Life of Brian

Kevin Barry

  • No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien by Anthony Cronin
    Grafton, 260 pp, £16.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 246 12836 4

Between 1947 and 1950 Samuel Beckett and Francis Stuart produced a clutch of novels which extend Irish fiction into the world of Europe. Beckett’s life in wartime Paris 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 ways, not least in the sharp, impersonal brevity of O’Nolan’s art. One distinction of the earlier novels is the shortness of their horizon and the narrow intensity of their privacy. It would not be difficult to argue that At Swim Two Birds and, more especially, The Third Policeman are streets ahead of Beckett and Stuart in their realisation of an aesthetic. Yet Brian O’Nolan never developed his writing beyond that limited, youthful variety, and never wrote anything else of comparable sustained exactness.

All of which makes the title of Anthony Cronin’s biography, No Laughing Matter, fit its subject, although its subject is the most purely comic Irish writer. The reader, therefore, comes to Cronin’s book with expectations and curiosities which are hard to satisfy. What was the nature of Brian O’Nolan’s disappointment? What was the relation between the privacy of his work and his multiple personae? What made an affluent middle-class blow-in Dublin’s favourite satirist? O’Nolan was widely known during his life as the Irish Times’s acid columnist, Myles na gCopaleen, and not as the author of two extraordinary novels. The question arises whether he changed as Dublin changed between 1930 and 1960? What kept him in Ireland for all but three weeks of his life? What constituted his cosmopolitanism and its limits? How much do we need to know about noggins and porter in order to reread his books? What ruined his art?

Brian O’Nolan’s life is both surprising and unremarkable. He was born in Strabane on the border of Donegal and Tyrone in 1911. Both his parents were comfortably middle-class: his mother, Agnes, from well-to-do shopkeepers; his father, Michael, from teachers, Classicists and Irish-speaking Parnellite nationalists. Michael O’Nolan gave to his 12 children his silence, his linguistic pedantry, and a home life in spacious houses unmolested by schooling until their middle teens. He was something of an author, as were at least three of his brothers, although he remained an unpublished one. His detective novel was accepted by Collins but he rejected their terms of payment.

The son followed the father, and not merely in their both being successful civil servants. According to family memoirs, the father appears almost never to have spoken and the children seemed as taciturn among themselves. In later life, after his father’s death, Brian would indicate to the younger children that he was home by the fact of his coat on its hook or a bag of sweets left in a drawer. What language was spoken in the home was Irish alone. Agnes, who survived her husband by many years, is an even more shadowy figure in these pages. Neither is subjected here to a psychobiography.

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