Toby asks a leading expert: who was Flann O’Brien? The answer involves pseudonyms, rarely heard first-hand accounts and a legendary editor of the Irish Times.
Toby: My first guest is Joseph Brooker, who is professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck University of London. He is one of the leading UK experts on Flann O’Brien, the author of a book on Flann published in 2005, as well as numerous articles and a keynote lecture delivered at the 2015 conference of the International Flann O’Brien Society. Joe has also published books on Joyce, the literature of the 1980s and the work of Jonathan Lethem, continues to publish regularly on Flannn O’Brien, such as a recent note on the role of Constantine Curran, an associate of O’Nolan’s friend Niall Montgomery, and James Joyce in a radio broadcast marking Joyce’s 56th birthday. Welcome to the podcast, Joe.
Joe: Thanks, Toby. Good to be here.
Toby: So to get us started, some of our listeners might be a bit new. They might be new to Flann or Myles overall. They might have never read a word. Would you mind giving us a thumbnail sketch? He has a lot of names as a writer, for example. How did he get hold of them, and what did his life look like?
Joe: Well, that’s a story that one could expand and expand or try to give as brief an account as possible. He was a man who lived from 1911 to 1966, and he died aged 54. So a writer who is a writer of the mid-20th century or the early to mid-20th century, really writing between mainly the some extent, 30s, 40s, 50s and to some extent 60s. He’s an Irish writer. He was from Strabane in the north of Ireland, but his family moved to Dublin when he was young and he became a Dubliner he became very much a Dublin man, a Dublin writer, a voice of Dublin. So that’s one way to see him, as one of the voices of Dublin in writing in the 20th century. In terms of his name, it’s most simple to call him Brian O’Nolan. There is some complexity about that. And this is a writer where names are unusually complex. For one thing, you get Irish spellings and pronunciations of Brian, and you get some people saying that he was always called Brian [pronounced Bree-on], and you get other Irish people saying, oh, no, actually we called him Brian, and different accounts even of something like that, as well as Ó Nualláin / O’Nolan he also sometimes signed himself as Nolan, Brian Nolan. So there’s a curious amount of variation about this. Now, those are what we can consider his real names, but he also had literary names, pen names, and most of his writing was done under those names. The most famous is Flann O’Brien. That’s the name under which he published novels, starting with a book called At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939 and going on, really, till his last novel, The Dalkey Archive, in 1964. And there are well, basically, there are five novels. Most of the novels are published under the name Flann O’Brien. Even there there’s some complexity, actually. But Flann O’Brien then, is the best-known name. And actually it came about originally through him writing letters to the papers in the 1930s and joining in with controversies and mocking other people and he would use the name Flann O’Brien or F O’Brien and he kind of kept this name when he became a novelist, he decided to keep this name. The name Flann O’Brien, I recall that he said it combined a very old name, Flann, with a very ordinary name O’Brien. So that’s clear enough. There are then some other names though. The next best name is Myles na gCopaleen, which itself has a couple of different spellings. But Myles na gCopaleen was the name that he adopted when he became a newspaper columnist on the Irish Times in 1940. And he carried that on and off, but mostly on, until his death in 1966.
So Myles na gCopaleen is then another identity for him and another name under which he writes as a newspaper columnist, for what is essentially a comic column. It’s mainly comedy and satire and fun, although it also becomes sometimes polemical, angry, serious as well, more so as it goes on perhaps. The question arises where did that name Myles na gCopaleen come from? That is a name taken from literature. It was the name of a character in Dion Boucicault’s play the Colleen Bawn in the 19th century and it’s a kind of stage Irish character, a kind of rollicking Irishman, and the name means Myles of the Little Horses or Myles of the Ponies. So he’s already taking on the name of a character, a stage character, a stage Irishman, maybe. That name itself has actually already been taken from a novel, The Collegians, written by Gerald Griffin earlier, which was Boucicault’s source material. So it’s a very intertextual name, it’s a literary name, it’s an artificial name that he is using as his name, as if it’s his own name, on the top of this column. There’s a clear sense of artifice, staginess, intertextuality about that.
