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Brian O'Nolan

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Brian O'Nolan

Brian O'Nolan
Born (1911-10-05)5 October 1911
Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland
Died 1 April 1966(1966-04-01) (aged 54)
Dublin, Ireland
Resting place Deans Grange Cemetery, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown
Pen name Flann O'Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, Brother Barnabas, George Knowall
Occupation Civil servant, writer
Alma mater University College, Dublin
Genre Metafiction, satire
Notable works At Swim-Two-Birds,
The Third Policeman,
An Béal Bocht,
The Hard Life
The Dalkey Archive
Cruiskeen Lawn
Spouse Evelyn McDonnell (1948 – 1966)
Relatives Conor O'Nolan (nephew)

Brian O'Nolan (Irish: Brian Ó Nualláin; 5 October 1911 – 1 April 1966) was an Irish novelist, playwright and satirist, considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. Born in Strabane, County Tyrone, he is regarded as a key figure in postmodern literature.[1] His English language novels, such as At Swim-Two-Birds, and The Third Policeman, were written under the nom de plume Flann O'Brien. His many satirical columns in The Irish Times and an Irish language novel An Béal Bocht were written under the name Myles na gCopaleen.

O'Nolan's novels have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour and modernist metafiction. As a novelist, O'Nolan was influenced by James Joyce. He was nonetheless sceptical of the cult of Joyce which overshadows much of Irish writing, saying "I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob."


  • Biography 1
    • Student years 1.1
    • Civil service 1.2
    • Personal life 1.3
    • Health and death 1.4
  • Journalism 2
  • Etymology 3
  • Fiction 4
    • At Swim-Two-Birds 4.1
    • The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive 4.2
    • Other fiction 4.3
  • Legacy 5
  • List of works 6
  • Further reading 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


Student years

O'Nolan wrote prodigiously during his years as a student at University College, Dublin (UCD), where he was an active, and controversial, member of the well known Literary and Historical Society. He contributed to the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne (Fair Play) under various guises, in particular the pseudonym Brother Barnabas. Significantly, he composed a story during this same period titled "Scenes in a Novel (probably posthumous) by Brother Barnabas", which anticipates many of the ideas and themes later to be found in his novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. In it, the putative author of the story finds himself in riotous conflict with his characters, who are determined to follow their own paths regardless of the author's design. For example, the villain of the story, one Carruthers McDaid, intended by the author as the lowest form of scoundrel, "meant to sink slowly to absolutely the last extremities of human degradation", instead ekes out a modest living selling cats to elderly ladies and becomes a covert churchgoer without the author's consent. Meanwhile, the story's hero, Shaun Svoolish, chooses a comfortable, bourgeois life rather than romance and heroics:

'I may be a prig', he replied, 'but I know what I like. Why can't I marry Bridie and have a shot at the Civil Service?'
'Railway accidents are fortunately rare', I said finally, 'but when they happen they are horrible. Think it over.'

In 1934 O'Nolan and his student friends founded a short-lived magazine called Blather. The writing here, though clearly bearing the marks of youthful bravado, again somewhat anticipates O'Nolan's later work, in this case his Cruiskeen Lawn column as Myles na gCopaleen:

Blather is here. As we advance to make our bow, you will look in vain for signs of servility or of any evidence of a desire to please. We are an arrogant and depraved body of men. We are as proud as bantams and as vain as peacocks.
Blather doesn't care. A sardonic laugh escapes us as we bow, cruel and cynical hounds that we are. It is a terrible laugh, the laugh of lost men. Do you get the smell of porter?

Brian O'Nolan, who had studied German in Dublin, may have spent at least parts of 1933 and 1934 in Germany, namely in Cologne and Bonn, although details are uncertain and contested. He claimed himself, in 1965, that he ″spent many months in the Rhineland and at Bonn drifting away from the strict pursuit of study.″ So far, no external evidence has turned up that would back up this sojourn (or an also anecdotal short-term marriage to one 'Clara Ungerland' from Cologne). In their biography Costello and van de Kamp, discussing the inconclusive evidence, state that ″ must remain a mystery, in the absence of documented evidence an area of mere speculation, representing in a way the other mysteries of life of Brian O'Nolan that still defy the researcher.″[2]

Civil service

A key feature of O'Nolan's personal situation was his status as an Irish government civil servant, who, as a result of his father's relatively early death, was obliged to support ten siblings, including an elder brother who was an unsuccessful writer. Given the desperate poverty of Ireland in the 1930s to 1960s, a job as a civil servant was considered prestigious, being both secure and pensionable with a reliable cash income in a largely agrarian economy. The Irish civil service has been, since the Irish Civil War, fairly strictly apolitical: Civil Service Regulations and the service's internal culture generally prohibit Civil Servants above the level of clerical officer from publicly expressing political views. As a practical matter, this meant that writing in newspapers on current events was, during O'Nolan's career, generally prohibited without departmental permission on an article-by-article, publication-by-publication basis. This fact alone contributed to O'Nolan's use of pseudonyms, though he had started to create character-authors even in his pre-civil service writings.

