific flashbacks of compulsory Gaelige lessons. It was indeed a torture with no equal, but at least it gave us the skills needed to get Flann O’Brien’s jokes.
There are lots of jokes in Flann’s work that rely on knowledge of the Irish language. One example that springs to mind comes from the pages of the Dalkey Archive. Teague McGettigan is commissioned by DeSelby to paint a sign for his gate. DeSelby wants him to convey the enormity of his lawn, but in the old tongue. Now, the Irish word for ‘big’ is ‘mór’, pronounced ‘more’. In his attempt to translate his employer’s intentions, Teague gets it a bit wrong and DeSelby returns home to find a sign on his gate that says ‘lawnmower’.
Another linguistic pun of his was to spell English word as though they were Irish words, so instead of writing a piece for his column, he’d occasionally raight a píos fomhair higheas colm. I’ll move on before I completely alienate the English speaking world.
Above all reasons to recommend Flann O’Brien, I’d cite his humour. For him, the English language was a plaything and his mastery is evident in the wealth of puns and double-entendres within his work.
Reading Flann O’Brien in public should be done with caution. I’ve had to excuse myself on more than one occasion for disturbing the peace of various alehouses. As an illustration of the Flann Effect, here’s Tommy Tiernan reading a passage concerning the invention of anti-alcohol.
“A cliché is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage…”
For a bite-size taste of what Flann is about, his Catechism of Cliché makes for a great snack.
I’ll leave you with a few appetisers:
When things are few, what also are they?
What are stocks of fuel doing when they are low?
How low are they running?
What does one do with a suggestion?
One throws it out.
For what does one throw a suggestion out?
For what it may be worth.
What else can be thrown out?
In addition to hurling a hint on such lateral trajectory, what other not unviolent action can be taken with it?
It can be dropped.
What else is sometimes dropped?