Flann O’Brien’s Birthday

by Henry Farrell on October 5, 2011

Today (Wednesday, Irish time) is the hundredth anniversary of Flann O’Brien’s (Brian O’Nolan’s) birth. Several of us here at CT are fans – I think it was John Holbo who first transformed O’Brien’s Plain People of Ireland (the interlocutor in many of his newspaper columns) into the Plain People of the Internet. This “piece”:http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/1001/1224305062073.html by Fintan O’Toole is the best account of his life that I’ve seen. This “longer article”:http://www.bostonreview.net/BR33.4/boylan.php by Roger Boylan in the _Boston Review_ is also worth reading, as long as you take good care to stop reading at the point where Anthony Cronin, bard-befriending bollocks and professional bore, introduces himself and goes on to provide “many delightful insights” into his own “rich and various” life.

People may reasonably disagree about which are the very best bits of O’Brien’s work. My own favorite is the description of the practical philosopher De Selby’s efforts (in The Third Policeman) to take advantage of the “appreciable and calculable interval of time between the throwing by a man of a glance at his own face in a mirror and the registration of the reflected image in his eye.”

bq. De Selby, ever loath to leave well enough alone, insists on reflecting the first reflection in a further mirror and professing to detect minute changes in this second image. Ultimately he constructed the familiar arrangement of parallel mirrors, each reflecting diminishing images of an interposed object indefinitely. The interposed object in this case was De Selby’s own face and this he claims to have studied backwards through an infinity of reflectins by means of a ‘powerful glass.’ He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them – too tiny to be visible to the naked eye – being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, ‘a countenance of singular beauty and nobility.’ He did not succeed in pursuing the matter back to the cradle ‘owing to the curvature of the earth and the limitations of the telescope.’



Vance Maverick 10.05.11 at 3:00 am

Happy Birthday indeed. I admire O’Brien greatly, but this line in O’Toole:

O’Brien ought to have been a treasured mainstream figure in nationalist Ireland, a dazzling writer, working within the State apparatus, who could synthesise Gaelic and English, ancient lore and contemporary Modernism.

gives me pause, round about the middle somewhere. I can’t remember when last I heard the term “apparatus” used in this approbatory sense.


JP Stormcrow 10.05.11 at 3:49 am

They have a heart-lifted effect more usually associated with spirituous liquors, reviving and quietly restoring the spiritual tissue. . This benign property of his prose is not, one hopes, to be attributed to the reason noticed by the eccentric du Garbandier, who said ‘the beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest’.


nnyhav 10.05.11 at 4:29 am

along with last Saturday’s, last month’s Irish Times’ earlier remembrances, and a missive as good as a myles.


William Timberman 10.05.11 at 5:19 am

In America, the Irish are universally credited with — as my English/Alsatian grandmother put it — the gift of gab. I took this on faith when I was a kid, but pleasant evenings spent in certain pubs, a Chieftains’ concert or two, and hours of pleasure spent with the likes of Joyce and Frank McCourt have given me all the proof an adult needs to confirm the wisdom of his ancestors.

Anecdote: Once, at one of the concerts mentioned above, a Chieftain held up a crwth, the square Welsh harp that looks like a picture frame, and before playing it, allowed as how it was the one instrument through which one could manage a glimpse of the Celtic twilight. I was still mulling over that one thrown-away line several hours later, and marveling at the elements of which it had been composed. Are they really ALL poets, I wondered. Near enough, it seems….

O’Brien I don’t know, but thanks to the tender mercies of the CT worthies assembled, I intend to know him.


JakeB 10.05.11 at 5:36 am

It’s also well worth digging up recordings or reprints of Myles na gCopaleen if you can. Lovely stuff.


Phil 10.05.11 at 7:22 am

I reviewed Cronin’s biography of Flann O’Brien a year and a bit ago. Not a great biog, but a fascinating & sad life; he ends up seeming like a lifelong ‘might-have-been’ – even back when he was a might-have-been-to-be.


maidhc 10.05.11 at 7:47 am

I’ve heard that when at college he wrote a pornographic epic in Old Irish, which only a few people have ever seen. This would seem to be one of the most pointless things anyone could do at the place and time that he did it. Still, the little bits of Old Irish he puts into An Béal Bocht are hilarious.

I’ll drink a pint of plain to his memory.


ajay 10.05.11 at 8:49 am

People may reasonably disagree about which are the very best bits of O’Brien’s work.

I don’t think, though, that anyone can reasonably argue that the explanation of the Atomic Bicycle Theory (ibid., probably too long to quote in full) isn’t right up there in the top five.


Alex 10.05.11 at 9:04 am

I read the 3rd Policeman and the Dalkey Archive when I was 12 or thereabouts, and it was about the funniest thing I’d ever encountered, with that special surrealist feeling that somehow this ought to make sense…


yeye 10.05.11 at 9:44 am

Let’s raise a pint to Flann/Myles/Brian with the ‘pome’ from “At Swim-Two-Birds”:

For those who want to celebrate a bit longer in the pub – be aware of last orders and closing time!