In reality, that O'Nolan was Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen was an open secret, largely disregarded by his colleagues, who found his writing very entertaining; this was a function of the makeup of the civil service, which recruited leading graduates by competitive examination—it was an erudite and relatively liberal body in the Ireland of the 1930s to the 1970s. Nonetheless, had O'Nolan forced the issue, by using one of his known pseudonyms or his own name for an article that seriously upset politicians, consequences would likely have followed—hence the acute pseudonym problem in attributing his work today. He was, indeed, forced to retire from the civil service in 1953.[3]

Personal life

Although O'Nolan was a well known character in Dublin during his lifetime, relatively little is known about his personal life. He joined the Irish civil service in 1935, working in the Department of Local Government. From the time of his father's death in 1937, he supported his brothers and sisters, eleven in total, on his income.[4] On 2 December 1948 he married Evelyn McDonnell, a typist in the Department of Local Government. On his marriage he moved from his parental home in Blackrock to nearby Merrion Avenue, living at several further locations in South Dublin before his death.[5] The couple had no children.

Health and death

O'Nolan was an alcoholic for much of his life and suffered from ill health in his later years.[6] He suffered from cancer of the throat and died from a heart attack on the morning of 1 April 1966.[4]


As Myles na gCopaleen (or Myles na Gopaleen), O'Nolan wrote short columns for The Irish Times, mostly in English but also in Irish, which showed a manic imagination that still astonishes.

His newspaper column, "Cruiskeen Lawn" (transliterated from the Irish crúiscín lán, "full/brimming small-jug"), has its origins in a series of pseudonymous letters written to The Irish Times, originally intended to mock the publication in that same newspaper of a poem, "Spraying the Potatoes", by the writer Patrick Kavanagh:

The letters, some written by O'Nolan and some not, continued under a variety of false names, using various styles and assaulting varied topics, including other letters by the same authors. The letters were a hit with the readers of The Irish Times, and R. M. Smyllie, then editor of the newspaper, shortly invited O'Nolan to contribute a column.

The first column appeared on 4 October 1940, under the pseudonym "An Broc" ("The Badger"). In all subsequent columns the name "Myles na gCopaleen" ("Myles of the Little Horses" or "Myles of the Ponies") was used. Initially, the column was composed in Irish, but soon English was used primarily, with occasional smatterings of German, French or Latin. The sometimes intensely satirical column's targets included the Dublin literary elite, Irish language revivalists, the Irish government, and the "Plain People of Ireland." The following column excerpt, in which the author wistfully recalls a brief sojourn in Germany as a student, illustrates the biting humor and scorn that informed the Cruiskeen Lawn writings:

Ó Nuallain/na gCopaleen wrote Cruiskeen Lawn for The Irish Times until the year of his death, 1966.

He contributed substantially to Envoy (he was "honorary editor" for the special number featuring James Joyce[7]) and formed part of the Envoy / McDaid's pub circle of artistic and literary figures that included Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Brendan Behan, and artist Desmond MacNamara who, at the author's request, created the book cover for the first edition of The Dalkey Archive. O'Nolan also contributed to The Bell.

Most of his later writings were occasional pieces published in periodicals, which explains why his work has only recently come to enjoy the considered attention of literary scholars. O'Nolan was notorious for his prolific use and creation of pseudonyms for much of his writing, including short stories, essays, and letters to editors, which has rendered the compilation of complete bibliography of his writings an almost impossible task. He allegedly would write letters to the editor of The Irish Times complaining about his own articles published in that newspaper, for example in his regular Cruiskeen Lawn column, which gave rise to rampant speculation as to whether the author of a published letter existed or not. Not surprisingly, little of O'Nolan's pseudonymous activity has been verified.


O'Nolan's journalistic pseudonym is taken from a character (Myles-na-Coppaleen) in Dion Boucicault's play The Colleen Bawn, who is the stereotypical charming Irish rogue. At one point in the play, he sings the ancient anthem of the Irish Brigades on the Continent, the song "An Crúiscín Lán" (hence the name of the column in the Irish Times).

