Flann O'Brien
Flann O'Brien; drawing by David Levine

A mean life may have a tragic cast to it, and vice versa. The Irish writer Flann O’Brien was dour, suspicious, argumentative—sometimes to the point of physical violence—petty-minded, careless of his own talent, and, especially in his later years, a bibulous bore. This misanthrope and likely misogynist was also the author of one of the most admired and widely read comic novels of the century, At Swim-Two-Birds, and a fictional masterpiece, The Third Policeman, which remained unpublished in his own lifetime—he died in 1966 when he was fifty-five—and which he cannibalized for a much inferior work, The Dalkey Archive (his latest American publishers have been unwise enough to adopt its title as a trade name). The portrait of O’Brien by his sometime acquaintance—friend would be too strong a word—and drinking companion Anthony Cronin is not a pretty one, though it is unnervingly honest. O’Brien was, Cronin writes,

a humorous writer with an unusually strong, indeed very often a nothing less than fierce, sense of propriety. This…accounts for his ire where the behaviour and pronouncements of politicians and other public figures are concerned; his impatience with the slips and mistakes of the bureaucracy of which he was for so long a member, the activities of Dublin Corporation and much else….

I also think…that this fierce sense of propriety of his applied as well to the moral order of the universe, which he felt to be somehow askew. This was a way of perceiving the world which gave a peculiar twist to his Catholicism and resulted in an attitude that can best be described in terms of the ancient Manichaean belief, which has surfaced at least three times in the history of Christendom as a Christian heresy.

Such a description will probably surprise, perhaps even appall, readers who know O’Brien only from At Swim, though not those who have ventured into the weird world of The Third Policeman, a darkly absurd work shot through with manic laughter, and informed throughout by that sinister nonsense which is the true stamp of O’Brien’s artistry. But the fact is O’Brien the man was depressingly characteristic of his time and place, in many ways epitomizing that brand of Irishness before the contagious threat of which Joyce and Beckett and so many others fled the country of their birth as soon as they could scrape together the boat fare. If O’Brien had chosen to live outside Ireland, would he, like those other illustrious exiles, have taken on a cosmopolitan polish and, breathing the heady air of abroad, learned to live, and write, more freely?

This is not idle speculation. If, as Auden suggested, mad Ireland drove Yeats to poetry, the gray Ireland of the interwar years drove Flann O’Brien not only to drink, but to that contempt for life and art which crippled both his art and his life. In 1937, when O’Brien was twenty-five, his father died suddenly, leaving him effectively the head of the family and its sole breadwinner. In accepting this responsibility, O’Brien, as Cronin writes, was divorcing himself from one of the great artistic myths of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “the perception of the artist as one whose primary concern is to find the mode of life which will best serve his art; even one who may, if he is thoroughgoing enough, acknowledge no duty but to his art.” This myth, says Cronin,

has destroyed its share of lives, or at least cut them off from ordinary human relationships, as well as causing some of those who attempted to live by it extreme moral suffering. But it could be argued that in [O’Brien’s] case, he was, in time, destroyed by its opposite, by a too ready acceptance of the necessity of emulating the life pattern of the majority who do not have a special vocation and are not burdened by the claims of art.

O’Brien regarded the claims of art as ludicrous, or at least gave a fair impression that he did; the attitude he took to his own writing was that it was little more than a (vain) attempt to get rich quick. The Irish writers of his own generation, in both the English and Irish languages, who had remained to live and work in Ireland, he regarded with undisguised—and in some cases justified—contempt, while for the great exemplar of his time, James Joyce, he nursed a grudging, resentful, and envious admiration. His life, like the fictional world he created, is lit, if that is the word, by a flickering and intermittent radiance generated from a passion for correctitude, of behavior and of language. He was a philistine as well as a consummate prose stylist, an artist who threw away his talent, a Catholic who allowed himself to drift into the terrible sin of despair, a great comic sensibility thwarted and shriveled by emotional self-denial. The title Anthony Cronin has chosen for his biography of this strange, twisted, tragic figure is apt. Indeed, there is little to laugh about here.


Flann O’Brien was born Brian O’Nolan, or Nolan, or Ó Nualláin (the family’s spelling of its name was oddly arbitrary), in the town of Strabane, in County Tyrone, just north of what is now the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. His father, Michael, was stationed there as a customs and excise officer. O’Nolan père, who later, in the 1920s, was to become a revenue commissioner in the newly established Irish Free State, was an uncommunicative but not unloving father, a recognizable Irish phenomenon (he would take his boys for long walks, “silent tramps,” Cronin writes, which “remained one of his primary methods of communication with his three eldest sons”). With his wife, Agnes née Gormley, the daughter of a prominent business family in Omagh, where he was born, Michael O’Nolan produced twelve children, of whom Brian was the third boy.

