Flann O'Brien Literary Festival

Strabane honours its most famous son, the certified comic genius, with a series of events from October 3 - 4

Born in Strabane at No. 6 The Bowling Green on October 5, 1911, Brian O’Nolan – alias Flann O’Brien – was destined to become one of the major figures of 20th century Irish literature.

Admired by his peers, notably James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and by contemporaries like Anthony Burgess, Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene, he became a cult writer in America, and has enjoyed something of a renaissance recently after writers of the popular television series Lost referenced his novel, The Third Policeman, in one of their shows. 

Cementing his connections with the States, O’Nolan’s correspondence and manuscripts are now held by the Southern Illinois University Special Collections research centre.

In 2011, while various Flann O’Brien centenary celebrations were taking place around the world, Justin Logue, from Castlederg – a self-confessed 'Flannorak' and tin whistle player – joined with a group of fellow Flanneurs to promote an annual Flann O’Brien Literary Festival in Strabane, which will take place this year at the Alley Theatre and various locations around the town on October 3 – 4.

The organising committee, the De Selby Institute, is named after the eccentric philosopher and mad scientist who threatens to destroy the world in The Third Policeman, the novel which sparked Logue’s abiding enthusiasm for Flann O’Brien.

'I was 18 when I read it and a music student in Scotland, so broke I spent my holidays in the university library. It was there that I came upon the freaky, anarchic universe, which was conceived and completed by O’Brien in just three or four months.'

O’Nolan’s exceptional creativity was nurtured by an unusual childhood in Strabane. His father, a civil servant and an authoritarian figure, insisted that his 12 children speak only gaelic at home, and in reality it was not until the family moved to Dublin in 1923 that O’Nolan conversed in English with his teachers at Blackrock College.

A brilliant student of languages, classics and Celtic studies at University College Dublin, he was an active member of the Literary and Historical Society, where he honed his debating and heckling skills. Here too he contributed to the UCD magazine Comhthrom Feinne under the names of Brother Barnabas or Count O’Blather.

But it was in Dublin pubs like McDaid’s – where he met with fellow intellectuals like Anthony Cronin and Patrick Kavanagh, and with his friend Brendan Behan – that he immersed himself in the everyday life and discourse of Dubliners.

O’Nolan’s first novel, written under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien, took its title, At Swim-Two-Birds, from a ford over the Shannon River near Clonmacnoise, once the site of a famous medieval monastery. It was published in 1939 when the author was just 28 by Longman in London whose reader, Graham Greene, recognised it as a classic of its time.

He noted that it was a book within a book within a book: a man named Dermot Trellis writes a book about certain characters who turn the tables on Trellis by writing about him. All the same, the timing was unfortunate for it appeared at the outbreak of the Second World War and had sold only 244 copies before all stock was lost in a fire at Longman’s warehouse.

When it was re-published in 1960 by Penguin Modern Classics they defined it as 'a story which introduces us to the legendary giant Finn MacCool, Sweeney, accursed bird-king of Dak Ariadhe and the Pooka MacPhilleminey, a member of the devil class, and a fast-drinking cast of students, fairies, cowpunchers and clerics'.

Anthony Cronin, who wrote the author’s biography, No Laughing Matter, has said of At Swim-Two-Birds that O’Brien’s mistake was to write his masterpiece too early for then, as far as the novel was concerned, he could neither retreat nor advance.

Meanwhile, O’Nolan was working as a senior civil servant at Dublin’s Custom House, where his colleagues described him as shy, reserved and aloof. As well as being private secretary to several ministers in the department of Local Government, he still found time to write.

Unaware that Graham Greene had left Longman, he submitted his second novel, The Third Policeman, to the publisher who promptly rejected it leaving O’Brien so disheartened that he hid it away pretending it was lost.

When, on the other hand, he was asked by the editor of The Irish Times, R M Smyllie, to write a daily column he gave it the name Cruiskeen Lawn (little full jug) and adopted the pen name Myles na Gopaleen, that of a stereotypical Irish rogue who had appeared in a novel, The Collegians, by Gerald Griffin and in Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn.

The column first appeared in 1939 and continued for an amazing 26 years. When an anthology, The Best of Myles, was published in 1968 one avid reader was civil servant turned writer and actor Val O’Donnell, who will be performing his one-man show, Flann’s Yer Only Man, at this year’s festival in Strabane, fittingly at MK’s Bar, formerly the Flann O’Brien pub.

'Flann O’Brien remained attached to Strabane, and even when the family moved to Dublin they still loved to spend holidays there,' says O’Donnell.  'I wrote the show because I discovered that many people knew little about his life.

'He was extraordinarily unlucky as a writer. When his father died in 1937 he was obliged to support his family. Then there was the fire at Longman’s and the rejection of The Third Policeman, which dealt a mortal blow to his novel writing.'

O’Donnell admires O’Brien’s punctilious prose, his ear for language, his utter sense of the ridiculous, his extraordinary originality, mischievousness and invention. 'He recycles characters from other fiction, for he thinks there are far too many in existence and so he re-uses them like objets trouvés.'

Also on the festival programme is Flann O’Brien’s one act play Thirst, about after-hours drinking in a Dublin bar. First performed at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1942, it will be given its first airing in Strabane by the Two Bridges Theatre Group.

Excessive drinking in pubs eventually took its toll on O’Nolan’s health. The man who hid behind many masks – and who was dubbed the Irish Franz Kafka and is recognised as one of Ireland’s great post-modernist writers – died of throat cancer on April Fool’s Day 1966. Perhaps only he could have written it.

The Flann O'Brien Literary Festival runs in venues throughout Strabane from October 3 – 4.