Capall is the Irish word for "horse" (from Vulgar Latin caballus), and 'een' (spelled ín in Irish) is a diminutive suffix. The prefix na gCapaillín is the genitive plural in his Ulster Irish dialect (the Standard Irish would be "Myles na gCapaillíní"), so Myles na gCopaleen means "Myles of the Little Horses". Capaillín is also the Irish word for "pony", as in the name of Ireland's most famous and ancient native horse breed, the Connemara pony.

O'Nolan himself always insisted on the translation "Myles of the Ponies", saying that he did not see why the principality of the pony should be subjugated to the imperialism of the horse.


At Swim-Two-Birds

At Swim-Two-Birds works entirely with borrowed (and stolen) characters from other fiction and legend, on the grounds that there are already far too many existing fictional characters.

At Swim-Two-Birds is now recognised as one of the most significant modernist novels before 1945. Indeed it can be seen as a pioneer of postmodernism, although the academic Keith Hopper has argued that The Third Policeman, superficially less radical, is actually a more deeply subversive and proto-postmodernist work, and as such, possibly a representation of literary nonsense.

At Swim-Two-Birds was one of the last books that Anthony Burgess stated, "If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men. Flann O'Brien is a very great man." Burgess included At Swim-Two-Birds on his list of Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939.

At Swim-Two-Birds has had a troubled publication history in the USA. Southern Illinois University Press has set up a Flann O'Brien Center and begun publishing all of O'Nolan's works. Consequently, academic attention to the novel has increased.

The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive

The rejection of The Third Policeman by publishers in his lifetime had a profound effect on O'Brien. This is perhaps reflected in The Dalkey Archive, in which sections of The Third Policeman are recycled almost word for word, namely the atomic theory and the character De Selby.

The Third Policeman has a fantastic plot of a murderous protagonist let loose on a strange world peopled by fat policemen, played against a satire of academic debate on an eccentric philosopher called De Selby. Sergeant Pluck introduces the atomic theory of the bicycle.

The Dalkey Archive features a character who encounters a penitent, elderly and apparently unbalanced James Joyce (who dismissively refers to his work by saying 'I have published little' and, furthermore, does not seem aware of having written and published Finnegans Wake) working as an assistant barman or 'curate'—another small joke relating to Joyce's alleged priestly ambitions—in the resort of Skerries. The scientist De Selby seeks to suck all of the air out of the world, and Policeman Pluck learns of the mollycule theory from Sergeant Fottrell. The Dalkey Archive was adapted for the stage in 1965 by Hugh Leonard as The Saints Go Cycling In.[8]

Other fiction

Other books written by O'Nolan include An Béal Bocht—translated from the Irish as The Poor Mouth—(a parody of Tomás Ó Criomhthain's autobiography An t-Oileánach—in English The Islander), and The Hard Life (a fictional autobiography meant to be his "misterpiece").

Faustus Kelly, a play, was unsuccessful in 1943.[9]

In 1956, O'Nolan was also co-producer of a production for RTÉ, the Irish broadcaster, of 3 Radio Ballets, which was just what it said it was—a dance performance in three parts designed for and performed on radio. It is believed that there has been no repeat broadcast.


Blue plaque for O'Nolan

O'Brien influenced the science fiction writer and conspiracy theory satirist Robert Anton Wilson, who has O'Brien's character De Selby, an obscure intellectual in The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive, appear in his own The Widow's Son. In both The Third Policeman and The Widow's Son, De Selby is the subject of long pseudo-scholarly footnotes. This is fitting, because O'Brien himself made free use of characters invented by other writers, claiming that there were too many fictional characters as is. O'Brien was also known for pulling the reader's leg by concocting elaborate conspiracy theories.

In 2011 the '100 Myles: The International Flann O'Brien Centenary Conference' (24–27 July) was held at The Department of English Studies at the University of Vienna, the success of which led to the establishment of 'The International Flann O'Brien Society'.[10] In October 2011, Trinity College Dublin hosted a weekend of events celebrating the centenary of his birth.[11] A commemorative 55c stamp featuring a portrait of O'Nolan's head as drawn by his brother Micheál Ó Nualláin[12] was issued for the same occasion.[13][14][15] This occurred some 52 years after the writer's famous criticism of the Irish postal service.[16] A bronze sculpture of the writer stands outside the Palace Bar on Dublin's Fleet Street.[17] Kevin Myers gushed "Had Myles escaped he might have become a literary giant."[18] Fintan O'Toole said of Nolan "he could have been a celebrated national treasure – but he was far too radical for that."[3] An award winning radio play by Albrecht Behmel called Ist das Ihr Fahrrad Mr O’Brien? brought his life and work to the attention of a broader German audience in 2003.[19]