Michael’s job entailed an amount of travel about the country, and the family moved frequently, from Strabane to Glasgow, to Strabane again, to Tullamore, a town in the featureless Irish midlands, the landscape of which is the unnamed location of The Third Policeman (in this novel, Cronin remarks, “Hell is situated somewhere near Tullamore”), and finally to Dublin. There they lived for a time in a rented Georgian house in Herbert Place, where the novelist Elizabeth Bowen had partly spent her childhood. It is a characteristic oddity of Dublin life, then as now, that these two wonderful Irish writers, utterly dissimilar in background, temperament, and artistic method, should have passed parts of their childhoods on the same short stretch of street.

Michael O’Nolan was a nonmilitant Irish nationalist, and the children’s first language was Irish. The boys in their early years were educated at home, which was highly unusual in that time and class. The period in Strabane, therefore, was a schoolless idyll, the loss of which may have marked Brian for life. The O’Nolans were, Cronin writes, “one of those self-contained and inventive large families who seem to need nothing from outside.” The independence and self-sufficiency the boys learned at home left them unprepared for the brutality and mind-numbing regimentation of a Christian Brothers education, which they embarked upon when, shortly after the final move to Dublin, they entered the “sinister portals of Synge Street School.” Here is a description of life at the school, given years later by Brian in his “Cruiskeen Lawn” (Irish for “The Little Full Glass”) column in The Irish Times:

Teachers were both Christian Brothers and laymen and, though they were not by any means uniformly savage, the worst of them were scarcely human at all. To a coarseness of personality they added abnormal intellectual ignorance and uncouthness. No matter how bright a lad was with his Latin, God help him if his translation did not accord literally with what was in the Bell’s Key to the Classics as concealed in the teacher’s copy of the text.

The O’Nolan boys had a hard time catching up, and Brian was to remain in one class for three years before being allowed to sit his intermediate examination, which he passed with honors.

It is possible that Brian O’Nolan’s happiest, or his least unhappy, years were those he spent as a student at University College, Dublin, originally founded by Cardinal Newman, and attended by, among other well-known if less awesome figures, James Joyce. Here Brian at last began to make friends, a number of whom remained close to him for the rest of his life. Though not a particularly brilliant student, he had a brilliant reputation, and he sought and to an extent achieved popularity among the “‘hard men’ or ‘hard chaws’ as they were known in UCD.” Ireland in those years was a grim place for a young man of Brian O’Nolan’s temperament and ambitions. Recently granted independence from England and struggling to establish itself as a functioning entity, the country was extremely puritanical and inward-looking. As Cronin pithily observes, “The politics and public life of the Free State were governed by the values of the peasant and bourgeois elements who had been the principal beneficiaries of the struggle against Britain.” For Brian O’Nolan and his friends, held fast between the pincer-teeth of Church and State while yearning toward the freedoms of the Europe of Joyce and Beckett, the only escape was a combination of drink, talk, and “a basic irreverence and cynicism which are never far from the surface in Ireland.” As a result, there was fostered among them “a curious kind of latter-day aestheticism.” As Cronin writes,


You were in an ambiguous, not to say dishonest position, morally, socially and intellectually. You were a conformist among other conformists in terms of the most important social or philosophical questions you could face. But yet you knew about modern art and literature. You had read most of the great moderns and, above all, you had read James Joyce. That was what marked you out as different, the joke you shared against the rabblement of which you were otherwise a part.

The young Brian O’Nolan was a confirmed Europhile, but as with many others of his type, his Europe was a place of the mind. In his life he made only one trip abroad, a somewhat mysterious jaunt to Germany, and he had scant grasp of living European languages. Cronin writes: “His gods and the gods of his friends were the gods of the time, big and little: Eliot, Joyce, Aldous Huxley and Hemingway”; he also read translations of Proust, Kafka, and Kierkegaard. He had little time for the Irish Literary Revival, was cool toward Yeats, and despised Synge, as he did writers such as Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faoláin, those “rather whimsical poetic realists,” as they are called by Cronin, who evidently shares O’Brien’s disdain.

