Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (London: Grafton 1989; rep. Paladin 1990) - extracts.

This selection has been made in the course of teaching the novels of Flann O'Brien as part of modules in Irish Literature at the University of Ulster for purposes of OHP display and as such it does not constitutes republication in any form. (Page references to Penguin Edn.)



The hold of Catholicism in Ireland in those years was partly parental. To disavow the faith, whether in public or in private, was a gesture so extreme that most people who had doubts or reservations suppressed them on the grounds that it would cause their parents too much suffering, might indeed even “break their hearts”. True, Joyce had managed the business a quarter of a century or so before, but the extreme song and dance he had made of it showed how difficult he found it; and he had, after all, to refuse to kneel at his mother’s bedside, to go into exile and to render himself both déraciné and déclassé to do it.

For the hold was also partly ideological. A break with Catholicism would involve questions of your very identity, racial, social and historical. It would also involve questions of your future and your position in the scheme of things, even your ability to earn a living might be in jeopardy. Social pressures might not always be overt, but they were not to be forgotten.

The result of these two discomforts - being a beneficiary of a nationalist revolution which you had largely come to despise, though however much you despised it, it was also unthinkable that you could regret the passing of British rule; and being a passive or active upholder of a faith which you often found abhorrent either in its beliefs, or at the very least, its public attitudes - was for some of O’Nolan’s contemporaries a curious kind of latter-day aestheticism.

You were in an ambiguous, not to say a dishonest position, morally, socially and intellectually. You were a conformist among other conformists in terms of the most important social or philosophical [52] questions you could face. But yet you knew about modern art and literature. You had read most of the great moderns and, above all, you had read James Joyce. That was what marked you out as different, the joke you shared against the rabblement of which you were otherwise a part. [52-53.]

[On JAMES JOYCE:] James Joyce […] lived by … the perception of the artist as one whose primary concern is to find a mode of life which will best serve his art […]

Joyce and his challenge would be defused by making him a mere logomachic wordsmith, a great but demented genius who finally went mad in his ivory tower. Admittedly he was a great low-life humourist as well, but he was one whose insensate dedication to something called art would finally unhinge him. On the other hand, Joyce and a view of modernism as a predominantly aesthetic philosophy could still provide a sort of absolution and a sort of charm against infection for those who despised the new Ireland while yet conforming to parental and other expectations within it. It was a circular solution, but it had the advantage of neatness. [57] He was not a Francophile or an Anglophile and his elaborate critique of Ireland in later years was based on the rough premise that, with all its shortcomings, it was as good a place as anywhere else, both as Myles na Gopaleen and otherwise he was quick to resent insults to his country or implications that other countries were inherently superior.

His conformism was therefore of a less ambiguous nature than that [of] some of his friends … [57].

[On O’BRIEN’S CIVIL SERVICE JOB:] Stephen Dedalus’s quest may have been, in words that Brian knew well, ‘to find that mode of life or art in which I may express myself as freely as I can and as fully as I can …’; but until a much later period in Brian O’Nolan’s personal history there is no suggestion of a conflict in which the claims of freedom of expression had to be balanced against other claims. When he did feel anything of the kind, it was too late. [[89; For status of Civil Service employment, see p.83].

[U]ntil a much later period in Brian O’Nolan’s personal history there is no suggestion of a conflict in which the claims of freedom and free expression had to be balanced against other claims. When he did feel anything of the kind, it was too late. [89].

[B]est-selling popular novelist of the day […] Ethel Mannin was an expert sentimental and popular author who was probably a judge of public acceptability but little else.’ [103]

It is a myth which has destroyed its share of lives, or at least cut them off from ordinary human relationships, as well as causing some of those who attempted to live by it extreme moral suffering. But it could be argued in his case, he was, in time, destroyed by its opposite, by a too ready acceptance of the necessity of emulating the life pattern of the majority who do not have a special vocation and are not burdened by the claims of art.

[...]

[Compared with Beckett:] Like Beckett he confronts the final squalor of our bodily existence, by a method which compels acknowledgement that when all the noble and carefully constructed things have been said and done this is what is left: the struggle, the misery, the clinging to the sheltered side in a lif ewhich is, in the end, nasty, brutish and short. [130]

O’BRIEN’S INTELLECTUAL TEMPERAMENT: Like most Irish Catholics of his generation he was a medieval Thomist in his attitude to many things, including scientific speculation and discovery. For the Thomist all the great questions have been settled and the purpose of existence is clear. There is only one good, the salvation of the individual soul; and only one final catastrophe, damnation … The operation of divine grace through the Christian sacraments maintain the ground won [by revelation] and prevent the triumph of evil, even if only partially, locally and in terms of individual salvation. But science, social organisation and psychology are almost irrelevant. [115.]

THE THIRD POLICEMAN and THE DALKEY ARCHIVE: ‘[H]e was mining a masterwork to produce the dull dross of a tired and inferior one.’ [149].

Cronin quotes Aidan Higgins’s remark that the landscape of The Third Policeman is that of the Irish midlands of O’Nolan’s childhood [no source; 116]. Cronin calls O’Brien a precursor of the deconstructive fiction (à la Jameson and Eagleton) [162-63].

Further, An Béal Bocht followed on O’Brien’s reading of An tOileánach, and was ‘an attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of “Gael”, which I find the most nauseating phenomenon in Europe.’ (Ibid., p.144.)

Note: Cronin quotes O’Brien’s letters to Ethel Mannin [104], the publisher Longman’s, and William Saroyan [111] in 1939-1940 [see under Quotations - as supra].


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