O'Nolan has also been semi-seriously referred to as a "scientific prophet" in relation to his writings on thermodynamics, quaternion theory and atomic theory.[20]

In 2012, on the 101st anniversary of his birth, O'Nolan was honoured with a commemorative Google Doodle.[21][22]

List of works

As Myles na gCopaleen

Selections of Cruiskeen Lawn columns have been published in a series of collections:

  • The Best of Myles
  • The Hair of the Dogma
  • Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn
  • Flann O'Brien At War: Myles na gCopaleen 1940-1945
  • Myles Away from Dublin
  • Myles Before Myles
  • At War
  • The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman
As Flann O'Brien

Further reading

  • Brooker, Joseph, 2004. Flann O'Brien. Northcote House Publishers Ltd. ISBN 978-0746310816
  • Clune, Anne, and Tess Hurson, eds., 1997. Conjuring Complexities: Essays on Flann O'Brien. The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queens Univ. of Belfast. ISBN 0-85389-678-X
  • Cronin, Anthony, 2003. No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien. New Island Books. ISBN 1-904301-37-1
  • Curran, Steven ‘"No, This is Not From The Bell": Brian O’Nolan’s 1943 Cruiskeen Lawn Anthology’, in Éire-Ireland, 32, 2 & 3 (Summer/Fall 1997), pp. 79–92.
  • Curran, Steven ‘Designs on an "Elegant Utopia": Brian O’Nolan and Vocational Organisation', Bullán, V, 2 (Winter/Spring 2001), pp. 87–116.
  • Curran, Steven ‘"Could Paddy Leave Off from Copying Just for Five Minutes?": Brian O’Nolan and Éire’s Beveridge Plan’, Irish University Review, 31, 2 (Autumn/Winter 2001), pp. 353–76.
  • Guinness, Jonathan 1997. Requiem for a family business. Macmillan, London. ISBN 0-333-66191-5 at pp. 8–9.
  • Hopper, Keith, 1995. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Postmodernist. Cork University Press. ISBN 1-85918-042-6
  • Hopper, Keith, 2009. Flann O'Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist. Cork University Press. ISBN 978-1-85918-447-9
  • Johnston, Denis, 1977. "Myles na Gopaleen", in Ronsley, Joseph, ed., "Myth and Reality in Irish Literature". Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 0-88920-039-4
  • Jordan, John, 2006. "Flann O'Brien"; "A Letter to Myles"; and "One of the Saddest Books Ever to Come Out of Ireland"; in Crystal Clear, Lilliput Press. ISBN 1-84351-066-9
  • Long, Maebh, 2014. Assembling Flann O'Brien. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-4411-8705-5
  • "An Interview with Desmond MacNamara: The Journal of Irish Literature January 1981
  • Murphy, Neil, 2011. "Flann O’Brien’s The Hard Life: The Gaze of the Medusa," Review of Contemporary Fiction. Fall 2011: 148-161
  • Murphy, Neil, 2005. "Flann O’Brien," The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Fall 2005, Vol XXV, No. 3: 7-41
  • Nolan, Val, 2012. "Flann, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: O'Brien's Surprising Synthesis," Review of Contemporary Fiction. Spring 2012, Vol. XXXI, No.2: 178-190.
  • O'Keeffe, Timothy, ed., 1973. "Myles: Portraits of Brian O'Nolan". Martin Brian and O'Keeffe. ISBN 0856161500
  • Riordan, Arthur, and Bell Helicopter, 2005. Improbable Frequency. Nick Hern Books. ISBN 1-85459-875-9.
  • Vintaloro, Giordano, 2009. L'A(rche)tipico Brian O'Nolan. Comico e riso dalla tradizione al post-. [Italian: The A(rche)typical Brian O'Nolan. Comic and Laughter from Tradition to Post-] Trieste: Battello Stampatore. ISBN 88-87208-50-6.
  • Wappling, Eva, 1984. Four legendary Figures in At Swim-Two-Birds. Uppsala. ISBN 91-554-1595-4.
  • Envoy, A Review of Literature and Art. Inaugurated in response to Irish trade and censorship restrictions which had forced many writers to seek publication outside their homeland. O'Nolan contributed substantially to Envoy and formed part of the Envoy/ McDaid's pub group of artists and intellectuals.
  • The Bell, A monthly magazine of literature and social comment which had a seminal influence on a generation of Irish intellectuals.

