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Clutching at Railings

Jonathan Coe: Late Flann​ O’Brien

23 October 2013
Plays and Teleplays 
by Flann​ O’Brien, edited by Daniel Keith Jernigan.
Dalkey, 434 pp., £9.50, September 2013, 978 1 56478 890 0
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The Short Fiction of Flann​ O’Brien 
edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper.
Dalkey, 158 pp., £9.50, August 2013, 978 1 56478 889 4
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... There were many wonderful running jokes in the first few years of ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, the Irish Times column written, on and off, for almost a quarter of a century by Flann O’Brien (or, if you prefer, Myles na Gopaleen, or Brian O’Nolan). My favourite has always been the catechism of cliché. When things are few, what also are they? Far between. What are stocks of ...


Clair Wills: Plain Brian O’Nolan

4 April 2019
The Collected Letters of Flann​ O’Brien 
edited by Maebh Long.
Dalkey Archive, 619 pp., £20, April 2018, 978 1 62897 183 5
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... In March​ 1957 Brian O’Nolan – better known under his pen names Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen – then aged 45, applied for a series of jobs at the radio broadcasting studios in Cork, including station supervisor, programme assistant, and balance and control ...


Patricia Craig

2 March 1989
Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: A Changling Art 
by John Wilson Foster.
Gill and Macmillan, 407 pp., £30, November 1987, 0 8156 2374 7
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... life in the West, or the South-West, just to set the record straight. ‘Our like will never be seen again,’ declared one of them, Tomas O Crohan, in 1926: this elegiac phrase was latched onto by Flann O’Brien, in his satiric denunciations of Irish falsity or self-dramatisation wherever it cropped up, whether with Gaelic Leaguers or island autobiographers. Between Synge of the exorbitant syntax ...


Francis Spufford

2 April 1987
Greyhound for Breakfast 
by James Kelman.
Secker, 230 pp., £10.95, March 1987, 0 436 23283 9
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Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer 
by Amos Tutuola.
Faber, 156 pp., £9.95, March 1987, 0 571 14714 3
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... gutter argot and the language of the Schools. In English, in this century, it has mostly been used by Irish writers: by Joyce, with Vico and scatology, by Beckett, with velleity and bananas, and by Flann O’Brien, one paragraph of whose At-Swim-Two-Birds includes both an argumentum on Rousseau and the sudden eructation of ‘buff-coloured puke’. Now there is a new practitioner, working with a ...
5 January 2012
... my way of being alone.’ The cities in which they were alone were Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Dublin. The writers were Fernando Pessoa, born 1888, died 1935; Jorge Luis Borges, born 1899, died 1986; Flann O’Brien, born 1911, died 1966. Each of them was brought up not only in a shadow country and city, or a place that felt as though it lived now in the shade, but also with two or more languages and ...

Life of Brian

Kevin Barry

25 January 1990
No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann​ O’Brien 
by Anthony Cronin.
Grafton, 260 pp., £16.95, October 1989, 0 246 12836 4
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... is not irrelevant to Molloy, Malone dies and The Unnamable, nor is Stuart’s in wartime Berlin to The Pillar of Cloud, Redemption and The Flowering Cross. Ten years earlier Brian O’Nolan, alias Flann O’Brien, had written At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman. These two works, of which only the first was published in the author’s lifetime, differ from those of Beckett and Stuart in many ...
23 June 1994
Sean O’Faolain: A Life 
by Maurice Harmon.
Constable, 326 pp., £16.95, May 1994, 0 09 470140 7
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Vive Moi! An Autobiography 
by Sean O’Faolain.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 377 pp., £20, November 1993, 1 85619 376 4
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... Artists Actors Musicians Association, a short-lived trade union for workers whose services were not exactly regarded as essential. WAAMA inspired the Times columnist Myles naGopaleen (the novelist Flann O’Brien) to an extended fantasy that raised the dilemma of the artist in post-Independence Ireland to Swiftian heights of terror and disgust. In O’Brien’s vision, WAAMA, seeking work for the ...

