Flann O’Brien at 100
Kevin Barry: The Complaint
The great unmentionable of Irish life is its boredom – this is among the dreariest places of the earth. Dreary are the grey skies, and drab the yellow bungalows, and our dreariness extends to the unseen horizon that is lost always in a grey mist. The yellow of the bungalows snuggles up against the nutso acid-trip green of the damp hillsides, and the smoke signals jig-jag depressively from the chimneys even yet here in high summer, making a pallid calligraphy across the sky: grey on grey.
I live myself in south County Sligo, most of the time, and it rains here, almost all of the time. I live in an old Garda station. When we first moved in, I peeled up the lino in one of the bedrooms and found a page from the Irish Catholic newspaper. It was dated 1963. I can see the old sergeant propped up in bed having a good read of it. He is whiskey-faced, purplish, treacherously bored. Mad thoughts will enter the stewed brain of such an old sergeant – it is the boredom that does it.
First thing in the morning, at the barracks, I get out of the bed and the stove gets lit – twelve months of the year, the stove gets lit. I try to write stories in the mornings. This is my ‘work’ but also it is a bulwark against the boredom. I recently wrote a story in which a man attempts to choke his wife by ramming a lump of turf down her throat. I have not yet shown this story to my own dear wife.
Around noon, I get on my bicycle and pedal off into the wet hills. I get a small buzz from the effort. I become faintly hysterical and I sing aloud as I drift along. I make up country songs for my own entertainment, as there is no other.
The writer Conal Creedon once posited that because there is a goldfish on a weathervane atop Shandon church in the city of Cork, it must surely follow that Cork is essentially an underwater place – if goldfish are swimming through the air, what else could it be? I lived in that water-coloured and marshy city for the best part of a decade, and it was there that I became obsessed for a while with Flann O’Brien – not so much his books as his approach, his way of seeing.
Having snorkelled the length of the country, I now live in another marsh. We are caught between the Bricklieve mountains and the Curlews here. We say ‘mountains’ in the Irish way – these are of course merely hills, but they loom in a dark and foreboding manner all the same, and there is no pine-shaded Alp of grimmer aspect than that knuckle of high ground in the Curlews, when you’re a good way outside Boyle, up there around the Forestry land, just north a little of the Aughanagh bog. The country songs tend to stop for a while as I cycle through this vicinity. A hare will stand perfectly still on the lip of a ditch and eyeball me nervously as I quietly pass – hear now just the eerie whirr of the spokes, and the breeze in the trees, and see the hare as grey-skinned as the skies are grey – and on my madder days I start to have weird thoughts about the occult significance of hares in the Irish folklore.
Aren’t they supposed to be bad luck?
But then there is very little in the Irish folklore that is meant to be good luck.
It is the boredom of Irish life that is insatiable. It is our great complaint. It is the boredom that sends us to the embrace of drink, madness, despair, murderousness, and deranged art. It is the boredom that has made us an island of fabulists. If you didn’t make stuff up, you’d go fucking nuts. Flann could not handle the boredom and it threw him hard into the grip of the bottle and it killed him young(ish). I suspect he is happy enough to be out of it.
Sad, though, and it is very hard to live in a police station and to ride a bicycle and to adore Flann and not to try in some way to commemorate him here. I had a vague notion at one point of hanging a bicycle wheel on the high supporting wall that rises with the stairwell. But I worried it would look like something out of the Flann O’Brien suite in a boutique hotel themed around ‘the greats of Irish literature’.
Now I have another idea – the boredom has delivered it to me.
We have half a drizzly acre of a field beside the barracks. We are trying to clear it to make a garden. It is full of weeds and roots and debris from one hundred and sixty years of neglect. (The barracks was RIC before the guards had it.) The field is also lately the residence of a mink. A farmer has told me the best thing I can do is shoot the mink. They are vicious little bastards, alien to the marsh but thriving here, the descendants of fur-farm absconders. I grew almost tearful with pride at the farmer’s notion that I might be able to handle a gun. But this is beside the immediate point. I have been taking up rocks from the field with a pickaxe and a crowbar, and I keep unturning ancient bottles. There are all sorts – some I recognize, like the squat tubby Bovril bottles from the ’70s, I reckon, and the green curvaceous Lilt bottles of a decidedly ’80s mien (‘with the totally tropical taste’), but many look older, much older. All sorts of ancient, evil grog bottles, and I have been brushing the soil from them and lining them up against the gable. The plan now is to polish them up and erect them on a little wall shelf inside and name it the Flann shelf. Maybe light a candle beneath.
It might be just the merest flicker of gratitude but it will be something. And gratitude is due. For he was the one who taught us that as we look around this dreary and deranged little island, none of it is in any way to be taken seriously.
