Flann O’Brien: Quotations

‘Many a man has spent a hundred years trying to get the dimensions of it and when he understands it at last and enters the certain pattern of it in his head, by the hokey he takes to his bed and dies. (The Third Policeman, 1993 Edn., p.47; quoted by Joanne Moore, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

‘That is a great curiosity, a very difficult piece of puzzledom, a snorter ...’ (Sargeant Pluck, in The Third Policeman; quoted my Michael Foley, in article on The Third Policeman, The Irish Times [Wed.] 26 Aug. 2015 - available online.)

From the Works
At Swim-Two-Birds
The Poor Mouth [An Beal Bocht]
The Third Policeman
‘Keats and Chapman’
Best of Myles
“Binchy and Bergin and Best”
Longer Extracts
At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
The Third Policeman (1967)

Sundry Remarks
Letters to Ethel Mannin
Letter to William Saroyan
Letter to Longmans
The Trade in Dublin
The Irish Nation
James Joyce
O’Connor & O’Faoláin
Writing in English
Irish Bardic Poetry
Language revival
English oddities
No God & Two Patricks
Furrin’ publications
Pension Scheme
Importance of art?
Christian Brothers
Human Condition
Albert Einstein
Aesthetics .. ailment

A Selection from the Works

At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

[OPENING:] ‘Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.’ (1967 Penguin edn. p.9).

The Third Opening: Finn MacCool was a legendary hero of old Ireland. Though not mentally robust, he was a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was wide enough to halt the march of warriors through a mountain pass. (p.9; &c.)

The Pooka Fergus MacPhellimey, a species of human Irish devil endowed with magical power. John Furriskey, A depraved character, whose task is to attack women and behave at all times in an indecent manner. By magic he is instructed by Trellis to go one night to Donnybrook where he will by arrangement meet and betray PEGGY, a domestic servant. He meets her and is much surprised when she confides to him that Trellis has fallen asleep and that her virtue had already been assailed by an elderly man subsequently to be identified as Finn MacCool, a legendary character hired by Trellis on account of the former’s venerable appearance and experience, to act as the girl’s father and chastise her for her transgressions against the moral law, and that her virtue has also been assailed by Paul Shanahan, another man hired by Trellis for performing various small and unimportant parts in the story
After a short time they discover that they have fallen in love with each other at first sight. They arrange to lead virtuous lives, to simulate the immoral actions, thoughts and words which Trellis demands of them on pain of the severest penalties
Meanwhile Trellis […] creates a very beautiful and refined girl called Sheila Lamont, whose brother, Anthony Lamont he has already hired so there will be someone to demand satisfaction of John Furriskey for betraying her […] . Trellis creates Miss Lamont in his bedroom [and] so far forgets himself as to assault her himself.’ (p.61; see longer extracts in RICORSO Library, “Irish Literary Classics”, via index, or direct.)


The Puke Moment: ‘Afterwards, near Lad Lane police station a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French nation. He was animated, his pale features striking in the starlight and his voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum. I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of close attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-coloured puke. Many other things happened on that night now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lane, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the name of Rousseau will always recall to me.’

[The poetry:]
FINN [reciting verses of St. Moling]: My curse on Sweeney! / His guilt against me is immense, / he pierced with his long swift javelin / My holy bell. / ... / Just as it went prestissimo / the spear-shaft skyward, / you, too, Sweeny, go madly mad-gone / skyward. / .. / ... My curse on you Sweeny. (p.65.) […] Bereft of fine women-folk, / the brooklime for a brother - / our choice for a fresh meal / is watercress always. // Without accomplished musicians / without generous women, / no jewel-gift for bards - / respected Christ, it has perished me. (p.67). Watercress from the well at Cirb / is my lot at terce, / its colour is my mouth. / green on the mouth of Sweeney. // Chill chill is my body / when away from ivy, / the rain torrents it / and the thunder. (p.69.) […] Glen Bolcain my home ever, / it was my haven, / many a night have I tried / a race against the peak. (p.72.)
SHANAHAN, [reciting verses of Jem Casey]: When things go wrong and will not come right, / Though you do the best you can, / When life looks black as the hour of night / A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN. (p.77; see longer extracts in RICORSO Library, “Irish Literary Classics”, infra.)

Cf. Joyce’s similar ‘curse’ in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses: &‘;The curse of my curses / Seven days every day / And seven dry Thursdays / On you, Barney Kiernan, / Has no sup of water / To cool my courage, / And my guts red roaring / After Lowry’s lights.’ (U12.737.) Note: Joyce naturally owes his poetic form to translation examples of middle Irish poetry in the Irish literary revival - similarly to J. M. Synge, whose “Curse” is based on the same, but which Joyce certainly did not know.

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Manuscript materials for At Swim-Two-Birds ultimately excised from the final typescript and published text:
Good and evil (after Augustine)

- Supposing, said Trellis with a long chuckle, that a streetwalker makes £20,000 from her trade, saves it up over a period of 50 years, repents in her old age and builds a church with the money? Is it a church within the meaning of the act or what is it? Is it a brothel? Tainted money, I mean. Is it tainted subjectively or is it only unclean to those who know the commodity that was traded for it?
 Who but Finn could burst God with the power of a breath whistled from his tooth-gap without a ceasing or a stop from the low murmuring of melodious poetry at the same time? Who but Finn?
 - Where is the man, said Trellis horizontally, that is going to tell me that good can exist side by side with good? Good and evil are complementary terms. You cannot have one without the other. Each gets its force by reason of the other and would be meaningless without the other. There was no good in the Garden till the serpent came, only negation and bathos. Therefore the devil created good.