Ireland at Swim

Denis Donoghue

21 April 1983
The Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, 1977-1981 
edited by M.P. Hederman and R. Kearney, with a preface by Seamus Heaney.
Blackwater Press/Colin Smythe, 930 pp., £25, October 1982, 9780905471136
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A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers 
by Hugh Kenner.
Knopf, 352 pp., $16.95, April 1983, 0 394 42225 2
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... the available rhetorics. I have been reading The Crane Bag in association with Hugh Kenner’s new book, A Colder Eye, a study of the modern Irish writers from Yeats, Joyce and Synge to Beckett and Flann O’Brien. Kenner encourages his reader, an American apparently, to believe that Ireland is a crazy country from which, believe it or don’t, a number of extraordinary writers have emerged. Their ...

Bringers of Ill Luck and Bad Weather

Penelope Fitzgerald: Anne Enright

2 March 2000
What Are You Like 
by Anne Enright.
Cape, 257 pp., £10, March 2000, 0 224 06063 5
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... husband, who had had sexual intercourse 1332 times in her life and was in possession of 14 coal-scuttles’ – and she wanted him. Enright has been described as the Mary Tyler Moore Show scripted by Flann O’Brien, but although she is an eloquent writer and can be dazzlingly funny, she belongs to the present century and the company of, say, Kate Atkinson. For Enright the recognisable dimensions of ...
19 October 1995
Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture 
by Terry Eagleton.
Verso, 355 pp., £18.95, May 1995, 1 85984 932 6
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... ways, especially in relation to fiction and history writing, are also disconnected. This is part of the explanation for what Irish fiction has achieved in its more experimental modes (Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien). In addition, since Ireland had for so long offered descriptions of itself as a traditional community, and since these had been reinforced by different groups pursuing their own agendas ...

Losing the Plot

Francesca Wade: Nicola Barker

2 July 2014
In the Approaches 
by Nicola Barker.
Fourth Estate, 497 pp., £18.99, June 2014, 978 0 00 758370 6
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... that ‘beneath his courteous exterior, this guy was full of nothing but conceit and self-admiration.’ In At Swim-Two-Birds the characters murder their creator (who is, in turn, fictional – Flann O’Brien doesn’t entirely succumb to sado-masochism) and then write their own novel in which he is brought back to life, tried and then tortured. Odd-job man Clifford Bickerton isn’t any happier ...
18 October 2001
Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books 
by H.J. Jackson.
Yale, 324 pp., £19.95, April 2001, 0 300 08816 7
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... writing. One might not expect anyone to care enough about marginalia to love them or hate them, but Jackson shows that we do both at once. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Sendak, Flann O’Brien proposed a marginalia-faking service for nouveaux riches who’d bought up libraries they had no intention of reading: ‘suitable passages in not less than 50 per cent of the books to be ...

Our Founder

John Bayley: Papa Joyce

19 February 1998
John Stanislaus Joyce: The Voluminous Life and Genius of James Joyce’s Father 
by John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello.
Fourth Estate, 493 pp., £20, October 1997, 1 85702 417 6
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... secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt, and at present a praiser of his own past.’ No wonder that two veteran Joyceans, John Wyse Jackson of the Chelsea Press, editor of Flann O’Brien and Oscar Wilde, and the Dublin social historian Peter Costello, should have been inspired to produce a full-length biography of, so to speak, Our Founder. It is in its way a unique ...


Seamus Deane

21 April 1983
The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry 
edited by Sean Mac Reamoinn.
Allen Lane, 272 pp., £8.95, November 1982, 0 7139 1284 7
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... up to the present, there has been a powerful interaction between scholarship and poetry which has enriched all Irish writing in English. Kuno Meyer, Robin Flower, James Carney, Brian O’Nolan (alias Flann O’Brien), Gerard Murphy, Valentin Iremonger, Austin Clarke, Sean O’Tuama, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and a host of others have created a kind of interstitial literature which responds to the ...


Karl Miller

21 October 1982
On the Black Hill 
by Bruce Chatwin.
Cape, 249 pp., £7.50, September 1982, 0 224 01980 5
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... but which can’t be altogether intentional, in this hectic vision of Chatwinshire or Kamchatka, and at least a fleeting trace of Cold Comfort Farm: ‘them do say as she’s a witch.’ And of Flann O’Brien. Convolvulus continually threatens to smother the phlox. Simpletons, saints and grotesques face a ubiquitous aggression and duplicity – and it is a welcome stroke when the worthless ...

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