4. Maebh Long, part 1: Flann O’Brien, the anti-institutional institution (12 May 2023)

Renowned O’Nolan scholar Maebh Long shares an unpublished draft of the famous manifesto in At Swim-Two-Birds and reaches a surprising conclusion about the legacy of Flann O’Brien.

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Toby: Hello and welcome to another episode of Radio Myles. I’m your host, Toby Harris, and this podcast’s mission is to entertain, intrigue, and maybe change your perspective on the figure known as Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen, aka Brian O’Nolan. Thank you very much to Birkbeck College, University of London, for supporting this podcast.

So my guest for this episode is Maebh Long. Twice winner of a prize for the best book-length work on Flann O’Brien , aka The Big Fahrt, Maebh is central to Flann O’Brien studies. Of course, she also has a much broader range of interests, such as in the modernism of Oceania. Day to day, Maebh is senior lecturer in the English program at the University of Waikato. I’m fully expecting that I pronounced that wrong, by the way, Maebh, so you can correct me in a minute. Did not do my homework. Her first award-winning book on Flann O’Brien was Assembling Flann O’Brien, which I would recommend as one of the best Flann starting points. The second award she picked up for giving us the Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien in 2018. This is the first edition of Flann’s letters and as we will talk about today, one of the ways in which we can now encounter something much closer to the life behind the works of Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, etc, etc. Maebh is also one of the general editors of The Parish Review: Journal of Flann O’Brien Studies, and she is a co-editor with Matthew Hayward of New Oceania, Modernisms and Modernities in the Pacific, which appeared in 2020. Recently, Maebh has combined her theoretical work on Flann with her close understanding of the way he produced his work to turn her interest to Flann and technologies of inscription – writing, typewriters, that kind of thing ­– which I find really fascinating as we start thinking more about the technology in the world of writers of Flann’s period. So, Maebh, welcome to the podcast. Sorry already for mispronouncing the institution’s name. Is there anything else that you would add?

Maebh: No. Thank you for that lovely introduction, Toby, and I’m delighted to be speaking about Flann with you today.

Toby: It’s a real privilege to have you here, Maebh. So, for the benefit of listeners who may be learning about Flann O’Brien for the first time via this podcast, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of his life in a few words?

Maebh: I’ll give you a very brief little staccato description, Toby. So, he’s a novelist, a columnist, a playwright. He was a civil servant, he was a humourist, he was a provocateur in the sense of being often quite provoking. And he was, unfortunately, also an alcoholic.

Toby: Probably the best thumbnail sketch we’ve had so far.

Toby: When was your first personal encounter with Flann O’Brien / Myles na gCopaleen?

Maebh: So my mother had copies of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Best of Myles in the house, and she was also a student at UCD. So it was really nice to have a sense of continuity between her studies and O’Nolan studies. Obviously, she wasn’t there in the thirties but she would frequently quote – at some length – various Keats and Chapman anecdotes from The Best of Myles. And I always had this sense then that this was this kind of fascinating wordsmith. Because obviously so many of the Keats and Chapman pieces depend on either shaggy dog stories or kind of painfully wonderfully bad puns.

Toby: Absolutely, yeah. Almost a dad joke or mum and dad joke style.

Maebh: Precisely. They’re kind of glorious in that way. I really like how wonderfully bad they are. Though there are some letters where Flann O’Brien talks about the idea that often people would send him in their own attempts. And he said for all that it is, they are classic bad dad jokes. And for all that they depend on kind of a gloriously awkward pun, he felt they’re actually quite hard to reproduce. Now, how much of that’s the sense of wanting to preserve one’s own craft is moot. But yeah, they are an interesting example, I think, of the way in which we can push pain to humorous ends.

Toby: Punishment for picking up the newspaper and reading it in the first place.

Maebh: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the one my mother used to quote frequently was one that basically hinges on the play between a small world and not being a small world, where Keats and Chapman just go to various countries and they keep seeing the same person. They’re in Rome and they see him and they’re like, oh, small world. And then they see him in America and they’re like, oh, wow, small world. And then it goes on and on and on. And eventually they go to Japan and they don’t see him, and they’re like, oh, big world. It’s awful. It’s so wonderful.