Nababov 10.05.11 at 10:26 am

Us steam engine men find this
a fine photo of the gentleman in questions.


Wax Banks 10.05.11 at 1:12 pm

There was a strange moment a few years ago when a copy of The Third Policeman appeared on Lost – later to be revealed, of course, as a show about a group of murderers faffing about in a surreal allusionscape while dead – and lots of unwitting nerds, myself included, ran out to by the thing. As I recall, the publisher (Dalkey) had a hard/fun time keeping up with the sudden upsurge in demand for a book whose sales had theretofore been been, if I may, measured.

Fucking glorious book.


John Garrett 10.05.11 at 2:18 pm

I’ve stopped giving away copies of THE THIRD POLICEMAN because it’s so hard to replace it. It’s certainly one of the greatest — and perhaps the most profoundly and consistently off kilter — novels anytime anywhere. And adding favorite bits — can’t imagine missing the tiny, invisible chests of MacCruiskeen: “The one I am making now is nearly as small as nothing. Number One would hold a million of them at the same time and there would be room for a pair of woman’s horse breeches if they were rolled up.” Where is Einstein when we need him?


yeye 10.05.11 at 3:14 pm

“The Third Policeman” has actually a small but dedicated number of cult followers in Germany – also due to legendary performances of his translator, Harry Rowohlt. Some days ago he organised a 10 hrs marathon reading of the book in Hamburg to honour the centenary. The German weekly “Die Zeit” reports an audience of 200 enthusiasts most of them staying for the whole afternoon/night:
“It started with the Irish Ambassador to Germany. Dan Mulhal’s taking on the battle with the German language is a further testament to the bravery of the Irish people.”


nick s 10.05.11 at 3:20 pm

I was given the sequence from At Swim-Two-Birds introducing the Pooka as a class reading when I was thirteen, and had never encountered such an odd and wonderful thing before. Having read the novels, I stumbled across The Best of Myles at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris — an incongruous location, considering the author — and that collection’s a keeper too: I have a very soft spot for the sequence of columns on the professional book-handler, thumbing and annotating the libraries of rich, affected idiots: ‘an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten book-mark (3 per cent dis-count if old Abbey programmes are accepted).’

I’ve given upon on the hope of learning Irish well enough to appreciate An Beal Bocht.


QB 10.05.11 at 3:29 pm

I believe O’Brien, as Myles na gCopaleen, should get credit for the invention of “more in Seurat than in Ingres.” That’s a claim to immortality right there.


ajay 10.05.11 at 4:05 pm

16: agreed. His devotion to the art of the groaner was a wonderful thing.


Sammi C 10.05.11 at 4:13 pm

I too fell in love with The Third Policeman when I first read it in the 70s. Awesome stuff, I liked The Poor Mouth, The Dalkey Archive and chortled like a tripping llama at The Best of Myles, but I never got properly into At Swim Two-Birds and dismissed it after a few pages as a failed first novel – but clearly the praise here and in the cited pieces suggests that I need to go back and give it a proper whirl. I will pull it off the shelf next week and do so.

OK, an appeal to the assembled brainboxery, can someone explain a Keats and Chapman disquisition from The Best of Myles please? I’m away from home so I can’t pick up the book, but the fable ends something like

“Odi odi Prof Arnim Lucas” roared Keats.

(I might have misunderremembered the quote, but I’m sure someone can correct it!)

Please, what’s the joke? I think I understood all of the other K&C stories, but that one baffled me when I first read it 25 years ago, and I still don’t get it, despite many re-readings over the years. I don’t know the reference, I suspect it’s a Latin epigram of some sort.

In advance, thanks! And hands off the regulator when the steam’s high.

P.S. Ajay at #8:

I don’t think, though, that anyone can reasonably argue that the explanation of the Atomic Bicycle Theory (ibid., probably too long to quote in full) isn’t right up there in the top five.

That is almost an homage to Garbandier in its elliptical delicitude! I thought at first you were dissing O’Brien’s philosphico-scientific gavotte. But now my parser has grown its tree, you are forgiven, thank you for celebrating the master’s mastery.


ben w 10.05.11 at 4:56 pm

Not only the explanation of the atomic theory of the bicycle but also the exchange in which the protagonist of The Third Policeman attempts to guess the profession of the one-legged man deserve to go at the top, not least because of the latter’s disquisition on the uses of life (“You cannot eat it or drink it or smoke it in your pipe, it does not keep the rain out and it is a poor armful in the dark if you strip it and take it to bed with you after a night of porter when you are shivering with the red passion. It is a great mistake and a thing better done without, like bed-jars and foreign bacon”, or, as he goes on to explain after a bit of interruption, like bread manufactured with powerful steam machinery).