Now finally we should mention that there are some other names which are used less often. For one thing, when he wrote some other columns for other newspapers he would use other names, for instance, George Knowall was one and I think John James Doe was another. So those are clearly pseudonyms, they’re obvious pseudonyms, but they’re sort of differentiating himself again from the Myles na gCopaleen name. And I mentioned earlier that he had spent a lot of time in the late 30s and early 40s writing letters to the papers, especially the Irish Times, joining in controversies, mocking and attacking people. And he increasingly did this not just by writing as Flann O’Brien, but by writing under different names, under a kind of blizzard of different names like Whit Cassidy, Lear O’Connor, Luna O’Connor, John O’Ruddy, many others. The one complexity there is that other friends of his also joined in that process and so we’re not really sure which of those names were his and which belonged to other people.
And that’s yet another confusing aspect of this: this writer, Brian O’Nolan or Flann O’Brien, was a participant in a group or what we could call a circle of writers. So there’s a fellow called Niall Montgomery who was particularly important, who was probably Brian O’Nolan’s best friend, though they had their falling outs and their difficulties, but I’d say they were best friends, really. And Montgomery is a very talented man, a writer, an architect, an architectural critic. He wrote some of the columns as Myles na gCopaleen in the Irish Times. So there’s an element of collaboration, of mixing authorship there. There’s also another very good friend of theirs called Niall Sheridan and a very good critic called Maebh Long has demonstrated how Sheridan and O’Nolan and may have borrowed ideas off each other in doing their work. So there’s an element of authorship being a bit mixed here, a bit muddied and a bit pluralized as well, On top of the fact that this is a man with so many names.
I think, finally, you know, in terms of this introduction, I should just mention what books did he publish? There’s At Swim Two Birds 1939, a remarkable kind of anti-novel which breaks up narrative in a confusing way, but is also riotously funny. It’s thoroughly a comic novel. He then wrote a book called The Third Policeman in late 1939, early 1940, and tried to get it published with the same publisher, Longman’s, but they wouldn’t take it, [they said] that it was too fantastical. And he essentially put it away in a draw for the rest of his life, told people he’d lost the manuscript and it wasn’t published until a year after he died, when his widow, Evelyn, sent it to the publisher and they published it.
That novel, The Third Policeman, is now regarded as a great masterpiece of 20th-century literature, but he didn’t live to see it published in his own time. But it’s a remarkable book. Then there are three other novels to mention. One is An Béal Bocht in Irish, because this is very much a multilingual writer who wrote in Irish as well as English: An Béal Bocht, which is translated as The Poor Mouth: meaning putting on poverty, begging. And that is a short novel which is a satire of peasant memoirs from the west of Ireland, from places like maybe the Aran Islands, maybe the islands off Kerry. Not just islands, but life in general in the west of Ireland among Irish speaking peasants. And there have been lots of memoirs and books written by these people. That book is somewhat of a parody, an affectionate parody of that genre. It’s regarded as a very significant book, particularly within the modern Irish literature, Irish language literature, canon, but it’s also widely admired and enjoyed in English.
Finally, there are two other novels published in 1961 and 1964, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, and those have points of interest. The Dalkey Archive rehashes some material from the manuscript of The Third Policeman which hadn’t been published. But it’s fair to say that those novels are less accomplished than the first three and although they have interest to scholars and to general readers they’re not such major works. I think just the last thing I’d say is that this is a writer who has increasingly received scholarly attention, and we academics like to look at him. But he’s also a writer who’s always had popular affection, and he’s always had a readership among ordinary people, certainly in Ireland, also around the world, who just enjoy this wonderful sense of humour that he has.
Toby: I think that’s a really interesting point and it’s one of those cases where the academic professional interest in Flann O’Brien is driven by that groundswell of just popularity as such an easy writer. As you said, some of it is quite baffling, especially in terms of his identity and bamboozling in terms of the plots. But actually there’s a kind of comic power and enjoyability to the writing that just hooks us and keeps us interested over the years. So let’s dip into that now. One of the other things the podcast is going to ask us to do is to read the passage for the benefit of listeners who may be new to Flann O’Brien, almost give people a flavour of what we’re talking about, why we’re all here. So you, I believe, have picked an extract easily available in The Best of Myles anthology of the Cruiskeen Lawn column. So I’ll let you introduce it and give us a passage.