Toby: So Maebh, for the benefit of those new to Flann O’Brien, would you do us the service of reading a passage that has been important to your work or that you just find really interesting?

Maebh: So what I’m now going to read to you is from the novel, it’s At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s his first and maybe his most famous – I think people are often split between preferring The Third Policeman and At Swim Two Birds – but rather than reading to you a section from the published version of At Swim-Two-Birds, I’m actually going to read you a section from the earliest extant typescript that we have. So this typescript is housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas. And I have the real pleasure and honour of being a fellow at the Center for the next month. I’ve been brought here to look at these typescripts. And I’ve only just begun, but I thought that this early section from what is a very pivotal part of the novel, the narrator’s manifesto about how you can borrow characters and the meaning of originality, is particularly interesting. Both for readers coming fresh to O’Nolan and for people who are very, very familiar with the text, because this adds some extra layers to a conversation about originality and borrowing. So, here we go.

[Reading] Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing creation. Could anyone devise a more abandoned villain than Claudius? Assuming the genius required to do so, would it be possible to justify the wastes of space and effort involved in establishing his villainy before he is in a position to proceed to the crimes proximately required by the plot? Was it not simpler, it was asked, to say, that Mr. James Hunter, gentlemen, the villain of the piece, was in reality Claudius of Hamlet? That would acquaint the reader with the worst and preclude mountebanks, thimble-riggers, upstarts and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.

That’s very interesting, but it’s all balls, Brinsley said. Do you mean that a character in a book should have a say in his destiny and be the captain of his own soul?

Certainly, I said.

Do you know, I don’t think that’s new, he said.

And what’s so very old about it?

It’s the kind of thing that occurs to everybody, but nobody bothers to try it out. Do you know what I mean? It wouldn’t stand the light of day. As a matter of fact, I thought of it myself.

Oh, you’re a great man altogether, I said.

But I did, two years ago.

Well, never mind about that, I had some queer ideas myself two years ago. Here’s a wad of my recentest prose. I proffered a wad of my precise typescript, bent in double, pink tinted. He took it without delight.

Where did you get this? he asked.

Sit down and read it, man, I said.

I have a lecture, you know. Can I take it with me?

Yes, but listen till I tell you. It’s about the legendary Finn. He’s a suitable man for a role in my story, therefore he gets the job. That stuff is all irrelevant. It’s just for atmosphere, you know, and so on. Are you listening to me?

I am. I thought of it all two years ago.

Toby: Wow. Okay, I’m going to try and continue to talk, even though, as a Brian O’Nolan researcher, my brain is melting right now.


Maebh: It’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?

Toby: Yeah. So I’ll fumble through, but it’s going to take me a few weeks to digest the full significance of the way that is different from what we have currently.

Maebh: Right.

Toby: I suppose the thing that strikes me most is by bringing in the Claudius of Hamlet material, or by including it originally – and also by really driving home on this point that Brinsley has had this whole idea, this exact idea, and maybe written the same thing two years ago – we’re moving into that kind of multidimensional world-building that you would get in a short story by Borges, maybe. It’s really quite mind-bending, isn’t it?

Maebh: Yeah, absolutely. It ostensibly is a better performance of the narrator’s manifesto than the published version because not only does he say you should borrow whatever characters you want, he does so himself. So, I mean, he uses Hamlet, and then Brinsley quotes William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus’ so we already have this sense of kind of performing what he argues of using this idea. But I also really like this sense of pointing both to the context in which this was written, which is a period during which O’Nolan is collaborating a lot with his friends and is clearly sharing ideas with them. And therefore, no doubt, either engaging with or slightly concerned about the idea of, well, what does constitute originality? Like, what does constitute plagiarism? And when I’m embedded in this kind of collective where ideas are being shared so much and where so many people are using pseudonyms or just writing pieces that don’t have names attributed to them, how can we tell whose work is whose?