Where is the man, said Trellis horizontally, that is going to tell me that good can exist side by side with good? Good and evil are complementary terms. You cannot have one without the other. Each gets its force by reason of the other and owuld be meaningless without the other. There was no good in the Garden till the serpent came, only negation and bathos. Therefore the devil created good.

Ringsend cowboys

‘At night we would gather in the bunkhouse with our porter and all our orders, cigarettes and plenty there on the cheffonier to be taken and no questions asked, schoolmarms and saloongirls and little black maids skivvying there in the galley and as geney as you like for the first man that takes it into his head to play ball know what I mean? That was the place to be now.’
‘I’m no nance and I’m not fussy when it comes to the hard stuff, but damn it all, I draw the line when it comes to carrying off a batch of black niggers and a couple of thousand steers, by God’
‘[…] night, our bullet-pierced hats on our bowed heads and our empty six-guns dangling at our hips. If it wasn’t that our black skivvies were waiting for us as plump and as gamey as be damned when we got the length, we might have shot up Ringsend Saloon or lynched a Sambo offa the arm of a tree or something.’

Classical music

‘Some of the stuff I've heard in my time, said Shanahan, is no joke to play for the man that has two hands. It was stuff of the best make I don’t doubt, classical tack and all the rest of it, but by God it gave me a pain in my bandbox. It hurt my head far worse than a pint of whiskey.’
‘But there’s good craic in that when you get in on it, explained Lamont, understand it once and you’ll never have anything else. You have to get used to it, you know, take it easy. You can’t swallow it like a drink. It has to be chewed by the teeth. Look at it like this crust, say.’ (MS1)


—The above variously quoted by Ryan Fleming [from the original MS draft] and by Geraldine Cameron [citing www.wordpress.com] (PG Dip./MA, UUC 2010 & 2011).

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The Poor Mouth [An Beal Bocht] (Irish orig. 1941; trans. 1964): ‘In my youth we always had a bad smell in our house. Sometimes it was so bad that I asked my mother to send me to school, even though I could not walk correctly. Passers-by neither stopped nor even walked when in the vicinity of our house but raced past the door and never ceased until they were half a mile from the bad smell. There was another house two hundred yards down the road from us and one day when our smell was extremely bad the folks there cleared out, went to America and never returned. It was stated that they told people in that place that Ireland was a fine country but that the air was too strong there. Alas! there was never any air in our house.’ (p.22.) ‘Ambrose was an odd pig and I do not think that his like will be there again. Good luck to him if he be alive in another world today!’ (Ibid., p.28.)

The Poor Mouth [An Beal Bocht] (Irish orig. 1941; trans. 1964) - The President’s speech: ‘- Gaels! he said, it delights my Gaelic heart to be here today speaking Gaelic with you at this Gaelic feis in the centre of the Gaeltacht. May I state that I am a Gael. I’m Gaelic from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet - Gaelic front and back, above and below. Likewise, you are all truly Gaelic. We are all Gaelic Gaels of Gaelic lineage. He who is Gaelic, will be Gaelic evermore. I myself have spoken not a word except Gaelic since the day I was born - just like you - and every sentence I’ve ever uttered has been on the subject of Gaelic. If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language. I hereby declare this feis to be Gaelically open! Up the Gaels! Long live the Gaelic tongue! / When this noble Gael sat down on his Gaelic backside, a great tumult and hand-clapping arose throughout the assembly.’ (Ibid., 54-55; quoted in Brendan Kennelly, ‘Satire in Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth’, in Journey into Joy: Selected Prose, ed. Åke Persson, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1996, p.182-85; also in Joseph Brooker, Flann O’Brien, Tavistock: Northcote House 2005, p.63, cited in Geraldine Cameron, PG Dip., UUC 2011.)

The Poor Mouth (1964) [Bonapart’s hangover:] If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life. I did not feel anything for a long while; I did not see anything, neither did I hear a sound. Unknown to me, the earth was revolving on its course through the firmament. It was a week before I felt that a stir of life was still within me and a fortnight before I was completely certain that I was alive. A half-year went by before I had recovered fully from the ill-health which that night’s business had bestowed on me, God give us all grace! I did not notice the second day of the feis. (60-61; Kennelly, op. cit., 1996, p.185.)

