Brian O'Nolan (Brian Ó Nualláin) (5 October 1911 – 1 April 1966) was an Irish novelist and satirist, best known for his novels An Béal Bocht, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman written under the nom de plume Flann O'Brien. He also wrote many satirical columns in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen. He was born in Strabane, County Tyrone. His father was from County Donegal.
Most of O'Nolan's writings were occasional pieces published in periodicals, which explains why his work has only recently come to enjoy the considered attention of literary scholars. O'Nolan was also notorious for his prolific use and creation of pseudonyms for much of his writing, including short stories, essays, and letters to editors, which has rendered a complete cataloging of his writings an almost impossible task -- he allegedly would write letters to the Editor of the Irish Times complaining about his own articles published in that newspaper, for example in his regular Cruiskeen Lawn column, which gave rise to rampant speculation as to whether the author of a published letter existed or not. Not surprisingly, little of O'Nolan's pseudonymous activity has been, or can ever be, verified.
A key feature of O'Nolan's personal situation was his status as an Irish government civil servant, who, as a result of his father's relatively early death, was obliged to support 10 siblings, including an older brother who was an unsuccessful writer. Given the desperate poverty of Ireland in the '30s to '60s, a job as a civil servant was very respected and prestigious, being both secure and pensionable with a reliable cash income in a largely agrarian economy. The Irish civil service has been, since the Irish Civil War, fairly strictly apolitical, Civil Servants above the level of clerical officer are generally prohibited from publicly expressing political views both by Civil Service Regulations and the service's internal culture. As a practical matter, this meant that commentating in newspapers on current events was, during O'Nolan's career, generally prohibited without departmental permission on an article-by-article, publication-by-publication basis. This fact alone contributed to O'Nolan's use of pseudonyms, though he had started to create character-authors even in his pre-civil service writings. In reality, that O'Nolan was Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen was an open secret, largely disregarded by his colleagues, who found his writing very entertaining; this was a function of the makeup of the civil service, which recruited leading graduates by competitive examination -- it was an erudite and relatively liberal body in the Ireland of the 1930s to 1970s. Nonetheless, had O'Nolan forced the issue, by using one of his known pseudonyms or his own name for an article that seriously upset politicians, consequences would likely have flowed -- hence the acute pseudonym problem in attributing his work today.
O'Nolan wrote prodigiously during his years as a student at University College Dublin where he was an active member of the well known Literary and Historical Society. He contributed to the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne (Fair Play) under various guises, in particular the pseudonym Brother Barnabas. Significantly, he composed a story during this same period entitled "Scenes in a Novel (probably posthumous) by Brother Barnabas", which anticipates many of the ideas and themes later to be found in his novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. In it, the putative author of the story finds himself in riotous conflict with his characters, who are determined to follow their own paths regardless of the author's design. For example, the villain of the story, one Carruthers McDaid, intended by the author as the lowest form of scoundrel, "meant to sink slowly to absolutely the last extremities of human degradation", instead ekes out a modest living selling cats to elderly ladies and becomes a covert churchgoer without the author's consent. Meanwhile, the story's hero, Shaun Svoolish, chooses a comfortable, bourgeois life rather than romance and heroics:
In 1934 O'Nolan and his student friends founded a short-lived magazine called Blather. The writing here, though clearly bearing the marks of youthful bravado, again somewhat anticipates O'Nolan's later work, in this case his Cruiskeen Lawn column as Myles na gCopaleen:
Flann O'Brien novels have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour and Modernist metafiction. At Swim-Two-Birds works entirely with borrowed (and stolen) characters from other fiction and legend, on the grounds that there are already far too many existing fictional characters, while The Third Policeman has a fantastic plot of a murderous protagonist let loose on a strange world peopled by fat policemen, played against a satire of academic debate on an eccentric philosopher, De Selby, and finds time to introduce Sergeant Pluck's atomic theory of the bicycle. The Dalkey Archive features a character who encounters a penitent, elderly James Joyce (who never wrote any of his books and seeks only to join the Jesuit Order) working as an assistant barman or 'curate' -- another small joke relating to Joyce's alleged priestly ambitions -- in the resort of Skerries, and a scientist (De Selby) looking to suck all of the air out of the world, and in which Policeman Pluck learns of the mollycule theory from Sergeant Fottrell. Other books by Flann O'Brien include The Hard Life (a fictional autobiography meant to be his "misterpiece"), and An Béal Bocht, (translated from the Irish as The Poor Mouth), which was a parody of Tomás Ó Criomhthain's autobiography An t-Oileánach - in English The Islander.
As a novelist, O'Nolan was powerfully influenced by James Joyce. Indeed, he was at pains to attend the same college as Joyce - University College Dublin, and Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann has established that O'Nolan, fully in keeping with his literary temperament, used a forged interview with Joyce's father John Joyce as part of his application. He was none the less sceptical of the Cult of Joyce which overshadowed much of Irish writing, "I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob."
Flann O'Brien is considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. The British writer Anthony Burgess was moved to say of him: "If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men. Flann O'Brien is a very great man." Burgess included At Swim-Two-Birds on his list of 99 Great Novels.