And that that will go on to be a problem for O’Nolan: a creative problem, but also kind of a real difficulty later in life when Montgomery helps him write the Cruiskeen Lawn columns. So this sense of, well, ‘whose idea is it anyway?’ is something that I think runs through O’Nolan’s work for the rest of his life.

Toby: Absolutely. And what, then is the significance of cutting out this material in the published version? And crucially – we’re now on the theme of collaboration – who do you believe did that edit? Do you believe that it’s Niall Sheridan, who’s represented as Brinsley, we think, in the novel, who made the large-scale edits to the manuscript?

Maebh: It’s so interesting because it’s so hard to know. So this is the earliest extant typescript that we have, and it is quite fragmented in the sense that some of it is on white pieces of typed paper, some of it is on pink paper. So, I mean, he mentions the pink-tinted pages in this piece, actually, and then some of it’s handwritten, but parts of it are actually shorter than the version that will eventually get published. And so we have this anecdote where Sheridan says that he was given this kind of enormous manuscript by O’Nolan and that he edited it and he reduced it by, I think, did he say two thirds of it? I can’t quite remember the exact amount, but he definitely said he reduced it really substantially. Now, he also said that a lot of what he removed was O’Nolan’s engagement, I don’t know, parody (I think sometimes parody expresses a slight lack of respect, and I think O’Nolan did really respect the early Irish material, but let’s use parody, for the want of a better term at the moment) but the parody of the Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna cycles.

So whether or not what we actually have here is pre-Sheridan or post-Sheridan, or two stages beyond that is almost impossible to tell. What I had expected before I started working on this was to find – even so, even if this is the post-Sheridan version – a substantially longer piece than the published one, but it’s not quite definitively longer or shorter. Instead, it’s quite different. There are parts missing, there are parts added.

But I can imagine how it must have felt for Sheridan to read it. I mean, he’s spoken of how he was both shocked and delighted and somewhat taken aback to find himself in At Swim-Two-Birds. And I’m wondering if he really was the person who then suggested editing this, or O’Nolan himself decided afterwards that it was either too close to the bone or didn’t propel the plot in the way he wanted it to. But from Sheridan’s perspective, I wonder if it did feel a little too close to a conversation that they’d had.

I found some archival material a few years ago in the National Library of Ireland which shows that Sheridan wrote a piece that also features bicycles, also features rural policemen, and also has the sense of a shocking murder. So, basically something that is incredibly close to The Third Policeman. But there’s no letter that I could find, there is no account on record that shows either of them feeling angry with the other, either of them accusing the other of plagiarism, either feeling that their story was the original story – the old idea of ‘I had that idea myself two years ago’. So we have this very complicated scene of collaboration, of creatively bouncing off other people, but without any sense of who had the idea first, or being able to track down an original ur-text. And maybe that’s okay, though maybe this was the point of all of this, that when you’re dealing with a collaborative situation like this, there, in a way is no original text. There is no sense of who had the idea first, because the idea was born out of conversation between two people. And potentially then the reason O’Nolan removed this section, that ‘I had that idea two years ago myself’, was to point to the idea that that was missing the point, that that was emphasizing originality and sources in a way that the novel was trying to play with or undercut or actively reject.

Toby: Yeah, that’s so interesting. I’m tempted to see them almost in the form of an experimentalist or avant-garde circle, to some extent. They are sometimes – I think there’s one instance in an American magazine where they are referred to – the two Nialls and Brian –  as a circle. And I think Sheridan alludes to it to some extent when he talks about the idea they had to kind of mass produce the great Irish novel and refers to them, I think, as the Irish Readymade School or something like that.

Maebh: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this all becomes slightly troubled when decades later, O’Nolan and Montgomery fall out because of what O’Nolan perceives as Montgomery’s plagiarizing his Cruiskeen Lawn material. But I think, first of all, we have to allow people to change and their ideas to differ over the course of decades. So the young man of At Swim-Two-Birds who’s playful about originality and slightly more carefree about where ideas come from, is not the man, decades later, who is depending on a column for his career, who is suffering quite badly from health complications, some related to alcohol, some simply from his situation. So we can have continuity, but we also really need to allow for that continuity to be marked by substantial changes in direction and substantial changes in mind. But it is in a way, I think – I suppose if we’re going to be emotionally connected to an author and if we have a sense of wanting his well-being – for me, it is a little bit sad to see that movement from friends who have this circle, who have this collective, to later on this slightly desperate need to draw lines in the sand over intellectual property because that intellectual property is now commodified. But when I say that, I don’t blame O’Nolan for that because this was his career, by this stage. He was no longer working for the civil service. So if he didn’t have this money, there was no income.