The Poor Mouth (1964): ‘There was a man in this townland at one time and he was named Sitric O’Sanassa. He had the best hunting, a generous heart and every other good quality which earn praise and respect at all tirnes, But alas! there was another report abroad concerning him which was neither good nor fortunate. He possessed the very best poverty, hunger and distress also. He was generous and open-handed and he never possessed the smallest object which he did not share with the neighbours; nevertheless, I can never remember him during my time possessing the least thing, even the quantity of little potatoes needful to keep body and soul joined together. In Corkadoragha, where every human being was sunk in poverty, we always regarded him as a recipient of alms and compassion. The gentlemen from Dublin who came in motors to inspect the paupers praised him for his Gaelic poverty and stated that they never saw anyone who appeared so truly Gaelic. One of the gentlemen broke a little bottle of water which Sitric had, because, said he, it spoiled the effect. There was no one in Ireland comparable to O’Sanassa in the excellence of his poverty; the amount of famine which was delineated in his person. He had neither pig nor cup nor any household goods. In the depths of winter I often saw him on the hillside fighting and competing with a stray dog, both contending for a narrow hard bone and the same snorting and angry barking issuing from them both. He had no cabin either, nor any acquaintance with shelter or kitchen heat. He had excavated a hole with his two hands in the middle of the countryside and over its mouth he had placed old sacks and branches of trees as well as any useful object that might provide shelter against the water which came down on the countryside every night. Strangers passing by thought that he was a badger in the earth when they perceived the heavy breathing which came from the recesses of the hole as well as the wild appearance of the habitation in general.’ (88-89; Kennelly, op. cit., 1996., pp.186-87.) [See remarks in Kennelly, ‘Satire in Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth’, in Journey into Joy: Selected Prose, ed. Åke Persson, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1996, in Commentary, supra; see also the Irish original in Do. [full-text copy], in RICORSO Library, “Critical Classics”, infra.]

The Poor Mouth (1964): ‘For five hours I became a child of the ashes - a raw youngster rising up according to the old Gaelic tradition […] the foul stench of the fireplace stayed with me for a week; it was a stale, putrid smell and I do not think the like will ever be again.’ (q.p.) ‘Not only one fine oration followed this one but eight. Many Gaels collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most gaelically in the midst of the assembly.’ (q.p.) Also: ‘[…] I was almost twenty years old and one of the laziest and most indolent person living in Ireland. I had no experience of work and neither had I found any desire for it ever since the day I was born.’ (London: Flamingo Modern Classics, 1993), p.62. Further: ‘Yes! we had a great day of oratory at Corkadoraga that day!’ [q.p.]

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The Third Policeman (Penguin 1986 Edn.) -

1st epigraph: ‘Human existence being a hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.’

Opening: ‘I was born a long time ago. My father was a strong farmer and my mother owned a public house. We all lived in the public house but it was not a strong house at all and was closed most of the day because my father was out at work on the farm and my mother was always in the kitchen and for some reason the customers never came until it was nearly bed-time; and well after it at Christmas-time and on other unusual days like that. I never saw my mother outside the kitchen in my life and never saw a customer during the day and even at night I never saw more than two or three together. But then I was in bed part of the time and it is possible that things happened differently with my mother and with the customers late at night. My father I do not remember well but he was a strong man and did not talk much except on Saturdays when he would mention Parnell with the customers and say that Ireland was a queer country. My mother I can recall perfectly. Her face was always red and sore-looking from bending at the fire; she spent her life making tea to pass the time and singing snatches of old songs to pass the meantime. I knew her well but my father and I were strangers and did not converse much; often indeed when I would be studying in the kitchen at night I could hear him through the thin door to the shop talking there from his seat under the oil-lamp for hours on end to Mick the sheepdog. Always it was only the drone of his voice I heard, never the separate bits of words. He was a man who understood all dogs thoroughly and treated them like human beings. My mother owned a cat but it was a foreign outdoor animal and, was rarely seen and my mother never took any notice of it. We were happy enough in a queer separate way.’ [For longer extracts, see RICORSO Library, “Irish Classics > Flann O’Brien”, via index, or direct.]

Third Policeman - Opening of Chapter Two.
About houses ...

De Selby had some interesting things to say on the subject of houses.(1) A row of houses he regards as a row of necessary evils. The softening and degeneration of the human race he attributes to its progressive predilection for interiors and waning interest in the art of going out and staying there. This in turn he sees as the result of the rise of such pursuits as reading, chess-playing, drinking, marriage and the life, few of which can be satisfactorily conducted in he open. Elsewhere (2) he ...

“... TFW the footnote is twice the length of the paragraph it appends.”

—Posted on Facebook (22.03.2017).
A response:

“The fundamental problem with Flann O'Brien is that his contemptuous attitude towards &q#145;marriage and the like’ involved in this riff is not borne out by any wider structure of feeling or expression. The result is that the glib humour of such a dismissive attitude here co-mixed with a seeming connivance in the ideology of eugenics (aka “degeneracy theory”) - which was actually going on in Europe at the time - fails the test of real satire. There is no sense that FOB understands the gravity of the terms he uses and hence it is not even possible to say, with some commentators, that De Selby [cf. Der Selbst] is the epitome of a selfish philosophy and perhaps even a version of the fascist scourge that emerged from the romantic strain of German racism fostered by Friedrich Neitzsche. De Selby as a devil - a symbol of social malaise in the New Ireland (or anywhere else) remains incoherent, and readers are as likely to applaud his idiocies in these flights of fancy as to condemn them.” (BS: 22.03.2017).

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The Dalkey Archive (1965) [a description by Timothy McLaughlin:] ‘The story concerns “a lowly civil servant”, Mick Shaughnessy, whose mundane life is sparked into fanciful and heroic possibilities by three people - a scientist named De Selby, James Joyce and Mick’s girl friend Mary. De Selby has not only discovered how to suspend time, but is so disgusted with history as to have devised a chemical compound which will remove oxygen from the atmosphere and thus destroy the world. James Joyce he hears is not dead, but hiding in a pub in Skerries, a village near Dublin. Mick thinks he can prevent De Selby’s plan by introducing him to Joyce, “and inducing both to devote their considerable brains in consultation to some recondite, involuted and incomprehensible literary project, ending in publication of a book which would be commonly ignored and thus be no menace to universal sanity. (Dalkey Archive, p.129; see quoted Mcloughlin, ‘Brian O’Nolan / Flann O’Brien / Myles: Playing / Spoiling’, in Cycnos, 10 2 [“À quoi jouent les Irlandais?”] (Juin 1993), available online - accessed 15.10.2011.)