In his university years O’Nolan contributed to college magazines, under various pseudonyms, a number of lively squibs and fictional fragments, in English and Irish, the most significant of which was a piece in which the characters created by a certain Brother Barnabas are conspiring together to murder the author. Here clearly is the germ of At Swim-Two-Birds. This novel was written at some time in the mid-1930s. Cronin is an acute literary critic, and he writes illuminatingly of the models O’Brien may have followed in its composition. The two principal devices of the book are “the juxtaposition of myth with sordid contemporary reality and the novel within a novel.” The former device had of course been employed to high comic effect in Ulysses. For the latter Cronin suggests possible sources ranging from Tristram Shandy and Huxley’s Point Counter Point to James Branch Cabell’s novel The Cream of the Jest, in which the narrator is revealed to be the creation of another novelist, who is himself, of course, the creation of James Branch Cabell.

The title is a translation from the Irish Snámh Dá Éan, a place which figures in the ancient Gaelic cycle of poems about King Sweeney (a cycle which has inspired many Irish writers, including Seamus Heaney). In the novel the nameless narrator is a feckless college student living with his uncle in the Dublin of the 1930s. (This uncle is a splendid comic creation: “Red-faced, bead-eyed, ball-bellied. Fleshy about the shoulders with long swinging arms giving ape-like effect to gait. Large moustache. Holder of Guinness clerkship the third class.”)

The joke of the book, and the source of its originality, is that it follows with unrelenting logic the implications of its basic conceits. Dermot Trellis is writing a novel the characters of which have secretly banded together to destroy him, and seem set to succeed when a servant girl accidentally burns the manuscript, sending the conspirators to perdition. Along the way the reader is carried through a dizzying set of permutations involving the Pooka MacPhellimey (a pooka is a kind of Puck-like sprite), various Dublin characters including John Furriskey, who was born, in Trellis’s fancy, at the age of twenty-five, “with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it.” We meet assorted legendary heroes, such as the Irish giant Finn McCool, as well as fairies, virtuous maidens, and a band of urban cowboys (Trellis also writes Westerns) who operate out of the Dublin suburb of Ringsend.

It is a young man’s book—O’Brien himself in later life dismissed it as “mere juvenilia”—yet it is a startlingly original and inventive work of art. The young author—O’Nolan was in his twenties—maintains a remarkable control on his intentionally chaotic material. Despite the Chinese-box construction, the narrative is always clear. The book is striking stylistically, too. The hand of Joyce may fall heavily on the passages of gigantism involving Finn and Sweeney, but for the most part the voice is singular, and astonishingly confident of its effects. It is also a very funny book, at least on a first reading—and what comic novel can survive more than one reading? Here, in a much-quoted passage which can nevertheless bear quoting again, the narrator and his friend Kelly are walking the streets after a night’s boozing:

Afterwards, near Lad Lane police station a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French nation. He was animated, his pale features striking in the starlight and his voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum. I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of close attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-coloured puke. Many other things happened on that night now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lane, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the name of Rousseau will always recall to me.

Alarge part of the comic effect here lies in the extreme control of tone, which is mild, wistful, almost disinterested and, as always in Flann O’Brien’s work, slightly skewed against the norms of quotidian reality. As Cronin remarks, O’Brien “writes English as if it were a dead language which had to be written with the more correctitude because of that….” As a comic artist, he combines the hilarious impassivity of Buster Keaton with Chaplin’s manic energy and menace. When, years later, he came to write The Third Policeman, he had honed this style to cold perfection; here the voice—the narrator is dead—is impersonal yet insistent, and always unsettlingly suggestive.

In 1935, O’Nolan applied for a position in the Irish Civil Service, and was duly appointed a junior administrative officer. His salary was å£180 a year, rising to å£400, with a cost of living bonus of å£72. These were not princely sums, but they would have been sufficient for a young man to maintain himself in comfort and even some style. Two years later, however, when, as his younger brother Micheál put it, “Brian, at 25, had a good job, plenty of money,…owned a Morris 8,…was a bachelor living at home,…was at the height of his powers and the world was at his feet,” their father died suddenly. “From then on,” Cronin writes, “[Brian] seems to have slipped easily enough, with some part of himself, into the role of paterfamilias.”

