What, and where, is Gaelic? It is a language which has long been spoken, and which is still spoken, in three different forms, in western communities of the British Isles, and the literature of that language has not ceased. In the rest of Britain and in America, a descent from Gaelic stock is common enough: nevertheless, in these quarters, the language and the literature are barely acknowledged to exist.

Gaelic is spoken, and is officially approved and enjoined, in the Republic of Ireland. It is spoken by some seventy to eighty thousand people, in the northwest of Scotland and in the Western Isles, but is Greek to all but a few of the inhabitants of the Scottish Lowlands, where I grew up. The language is also spoken in Wales. In none of these three regions is it in the best of health, but, as I say, it is still spoken, and in a variety of ways: spontaneously, officially, pacifically, polemically.

The zeal which led to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 has yet to lay down its arms, and the translations from the Gaelic which I shall write about have been published at a time when it might seem reasonable to claim that the Gaeltacht, the Gaelic hinterland, is engaged in a terrorist war in order to drive the British out of Ulster and to do away with Protestant supremacy there. In the later nineteenth century—at a time when, in Scotland, the British state was attempting to stop the mouth of the Gaelic language once and for all—Irish nationalism meant an allegiance to Catholicism and to Gaelic culture, with its sports, brotherhoods, and bishop’s blessing, and the survival of that culture has been influenced by political factors which include the tradition of irredentist violence associated with the IRA. This does not mean, however, that the present IRA are the voice of the Gaelic hinterland. They stand no chance of being elected to power in Ireland itself, and they have no real following among the Gaels of Scotland and Wales.

What happened was that the Gaels were taken into the British Empire, and that some broke away from it again: their exit is still in progress, and may be thought to have outlasted that empire. Literary history follows the flag. Such works are full of nationalistic feeling, and of a feeling for empires. So it’s not surprising that the neighboring literatures of Gaelic Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are sometimes invisible to historians of British literature, and that the very names of the principal Gaelic writers are probably unknown to many members of those university departments of English in Britain which, since the Second World War, have shown so keen an interest in the literature of the American Empire. Scholars tend to forget what their empire has destroyed, but they do not forget what is due to other empires, and in the 1950s British literary historians decided it was high time they had schools of American studies. I realize that American studies are interesting. And I realize that Gaelic is a foreign language, and that this has been a difficulty: but English departments have been willing to struggle with such difficulties elsewhere.

Flann O’Brien’s real name was Brian O’Nolan, and Brian O’Nolan was bi-or bri-lingual. That is to say, he wrote in a peculiar way, and wrote both in Gaelic and in English. He had, in fact, three names: his fiction was written by Flann O’Brien and his mocking journalism by Myles na Gopaleen. He was the author of a play and of five “novels,” which may appear to require inverted commas—a type of punctuation he was often to use in the course of his derisions.

Four of the novels, of which At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are the best known, are in English, and one is in Gaelic. The Gaelic novel An Béal Bocht, or The Poor Mouth, has been mentioned with respect for thirty years by those who speak Gaelic. Now it has been translated, by “Patrick C. Power MA, PhD,” into an English which reads, and reads aloud, beautifully, and which has what could be called an effortless singularity. The translator’s degrees, and name, have the air of a joke by Flann O’Brien, who died in 1966 and who used to cast aspersions on literary scholarship, on Masters of Arts and Doctors of Philosophy. I am quite prepared to be told it’s been all round Dublin for years that Patrick Power is a fourth name for that singular person Brain O’Nolan, who translated the novel himself.

O’Nolan (hereinafter to be called O’Brien) was something of a seannachie—a Gaelic word for that singular Gaelic person, the storyteller. But he was not the sort of seannachie who writes novels. His novels are no more novels than Carroll’s Alice books are, being vehicles for a play of wit and fantasy, lyrical, satirical, and surreal. Flights and gags and conundrums are preferred to plot, character, and conclusion, and set up a system of internal relations which resembles the structure of a symbolist poem. It is of Carroll that his novels (hereinafter to be called novels) vividly remind one—as much as of Joyce, by whose works, and legend, and devoted tribe of simpleton American thesis-writers, O’Brien seems to have been obsessed. For Myles na Gopaleen, O’Brien’s journalistic self, James Joyce was “a complete prig, a snob, and a person possessed of endowment unique in the archives of conceit”: this might be the voice of a wounded love. Thirteen years earlier, in 1944, the same journalist had asserted that, apart from Joyce and Yeats, Irish writers were “literary vermin, an eruption of literary scabies.”