Keats and Chapman once climbed Vesuvius and stood looking down into the volcano, watching the bubbling lava and considering the sterile ebullience of the stony entrails of the earth. Chapman shuddered as if with cold or fear. / “will you have a drop of the crater?” Keats said.’ (Best of Myles, ed. Kevin O’Nolan, Grafton 1987; Paladin Edn., p.183.) Other punning punch-lines are: ‘ere the bloom of that valet shall fade from my heart’; ‘Dogging a fled horse’; ‘great mines stink alike’; ‘Schubert […] a lieder-writer’ ) ‘His B.Arch is worse than his bite’; ‘A terrible man for his bier’; ‘It will clear the heir’; ‘Foals rush in where Engels feared to tread’; ‘brute and ranch’; ‘The last roes of summer’ (Ibid., pp.180-200.)

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The Best of Myles, ed. Kevin O’Nolan (London: Grafton 1987 [Paladin Edn.]) - “Catechism of Cliché”: ‘[…] An interval is right. What we all want is a good long walk in the country, plenty of fresh air and good wholesome food. This murder of my beloved English language is getting in under my nails. There are, of course, other branches of charnel-house fun into which I have not yet had the courage to lead my readers. Not quite the clichés but things that smell the same and worse. Far worse. Things like this, I mean: / Of course, gin is a very depressing drink. / The air in Budoran is very bracing. / You’ll see the whole lot of us travelling by air before you’re much older. / Your man is an extraordinary genius. / Of course, the most depressing drink of the lot is gin.’ (p.207; see further extracts, attached.)

The Best of Myles: ‘You know the limited edition ramp. If you write very obscure verse (and why shouldn't you, pray?) for which there is little or no market, you pretend that there is an enormous demand, and that the stuff has to be rationed. Only 300 copies will be printed, you say, and then the type will be broken up for ever. Let the connoisseurs and bibliophiles savage each other for the honour and glory of snatching a copy. Positively no reprint. Reproduction in whole or in part forbidden. Three hundred copies of which this is Number 4,312. Hand-monkeyed oklamon paper, indigo boards in interpulped squirrel-toe, not to mention twelve point Campile Perpetua cast specially for the occasion. Complete, unabridged, and positively unexpurgated. Thirty-five bob a knock and a gory livid bleeding bargain at the price. / Well I have decided to carry this thing a bit farther. I beg to announce respectfully my coming volume of verse entitled “Scorn for Taurus”. We have decided to do it in eight point Caslon on turkey-shutter paper with covers in purple corduroy. But look out for the catch. When the type has been set up, it will be instantly destroyed and NO COPY WHATEVER WILL BE PRINTED. In no circumstances will the company's servants be permitted to carry away even a rough printer’s proof . The edition will be so utterly limited that a thousand pounds will not buy even one copy. This is my idea of being exclusive. / The charge will be five shillings. Please do not make an exhibition of yourself by asking me what you get for your money. You get nothing you can see or feel, not even a receipt. But you do yourself the honour of participating in one of the most far-reaching experiments ever carried out in my literary work-shop. (p.228; quoted in Timothy Mcloughlin, ‘Brian O’Nolan / Flann O’Brien / Myles: Playing / Spoiling’, in Cycnos, 10 2 [“À quoi jouent les Irlandais?”] (Juin 1993), available online - accessed 15.10.2011.)

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More Myles ...
‘Compartmentation of personality’ - letter from Keith Hopper to TLS (15 March 2009)

Sir, –
 In his review of The Irish Times: A History by Mark O’Brien (April 10), David Dwan is not entirely correct when he says that ‘From 1940 to 1965, [Flann] O’Brien wrote articles in Irish and English gleefully attacking Ireland’s sacred cows’. “Flann O’Brien” was the pen name used by Brian O’Nolan for his novels; for his long-running satirical column in the Irish Times, “Cruiskeen Lawn”, O’Nolan used the name Myles na gCopaleen (which was spelt na Gopaleen from 1952 onwards).
 The use of a nom de plume was important, not least because O’Nolan was a high-ranking civil servant who needed to protect his identity. Moreover, the use of the pseudonymous mask was an intrinsic part of O’Nolan’s aesthetic theory – or as Myles himself wrote in 1964: ‘Compartmentation of personality for the purpose of literary utterance ensures that the fundamental individual will not be credited with a certain way of thinking and fixed attitudes. No author should write under his own name nor under one permanent pen name”. In the postcolonial rebranding of the Irish Times as a modern and liberal newspaper, the role of Myles na gCopaleen – for many Irish readers, the satirical successor to Swift – should not be underestimated.