John Butler: The Poor Mouth
Some wet Wednesday in 1987, I rocked gently on the top deck of the 62, jaw cupped in both palms, moaning softly. Our school had half-days of a Wednesday, but recently my teeth had decided to shift tectonically out of shape. On this bus I was, for the first time, wearing a set of metal train tracks in public. Tracks are laid to bring you somewhere but I was stuck with them. Before we go further, let me say this: anyone who suggests that schooldays are the best of times is bananas, amnesiac or a dangerous idiot.
My uncle had done this to me. He was our family dentist, and desperately wanted to become an orthodontist. Back then, orthodontic work was a new and expensive strain of special torture, and my parents had already spunked a small fortune fixing my older sister’s wandering teeth. They must have winced at the sideways slide of my molars, beads across the debit side of an abacus. Understandably, they were powerless in the face of the deal presented by my uncle the apprentice. He had an eye for my gaps, and every fourth Wednesday afternoon at the Dental Hospital, using my mouth, he would figure out how to put a few o’s in dentistry and a few zeros on his paycheque.
The 62 used to bear right at the top of Harcourt Street, hard left onto Charlemont Street and thence to Ranelagh, Clonskeagh, Goatstown and on. ‘My poor mouth,’ I moaned, over and over, drowning in self-pity, as the Bombardier rattled past a pub whose name, I noticed, was An Béal Boċt. I watched the sign recede in the rear window, and ran my tongue numbly over the razor wire, vowing to look it up. Whose mouth was as poor as mine?
A few years later, a few miles on, a VHS copy of The Brother was passed along the row to me, in Theatre L, UCD. The happenstance of An Béal Boċt had given me a head start, and now my teeth were straight, but other motivations had become a little skewed. We were embarking on maiden voyages as daytime drinkers, and we devoured all the booze-sodden art we could find. We loved Reuben Reuben starring Tom Conti. We loved Keith Moon and Peter Cook. We loved Withnail and I. But above them all we loved The Brother, screened first on RTE in 1974. Eamonn Morrissey’s brilliant portrayal of Flann O’Brien’s Everyman passed among us like porn.
I showed Dad the tape, because Flann O’Brien was also a thing he and I shared. In the way of all those reared in the middle of Ireland in the middle of the century, Dad had once drunk with Morrissey père et fils, and told me a story about Brian O’Nolan climbing a drain pipe outside a house after closing time one night, then the terrible wrench of pipe leaving wall, and a crash. Someone (a friend of a friend? Does it matter?), parted the curtains of their digs and saw him in the garden, on his back, atop a privet hedge, illuminated by the moon, the punchline already lit and smouldering in his mouth.
There was still the odd evening of Americana, when the yawning morning hordes of Theatre L smashed back gassy pints of Furstenberg, in a club called Hollywood Nights (by way of Stillorgan), but by now we had graduated to the old city-centre snugs, the mustier the better. We stuffed ourselves into them, aching for an age we hadn’t lived through. The days of ‘Pint, please, and a ball of malt’. A time of bicycles lingering by sideboards, near the sandwiches. And the catchphrases, lifted in their hundreds from texts and whispered, snickering, across the rows of Theatre L the morning after.
—The Brother wouldn’t look at an egg.
—The bag is out of order.
—It’s a thing that will always stand to us … jumping.
The fallacy that pickling oneself in alcohol was more than just adjacent to a creative life had already begun to take hold. Stirring times. Dangerous times …
Decades later, and having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I’m rattling through Ranelagh on the top deck, heading into town. They’ve discontinued the 62 – I’m on an 11, if you don’t mind. I chew, and I read. Since the day they ripped up the train tracks, that particular road has unfurled like a promise, from The Third Policeman to Dead as Doornails, over the hill to Julian MacLaren-Ross and Patrick Hamilton, then onwards to Richard Yates, deep into sadder and more remote estates of desperate drinking. Throughout this journey, the humour of Flann abided – what is funny, always funny, in horror. I think back to my uncle the impatient, pinning me, the out-patient, on a squeaking blue plastic chair, and how, using his knee to gain purchase, he would yank sweatily at my face. During year three of our mutual education the poor man sneezed directly into my callipered mouth.
I hardly ever go to the dentist these days – I have neither the guts nor the optimism. And I have been on so many journeys like this, I am now part bus. We turn right onto Appian Way, this route no longer taking in An Béal Boċt, even if An Béal Boċt were standing. The writing will endure of course, but assuming he wanted to get there, what chance would Flann O’Brien now have of finding Ballinteer? You can’t get a bus into Harcourt Street on account of the Luas. The streets and pubs of this town have been re-imagined, entire neighbourhoods continuing to vanish into memory. It is not easy to know what is the best way to move yourself from one place to another.
