Writer of comic and satirical genius
Born in Strabane in 1911, Brian O’Nolan would gain fame and notoriety as a writer of comic genius under the pseudonym Flann O' Brien.
For several decades he mercilessly ridiculed the pretensions of every level of Irish society. No one was safe. With his two central novels At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman and his column for The Irish Times O’Brien attacked absurdity, hypocrisy and corruption in a style hilariously funny, deeply cynical and surreal to the point of lunacy.
He was brought up in a strict Gaelic-speaking household. When he was nine he and his father were working together when O’Brien began to mock the accents of a passing group. When his father told him to be quiet the boy turned to him and, in what would be the first English dared to be voiced in the house, said, ‘And as for you sir if you do not conduct yourself I will do you a mischief’. It was the first glimpse of the irreverent wit and nerve that was to define his work.
While at university in Dublin he founded Blather magazine and began work on the prototype of his future master piece At Swim Two Birds then titled Scenes from a Novel.
In it he creates a character called Carruthers McDaid who he intends to be ‘a worthless scoundrel meant to sink slowly to absolutely the last extremities of human degradation’.
The author discovers that the villain refuses to remain evil, sneaking off to church and selling kittens to old women while the hero Shaun Svoolish refuses to have adventures, preferring to settle down and get a job in the Civil Service. Each character in turn defies the author who discovers to his horror that they are plotting to murder him.
O’Brien postponed the work whilst finishing a degree thesis on ‘Nature in Irish Poetry’ which, though successful, he maintained was a joke.
Following the death of his father O’Brien entered the Civil Service to support his family. To preserve his sanity he finished At Swim. This lunatic maelstrom of a book deconstructs literature and rearranges it in the most chaotic and brilliant way (it has for example three beginnings) containing fragments of westerns, mythology and autobiography.
The narrator writes a novel using recycled characters from fiction and legend (including Finn McCool and Mad King Sweeney) because there are too many characters in fiction already.
Obliterating literary convention, characters refuse to do what the author says, plot against him and eventually drug him. Somehow the madness works and it is a much more readable, lively, funny and imaginative book than its closest counterpart James Joyce's Ulysses.
Whilst Ulysses became a worldwide success At Swim was forgotten about. Only 244 copies were sold before the London printers was blown to pieces in the Blitz. Slowly though it began to gain attention as modernism fragmented into postmodernism and critics clambered over themselves to praise the book's ‘intertextuality’ and ‘ontological instability’ phrases that sound like the kind of ludicrous statements O'Brien made up.
Within a year he had written another novel, The Third Policeman, in which the narrator tells of how he murdered a neighbour (bashing the victim's head in with the side of a spade he swears he hears him mumble, ‘I left my glasses in the scullery’) and how he finds the mundane familiar world warped until everything appears as absurd as it truly is.
While At Swim distorts narrative The Third Policeman distorts reality. Einstein had shown atoms could be split and time slowed down with his theory of relativity while O'Brien presents a world where the atoms of the human merge with bicycle seats and vice versa so they start to become one another, where a police station can exist inside the walls of a building and where a torch can be fuelled by shouting into it and bending the frequency of sound waves until they become light.
Growing footnotes threaten to invade the book, all concerning a scientist called De Selby who believes life is a hallucination, the earth is sausage shaped and night is an accumulation of a ‘soot-like substance’. These act as a satire on the aloof pompous riddles of academics who wrap nonsensical theories in hyperbolic terms to give the appearance of truth. We are never sure if de Selby is mad or the invention of the demented narrator.
O'Brien sent the manuscript off to Longmans who promptly rejected it. Already an insecure fellow O' Brien was devastated and hid it away, telling friends he had lost it on a train, where it remained until rediscovered after his death.
O'Brien reappeared in The Irish Times, which he bombarded with ludicrous letters under different names. On several occasions he started letter wars with himself. Somehow it earned him a column in the paper An Cruiskeen Lawn under the name Myles na gCopaleen (‘Miles of the Little Horses’). It was effectively a one-man war on all things clichéd, hypocritical, self-righteous and snobbish.
He created stock characters to attack Irish stereotypes: ‘The Man Who Spoke Irish At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular’, ‘The Plain People Of Ireland’.
With no desire to become a hero he'd turn on those who were laughing loudest attacking his readers for being ‘smug swine’ and dictating the columns blind drunk to friends who'd type for him. Nobody was above being targeted from the government to the masses, all were idiots and reassuringly all were in the same boat.
His Gaelic novel An Beal Bocht is both a celebration of the Irish language and a parody of the piety of Irish speakers. The chapter headings ridicule the romanticised melancholy revels in – Black Sadness, The Bad Thing Chasing Me. The view of pretentious nationalists and Gaeltacht zealots that there is authenticity in the ‘old ways’ is ridiculed by a character who lives in a pig pen and lets his pigs live in his house and people who regularly dance themselves to death. Neither the native nor tourist are spared.
As he grew older, and sank deeper into alcoholism, his work became increasingly bleak and sceptical of the authorities. As a result the Civil Service sacked him under the guise of retirement for ‘health reasons’.
By this stage he was drinking himself into unconsciousness by evening every day. He managed to produce The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, which contain all too random flashes of brilliance. While being interviewed, he was known to sneak off to toilet cubicles to sink bottles of whiskey. He died of cancer in 1966.
He stands, or rather slouches drunk as a horse, as the pioneer of the kind of lunatic yet deadpan satire now employed by the likes of Chris Morris and Linehan and Matthews (The Day Today, Father Ted), the surrealism of Italo Calvino or Richard Brautigan (particularly Sombrero Fallout), the outlandish stand-up of Bill Bailey or Dylan Moran and the deconstructing genius of Charlie Kauffmann in films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich.
He may be long dead, but in today's smug, materialist atmosphere we need his likes more than ever.