Saturday, 15 March 2008

Myles na gCopaleen la Globe & Mail:

Few Irish writers have demonstrated this misrule, this impudent playfulness, more than Brian O'Nolan, a.k.a. Flann O'Brien. Aside from revived interest in his work in the 1970s and 1980s, few have suffered more from neglect.

When I think of O'Nolan, I think of my father. They were contemporaries, both born in 1911, both civil servants living within a couple of miles of each other. My father was living proof of O'Nolan's ear for idiom and dry wit, and on his way to work often noted the man's solitary stance by the bus stop, wan, expressionless face under a broad-brimmed hat.

O'Nolan's career as novelist, playwright and journalist began in the 1930s, and lasted until his death in 1966. Born in County Tyrone, O'Nolan fell under the spell of James Joyce. He never left Ireland, however, but worked as a civil servant in Dublin for almost 20 years before turning to writing full-time…

…However, 1940 saw O'Nolan's An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), published in Irish/Gaelic only. It is his funniest, I believe, and his best. A solemn, wicked satire on the pieties of tribal identity, it is a jubilant mockery of the smug Irish comforts of victimhood. It is also a body-blow to the proto-fascist and nativist bases of national "origins" and cultural "destiny." O'Nolan, scholar and devotee of an Irish language and culture vulgarized by the petit-bourgeois, erupts with Swiftian hilarity and anger.

It pleased O'Nolan that An Béal Bocht was unreadable to non-Irish speakers. This inverted the apparent run of history between Ireland and its neighbour. He was to play on inversions of Irishness, and the suspicion of perfidious Albion, in his newspaper columns, The Cruiskeen Lawn. These popular columns, which ran for 20 years in the Irish Times under the name of Myles Na gCapaleen (Gopaleen) may be what O'Nolan is most remembered for. His character "The Brother" was the foil for the common man, the Dublin man, contentedly wised up to the ways of the world. Always uninvited, The Brother was brought up in conversation, overwhelming his unnamed conversant, an educated, fastidious cosmopolitan who spoke standard English…

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