Toby: Yeah, I agree that it’s a shame that we have ended up taking that perspective when other groups of important artists and writers have managed to retain the sense of working in a circle. So we would refer to Zurich Dada or Berlin Dada, you know we would refer to the circle working around Joyce in transition and so on. I think it is possible to reconstruct that kind of circle-based activity was closer to what’s going on. And so in some senses, I agree, it’s a shame that we now are kind of forced by battle lines drawn later to see them as separate. Although I would probably note that these disputes still exist within groups that really self-identify as circles. So I think there’s a lot of disagreement in Berlin Dada about who invented the cut up / photo montage technique, and I believe the inventor is more likely to have been Hannah Höch, but that claim was taken by others. So even in the most circley of circles, there’s disagreement.

Maebh: Exactly. I mean, we all want this kind of very utopian sense of a collective where everything is shared and ideas just kind of flow freely and everyone can a perfect version of communist intellectualism. But once, of course, we understand what happened to intellectualism and the realities of communism and so on, all of these things, unfortunately, become tainted or broken down by lived realities without, of course, in any way implying that we then have a situation where capitalism is inevitable.

Toby: Yes, of course, need to include that. Very Benjaminian. Okay. You’ve brought to light quite an unprecedented level of insight into these, not only collaborations, but so many other aspects of the biographical Brian O’Nolan and his life by pulling together the letters that we have into a collected edition. And our listeners might not be familiar with this, but the publication of a set of collected letters is a landmark, a signal of a world’s interest in a particular writer. So it’s a very important event when those editions appear. If you think of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, alongside whom Brian O’Nolan is often now put.

But it also seems like a monumental task that can take many, many years. For example, the letters of Samuel Beckett extend to many volumes, and that project has been ongoing for a long time. So can you just give our listeners a sense of what is it like to set out to undertake a task as large as that, and how difficult is it to do that? Something that strikes me is: how do you strike the balance between footnoting something in a factual way and providing commentary that’s really necessary? Or, like, when do you have to make key choices about what date am I going to put something? Where am I going to be drawn on this? Because really, your letters produce a much more accurate biography of the writer than we’ve had so far, too.

Maebh: Thank you, Toby. Yeah, it is a tricky undertaking. I mean, to begin with, it’s a huge amount of detective work. You spend a lot of time trying to track down letters whose existence is presumed but never definite. So you have the obvious locations, like the main archives – so you have a core body of work that you know you can rely on – but from then it’s just a lot of tendrils, some of which will turn out to be dead ends, some of which will – often in the minority – turn out to be something wonderful and exciting. So you do spend a lot of time kind of trying to check archives just to see if there’s anything there. Frank McNally of the Irish Times was also really good in advertising the search in his pages in the Irish Times, and so that produced some really interesting letters. A few people through that also contacted me who had purchased letters, and this is it: we’re also contending with people who have privately purchased letters and are happy for them to be in their own homes.

As much as I want everything to be freely available to scholars, I’m not at this point going to absolutely object to people feeling that they have a certain right to protect or retain the letters that they’ve purchased. But I was hugely grateful to people who, having purchased letters themselves, did actually make them available to me and gave me permission to reproduce them. I don’t doubt that there are still letters in people’s houses that they know about, maybe that they have framed and that are prized possessions or letters that are in people’s attics, letters that have been kind of purposefully or accidentally destroyed.