No doubt his Catholic faith, which he was never to lose, sustained him in the grim task of caring for his siblings and his widowed mother. In his job he took his responsibilities seriously. He was an assiduous and capable bureaucrat—his reports were famous within the Service for their elegance, accuracy, and acid wit—and seems, in the beginning, at least, to have taken pride and even some pleasure in the work. As the years went on, however, and literary fame and fortune eluded him, the reins of of-fice began to chafe. He sustained himself spiritually by his writing, which he did in whatever time he could spare from his job and his position as head of the household. He wrote The Third Policeman,1 for which he could not find a publisher, and which he was to plunder for large parts of The Dalkey Archive (Cronin: “He was mining a masterwork to produce the dull dross of a tired and inferior one”), and An Beal Bocht (translated posthumously as The Poor Mouth2 ), a wickedly accurate parody of Irish-language peasant memoirs, which were piously revered in the Ireland of the time. He also embarked on a daily column for The Irish Times under the pen name Myles na Gopaleen (Miles of the Little Horses), in which he produced some of his funniest and most crazily inventive work.

And, unexpectedly, he married. AsCronin writes,

Most of Brian O’Nolan’s friends regarded him as a natural celibate, even a kind of anchorite, fierce and formidable rather than effete or emasculated, the cells of whose hermitage were the pubs, from which women were for the most part debarred.

Nevertheless, in 1948, at the age of thirty-seven, after going out with her for a year, he proposed to and was accepted by Evelyn McDonnell, a farmer’s daughter from north County Dublin and a typist in his section of the Department of Local Government. Cronin is reticent in the matter of this marriage; he knew Evelyn, and probably feels that the less said the better about her relations with this peculiar man: “She realized quite early that she was dealing with an unusual and in some ways very difficult human being, but she realized too that he had uncommon abilities.” What she did not realize, until after she had married him, was the extent of her husband’s drinking. In fact, he was already an alcoholic. For O’Brien, as for so many of his contemporaries, drinking, the vice irlandais, was, Cronin remarks, “a serious and, in a way, sober business.” It was of course an anesthetic for the troubled soul.

Brian O’Nolan entered middle age an embittered failure in his own eyes. His books had not brought him the fame and riches he longed for, and his job in the Civil Service was becoming intolerable. His attacks on public figures in his column in the Times grew more and more vituperative, and finally led to his superiors in the Service demanding that he retire. He went willingly, though on an inadequate pension, and in the words of a colleague departed the Service “in a final fanfare of fucks.”

Now his days took on a numbing regularity. He and Evelyn moved to a nondescript bungalow in a drab suburb, whence he would sally at mid-morning and take the bus to town and the pubs that were his refuge—the Palace, near the Irish Times offices, the Bailey, off Grafton Street, or McDaid’s, the haunt of Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan and other, lesser, Dublin wits—where he would while away the tedious hours in talk and drink; Cronin tells of frequently “leaving him home” already crapulous and befuddled at four in the afternoon. Despite the drink, however, he continued doggedly to write, always in pursuit of that elusive “break” that would bring in pots of money and secure him the recognition he knew should be his. At Swim-Two-Birds was reissued in 1960, and although by now he had come to hate it—“a painfully bad book”—its new lease on life brought international attention, and encouraged him to renewed efforts.

The result was The Hard Life, a short comic novel which Cronin calls “a small masterpiece,” surely an overstatement, despite the subduing adjective. Again there is a nameless narrator who recounts the doings of the characters around him with a remote, faintly disdainful calmness and clarity. The book is set in the same turn-of-the-century Dublin as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, and is, as Cronin says, “basically a sequence of jokes, often dependent for their effect on a mild feeling of outrage…,” though it is hard to know who would be even mildly outraged by such comic touches as the name of the psoriatic Jesuit, Father Fahrt, or the efforts of the Dickensian Mr. Collopy to provide public lavatories for women. However, Cronin is right when he says that “the conversation pieces are classics of pointless dialectic”—a brand of comedy Myles na Gopaleen had spent years perfecting in his Irish Times column—and that “the seediness of a run-down middle-class life largely confined to kitchen and basement is superbly conveyed.”

O’Nolan had high hopes that The Hard Life would be banned by the State: “Nearly every professional Irish author had had a book banned and O’Nolan’s gleeful anticipation of the prospect makes it clear that he was anxious to join the club.” He was deluded, of course; Brian O’Nolan, practicing Catholic and defender of the polite proprieties, was incapable of writing an indecent book. The Hard Life was praised by the reviewers, but sales were moderate. Graham Greene, who in 1939 had championed Flann O’Brien’s first novel, wrote to O’Nolan now: “At Swim-Two-Birds has remained to my mind ever since it first appeared as one of the best books of our century. But my God, what a long time it has been waiting for the next one.”

