Brian O'Nolan

Brian O'Nolan
Brian O'Nolan
Born October 5, 1911(1911-10-05)
Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland,
Died April 1, 1966(1966-04-01) (aged 54)
Dublin, Republic of Ireland
Pen name Flann O'Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, Brother Barnabas, George Knowall
Occupation author, journalist, civil servant
Notable work(s) At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, An Béal Bocht, "Cruiskeen Lawn"

Brian O'Nolan (Irish: Brian Ó Nualláin) (5 October 1911 – 1 April 1966) was an Irish novelist, playwright and satirist regarded as a key figure in postmodern literature.[1] Best known for novels such as At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman and An Béal Bocht (written under the nom de plume Flann O'Brien) and many satirical columns in The Irish Times (written under the name Myles na gCopaleen), O'Nolan has also been referred to as a "scientific prophet" in relation to his writings on thermodynamics, quaternion theory and atomic theory.[2]

O'Nolan was born in Strabane, County Tyrone. Most of his 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 also 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.

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 older 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]


Early writings

O'Nolan wrote prodigiously during his years as a student at University College Dublin 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 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 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?


Flann O'Brien novels have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour 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 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, De Selby, and finds time to introduce Sergeant Pluck's 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, and a scientist (De Selby) looking to suck all of the air out of the world, and in which Policeman Pluck learns of the mollycule theory from Sergeant Fottrell.

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 - in English The Islander.

The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive are largely considered to be works which are considerably inferior to O'Brien's early work. It has been often suggested that the fact that The Third Policeman was not published in his lifetime had a profound effect on O'Brien. This is perhaps reflected in The Dalkey Archive where sections of The Third Policeman are recycled almost word for word, namely the Atomic Theory.

As a novelist, O'Nolan was powerfully influenced by James Joyce. Indeed, he was at pains to attend the same college as Joyce[citation needed] - University College Dublin, and Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann has established that O'Nolan, fully in keeping with his literary temperament, used a forged interview with Joyce's father John Joyce as part of his application[citation needed]. He was none the less sceptical 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 considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. The British writer Anthony Burgess stated that, "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, and as such, possibly a representation of literary nonsense. 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 book was also praised by Graham Greene, who was working as a reader when the book was put forward for publication and also the Argentine writer, who might be said to bear some similarities to O'Brien, Jorge Luis Borges.The novel 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.

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.


Faustus Kelly was unsuccessful in 1943.[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:

I am no judge of poetry — the only poem I ever wrote was produced when I was body and soul in the gilded harness of Dame Laudanum — but I think Mr Kavanaugh [sic] is on the right track here. Perhaps the Irish Times, timeless champion of our peasantry, will oblige us with a series in this strain covering such rural complexities as inflamed goat-udders, warble-pocked shorthorn, contagious abortion, non-ovoid oviducts and nervous disorders among the gentlemen who pay the rent.

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:

I notice these days that the Green Isle is getting greener. Delightful ulcerations resembling buds pit the branches of our trees, clumpy daffodils can be seen on the upland lawn. Spring is coming and every decent girl is thinking of that new Spring costume. Time will run on smoother till Favonius re-inspire the frozen Meade and clothe in fresh attire the lily and rose that have nor sown nor spun. Curse it, my mind races back to my Heidelberg days. Sonya and Lili. And Magda. And Ernst Schmutz, Georg Geier, Theodor Winkleman, Efrem Zimbalist, Otto Grün. And the accordion player Kurt Schachmann. And Doktor Oreille, descendant of Irish princes. Ich hab' mein Herz/ in Heidelberg verloren/ in einer lauen/ Sommernacht/ Ich war verliebt/ bis über beide/ Ohren/ und wie ein Röslein/hatt'/ Ihr Mund gelächt or something humpty tumpty tumpty tumpty tumpty mein Herz it schlägt am Neckarstrand. A very beautiful student melody. Beer and music and midnight swims in the Neckar. Chats in erse with Kun O'Meyer and John Marquess ... Alas, those chimes. Und als wir nahmen/ Abschied vor den Toren/ beim letzten Küss, da hab' Ich Klar erkannt/ dass Ich mein Herz/ in Heidelberg verloren/ MEIN HERZ/ es schlägt am Neck-ar-strand! Tumpty tumpty tum.
The Plain People of Ireland: Isn't the German very like the Irish? Very guttural and so on?
Myself: Yes.
The Plain People of Ireland: People say that the German language and the Irish language is very guttural tongues.
Myself: Yes.
The Plain People of Ireland: The sounds is all guttural do you understand.
Myself. Yes.
The Plain People of Ireland: Very guttural languages the pair of them the Gaelic and the German.
First bloomsday: John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian O'Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh & Tom Joyce (James Joyce's cousin), 1954

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

He contributed substantially to Envoy and formed part of the Envoy / McDaid's pub circle of artistic and literary figures that included Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, et al. He also contributed to The Bell .

Name translation

The name 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.

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.[5] On December 2, 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.[6] The couple had no children, although he was survived by a nephew, Conor O'Nolan, a notable Irish academic, journalist, and glasses enthusiast. O'Nolan was an alcoholic for much of his life and suffered from ill health in his later years.[7] He died from a heart attack on 1 April 1966.[5]


In October 2011, Trinity College Dublin hosted a weekend of events celebrating the centenary of his birth.[8] A commemorative stamp worth 55c[9] featuring a portrait of O'Nolan's head by his brother Micheál Ó Nualláin was issued for the same occasion.[10][11][12] This occurred 52 years after a famous criticism of the Irish postal service by the writer.[13] A bronze sculpture of the writer stands outside the Palace Bar on Dublin's Fleet Street.[14] Kevin Myers thought "Had Myles escaped he might have become a literary giant."[15] Fintan O'Toole thought "he could have been a celebrated national treasure – but he was far too radical for that."[3]


As "Myles na gCopaleen"

The 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

As "Flann O'Brien"

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal


  1. ^ "Celebrating Flann O'Brien", Los Angeles Times, 13 October 2011.
  2. ^ 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."
  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. ^ Sansom, Ian. "'Imagine: you're better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington'", The Guardian, 30 September 2011.
  5. ^ a b Ó Nualláin, Micheál. "The Brother: memories of Brian", The Irish Times, 1 October 2011.
  6. ^ "Flann O’Brien: Life".,Flann/life.htm. Retrieved 2009-10-13. 
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of British humorists ... - Google Books. 1996-02. ISBN 9780824059903.'nolan+evelyn+1966#PPA799,M1. Retrieved 2009-10-13. 
  8. ^ Nihill, Cian. "Trinity celebrates Flann O'Brien centenary", The Irish Times, 15 October 2011.
  9. ^ "Seven Days", The Irish Times, 8 October 2011.
  10. ^ "Writer O'Nolan honoured by stamp", The Irish Times, 4 October 2011.
  11. ^ Sweeney, Ken. "Stamp of approval on Flann O'Brien's centenary", The Belfast Telegraph, 5 October 2011.
  12. ^ McManus, Darragh. "Flann O'Brien: lovable literary genius", The Guardian, 5 October 2011.
  13. ^ 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”."
  14. ^ Nihill, Cian. "Palace of inspiration: Sculptures of writers unveiled", The Irish Times, 6 October 2011.
  15. ^ Myers, Kevin. "Had Myles escaped he might have become a literary giant", Irish Independent, 30 September 2011.

Further reading

  • 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 085389678X
  • 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 978-185918-447-9
  • 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
  • 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.

External links

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