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Flan O Brien

Flann O’ Brien (1910-1966)

Flann O’ Brien (real name Brian O’ Nolan), came from Strabane in County Tyrone. He was educated at University College Dublin, where he studied English, German and Irish. He became something of a celebrity in the university debating society, where many of the country’s lawyers and politicians first cut their teeth.  His wit and skill in deflating the phoney legalism and mock-sophistication of the society were legendary.

When he finished his MA, O’ Brien applied to the Irish Civil Service and was appointed to one of only three positions that were available. He successfully completed his probation in 1937, having learnt how to write dreary memos and curb his acerbic tongue. Like many other artists, actors and literary folk who also worked in the Civil Service, he felt imprisoned by the institution. However, he was ‘a straight by day and a swinger by night’.

A series of bogus letters to the Irish Times, which drummed up mock controversies for readers, brought O’Brien to the attention of Bertie Smyllie (who was then the editor). The back room of the Palace Bar often acted as the editor’s office. Smyllie would proceed through the public bar to the ‘intensive care unit’ at the rear.  He would place his hat on the seat beside him and allow anyone to approach and make a pitch.

Smyllie spotted O’Brien’s talent but was nervous about his anarchic tendencies. When he took over as editor, he wanted to broaden the appeal of the newspaper, and take it away from its West British worldview. What better way than to employ one of the most brilliant satirists to write a bilingual column. English was not O’ Brien’s first language. He spoke Irish until the age of six. Indeed his father did not want his sons educated in the English language at all.

O’ Brien began work on At Swim Two Birds (his first novel) while still at university; it was published by Longman’s in 1939. Graham Greene was the reader. He said he experienced ‘the kind of glee one enjoys when actors smash china on stage’ and thought it ‘one of the best books of the century’. All but 250 copies were destroyed during the Blitz in London. O’Brien sent a copy to James Joyce, who had escaped to Paris. His reaction was pleasing: ‘That’s a real writer, with a true comic spirit… a really funny book’. Dylan Thomas read the book and declared ‘This is just the book to give your sister if she is a loud, dirty, boozy girl’. Joyce encouraged O’ Brien to promote the novel on mainland Europe. Sadly though, Joyce died in 1941, before he could be of any further help to the young writer.

Flann O’ Brien is probably best known for his column in the Irish Times- An Cruiskeen Lawn (’little brimming cup’). The articles were written under the name of Myles na Gopaleen (Myles of the Little Horses) and they gained him a wider audience than many of his works of fiction. These short bursts of satirical fire were often written in one sitting. The column was supposed to be penned in Irish but O’Brien reverted to English (even German and Latin) and poured scorn across a range of subjects, including the Plain People of Ireland, The brother, and The Catechism of Cliché. When too drunk to deliver copy, he would bring a drinking companion to the pub to write down his musings on the folly of Irish life- or even on how to turn Guinness into solid cubes. He said that you could suck on one of these cubes to alleviate the boredom of being dragged to Sunday Mass by the spouse.

Although his pseudonym protected Flann O’Brien from exposure within the Civil Service, his anonymity did not last. He was ‘retired’ from the service on health grounds- the combination of alcoholic writer and unhinged satirist was too dangerous to handle. There is an often repeated story about when O’Brien’s superiors finally challenged him about his excessive drinking during office hours: ‘You were seen coming out of the Scotch House at 2;30pm’, they said. He replied, ‘You mean I was seen coming in’.

April 29, 2011  

Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

An author’s first duty is to let down his country

Hellraiser and dramatist Brendan Behan was born into a fiercely Republican family. One of his uncles, Peadar Kearney, wrote the Irish national anthem, Amhrán na BhFiann, and many of the clan had taken part in the 1916 Rising. Like many Irish writers, he had a love/hate relationship with the country of his birth. “I regard Ireland in the same way as Sean O’Casey”, he said. “It’s a great country to get a letter from”. His relations with Church and State were stormy. In the 1940s, he was excommunicated by the Irish hierarchy for his activities with the IRA and got to know the Irish penal system at first hand. It compared unfavourably with its English counterpart: “If you ever want to go to gaol, I recommend an English one”, he said.

Prison life was the closet Behan got to a formal education. His two best works, Borstal Boy and The Quare Fellow, draw vividly from his experience of life on the inside. He travelled widely- Paris, New York and Toronto-following productions of his plays. Behan had a nose for self-publicity, which did not harm the box office. He played the stage Irishman abroad. Raising the roof wherever he went and puncturing any pompous questions about his plays. One journalist asked him, “What message is in your plays?” Behan replied, “what do you think I am, a feckin’ telegraph pole?”

The “roaring boy” pulled in an entourage wherever he went. When Behan arrived in New York in 1958, “it was dead” (according to Norman Mailer) but “Behan made the beatnik generation popular uptown”. His play The Hostage was running off Broadway and his autobiographical novel Borstal Boy had just been published. People were curious about this Irish phenomenon and expected a memorable quote to every question. Behan did not disappoint them. When he was asked to define the difference between prose and poetry, Behan paused and reportedly came up with this gem of doggerel:

There was a young fella call Rollocks,                                                                                  Who worked for Ferrier Pollocks,                                                                                            He walked on the strand,                                                                                                         With his girl be the hand,                                                                                                        And the tide came up to his…. knees

“Now that’s prose. If the tide had come any higher, that would’ve been poetry”. Alcohol destroyed Brendan Behan’s talent. He was often picked up by the New York police, having been found wandering the streets of the city. He even spent some time in the New Jersey State Psychiatric Hospital. Behan returned to Ireland and spent his last months with family in his native Dublin. In the Bailey pub on Duke Street, friends waited for the news of his death. When the inevitable day came (in March 1964), Flann O’ Brien remarked: “The streets of Dublin are strangely silent tonight”.

Typical of his legendary wit (some would say apocryphal wit) Behan could manage a last quip, even in his hospital bed. An old nun was tending the ailing writer in his last hours. He thanked her devilishly: “God bless you sister. May you be the mother of a bishop”.

April 29, 2011