Flann O'Brien

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Flann O'Brien (October 5, 1911 – April 1, 1966) is a pseudonym of the twentieth century Irish novelist and satirist Brian O'Nolan (in Irish Brian Ó Nuallain), best known for his novels An Béal Bocht, At Swim-Two-Birds, and The Third Policeman. He also wrote many satirical columns in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen.

O'Brien's works are considered classics of the modernist genre of metafiction. Metafiction explores the boundaries of the "real" world and the "narrated" world, usually in an ironic or satirical fashion. It also combines different subjects and styles of writing. Like cubism and other trends in modern art, metafiction leaves behind the belief in stable representation, in which language represents the object. Rather, the language itself becomes the focus of the art, much like brushstroke techniques become the emphasis in modern painting. O'Brien's fiction is as much about the act of storytelling as it is about the story itself.

Most of O'Nolan's writings were occasional pieces published in periodicals, which explains why his work has only recently come to enjoy the considered attention of literary scholars.

Early writings

O'Nolan wrote prodigiously during his years as a student at University College Dublin, contributing to the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne under various guises, in particular the pseudonym Brother Barnabas. Significantly, he composed a story during this same period entitled "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 church-goer 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, 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?


Flann O'Brien novels have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humor and Modernist metafiction. 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, while The Third Policeman has a superficial plot about an Irish country youth's vision of hell, played against a satire of academic debate on an eccentric philosopher, finding time to introduce the atomic theory of the bicycle. The Dalkey Archive features a character who encounters a penitent, elderly James Joyce (who never wrote any of his books and seeks only to join the Jesuit Order) working as a busboy in the resort of Skerries and a scientist looking to suck all of the air out of the world. Other books by Flann O'Brien include The Hard Life (a fictional autobiography meant to be his "misterpiece"), and An Béal Bocht, (translated from the Irish as The Poor Mouth), which was a parody of Tomás Ó Criomhthain's autobiography An t-Oileánach.

As a novelist, O'Nolan was powerfully influenced by James Joyce. Indeed, he was at pains to attend the same college as Joyce. Joyce's biographer, Richard Ellmann, has established that O'Nolan, fully in keeping with his literary temperament, used a forged interview with Joyce's father, John, as part of his application. He was nonetheless skeptical of the Cult of Joyce which overshadowed much of Irish writing, "I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob."

Flann O'Brien is rightly considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. The British writer Anthony Burgess was moved to say of him: "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 99 Great Novels.

At Swim-Two-Birds is now recognized 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 persuasively argued that The Third Policeman, superficially less radical, is actually a more deeply subversive and proto-postmodernist work. At Swim-Two-Birds was one of the last books that James Joyce read and he praised it to O'Nolan's friends—praise which was subsequently used for years as a jacket blurb on reprints of O'Brien's novels. The novel has had a troubled publication history in the United States. 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.

O'Brien influenced the science fiction writer and conspiracy theory satirist Robert Anton Wilson, who has O'Brien's character De Selby, a would-be obscure intellectual in The Third Policeman, appear in Wilson's Illuminati Trilogy. In both works, De Selby is the subject of long pseudo-scholarly footnotes. This was a fitting tribute to O'Brien, who 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.

At Swim-Two-Birds

At Swim-Two-Birds is widely considered O'Brien's masterpiece and one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction.

Plot summary

The novel is narrated by a college student who never goes to class. Instead, he spends his time carousing with friends and smoking cigarettes (in bed, while wearing a single suit of clothes). The student begins to write a novel about an Irish novelist who writes only Westerns. The student is studying Irish Gaelic, and his translations of Irish legend (both of Fionn mac Cumhaill—Finn MacCool—and mad Buile Shuibhn—King Sweeney), which are satires of the inflated and culturally unaware translations done by Lady Gregory. They begin to appear alongside narratives of college life, the story of a very colloquial pookah, and the "novel" about the Western-writer. The author of Westerns is an eccentric who lives alone in an hotel, and he falls in love with his own description of a female character. Zeus-like, he summons her to his room and rapes her. The characters in the Western writer's proposed novel, meanwhile, dislike their narrative and give their author drugs to keep him asleep (and therefore not in control of their world). The author's rape results in the birth of a child, whose upbringing is controlled by the pookah—a child who will eventually write a novel about his novelist. Just at the point of the child writing a novel about his novelist and torturing his author to death, the college student passes his exams, and At Swim-Two-Birds ends. Interlaced with the two interior fictions is the author's college career through a term at school. This narrative is a sort of Rake's Progress, as the young man engages the literary life of Dublin in the 1930s.