So there’s always this tantalizing sense of the letters that are just out of reach, the letters that you imagine but that don’t have. I mean, I know that there were a huge amount of letters between O’Nolan and the Irish Times because when he sent in his columns, presumably he would have had some kind of note with them. And since we know that he had so many disagreements, often with the way these pieces were copy-edited, there would have been back and forth of him maybe in a very entertaining fashion, yelling at the editors. But when the Irish Times moved locations in Dublin, they destroyed a lot of files, so those are gone. I also know that Evelyn destroyed some personal letters, which she has every right to do. I suppose this is also the part where there’s a danger that researchers can seem like vultures or people who just feel entitled to own or have access to every aspect of a person’s private life. And as an academic, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that everything relates to the work, that there is no aspect of an author’s life that I won’t be interested in and won’t think in some way impacts what they’ve written, while also thinking that the act of creative writing or the act of publishing does not deny you a private life and does give you the right to withhold what you need to withhold or what your relatives think is information that they have a certain private access to and that doesn’t need to be made public.

That said, I should say that the estate – O’Nolan’s estate is under his wife’s name, so the estate of Evelyn O’Nolan – have been extremely helpful and were very positive in my dealings with them. And so the only thing that we censored was the name of one still living individual. Other than that, they didn’t ask for anything else to be stricken from the record. And so I’m really grateful to them for that.

Toby: Yes. And it’s worth noting in passing that for people listening who are interested in research into Flann O’Brien – in a way that’s quite markedly evolved, I think, from the evolution of James Joyce studies and Samuel Beckett studies – it’s always been a very open society. So the journal has been published as an open access resource, really from the beginning, but is now fully gold standard, open access so there’s just a wealth of material. And in that sense we can be very grateful for the estate because now whenever they’re authorizing for new material to appear or be published, it’s in an open access way, which is when it’s going to be published in that journal. And that’s something I find quite interesting. It almost could be something in future that could be studied on its own: what difference does that make to a discipline that so much of a material is available to anyone with an internet connection?

Maebh: Absolutely. And I think it’s down to the generosity and I think, forward-thinking of an estate when they do that, because estates operate very differently and with very different expectations of the line between the public and the private or the open access and the commercial. And so I think that we’re very lucky that we have the estate of Evelyn O’Nolan that we have.

Toby: Absolutely. Could you tell me anything about the kinds of people that are likely to have letters to have collected that kind of material? Who are these people? Do they know Brian O’Nolan? Are they collectors? What is this world – this shadowy world – of letter collectors?

Maebh: I’ll answer this as best I can because it’s one of those questions where I only know the people I’ve engaged with, and I don’t doubt there are more. So it’s an answer based on extrapolation and speculation… But this makes sense for people in Ireland. For people outside of Ireland, it might be slightly more surprising because O’Nolan isn’t that well known, often, outside of Ireland, though, his reputation is, I think, really, really growing. But, I mean, to an extent – I don’t know, I kind of hate the expression ‘national treasure’, and I think O’Nolan would have just found it utterly ridiculous – but if you can have a national treasure who is an incredibly cantankerous, slightly aggressive, but also very humorous, man, with health conditions and addictions that make him irascible and a challenge sometimes to deal with, then he’s a national treasure.

Maebh: I mean he’s no Judy Dench, but…


Toby: Does it maybe say something about Ireland – that this is the case? This is the national treasure – he’s not very much like the British national treasures.

Maebh: But I think for a lot of people having a letter by this man who is an amazing national figure, who is kind of then, I suppose, an anti-institutional institution. I mean, he was part of the civil service and, in a way, very good at his job, but also despising the job and increasingly aggressive about the tasks that he had to do. So of the Civil Service, but opposed to the Civil Service. A novelist who wrote novels that play with the very idea of what constitutes the right of the author and the power of the author who was a columnist in a newspaper but not a journalist. So doing this kind of social commentary that’s also literary commentary and that’s kind of literary criticism, but not. So because of this position of being part of things, but a very destabilizing presence in so many of them, I think that really appeals to a lot of Irish people. And so I think those who could afford to buy letters often bought them for precisely that reason. For the joy of having in your home, perhaps – I know some of them were framed and put on the wall – so having on your walls kind of the actual signature, the actual mark of this author who both gave us so much but was so sceptical or questioning of the nature of these institutions.

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