Irish writers were faced, in the Thirties, with a choice between contributing to a nationalist concern with the protection of Gaelic culture and the folk tradition, and siding with those who wanted to be Modern and to follow Joyce into a literal or figurative exile. This seannachie, who was also a Gaelic scholar, stayed at home: but he did not side with the nationalists, and what he wrote, in Gaelic and out of it, was distinctively Modern. Irish literature since Yeats and Joyce has known a striking austerity—evident in the novels and plays of Beckett, the verse of Patrick Kavanagh, and the stories of O’Brien: three grim men, who appear to bring news, among other things, of a society in which sex is wrong and in which violence and drunkenness are more widely honored than they are in most places.

Those singular persons, storytellers, are plural and plentiful in Ireland. Even tycoons tell tall stories. Tony O’Reilly, a star rugby-player turned tycoon, who left the game to be placed at the head of the Heinz Corporation in Pittsburgh, tells this story about himself. Late in his sporting life, he was recalled to the Ireland side to play against England. The captain of the Ireland team looked at the plump, mellow businessman in the dressing-room before the game and said in the scrannel tones of Ulster: “Your best attacking move would be to shake your jowls at them.”

I am repeating this story because I have just heard it, and am too weak to withhold it, but it also enables me to pursue the description of the stories told by O’Brien. The story has recurrence in it, and redundancy, and negation and death. O’Brien has all this, galore, and he is full of attacking moves, shaking his jowls at Gael-fancying pedants, Joyceans, and other delinquents. He was always interested in the jowls, and jaws, of things. Moreover, he is full of humor. To revive an old sally of Penelope Gilliatt’s from a discussion of Freud’s treatment of wit, it can fairly be said of O’Brien, as it cannot be said of Shaw, that something funny is forever crawling out of the “jokework.”

A man who can refer to a bed as a “tender tressle” is funny. But O’Brien’s many beds are almost wholly free from tender wrestles. The indecencies that occur there are the indecencies of indolence. The only sensualities that I can remember in his writings are lavished on a bicycle. In a learned and informative account of these writings, “Brian O’Nolan: Literalist of the Imagination” (which appears in a collection of reminiscences entitled Myles), J.C.C. Mays salutes the humor of his journalism for being “remarkably free from indecency.” It is spoken of as “austere, self-sufficing, pure,” and as remote “from emotional entanglement.” Mays objects to the amount of malice and murderousness that accompanies the humor of the fiction, but does not stir toward the suggestion that there are those in whom purity can be found to be emotionally entangled with hostility.

Fortunately, O’Brien was sufficiently impure to volunteer one of the most exquisite jokes ever made about the purity of the Irish. In The Third Policeman the police sergeant is talking to the narrator about a man he had once interviewed, “a true family husband”: “he had a wife and ten sonnies and at that time he had the wife again in a very advanced state of sexuality.” It is worth remembering that “again,” and noticing what happens next.

“That was me,” I said, smiling.

“That was you,” he agreed. “What way are the ten strong sons?”

“All gone to America.”

“That is a great conundrum of a country,” said the Sergeant, “a very wide territory, a place occupied by black men and strangers. I am told they are very fond of shooting-matches in that quarter.”

“It is a queer land,” I said.

Since the novel appeared, Ireland has had more shooting-matches per head of the population than almost any other part of the world which is nominally at peace. Who can doubt that this, too, is a queer land?


Earlier I mentioned redundancy, and O’Brien’s fiction has a good deal of that. With his otiose names and spare tongue, he was himself a tautology. Pleonasm is a use of language which displays elaboration or excess, and at different levels his was a pleonastic art. His novels contain duplication and repetition, and incorporate parodies of other people’s writings; one subplot is mirrored in another; doors open into the room you are about to quit. In At Swim-Two-Birds there are two types of repetition which invite particular attention. The novel makes use of the medieval Gaelic poem “The Frenzy of Sweeny”: Sweeny was a king who insulted a cleric, thereby sustaining a curse which dispatched him over the hills and into the bushed with the birds and beasts, a raving, roosting outcast. Sweeny’s ordeal by thorn and briar is re-enacted by someone else, all of which permits a great and excessive dwelling on rending and dismemberment.