  Keith Hopper
Kellogg College,
62 Banbury Road,

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Binchy and Bergin and Best”: ‘My song is concern’ / Three sons of great learnin’ / Binchy and Bergin and Best, / They worked out that riddle / Old Irish and Middle, / Binchy and Bergin and Best, / they studied far higher / Than ould Kuno Meyer / And fanned up the glimmer / Bequested by Zimmer / Binchy and Bergin and Best. // They rose in their nightshift / To write for the Zeitschrift, / Binchy and Bergin and Best, / They proved they were bosses / At wrastling with glosses, Binchy and Bergin and Best, / they made good recensions / Of ancient declensions, / And careful redactions / To their three satisfactions / Binchy and Bergin and Best. // The went for a dander / With Charlie Marstrander / Binchy and Bergin and Best. / They added their voices / (Though younger) to Zeuss’s, / Binchy and Bergin and Best. / Stout chase the three gave / Through the Táin for Queen Maeve / And played “Find the Lady” / With Standish O’Grady, / Binchy and Bergin and Best. // They sang in the coir / Of the Institute (Higher) / Binchy and Bergin and Best,[266] / And when they saw fit / The former two quit, / Binchy and Bergin and Best / But the third will remain / To try to regain / At whatever coset / Our paradigms lost, / Binchy and Bergin and Best. // So forte con brio / Three cheers for the trio, / Binchy and Bergin and Best, / These friends of Pokorni / Let’s toast in Grand Marnier, / Binchy and Bergin and Best - / These justly high-rated, / Advanced, educated, / And far from facetious / Three sons of Melesius, / Binchy and Bergin and Best.’ (The Best of Myles, London: Grafton 1987; Paladin edn. 1992, pp.266-67; also quoted in Pól Ó Dochartaigh, ‘The Source of Helll: Professor Julius Pokorny of Vienna in Ulysses’, in James Joyce Quarterly, 41, 2003-04, pp.825-29, citing Irish Times, 18 March 1942, p.2.)

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Sundry Remarks

O’Brien called An Béal Bocht (trans. as The Poor Mouth): novel ‘an attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of “Gael”, which I find the most nauseating phenomenon in Europe.’ (Quoted in Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.144.)

Letters to Ethel Mannin: ‘It [At Swim-Two-Birds] is a belly-laugh or high-class literary pretentious slush depending on how you look at it. Some people say it is harder on the head than the worst whiskey, so do not hesitate to burn the book if you think that’s the right thing to do.’ (12 July 1939). Further: ‘It is a pity you do not like my beautiful book, as a genius I do not expect to be readily understood but you may be surprised to know that my book is a definite milestone in literature, completely revolutionises the English novel and puts the shallow pedestrian English writers in their place. Of course I know you are prejudiced against me on account of the IRA bombings […] to be serious I can’t understand your attitude to stuff like this. It is not a pale-faced sincere attempt to hold the mirror up and had nothing in the world to do with James Joyce. It is supposed to be a lot of belching, thumb-nosing and belly-laughing and I honestly believe that it is funny in parts. It is also by way of being a sneer at all the slush which has been unloaded from this country on the credulous English although they, it is true, manufacture enough of their own odious slush to make the import unnecessary. I don’t think your dictum about making the meaning clear would be upheld in any court of law. You'll look a long time for clear meaning in The Marx Brothers or Karl Marx for that matter.’ (14 July 1939) [The foregoing both quoted [in part] in Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.104; see also Sue Asbee, Flann O’Brien, Boston: Twayne Publ. 1991, p.10).

Letter to William Saroyan: ‘I guess it [At Swim-Two-Birds] is a bum book anyhow. I am writing a very funny book now about bicycles and policemen and I think it will be perhaps good and early a little money quietly.’ (25 Sept. 1939; see Notes, infra.) Further: ‘The only good thing about it is the plot and I have been wondering whether I could make a crazy Saroyan play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realise my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he has earned for the killing Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he has been away three days, this other fellow is 20 years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door. Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start going through the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he had never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on forever - and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either […] . I envy you the way you write […] I can never seen to get anything just right […] Nevertheless, I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead - and the damned - where none of the rules and laws (not even the Law of Gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back chat and funny cracks [var. stories].’ (14 Feb. 1940; quoted in Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989 [q.p.].)

Note: Martin Esslin quotes O’Brien’s letter to Saroyan [‘I think the idea of a human being dead is pretty new … backchat and funny cracks’] with this comment: ‘one is confronted with the madness of the human condition, is enabled to see his situation in all its grimness and despair […] By seeing his anxieties formulated he can liberate himself from them.’ (Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, 1980, p.146.)

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Letter to Messrs. Longmans: ‘Briefly, the story I have in mind [for The Third Policeman] opens as a very orthodox murder mystery in a rural district. The perplexed parties have recourse to the local barrack which, however, contains some very extraordinary policemen who do not confine their investigations or activities to this world or to any known planes or dimensions. Their most casual remarks create a thousand other mysteries but there will be no question of the difficulty or “fireworks” of the last book. The whole point of my plan will be the perfectly logical and matter-of-fact treatment of the most brain-staggering imponderables of the policemen. I should like to do this rather carefully and spend some time on it […].’ (1 May 1939; quoted [with the above] in Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989 pp.110-11; but note some variation from version printed on the back cover of the Calder Edn. of Third Policeman.)