Joe: Yes, the column is called Cruiskeen Lawn and published in the Irish Times, as I said, from 1940. And this particular anthology, The Best of Myles, originally published in ’68 was the first major anthology to be really widely available to bring this to a public not just in Ireland, I suppose, but in England and beyond. This particular book focuses on material from the I think the first half of the 1940s. He had various sort of comic setups and comic sort of trends that he would run at different times in the column and one of them was something he called the ‘Catechism of Cliché’. And I think it will be demonstrated if I just simply read out a page or so of this. This particular one begins appropriately with reference to the newspaper, given that that was the medium where this appeared:
Of what nature is the newspaper in which one craves the courtesy of its space invaluable and widely read? For what purpose does one crave the courtesy of its space? Saying a few words and end the gas supply. In criticizing the gas company what does one wish to make it clear one holds for the electricity supply board? No brief. Of what nature is the attitude of the gas company? To say the least of it, high handed and dictatorial in the extreme. In what hands should such service not be? And why? Private, because it is a public utility service. What would the situation be were it not so tragic? Humorous. Why is it necessary for the government to take immediate steps to safeguard children from the injuries to health that may be caused by gas rationing? Because the children are the men and women of tomorrow? And what does one hope, one’s letter will catch? The eye of the powers that be.
Toby: I suppose the first thing that strikes me is this interesting, quite original use of, I guess what is essentially a Catholic Christian formulation to do with questions and answers and catechisms in the form of educating ourselves. And Myles is doing something here to educate ourselves because he’s almost defamiliarizing these cliches. He’s making you notice them, but he’s also rearranging them in quite amusing ways, too. So there’s a couple of things going on here. Would you agree with that characterization, is there anything you’d add?
Joe: Yes, you know, that’s very insightful. This is Catholic Ireland. It’s 1940 or so. It’s a very Catholic society. It’s a society where the church has great power, especially in education. So I think it’s right to say that the Catholic catechism maybe what probably is, perhaps definitely is, one of the inspirations or one of the ideas that’s behind this reference, this regular reference to catechism. On the one hand, we have this church practice, this religious practice, which is also, as you rightly say, an educational practice. It’s about learning and recitation of knowledge. But he’s also dealing here with public discourse. This is about the discourse of the newspaper, the discourse of letters pages, for instance, as in that line: ‘of what nature is the newspaper in which one craves the courtesy of its space? Invaluable and widely read’. There’s always an implication that the answer can be reinserted back into the question, so that the question would have been really meant something like, ‘I crave the courtesy of space in your invaluable and widely read newspaper’. There’s a certain kind of disassembly and reassembly implied by the relation between question and answer. I think I agree that he’s defamiliarizing cliches, breaking them up, making us think about public discourse. There’s actually a line that I will quote from the passage which comes at the end of this section of the book, which is that he writes this in a more serious vein. He says:
a cliché is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage. Thus it appears that clichés reflect somewhat the frequency of the incidents of the same situations in life. If this be so, a sociological commentary could be compiled from these items of mortified language.
So there’s a lot to think about there. He does have a consciousness of cliché as a linguistic practice and something that has a kind of social role.
Toby: And I think we might find out a bit more about that when we discuss the next part of the podcast, which is just to listen to a passage describing the life and times of Flann. This is a clip from a radio broadcast in 2011 for the centenary of Flann on the RTÉ program “Bowman”, and it might shake up the discussion a bit by introducing some quite different themes about his life and times. So here we go.
Seán MacEntee: He worked very conscientiously, I must say, that he arrived reasonably early at my office. Myles was there before me and when I was leaving, which was generally late in the evening. Myles was then engaged in his own private business, that is to say he was sitting at the typewriter, typing out his stuff.
Toby: I wondered if you could respond to that report of what it was like to have Brian O’Nolan on your ministerial team.
Joe: Fascinating to hear from such a senior figure, isn’t it, in Irish politics? I think you’re quite right in all that we said about Flann O’Brien, I forgot even to mention his civil service career, which was a huge part of his life. I think it was in 1935 that he went into the civil service. Ireland had a very extensive civil service, which had been, I think, partly a legacy of British rule. Similar structures and numbers still obtained, and he would have worked in an office in the centre of Dublin near the river Liffey. But it’s worth saying that he went into that job because he had to make money for his family, because his father had died. And it’s just worth emphasizing that there was a responsibility about that, that he wasn’t just a great writer or someone with a great imagination who went off and became a romantic poet or something. He was somebody who took responsibility for a family and went out and did his best to make a living, not just for himself, but for others. So I think that’s worth remembering, that there was a very concrete, material, putting bread on the table, aspect to his life.