Publication history

Published in 1939 at the onset of World War II by Longman's, the novel resulted in few sales but developed a devoted following among academics and scholars. O'Brien soon claimed the manuscript and stock of books burned during the London blitz. In 1959 Timothy O'Keeffe, while editorial director of the London publishing house MacGibbon & Kee, convinced O'Brien to allow him to republish At Swim-Two-Birds. The novel has more recently been republished in the United States by Dalkey Archive Press.

Literary significance & criticism

At Swim-Two-Birds has been admired by British and Irish authors for decades. Dylan Thomas offered it humorous praise ("This is just the book to give your sister—if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl") while Anthony Burgess considered it one of the ninety-nine greatest novels of the first half of the twentieth century. Publication of the novel in the United States has been spotty, and the work has only recently begun to attract a strong following there. American writer Gilbert Sorrentino paid homage to the book with his sprawling 1979 novel Mulligan Stew, itself a novel about the writing of a novel, with characters drawn from other works (including At Swim-Two-Birds) who wreak havoc upon the fictional author and the text itself. More recently, the title of O'Nolan's book has received a punning appropriation by Jamie O'Neill, the author of At Swim, Two Boys.

A note for the curious

The Greek phrase found in the front-matter of the novel is from Euripides' Heracles.

ἐξίσταται γὰρ πάντ' ἀπ' ἀλλήλων δίχα


existatai gar pant' ap' allêlôn dikha


for all things change, making way for each other[1]


The third of twelve children, O'Nolan became a civil servant like his father. Under the pen name of Myles na gCopaleen ("Myles of the little horses" or "Myles of the ponies"), O'Nolan published a regular column in The Irish Times, entitled "Cruiskeen Lawn." That Myles na gCopaleen was the pen name of a civil servant was no secret, and O'Nolan was eventually forced to retire for satirizing a government minister in his newspaper column. Anne Clune-Clissman adds (tenuously and subjectively) that his worsening alcoholism was also to blame. The middle-aged O'Nolan proved unable to make profitable use of his enforced leisure, so that he never regained the heights of his early work.

"Cruiskeen Lawn," meaning "Little Brimming Jug," is an example of the sort of bilingual humor O'Nolan frequently employed. "Cruiskeen Lawn" was usually written in English, but sometimes in Irish or Latin, and sometimes in a strange English-Irish hybrid of his own invention. Because O'Nolan's first language was Irish, he felt free in "Cruiskeen Lawn" to ridicule linguistic nationalists and their delusions of independence. He also described numerous seemingly ingenious inventions and schemes for the improvement of the Irish nation.

"Cruiskeen Lawn" featured a number of regular characters, such as the "PLAIN PEOPLE OF IRELAND" [sic] who periodically interrupt Myles's flights of fancy to demand clarification or explanation, the poets John Keats and Chapman, whose adventures always end in an elaborate pun, and "the Brother," and "the Da." Some of these characters (in particular The Brother) are explained in his book, The Hard Life.

The "Cruskeen Lawn" pieces have been collected into a number of books, such as The Best of Myles and Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn.


  1. Tufts University, Euripides, Heracles. Retrieved October 29, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Clune, Anne, and Tess Hurson, (eds.). Conjuring Complexities: Essays on Flann O'Brien. The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queens Univ. of Belfast, 1997. ISBN 978-0853896784
  • Cronin, Anthony. No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien. New Island Books, 2003. ISBN 1904301371
  • Hopper, Keith. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Postmodernist. Cork University Press, 1995. ISBN 1859180426
  • Wappling, Eva. Four legendary Figures in At Swim-Two-Birds. Uppsala, 1984. ISBN 9155415954

External links

All links retrieved March 28, 2024.


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