See also


  1. ^ "Celebrating Flann O'Brien", Los Angeles Times, 13 October 2011.
  2. ^ Peter Costello, Peter van de Kamp: Flann O'Brien - An Illustrated Biography, Bloomsbury, London 1987 ISBN 0-7475-0129-7 p. 45-50
  3. ^ a b O'Toole, Fintan. "The Fantastic Flann O'Brien", The Irish Times, 1 October 2011, retrieved 2 October 2011. "A combination of his gradually deepening alcoholism and his habit of making derogatory remarks about senior politicians in his newspaper columns led to his forced retirement from the civil service in 1953. (He departed, recalled a colleague, "in a final fanfare of f***s".)"
  4. ^ a b Ó Nualláin, Micheál (1 October 2011). "The Brother: memories of Brian". The Irish Times (Irish Times Trust). Retrieved 1 October 2011. In 1966 Brian was undergoing X-ray treatment for throat cancer. He was saved from the agony of dying from throat cancer by having a major heart attack. He died in that early morning of April 1st (April fool's day, his final joke). 
  5. ^ "Flann O’Brien: Life". Ricorso. Retrieved 13 October 2009. 
  6. ^ Encyclopedia of British humorists ... - Google Books. February 1996.  
  7. ^ ‘In 1951, whilst I was editor of the Irish literary periodical Envoy, I decided that it would be a fitting thing to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of James Joyce by bringing out a special number dedicated to him which would reflect the attitudes and opinions of his fellow countrymen towards their illustrious compatriot. To this end I began by inviting Brian Nolan to act as honorary editor for this particular issue. His own genius closely matched, without in anyway resembling or attempting to counterfeit, Joyce’s. But if the mantle of Joyce (or should we say the waistcoat?) were ever to be passed on, nobody would be half so deserving of it as the man whom under his other guises as Flan [sic] O’Brien and Myles Na gCopaleen, proved himself incontestably to be the most creative writer and mordant wit that Ireland had given us since Shem the Penman himself.' - John Ryan, Introduction to A Bash in the Tunnel (1970) John Ryan (1925-92)
  8. ^ "Irish Playography - Hugh Leonard". Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  9. ^ Sansom, Ian (30 September 2011). "Imagine: you're better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington". The Guardian (Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 30 September 2011. 
  10. ^ "website". Retrieved 2012-05-02. 
  11. ^ Nihill, Cian. "Trinity celebrates Flann O'Brien centenary", The Irish Times, 15 October 2011.
  12. ^ "Seven Days", The Irish Times, 8 October 2011.
  13. ^ "Writer O'Nolan honoured by stamp", The Irish Times, 4 October 2011.
  14. ^ Sweeney, Ken. "Stamp of approval on Flann O'Brien's centenary", The Belfast Telegraph, 5 October 2011.
  15. ^ McManus, Darragh. "Flann O'Brien: lovable literary genius", The Guardian, 5 October 2011.
  16. ^ McNally, Frank. "An Post gets the message, gives Myles a stamp", The Irish Times, 5 October 2011. "In the course of the 1959 diatribe, he decried the low aesthetic standards of Irish philately and, calling for a better class of artist to be hired, suggested future stamps might also capture more realistic scenes from Irish life, such as "a Feena Fayl big shot fixing a job for a relative"."
  17. ^ Nihill, Cian. "Palace of inspiration: Sculptures of writers unveiled", The Irish Times, 6 October 2011.
  18. ^ Myers, Kevin. "Had Myles escaped he might have become a literary giant", Irish Independent, 30 September 2011.
  19. ^ "Akademie der Darstellenden Künste". Retrieved 2012-05-02. 
  20. ^ Keating, Sara. "Trinity plays host to Flann 100 as admirers celebrate comic genius", The Irish Times, 17 October 2011. "In a twist of Mylesian absurdity, however, the highlight of the day's cultural programme proved to be a science lecture by Prof Dermot Diamond, in which Diamond convincingly argued that O'Brien was not just a literary genius but a scientific prophet. Diamond set recent experiments in the fields of thermodynamics, quaternion theory and atomic theory against excerpts from O'Brien's books, suggesting that O'Brien anticipated some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century."
  21. ^ "Google celebrates Irish author Brian O’Nolan in doodle today". Silicon Republic. 5 October 2012. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  22. ^ Who’s that Irish person in today’s Google Doodle?"[illustration from]". The Daily Edge. 5 Oct 2012. Retrieved 3 August 2015. It would have been Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s (aka Brian O’Nolan) 101st birthday today. Sound of Google to give him his own doodle for his birthday.  Article

External links

  • Works by Brian O'Nolan at Open Library
  • Works about Brian O'Nolan in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Brian O'Nolan Papers, 1914-1966 at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Special Collections Research Center
  • Flann O'Brien Papers, 1881 - 1991 at Boston College, John J. Burns Library for Special Collections
  • '100 Myles' & 'The International Flann O'Brien Society'

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