The civil service aspect is a very interesting aspect, because in one sense it might seem very different from the life of a writer. In another sense, it might seem to have a lot of echoes. As we saw with the ‘Catechism of Cliché’, he was interested in linguistic formulas, and I think we can be sure that he encountered lots of linguistic formulas, indeed clichés, in the kind of memos and bureaucratic language that he dealt with in the civil service. I think that his interest in formula and pedantry and cliché and so on very much is something that there’s a continuity there between the civil service life and the literary life. Regarding Seán MacEntee’s comments, I think that one of the things that strikes me when I hear that is the fact he called him Myles not Brian or Mr. Nolan – he called him Myles! Again, there’s ambiguity of what do people call him? Different people call him different things. But it’s as if he had a sense of having almost known him best as Myles, as a newspaper columnist, maybe, or that maybe MacEntee felt that the people listening would know him best as Myles. I’m not sure, but I seem to remember Anthony Cronin, who had been a friend of O’Nolan, saying once in person about a decade or so ago, that we used to call him Myles. We always called him Myles. I think I remember Cronin saying that.
But clearly this is somebody where different people would use different names. But it’s interesting that his political boss uses that name in the recollection. I think it’s quite surprising, actually, when MacEntee says: he was there before me, he was a diligent worker, he was a great bureaucrat. I think that’s interesting. And it speaks to a kind of seriousness and a diligence that’s there. And that probably comes through, especially in the early writing, in the care. The care that he has with language, as we’ve seen, perhaps, was also there in the care he took over his job and the care he wrote memos with and so on. Although it’s fair to say that I think his attitude to work did gradually decline as he drank more and eventually he had to be withdrawn from the service in, I think, 1953. So I guess MacEntee there is talking more about an earlier period, but it’s quite interesting to hear that he did work diligently. I mean, the other thing was, I think MacEntee’s statement finished by saying at the end of the day, he’d be there on the typewriter. And again, so he was also then working on his second job. His job was the columnist as the writer and using the same tools of the trade, really, the typewriter that he would use as a civil servant. But again, there’s a sense of hard work there, isn’t there? Doing one job and then going straight over into another job and taking it very seriously as a trade.
Toby: We’re going to race backwards in time now to another recording from the same documentary, from the Bowman documentary, but haven’t been able to pin down exactly when this was made, probably sometime in the 70s I think. But here’s a recording of Brian O’Nolan’s friend, Niall Sheridan, characterizing him in a very particular way. And again, it’s another opportunity to hear from his close associates what they felt about him as a writer.
Niall Sheridan: But the astonishing thing about Brian and the thing that I you know, that sticks in my mind… he certainly from the very earliest time I knew him, he displayed an extraordinary originality. He never wanted to do the obvious. And if he succeeded in doing something, take writing At Swim-Two-Birds, he would then do something completely different, as in The Third Policeman. He was always moving on to something new, full of ideas, full of invention and full of mischief, of course.
Toby: So what do you think of that characterization of Flann O’Brien?
Joe: It’s really interesting. It’s great to hear Sheridan and it’s great to hear that voice from the past, which, as you say, kind of connects us back a little bit to Flann O’Brien and his circle. And I think one would have to be careful about questioning or doubting Sheridan. He knew Brian O’Nolan better than most. Apart from his wife and Niall Montgomery, Sheridan probably knew him as well as almost anyone. So there’s a level at which I’m sure what he’s saying is right. And it’s a good point that he makes that having written At Swim-Two-Birds, he went on to write The Third Policeman, which is, yes, it’s fantastical and it’s funny and playful, but it is a completely different book. He’s right to say he didn’t follow it up by trying to do the same thing, do a sequel. There is a kind of great inventiveness there.
On the other hand, I think, on another level, I also am surprised by what Sheridan says. The concept of originality, is a concept that he questions and plays with and undermines. If I remember At Swim-Two-Birds, there’s a wonderful paragraph, I think, where there’s a kind of manifesto about the novel that says the modern novel should be basically ‘a work of reference’. I think that’s a really good sentence or statement for describing Flann O’Brien’s attitudes to writing and literature: that it is often a work of reference, quoting from somewhere else, montaging different sources together. Often Cruiskeen Lawn, the column, is quoting somebody and quoting somebody else and maybe clashing them together, maybe writing a pastiche of something. In the novels, in At Swim-Two-Birds, there are passages which are sort of taken from letters that somebody had sent him or from an obscure book that he’d found. And there are passages that are basically sort of parodies or pastiches of Irish mythology, and that are translations, I think, quite fine translations of medieval Irish poetry. And actually, you can find this pattern going on right through the work. And we could go on and on about it, even to the fact that The Dalkey Archive recycles material from the admittedly then unpublished Third Policeman. I think this is a writer who quotes and rehashes and makes a kind of collage art. And so the phrase The Dalkey Archive is strangely appropriate. This is a writer who is drawing on an archive to piece things together.