In addition, the legendary Finn MacCool introduces into the novel a burlesque version, but one that is essentially respectful, of Sweeny’s stanzas, which are charged with pleonasm. Sweeny, the landscape-lover, spells out the virtues of Glen Bolcain, where he perches: “good its cress-green cresses,” “good its yewy yew-yews.” This is a celebration of Celtic pleonasm as it may be witnessed, in its palmy days, in medieval poetry, and there are similar celebrations elsewhere in O’Brien. Landscape can also exact the tribute of a somewhat different sort of tautology. A landscape which confronts the narrator in The Third Policeman had been “given a shape of sharpness or roundness that was faultlessly suitable to its nature.” God’s plenty is nothing to Flann O’Brien’s.

O’Brien’s cresslike cresses, pointed points, an imaginary title like The Closed Cloister, his elaborations and embellishments, his seemingly unending cycles and recurrences—these can look like a fulfillment of the hereditary patterns and predilections of Celtic art. His excesses recall, and occasionally imitate, the rhetoric of classical Gaelic poetry, the grace notes of bagpipe music, the convolutions and circularities of the illuminated manuscript, of the brooch, of the Celtic cross. The snakelike snakes of his stories have a way of swallowing their own tails: his interest in such shapes, and in bicycles, being that of a man who is interested in eternity (he is also interested in hell).

These interests may be interpreted as belonging to an art which is practiced for its own sake, which is austere, self-sufficing, pure. But there may be those who interpret them with reference to the circumstances of O’Brien’s own late-Gaelic society, and who insist that this is an art of tautology, a gratuitous art, a celibate’s art, in the sense that it appears to belong to a country in which climaxes are considered disgraceful, and who are reminded, by a purple patch of O’Brien’s about an arsenal of bombs and guns, of the pure and austere mutilators who compose the IRA. Here, it might be thought, is an art which repeats itself, goes in circles and does not end, and which gives a picture of the neverendingness of Ireland, of its over and over again, its forever after and its waiting for Godot. It is both an old and a new art: each of his works, in the self-sufficing Modern way, lies enclosed in the cloister of its peculiar language, but that language, to the extent of its capacity for piety and for parody, opens onto the works of the ethnic past, each with its own enclosures and excesses.

The truth is that O’Brien’s excesses, and those which have preceded them, are a complex business, and are difficult for a foreigner to interpret. There are occasions when this abundance can seem like a figure of speech for its opposite—for scarcity or dearth. We seem then to be in a world—any one of a succession of Gaelic worlds—where watercress is as good as a feast because there is not much else to eat, and where one thing can hardly be compared to another because there is only the one thing. What, in former times, would the très riches heures of the Duke of Antrim have consisted in? The feasts of the famous are envied in medieval Gaelic verse, and their charities are commended. These poems make you think that their authors knew what it was to be on the lookout for cresses and to need to be sure of your nine bean rows. The “great hunger” is a name for the famine of the 1840s, but the history of Ireland at large has been a history of hunger, and much of its early literature is a dream of repletion, and of power. In recent times—or so the art of Flann O’Brien might suggest—that literature has dreamed of destruction.

The Poor Mouth is a copious treatment of the subject of scarcity, and it reaches its climax, such as it is, in an imagined abundance, a magic windfall feast complete with fairy gold. History does not exist for the people of the tale. The present has swallowed the past, there has always been dearth, and the folk mind thinks hard about potatoes.

This wonderful book was published in 1941, two years after At Swim-Two Birds, his first major effort, and about a year before Patrick Kavanagh’s long poem “The Great Hunger.” “Patrick Power” has translated the third edition, which has emendations, and a set of satirical—or, in Dublin parlance, cod or codological—footnotes by the novelist. It is a better book, in my view, than either At Swim or The Third Policeman. All three books represent collections of episodes, but The Poor Mouth, copious but short, has more of a point, a pointed point. It has none of the desultoriness which the unending can produce, and which is produced in the other two works. It even has an ending. At Swim appears, significantly enough, to have been cut down to publishable size by another hand (so, of course, was The Waste Land). O’Brien prided himself on the “plot” of The Third Policeman, but this may have been codology. He also talked, in the same breath, of the narrator’s being in hell, and of his being a hell, and a killer. But the narrator is experienced by the reader as courteous, forlorn, and delightful, and he does not appear to experience the pains of the damned.