What a pity Greene had not read The Third Policeman. This novel, completed early in 1940, is a comprehensive expression of that Manichaean world view which Cronin rightly identifies as the main component of Flann O’Brien’s aesthetic. It is a sort of comedy, a sort of thriller, a sort of joke philosophical treatise. The narrator seems to be trapped in a timeless hell and looks on everything, no matter how crazy or ghastly or incomprehensible, including the crime he committed, with the placid, pitiless stare of a child watching one animal eating another. Here are the opening sentences:

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

The presiding authority in the book is one de Selby, a philosopher invented by the author, whose theories are discussed at length in the text and in increasingly elaborate, solemn, and absurd footnotes. Among de Selby’s doctrines is the contention that night is “an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air.”3 There is also much business with bicycles—a thesis might be written, perhaps is being written, on the place of the bicycle in the works of Flann O’Brien and Beckett. Over all the narrative hangs a sense of petrified guilt which is very Catholic, and very Irish. “If [O’Brien] had any doubts about the faith in which he was brought up,” Cronin writes, “they were on Manichaean grounds; somehow perhaps the balance of good and evil in the universe as we know it had been disturbed in favour of evil.” As the narrator of At Swim has it, “Evil is even, truth is an odd number and death is a full stop.”

The early years of the 1960s saw O’Nolan desperately seeking for ways to supplement his meager pension. Cronin’s account of these efforts makes for sad reading. O’Nolan wrote a television situation comedy for the comedian Jimmy O’Dea, which was a mild success but led nowhere. He applied to be taken on as a hack writer of Sexton Blake thrillers. He sought a job in a bookshop. He proposed writing television advertisements for Guinness. He even tried to get back into the Civil Service as a parliamentary translator. “The acuteness of his anxiety about means of subsistence,” Cronin writes, “may be measured by his willingness to spend his days turning the hated Dáil [Parliament] oratory into Irish, and by the fact that he could contemplate returning to an ambience which, in retrospect anyway, he hated.”

His health began seriously to deteriorate; he suffered numerous mishaps, and was often in hospital. At home, he passed a large part of his days in bed. After a break of ten months, and an aborted attempt to write a new novel called, inauspiciously, Slattery’s Sago Saga, he returned to producing his column for The Irish Times, encouraged by the then editor, Douglas Gageby, who reached an agreement with “Myles,” as he was called by all who knew him at the newspaper, whereby he would deliver his copy direct to Gageby, who would edit it and print it entire, providing it did not contain libels. The agreement almost foundered when the first piece under the new dispensation was discovered to contain gross errors of fact about the extremely powerful Archbishop of Dublin, the feared and loathed John Charles McQuaid.

In mid-1965 O’Nolan developed ear pains and swellings in the neck. He was now too ill to write, though The Irish Times, knowing his circumstances to be desperate, continued to pay him his weekly fee. In September he was diagnosed as having a tumor in the cavity at the back of his nose. He battled on, and even resumed his Times column. Gageby visited him and was “amazed by his vitality,” and spoke of “Brian sitting up in bed, denouncing this, denouncing that,” until he was overtaken by a fit of vomiting. He died on April 1, 1966—April Fool’s Day.

Anthony Cronin, poet and novelist, and most recently the author of a very fine biography of Samuel Beckett, has written a fascinating, dispiriting, and unflinchingly candid portrait of a complex and ultimately sad figure. He does O’Nolan no favors, but then O’Nolan did himself none, either. He was a fiercely independent spirit, a hater of humbug and hypocrisy. He had a clear eye for human folly and an acute awareness of the limitlessness of human wickedness. He was not fooled: in May 1944 he wrote in The Irish Times, “When the world is at peace, horror camps are not photographed.” Yet he could never “fly by the nets” that the Ireland of his time set up to snare such spirits as his. Cronin pays full tribute to the originality and subversive power of the Flann O’Brien of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, but he makes no effort to gloss over the faults and failings of Brian O’Nolan. Writing of O’Nolan’s loyalty to his own glum version of Catholicism, he delivers this judgment:

As a man, O’Nolan had no real intellectual curiosity…. In spite of his mental alertness, even effervescence, he frequently complained of boredom. He pursued no subject, even speculatively, beyond fairly narrow limits. Knowledge was an entertaining province in which a clever mind might disport itself, but it had no ultimate importance. The real questions were settled and the answers known.

This Issue

November 18, 1999