The Trade in Dublin’ [by Flann O’Brien], in The Bell, 1, 2 (Nov. 1940), pp. 6-15: ‘The white-coated server who has ousted the curate [old-fashioned barman] in some pubs may be taken as a sign of the decline of faith. The Irish brand of humanity, expansive and voluble, is hardening and contracting under the hammer-blows of international mammon, dealt through the radio, press and cinema. Among the stupider section of the younger generation a shabby and rather comic “smartness” may be discerned, even in the simple task of dealing with a bottle of brown stout. / Their cinema-going has taught them the great truth that William Powell does not walk up to a counter, bellow (page 8) for a schooner or a scoop and ask Mick whether the brother is expected up for the match on Sunday. William is modern and drinks out of glasses with long stems in a cushioned corner with his doxy. His many imitators (what could be more flimsy than an imitation of a flat two-dimensional picture-house ghost?) have insisted on something similar, since they, too, have to go out with Myrna Loy. The Select Lounge has been the handsome answer of the trade in Dublin.’ (pp.7-8.) ‘The other [less good] places afford a pathetic insight into the meaning attached to the word “ modern” by many publicans. They think that it means just tubes – tubular chairs, repellent alike to eye and seat, tubular lighting, tubular effects in decoration. Those who have been to prison immediately recognise the lamentable simplicity of the decor and the severity of the furnishings. The ugliness of such a tavern cannot be completely offset by the fact that most of the customers appear to be film-stars or that the man who serves you is a bell-hop from New York.’ (Extract supplied by Kelly Matthews, UUC PhD cand., 2008.)

The Irish Nation (“Cruiskeen Lawn”, The Irish Times): ‘My particular assignment lies with the unfortunate brachycephalics of the westerly latitudes. My problem is how to help that person who, by birth or profession, is in the somewhat embarrassing condition of being an Irishman - that “an” whose mortal ailment is not so much nationalism as nationality. Sometimes I feel that I am not sufficiently detached from the material upon which it is my vocation to work inasmuch as I am unique in the spheres of either journalism or science by reason of my own nationality. (I am “Irish”, you see.) / The problems which confront me cannot be solved without the cooperation and goodwill of my patients. Please, therefore - if you are Irish, write and tell me about it. Write frankly, secure in the knowledge that no eye other than my own will peruse your communication. Explain what it feels like to be Irish. State at what age you first realised that you were an Irish person. When did you have your first fight? At what age did you make your first brilliant “Irish” witticism? At what age did you become a drunkard? Please tell me all, because there can be no cure until the pathological background has been explored. If you conceive yourself to be a cultural chauvin, please state whether your fixations are concerned with footballs, horses, folk dances, political frontiers or merely languages. / It is in your own interest to tell all. Remember that I too was Irish. Today I am cured. I am no longer Irish. I am merely a person. I cured myself after many years of suffering. I am sure I can help you if only you will have faith in me and write to me in confidence. Mark your envelope “Irish” in the top left-hand corner.’ (31 May, 1943; for further extracts, see infra.)

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James Joyce (I): ‘Humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear, creeps out endlessly in all Joyce’s works. He uses the thing, in the same way as Shakespeare does but less formally, to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and who genuinely think that they will be in hell or in heaven shortly, and possibly very shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency, Rabelais is funny, but his stuff cloys. His stuff lacks tragedy.’ [‘Bash in the Tunnel’, in Envoy, April 1951, p.11.]

James Joyce (II): ‘[Joyce was] illiterate’; his ‘every foreign language quotation was incorrect’; his few sallies at Greek at wrong, and his few attempts at a Gaelic phrase absolutely monstrous.’ (‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, The Irish Times, 16 June [Bloomsday], 1954; quoted in Anthony Cronin, op. cit., 1989, p.111.)

James Joyce (III): in conversation with Samuel Beckett, O’Brien called Joyce ‘that refurbisher of skivvies stories’. (Quoted in Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.158 - remarking that Beckett was shocked at what he heard.)

James Joyce (IV): ‘N í IRISH LITERATURE a bhfuil scríobhtha ag James Joyce adeir-sé, acht [267] tá an teideal sin ion luaidhte aige i dtaobh SÉADHNA leis an Athair Ó Laoghaire. Ní bhainfidh an té a léigh an da leabhar tathneamh as an ráiteas sin. Gan bacadh lis an focal IRISH is litríocht den chéad aicme ULYSSES again ní litríocht ar chor ar bith, olc nó maith, aon line a scríobh an t-Athair Peadar. Is féider leat (ma ta an léigheann agat rud nach bhfuil) ULYSSES a léigheamh i Seapanais acht ní féidir SÉADHNA a léigheamh fiú i mBéarla. […] &c.]’ (The Best of Myles, London: Grafton 1987; Paladin edn. 1992, pp.267-68.)

James Joyce (V): Note that Joyce is the butt of a recurrent joke in The Dalkey Archive which represents him as still living and writing pamphlets for the Catholic Church while hiding out in an Irish rural village.

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O'Connor & O’Faoláin: O’Brien and called Frank O’Connor ‘the Dean of the Celtic Faculty’ and criticised Seán O'Faolain for writing ‘stories about wee Annie going to her first confession, stuff about country funerals, old men in chimney nooks after fifty years in America, will-making, match-making - just one long blush for many an innocent man life me, who never harmed them.’. (See Cronin, No Laughing Matter, q.pp.; quoted by Keith Hopper, Oxon.; IASAIL conference 1999.)