Angela Bourke: The Voice in the Valley
8 July 2011
This evening I drove along the top of Gleann na nGealt again: my third time this week on that narrow, winding road. A front from the Atlantic made a bulky grey sky, soaking all the grass and lashing rain against the windscreen, but the lovely steep green sides of the valley were still visible, stitched across and down with hedgerows. A few houses sat in against the slope, and beneath them, on the valley floor, were the rounded treetops of a small wood.
Gleann na nGealt lies down to the right after you leave Camp, on the road from Tralee that swings inland through the mountains to Annascaul and Dingle. It opens out generously towards the sea and sand of Castlegregory and the Maharees, and its name means Lunatic Valley, but this has nothing to do with the people in the houses. In the early 1930s, the narrow-gauge Dingle railway ran beside the high road, and the young Cambridge scholar Kenneth Jackson travelled on it every summer towards the Great Blasket Island, where Peig Sayers told him stories to teach him Irish. One was about a young woman driven mad by the loss of her lover, and Peig identified this remote, isolated valley as the place she and other troubled souls fled to, living wild among the trees and drinking spring water, long before the railway came. That it is also the place called Gleann Bolcáin in the Middle Irish Buile Shuibhne, The Frenzy of Suibhne, has been clear since Gearóid S. Mac Eoin wrote about it in the folklore journal Béaloideas in 1962. This gorgeous place is Flann O’Brien’s Glen Bolcain, therefore, where his King Sweeny took refuge, mad and naked, one among many, eating watercress and brooklime, roosting in trees, and complaining of his discomforts. It has been the subject of a centuries-long, often inaudible, conversation among storytellers, poets, scholars and artists, yet there is no plaque or monument, no marking on a map.
‘Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?’
I bought At Swim-Two-Birds at Christmas in my first year at UCD (I wrote the date inside the front cover). I was seventeen, studying Irish, Welsh and Latin, hoping to get honours at the end of the year, to do a BA in Celtic Studies. I had barely heard of Flann O’Brien, and had no idea that as Brian O’Nolan he had preceded me by forty years, but I trusted Penguin Modern Classics. I recognized Finn Mac Cool and his various henchmen, and their solemn melodious talk among bizarre adventures: remarkably faithful takes on the literature of Fionn mac Cumhaill. I knew a bit about the pooka too, and it didn’t take long to find Sweeny / Suibhne. He was a revelation: a native king who fell foul of Christian missionaries, like Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo, and an equally edgy character. His cranky, eloquent, book-hating voice dwelt at hilarious length on his physical and social troubles, but it also ecstatically celebrated Irish landscape. I was making friendships then that still endure, and at that early stage they involved a lot of wordplay, some music, a little alcohol, and a huge, comforting nostalgia for the airy Gaeltacht landscapes of our secondary-school summers. At Swim-Two-Birds was a hall of mirrors, folded up small. It fitted easily in a bag or pocket, and we loved it—because we got all the jokes, or thought we did. It opened out into the places we were living in, studying, and imagining, and it sent the bewildering differences among languages and registers of language flying through the air in exuberant colours.
Most of us had two names back then, but Flann O’Brien, as far as I know, was the first writer both knowledgeable enough and irreverent enough to take the sonorous personal and place names of Irish saga literature and render them into modern, antiheroic equivalents. In one early passage, Caolcrodha Mac Morna from Sliabh Riabhach is glossed as Calecroe MacMorney from Baltinglass, and Liagan Luaimneach Ó Luachair Dheaghaidh becomes Lagan Lumley O’Lowther-Day from Elphin Beg. Translators usually left names like these in their original form; they were sacred to a certain kind of nationalism, and Brian O’Nolan, in passing, was sending up its adherents who insisted on the Irish version of their own and others’ names. Without him, Heaney might never have found his Sweeney Astray, or Brian Bourke the bare forked creature of his ‘Sweeney’ prints.
Without him, the delight I had found as a child in stories from early Irish might have gone stale; my studies would certainly have been much less fun. E.M. Forster was another hero of ours, with his exhortation ‘Only connect’, and Flann O’Brien connected: our own losses, terrors and discomforts; our own jokes; Dublin pubs; watery green landscapes; the books we were studying, and even the place where we studied them, for we were the last First Arts class in Earlsfort Terrace before UCD moved to Belfield.
I’m still hoping to walk Gleann na nGealt. I want to explore that quiet place and try to imagine the working of the storytellers’ minds, who populated it so vividly and made it ring with poetry. I want to think about how for hundreds of years it was filled with urgent imagined voices, of which no trace remains in the landscape, and about that unique Sweeny voice that combines lyrical appreciation of environment with a thorny catalogue of bodily discomfort. I want to wonder about the difference between a culture that erects tall buildings and plasters their sides with advertisements and exhortations, and one that trusts the listening ears of individuals to pay attention and store things up in their hearts, pondering them. I want to think again about Brian O’Nolan, drunk on early Irish literature, beset by examinations and civil service work, writing his fantastic book.
Read the rest of this piece in The Dublin Review 44.