At Swim-Two-Birds is now recognized as one of the most significant Modernist novels before 1945. Indeed it can be seen as a pioneer of postmodernism, although the academic Keith Hopper has persuasively argued that The Third Policeman, superficially less radical, is actually a more deeply subversive and proto-postmodernist work, and as such, possibly a representation of literary nonsense. At Swim-Two-Birds was one of the last books that James Joyce read and he praised it to O'Nolan's friends - praise which was subsequently used for years as a jacket blurb on reprints of O'Brien's novels. The novel has had a troubled publication history in the USA. Southern Illinois University Press has set up a Flann O'Brien Center and begun publishing all of O'Nolan's works. Consequently, academic attention to the novel has increased.
O'Brien influenced the science fiction writer and conspiracy theory satirist Robert Anton Wilson, who has O'Brien's character De Selby, an obscure intellectual in The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive appear in his own The Widow's Son. In both The Third Policeman and The Widow's Son, De Selby is the subject of long pseudo-scholarly footnotes. This is fitting, because O'Brien himself made free use of characters invented by other writers, claiming that there were too many fictional characters as is. O'Brien was also known for pulling the reader's leg by concocting elaborate conspiracy theories.
As Myles na gCopaleen (or Myles na Gopaleen), O'Nolan wrote short columns for The Irish Times, mostly in English but also in Irish, which showed a manic imagination that still astonishes.
His newspaper column, called Cruiskeen Lawn (transliterated from the Irish crúiscín lán, "little full/brimming jug" (a crúisc is a jug or pitcher, the addition of ín ('een) a diminutive and lán is full)), has its origins in a series of pseudonymous letters written to The Irish Times, originally intended to mock the publication in that same newspaper of a poem, "Spraying the Potatoes", by the writer Patrick Kavanagh:
I am no judge of poetry — the only poem I ever wrote was produced when I was body and soul in the gilded harness of Dame Laudanum — but I think Mr Kavanaugh [sic] is on the right track here. Perhaps the Irish Times, timeless champion of our peasantry, will oblige us with a series in this strain covering such rural complexities as inflamed goat-udders, warble-pocked shorthorn, contagious abortion, non-ovoid oviducts and nervous disorders among the gentlemen who pay the rent.
The letters, some written by O'Nolan and some not, continued under a variety of false names, using various styles and assaulting varied topics, including other letters by the same authors. The letters were a hit with the readers of The Irish Times, and R.M. Smyllie, then editor of the newspaper, shortly invited O'Nolan to contribute a column.
The first column appeared on 4 October 1940, under the pseudonym "An Broc" ("The Badger"). In all subsequent columns the name "Myles na gCopaleen" ("Myles of the Little Horses") was used. Initially, the column was composed in Irish, but soon English was used primarily, with occasional smatterings of German, French, or Latin. The sometimes intensely satirical column's targets included the Dublin literary elite, Irish language revivalists, the Irish government, and the "Plain People of Ireland." The following column excerpt, in which the author wistfully recalls a brief sojourn in Germany as a student, illustrates the biting humor and scorn that informed the Cruiskeen Lawn writings:
I notice these days that the Green Isle is getting greener. Delightful ulcerations resembling buds pit the branches of our trees, clumpy daffodils can be seen on the upland lawn. Spring is coming and every decent girl is thinking of that new Spring costume. Time will run on smoother till Favonius re-inspire the frozen Meade and clothe in fresh attire the lily and rose that have nor sown nor spun. Curse it, my mind races back to my Heidelberg days. Sonya and Lili. And Magda. And Ernst Schmutz, Georg Geier, Theodor Winkleman, Efrem Zimbalist, Otto Grün. And the accordion player Kurt Schachmann. And Doktor Oreille, descendant of Irish princes. Ich hab' mein Herz/ in Heidelberg verloren/ in einer lauen/ Sommernacht/ Ich war verliebt/ bis über beide/ Ohren/ und wie ein Röslein/hatt'/ Ihr Mund gelächt or something humpty tumpty tumpty tumpty tumpty mein Herz it schlägt am Neckarstrand. A very beautiful student melody. Beer and music and midnight swims in the Neckar. Chats in erse with Kun O'Meyer and John Marquess ... Alas, those chimes. Und als wir nahmen/ Abschied vor den Toren/ beim letzten Küss, da hab' Ich Klar erkannt/ dass Ich mein Herz/ in Heidelberg verloren/ MEIN HERZ/ es schlägt am Neck-ar-strand! Tumpty tumpty tum.
- The Plain People of Ireland: Isn't the German very like the Irish? Very guttural and so on?
- Myself: Yes.
- The Plain People of Ireland: People say that the German language and the Irish language is very guttural tongues.
- Myself: Yes.
- The Plain People of Ireland: The sounds is all guttural do you understand.
- Myself. Yes.
- The Plain People of Ireland: Very guttural languages the pair of them the Gaelic and the German.
Ó Nuallain/na gCopaleen wrote Cruiskeen Lawn for The Irish Times until the year of his death, 1966.
'Capall' is the Irish Gaelic word for 'horse', and 'een' (spelled 'ín' in Irish) is the diminutive used especially in female names, e.g. Róisín ("little rose") Mairín (or Maureen - "little Mary"); in the family context it is also added to distinguish the younger bearer of the name from the older, alternately beag (the word for small) may be used, and then 'een' combined with beag if the name is used even further. The prefix 'na g...' is the Irish genitive, so Myles na gCopaleen means "Myles of the Little Horses". 'Copaillín' is also the Irish translation of the English word 'pony', as in the name of Ireland's most famous and ancient native horse breed, the Connemara pony.
O'Nolan himself always insisted on the translation "Myles of the Ponies", saying that he did not see why the principality of the pony should be subjugated to the imperialism of the horse.