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Writing in English: ‘It’s fairly obvious I haven’t much to say today. Sow what? Sow wheat / Ah-ha, the old sow-faced cod, the funny man, clicking out his dreary blob of mirthless trash. The crude grub-glutted muck-shuffler slumped on his hack-chair, lolling his dead syrup eyes through other people’s books to lift some lousy joke. English today, have to be a bit careful, can’t get away with murder so easily in English. Observe the grey pudgy hand faltering upon the type-keys. That is clearly the hand of a man that puts the gut number one. Not much sacrifice there. Yes but he has a conscience, remember. He has a conscience. He does not feel too well today […] incapable of writing short bright well-constructed newspaper article, notwithstanding the fact editors only too anxious to print and pay for suitable articles, know man who took course Birmingham School of Journalism, now earns 12,000 pounds in his spare time. If you can write a letter you can write articles for newpapers. Editors waiting […] &c.]’ (The Best of Myles, London: Grafton 1987; Paladin edn. 1992, p.313.)

Irish Bardic Poetry: ‘The exhibition, which is the result of years of training by kindness and a carefully thought-out dietary system, comprises, among other achievements, the recitation of verse. Our greatest living phonetic expert (wild horses shall not drag it from us!) has left no stone unturned in his efforts to elucidate and compare the verse recited and has found it bears a striking resemblance (the italics are ours) to the ranns of ancient Celtic bards. We are not speaking so much of those delightful lovesongs with which the writer who conceals his identity under the graceful pseudonym of the Little Sweet Branch has familiarised the bookloving world but rather (as a contributor D.O.C. points out in an interesting communication published by an evening contemporary) of the harsher and more personal note which is found in the satirical effusions of the famous Raftery and of Donald MacConsidine to say nothing of a more modern lyrist at present very much in the public eye. We subjoin a specimen which has been rendered into English by an eminent scholar whose name for the moment we are not at liberty to disclose though we believe our readers will find the topical allusion rather more than an indication. The metrical system of the canine original, which recalls the intricate alliterative and isosyllabic rules of the Welsh englyn, is infinitely more complicated but we believe our readers will agree that the spirit has been well caught. Perhaps it should be added that the effect is greatly increased if Owen’s verse be spoken somewhat slowly and indistinctly in a tone suggestive of suppressed rancour.’ [q. source.]

Language revival (1): ‘Will old Ireland survive? Not unless we work. We will survice if we deserve survival. Our destiny is in our own hands. Quisque est faber fortunae suae. We must pull together, sink our differences and behave with dignity and decorum. And above all, work. Work for Ireland. How queer that sounds. Not die, mind you. Work. Work for the old land. And at evening time, when reclinging at our frugal fireside, saturated by the noble tiredness that is conferred by honest toil, in the left hand let there be no alien printed trash but the first book of O’Growney. There, the, is an ideal for you, something you can do for Ireland. “I will let no evening pass without an hour at O’Growney.” The old tongue. The old tongue that was spoken by our forefathers. Learning Irish and all working together - for Ireland. Let us do that and we will surely survive. Erin go bragh! Unfurl the old flag, three crowns on a blue field, the old flag of Erin. Our hears are sound and our arms are strong. And what is our watchword? “Work”. Let our watchword henceforth be that small word with four letters: w-o-r-k. WORK! / Next speech, next speech, please. Clapping. Senile old chairman.’ (The Best of Myles, London: Grafton 1987; Paladin edn. 1992, p.309.) Cf., O’Brien’s facetious recitation of the nationalist cliché: ‘What is the sole and true badge of nationhood?’ - ‘The national language’. ‘With what also would it be idle to seek to revive the national language’ - ‘Our distinctive national culture’.

Language Revival (2): ‘I was recently held up again at a Dublin street corner by a small crowd who were listening to a young man with a strong North of Ireland accent who was aloft on a little Irish scaffold. / “Glun na Buaidhe,” he roared, “has its own ideas about the banks, has its own ideas about dancing. There is one sort of dancing that Glun na Buaidhe will not permit and that is jazz dancing. Because jazz dancing is the product of the dirty nigger culture of America, the dirty low nigger culture of America.” / Substitute jew for nigger and you have something beautiful and modern. But what pained me was the fact that nobody present laughed. There is something comic about revivalists who have no idea of what they are trying to revive. What a shock this young man would get if he could read what remains to us of the literature of out tough and bawdy ancestors.' (Ibid., 15 March 1944.)

Language revival (3): O’Brien saw no prospect of reviving Irish ‘at the present rate of going and way of working’, but agreed with O’Casey that it was ‘essential, particularly for any sort of literary worker.’ Further: ‘It supplies that unknown quantity in us that enable us to transform the English language and this seems to hold for people who have little or no Irish, like Joyce. It seems to be an inbred thing.’ (Letter to Sean O’Casey following praise for An Béal Bocht, 13 April, 1942; quoted in Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.144).

English oddities: ‘I often wonder am I […] mad? Do I take that rather Irish thing, O’Fence, too easily? I go into a house, for instance. My “host” says “sit down”. Now why sit down? Why must be be so cautious and explicit. Is there not a clear suggestion there that if he had neglected to be precise, he might turn round to find me seated on top of the bookcase, the head bent to avoid the ceiling and the air thick with fractured cobwebs? How equally stupid the phrase “stand up!”. And how mysteriously the sit-down fight as opposed to the stand-up fight!’