The narrator of The Poor Mouth is Bonaparte O’Coonassa, a pauper from the West of Ireland in the days when all Gaels were ruled by the English. Gaelic is officially discouraged, and it is also being defended and preserved. “Pauper” is a metonymy for any native of these parts, all of them being destitute or near it. O’Coonassa is a member of a caste of pauper distinguished for the rare quality of his poverty, and he picks his way, episode by episode, through the hunger, calamity, and vomiting oceanic downpours of the region, only to fetch up in jail for theft: but what is theft for the Anglo-Irish court which tries him is, for O’Coonassa, a lighting upon gold and streams of whisky. O’Coonassa is a kind of Candide, whose language parodies that used by Gaels who have told the story of their sufferings and scarcities.

A “poor mouth” is the native stratagem of pleading poverty, or grumbling, in order to gain advantage, but there is plenty of authentic poverty to plead. The poverty of the place is rendered by means of excess, exaggeration, the huge enlargement of specific features—by means of pleonasm and metonymy. The West of Ireland is pigs, potatoes, rain, famine, Gaels’ guile, theft, and frenzied scarecrow Sweenies. To live “in the old Gaelic manner” is to be “wet and hungry by day and by night and unhealthy, having nothing in the future but rain, famine and ill-luck.” Among these paupers arrive, each year, the Gaeligores from the East: middleclass men hungry for the old Gaelic manner, detaining paupers in awkward conversation, marveling at their poor mouths, savoring their high-grade destitution, and recording their precious, vulnerable folkways.

A foreword written in 1964, apparently by O’Brien, contains this: “As Standish Hayes O’Grady says ‘the day is drawing to a close and the sweet wee maternal tongue has almost ebbed.”‘ Once the Irish had claimed their independence, the Gaeligores came into their own, and the sweet wee maternal tongue was made compulsory by a government which saw that it was taught in schools and which raised up bilingual street signs. Gaeligores can scarcely have approved of this novel, and it is odd that they did not try to ban it as an un-Irish activity. A superb scene describes a festival at which one of them exhorts the paupers:

If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.

These are very like the tautologies of Dr. Goebbels, who was still delivering such messages when O’Brien was at work on the book. His book is decorated with Celtic conversational courtesies and mannered modes of address. It is delicately excessive and plethoric: you could say that it was written in a vein of sustained hyperbole of which this passage is a good example. So is the episode of O’Coonassa’s untutored drunkenness:

If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life.

The humor is often aimed, in contempt, at Gaeligoric falsity. The conduct of these men amounts to an unpropitious attempt to exploit people who have known how to deceive, but not how to defeat, previous exploiters. This, perhaps, is the main point. But there is another point too. O’Coonassa’s dealings with his misfortunate mother and crafty grandfather, the Old-Grey-Fellow, and his departure for prison (on his way there, he meets and fails to recognize his father, jailed long before), come creeping out at you through the jokework and the artwork. They are very moving, though it is possible that O’Brien would not have wanted this said.

O’Brien is one of several Irish writers who are far from submissive to the moralistic attitudes of Anglo-Saxon criticism, who refuse to present, or elicit, a moving moral, and who will sometimes appear to be all stealth and obliquity, all averted eye and inverted comma: what might pass for an exercise of native cunning has a way, of course, of also being Modernism. For all his Irish or avant-garde avertedness, however, perhaps O’Brien would have been willing to grant that it need not be Gaeligoric to feel sorry for the Gaeligores’ victims in The Poor Mouth, while laughing at their victimized airs and graces.

No one who is curious about the three Gaelic literatures should fail to read The Poor Mouth. Those who are partly of Irish extraction, as I am myself, are likely to feel such a curiosity, touched with shame at their ignorance of the language, and to want to peer over the wall, as I am doing now, into the Gaelic garden, which is still bearing fruit. These feelings are quite compatible with an irreverence for what is sometimes regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the museum aspects, and Gaeligoric aspects, of Gaelic culture, by which I mean eisteddfods (druidical bardic palavers and prize-givings) and ceilidhs (evenings of folk music and story). Two other books have recently been published which will be of assistance to those in this situation, and I shall say something about them in a further article.

(This is the first of two articles.)

This Issue

May 1, 1975