Flann O’Brien was a writer who understood how to deploy a list.


nick s 10.05.11 at 9:41 pm

Sammi C: ‘Odi profanum vulgus et arceo’, the opening of Horace, Odes III.i.


eilis 10.05.11 at 10:11 pm

Mindless trivia Рthere is a cafe called An B̩al Bocht in the Bronx.


deliasmith 10.06.11 at 12:48 am

“I like a man that sticks to his principals”


Sammi C 10.06.11 at 1:17 am

Thanks Nick S for explaining it – on the bus home I remembered the professor’s name is something like Wilkus, which fits the quote better.

I have never read Horace at all, so I suppose it’s not surprising I never understood it! Neat bit of word play, I’m sure it will make more sense if I go home and reacquaint myself with Keats and Chapman.

I liked the untranslatable bilingual punning word play and ephemerality of “Ní saoirse go Seoirse” (no liberty without [king] George” even if it had to be shoe-horned in whether the context was desirous of its presence or nay.

And the brother’s condemnation of white bread, you would feel guilty eating your breakfast toast as you read that.


Mrs Tilton 10.06.11 at 9:34 am

Nick @15,

if you want to improve your Irish, you need turn to no one other than the man oimself, who will add to your vocabulary such nuggets as:

Cur, g. curtha and cuirthe, m. – the act of putting, sending, sowing, raining, discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting; the setting of a clamp in a rick of turf; selling; addressing; the crown of cast iron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff faces; the stench of congealing badger’s suet; the luminence of glue-lice; a noise made in a house by an unauthorised person; a heron’s boil, a leprachaun’s denture; a sheep biscuit; the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump; a leak in a spirit level; the whine of a sewage-farm windmill; a corncrake’s clapper; the scum on the eye of a senile ram; a dustman’s dumpling; a beetle’s faggot; the act of loading a river-raft with ore; a dumb man’s curse; a blasket; a ‘kur’; a fiddler’s occupational disease; a fairy-godmother’s father; a hawk’s vertigo; the art of predicting past events; a wooden coat; a custard-mincer; a blue-bottle’s ‘farm’; a gravy flask; a timber-mine; a toy craw; a porridge mill; a fair-day donnybrook with nothing barred; a stoat’s stomach-pump.


ajay 10.06.11 at 9:56 am

Quaere: Did Myles inspire Beachcomber? Did Beachcomber inspire Myles? Because I can’t help thinking that The Brother and Dr Strabismus* of Utrecht might have had a lot to say to each other. And the Plain People of Ireland might well have echoed a lot of the complaints that The Public made:

The Public: What’s the point of this?
Myself: There is no point.
The Public: Then why print it?
Myself: To fill up space, you fool.

*(whom God preserve)


Henry 10.06.11 at 1:48 pm

Mrs Tilton@24 – this is made funnier if you have some familiarity with the Dineen’s dictionary (a wonderful hodge-podge) which O’Nolan is satirizing.


Barry Freed 10.06.11 at 2:24 pm

Wonderful. The actual entry is:

cur, g. cuipthe and curtha, m., act of putting, etc.; a putting away, a banishing; ag cur fearthanna, raining (U.}; ag cur sheaca, freezing; the setting or clamp in a rick or load of turf sods (U.); tá mo chroidhe ag cur orm, I have a heart ache. See cuirim.

[Just google “Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla” to find a pdf, no link because I don’t wish to be caught in spam trap hell]


Mrs Tilton 10.06.11 at 3:04 pm

Henry @ 24,

beagánín beag cur amach a bheith agam ar an tAthair Pádraig, but you’re right and well done Barry for posting the original!


ben w 10.06.11 at 5:29 pm

Behold! They’re publishing a column a day every day this month!

I am particularly fond of this chilling tale.


bos 10.06.11 at 7:38 pm

Was Flann O’Brien Ireland’s Nostradamus?

“Neither profitable nor popular” is probably the best description of the financial ‘industry’ that Ireland has served so well in recent years.


mor 10.07.11 at 10:51 am

Myles na gCopalleen is sometimes translated as Myles of the Little Horses which gives him a Native American flavour or at least a fondness for Shetland ponies. To correct this all to prevalent misunderstanding it signifies his predilection for placing little bets. On what you may ask? Little horses. Now that has been cleared up the Brother wishes it to be known that Fintan O’Toole was invented by him at 4am. on January the 25th. 1950. At this time the Brother was undergoing a crisis vulgarly known as ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ brought on by a bad bottle of stout. He foresaw that as we approached the centenary of the Blood Sacrifice (1916) the country would fall into spasms of what can only be termed idiocy. This has come to pass and his creation has proved very handy producing regular O’Tooleeens, or tracts in the Times. They have been a steady light and a clarification qua clarification, per se, that banishes the ignis fatuus of ….


Salient 10.10.11 at 5:52 pm

…I am a little disappointed that we’re not all convening here to discuss how to overthrow Henry by writing a blog post in which he loses his CT password, only to have the comments thread expire and close right before we finish.

At Swim-Two-Birds might be my favorite novel not about the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, but strangely I didn’t know anything about the newspaper articles — a thousand thank yous to ben w for the link to republications!

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