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No God and Two Patricks (on T. F. O’Rahilly and Erwin Schroedinger’s theories), ‘A friend has drawn my attention to Professor O’Rahilly’s recent address on ‘Palladius and Patrick’. I understand also that Professor Schroedinger has been proving lately that you cannot establish a first cause. The first fruit of the Institute therefore, has been an effort to show that there are two Saint Patricks and no God. The propagation of heresy and unbelief has nothing to do with polite learning, and unless we are careful this Institute of ours will make us the laughing stock of the world.’ (Cited in Allanah Hopkin, The Living Legend of St Patrick, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, p.151; see further under DIAS, in Notes, infra; and see also bibliographical details under O’Rahilly, q.v.) Cf. St. Augustine's remark in The Dalkey Archive: ‘Two Saint Patricks? We have four of the buggers in our place and they’d make you sick with their shamrocks and shenanigans and bullshit.‘ (q.p.)

Modernisation: ‘I solemnly warn Pat to look out for himself. Hospitals are being planned for him, clinics, health centres, stream-lined dispensaries. I can see the new Ireland all right, in mime-hind’s eye. The decaying population tucked carefully in white sterilised beds, numb from drugs, rousing themselves only to make their wills in Irish […]. It is my considered view that Paud keeping step with world hysteria in the belief that he is being “modern” is a woeful spectacle, is nowise funny.’ (‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, 10 May, 1944; Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.173).

Furrin publications: It seems to me that all national publications, of whatever country, gain in vitality by a process of interaction with imported papers. The same is true of Irish people’s blood. It is more and not less foreigners we want here and there is no limit to our requirements of foreign material for germination.’ (‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, 3 Jan. 1957; Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.136).

Civil Service Pension Scheme: ‘The bulk of the material in Parliament at present is dangerously mediocre and the considerable problems of the future can be hopefully attacked only if the attitude to those forced to enter the administrative service is emancipatory rather than restrictive. People of intelligence whose parents have no money have virtually no other choice. Children of the well-to-do enter the professions and the majority are too absorbed in their lucrative work to make any contribution to public affairs. The only other considerable class is the business community. Business experience seems to [concern] an ex parte and unduly materialistic mentality; businessmen in public life have not been impressive. The administrator, on the other hand, has uniquely useful experience of the structure and function of the modern civil organism. It would be difficult to imagine a better deputy than a man who has served for 20 years as a County manager and who retired in his prime (say at 50) to take a hand in public affairs’. (“Heads of Civil Service Superannuation Bill”, Nat. Library of Ireland [NLI]; quoted in Cronin, op. cit., 1989, c.p.160.)

Importance of art?: ‘The main thing to remember is the unimportance of art. It is very much a minority activity’. (The Irish Times, q.d.; quoted in Sue Asbee, Flann O’Brien, Twayne, 1991, p.66.)

Christian Brothers: ‘I remember a loutish teacher […] I would not be bothered to denounce such people as sadists, brutes, psychotics, I would simply dub them criminals and would expect to see them jailed.’ (‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, 20 Dec. 1965; quoted in Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.27).

Human Condition: ‘Anybody who has the courage to raise his eyes and look sanely at the awful human condition […] must realise finally that tiny perod of temporary release from intolerable suffering is the most that any individual has the right to expect.’ (O’Brien, quoted in Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter, 1989, p.x; cited in Paul Rice, UG essay, UUC 2001.)

Albert Einstein (Obit. notice on Albert Einstein, in “Cruiskeen Lawn”’, Irish Times, 23 April 1955), offers ‘[a] conspectus of [his] life-work, with a brief accompanying excursis on the application of his discoveries to the science of annihilating the human race’: ‘Physicists for the last fifty years have been concerned to prove that neither Euclid nor Newton knew what they were talking about. There was no such thing as the gravitational attraction between objects as defined by Newton in his Principia Mathematica; and the short distance between two points was not a straight line, if only [because] there was no such thing as a straight line. What was the velocity of the earth? The most subtle and careful experiments proved that the earth was not moving at all; movement means going from one place to another and the earth wasn’t going anywhere, and Newton had established no difference between “motion” in an orderly course and absolute rest. The earth is admitted to be rotating; this is regarded as true motion, but [it is] the cause of what Newton thought was gravitational attraction and what Einstein found to be what he called “acceleration”’. ‘A fundamental Einsteinian postulate is that the age-old concept of space being three-dimensional is mistaken. He insists that it is four-dimension, the fourth dimension being time; he repudiates the separate concepts of “space” and “time” and substitutes “space-time” as an integral thing, and proceeds to speculations in four-dimensional geometry. / The nature of the atom is fairly well known; every atom is a small universe, and it seems fair to deduce that there is really no such thing as matter; as in [?fact] matter and energy are interchangeable, what looks like matter may be taken to be petrified or arrested energy. Nuclear fission (discovered, ironically enough, in Germany in 1939), is the process whereby matter is converted into energy - if the reader will permit so mild a description of the hell-bomb.’

Aesthetics as a mental ailment (The Best of Myles): ‘This is life, and stuffed contentedly in the china bath sits the boy it was invented for, morbidly aware of the structure of history, geography, parsing, algebra, chemistry and woodwork; he is up to his chin in carpediurnal present, and simultaneously, in transcendent sense-immediacy, sensible that without him, without his feeling, his observation, his diapassional apprehension of all planes, his non-pensionable function as catalyst, the whole filmy edifice would crumble into dust. He likes the lukewarm water. He likes himself liking the lukewarm water. He likes himself liking himself liking the lukewarm water. Aesthetics, in other words, is a mental ailment.’ (p.249.)

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