Toby: So I’m only going to give you one more question, Joe. It’s been an incredibly rich podcast. It’s going to be very difficult to edit, so thank you for that. But I know that this is an area potentially that’s of interest to you. So as part of this podcast series, I’m going to be speaking to the Irish Times journalist Frank McNally, who often writes about Flann and almost brings out columns from the past and is a very active participant in the fan community. And the Irish Times is so important to why we all refer to him as Myles in the first place, to where he is as a writer. And so one figure we may well discuss on that podcast is Robert Maire Smyllie, or R.M. Smyllie is he is most commonly known, who was the editor of the Irish Times between 1934 and 1954. So why do you think this editor figure, R. M. Smyllie, is so important to understanding who Flann O’Brien was as a writer?
Joe: Well, the short answer is that he, I guess, commissioned or agreed to publish Cruiskeen Lawn from October 1940. Having had a meeting – I think everyone says the first meeting between O’Nolan and Smyllie was in the Palace Bar in Dublin – just east of Temple Bar and a wonderful literary pub, I think there’s still pictures of Smyllie and O’Nolan on the walls there today. So having O’Nolan had written these letters into the Irish Times, sort of mocking people, as I said, and I believe that an encounter was arranged between the two and Smyllie offered O’Nolan regular column in the Irish Times, which is going to be an Irish. One reason for that, certainly, was that the Irish Times had a reputation as very much an English-centric, a pro-Unionist, and what might be called a West Briton newspaper, a Protestant newspaper as well. And therefore having a Catholic columnist of Catholic background writing in Irish kind of broke up that identity and maybe opened the paper up to different kind of cultural constituencies, changed the character and the face of the paper a bit. So in that sense, maybe it’s quite a bold thing for Smyllie to do. The column started in Irish and immediately was playing with Irish and playing around with what could and couldn’t be said in Irish in interesting ways, but ended up going more into alternating between English and Irish and then ultimately coming more regularly into English and occasionally breaking out into other languages. Even German and Latin are in there.
So Smyllie’s big importance is simply in commissioning Cruiskeen Lawn, which then ran for such a long time. And I don’t know if it exactly dominated O’Nolan’s life, but it was a huge feature of O’Nolan’s life for that the next 25 years. There is an argument that many people have often made in the past that actually that was quite a bad thing for O’Nolan, that his creative energies were diverted into the column when they could have been better used in writing more novels, writing more plays and so on.
So there is an argument that the column was a distraction. And if you look at it that way, maybe it was unhelpful that Smyllie commissioned him. But on the other hand, I think we all look at the column and think this is a wonderful creation. It’s brilliant, it’s funny, it’s extraordinary. There’s nothing else like it, not on that scale. And so Smyllie had also helped to bring into being almost a unique kind of literary work. Other editors did follow Smyllie, but he, I think, stands as a figure of great stature within the history of modern Irish journalism. I know, I think Terence Brown has published a book about the Irish Times, which is a good context for this. And there’s also been a new book called Smyllie’s Ireland, which I know you Toby have been researching and looking into as well. So I think the importance of Smyllie and of the Irish Times in forming public culture at this time is being recognized. I mean, the other thing to say, just one other thing there, is that because Flann O’Brien often wrote short texts like columns, for instance, like little essays and skits, editors have been very important to him. With the recent Letters, Maebh Long did sterling service with a really wonderfully professional and scholarly editing apparatus in bringing together the letters, so that was one instance. And there was a wonderful Flann of Brian scholar called John Wyse Jackson, who was one of the people that first really taught me about Flann O’Brien once I got into reading him a bit more. He was not an academic, but he was a very scholarly person, a book collector and bookseller. And he also edited volumes of Flann O’Brien, including a fantastic volume of early work called Myles Before Myles, published in, I think, ’88, originally. So he’s another great example of how editors have actually been really important to keeping Flann O’Brien’s work in circulation and making it available to us. But again, going back, I think Smyllie is the first great editor, and the relation between him and Flann O’Brien is a very important one.
Toby: Fantastic. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Smyllie. And I’m sure we’re going to be hearing more about Smyllie as the focus moves on to those collaborators and the editors of Flann O’Brien that seem to be so important. We could talk for many more hours, but we’re going to wrap things up there. Thank you so much, Professor Joseph Brooker of Birkbeck College, University of London, for being on the podcast.
Joe: My pleasure, Toby. Glad to be here.