Brendan Kennelly, 'Satire in Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth’ in Journey into Joy: Selected Prose, ed. Åke Persson (Newcastle: Bloodaxe 1994), pp.183-88.

First published as ‘An Béal Bocht: Mayles na gCopaleen (1911-1966)’, in The Pleasures of Gaelic Literature, ed. John Jordan (Cork: Mercier Press 1977), pp.85-96. Passages from The Poor Mouth given here in English first appeared in the Irish originals and were substituted in Åke Persson’s edition. Pages references to the translation by Patrick C. Power (The Poor Mouth, London: Paladin Books 1989) are also given in Persson.

The book I want to deal with, The Poor Mouth (An Béal Bocht), is a masterpiece, for many reasons. The first reason is that its author, Flann O’Brien, has a mastery of the Irish language. (He has an equal mastery of English, but that’s another story.) Secondly, he writes with a wide and deep knowledge of the Irish tradition. Thirdly, his satirical genius is equal to that of Swift, and, like Swift, Flann O’Brien is a savage moralist with a hatred of hypocrisy and a fiercely articulate awareness of evil.

It is only fair that I should admit that my own Irish is nothing to write home about; yet, as I re-read this book, I was able to appreciate the skill, the comic agility, the lacerating fury with which Flann O’Brien could invest the Irish language.

Why is The Poor Mouth such an angry book? What is it hitting at?

The book’s plot, if it can be called such, is straight-forward. The hero, Bónapart Ó Cúnasa, is born into the Gaeltacht area of Corca Dorcha. Also in the house are Bórnapart’s mother, an old man called An Seanduine Liath, and many pigs, sheep and cattle. Bónapart’s father is in prison, or, as the Old Man says, 'Tá sé sa chrúiscín’ (He is in the jug). Bonapart grows up, has a number of adventures which seem more like nightmares, and at the end of the book, he is imprisoned for twenty-nine years, having been found guilty of murdering a man in Galway, and stealing his gold. Bonapart understands nothing of his trial. just before he enters prison he meets his father, or somebody whom he takes to be his father, for the first time. The encounter is over almost as soon as it began. And that is the end of the book.

The plot may be skeletal, but the satire is merciless. The title gives us a clue. An Béal Bocht is, of course, the poor mouth, the assumption and emphasis of poverty in order to gain a more advantageous position. The poor mouth is the slave’s weapon, the instrument of the whining opportunist. There are at least two great pieces of Irish writing concerning poverty - Patrick Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger and The Poor Mouth. Kavanagh’s long poem is tragic; Flann O’Brien’s novel is at once funny and bitter. Here, he describes the bad smell (of pigs and humans together) in Bónapart’s house:

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 [182] 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.)

[Le linn m’óige-se, bhiodh drochbholadh sa tigh i gcónaí againn. Uaireanta bhí sé chomh dona sin gur iarras ar mo mháthair, sula raibh aon tsiúl ceart ionam, mé chur amach chun na scoile. Daoine a bheadh ag gabháil thar bhráid, ní dheinidis fuireach ná siú féin agus iad i ngiorracht ár dtí-ne ach risa reatha thar bhéal an dorais agus gan aon staonadh ón rith go mbeidís leathmhíle slí imithe ón mbréantas. Teach eile a bhí dhá chéad slat do bhóthar uainn ghlan an mhuintir a bhí ann amach as lá amháin nuair bhí an boladh go ró-olc againn, thug aghaidh ar an Oileán Úr agus níor fhill as ó shin. Bhí sé ráite go ndúradar le muintir na háite thall gur bhreá an tír í Eire acht go raibh an t-aer go láidir ann. Faraoir, ní raibh aon aer riamh sa tigh againne.]

This is Bonapart’s stinking home. He lives literally with the pigs and is almost indistinguishable from them. (Later in the novel, when he becomes a father, he thinks his own son is a little pig.) Inside the house, all is stinking congestion. Outside, is the endless downpour of hostile heaven. It never stops raining in Corca Dorcha, as though heaven had nothing but complete contempt for those with the béal bocht. There are times in this book when the reader himself feels absolutely drenched through to the skin, and indeed beneath the skin.

This drenched, battered, foul, stinking place is the home of the fíor Gaels. This is the well of purest Gaelic, somewhat defiled. Yet Flann O’Brien is not attacking the language. (His own Irish shows how long and hard and lovingly he must have worked to achieve such precision.) No, he is attacking certain uses of the language, and certain attitudes which seem almost synonymous with those uses. In doing this, he employs, with a great deal of effective repetition, certain phrases picked from other writers. For example, many of us will remember the phrase 'Ni bheidh ár leithéidí arís ann’ (Our likes won’t be there again). This phrase is used by Tomás O Crohan in his book An tOileánach (The Islandman, 1929, English translation 1937). Heroic Fenian literature is full of this kind of epic self-commemoration and self-assertion. Oisin and Fionn would speak like that. But Flann O’Brien uses the phrase when he speaks of the death of a pig - a particularly foul-smelling and ever-swelling and swilling pig, Ambrós. This is Bonapart praying for the dead pig, God rest his grunt:

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! (28)

[B’ait an mhuc é Ambrós agus ní dóigh liom go mbeadh a leithéid aris ann. Slán go raibh sé más in aon tsaol eile beo inniu dó.]

The poison of the béal bocht penetrates everything. It even pollutes the language itself At one stage in the book, a gentleman from Dublin is collecting Gaelic phrases on a recorder from the people of Corca Dorcha. In doing this, he spends a lot of money on whiskey to get the people talking. One night, he gives drink to a gathering of locals in a house (the typical condescending bribe of the insensitive [[183] outsider) but the whiskey fails to loosen the tongues of the sons of Corca Dorcha. Suddenly, somebody stumbles into the house, falls on the floor drunk, and unleashes a flood of what seems like talk, which, however, is quite unintelligible. According to the gentleman from Dublin, good Irish should be difficult, but the best Irish should be unintelligible. Perfection is another name for the incomprehensible. Well, in this case, the gentleman has perfection well recorded because what he manages to collect is the squealing of a rambling pig. Delighted with his treasure, the gentleman leaves Corca Dorcha to seek proper academic recognition for his labours. Flann O’Brien is here hitting at everything from self-delusion to acquisitive condescension to academic pretentiousness. It is as if he were saying - there is nothing wrong with language, Irish or otherwise; but there is something very wrong with those who use it, or rather abuse it, who change it from an instrument of possible illumination to something which can inspire loathing and disgust. Language can help us to tell what we know of the truth; it can also be the weapon of liars, frauds and opportunists.

One senses in Flann O’Brien a great reverence for language, and a great hatred for those who abuse it, those who tell the profitable lie.

This love of verbal precision is the expression of an essentially moral imagination. Cliché is not only the truth worn dull by repetition; it can also be a form of immoral evasion, a refusal to exercise the mind at a moment when it should be exercised, even to one’s own discomfort or distress. Cliché is also a form of imaginative fatigue, the unthinking use of listless formula to fill a blank space.

By taking the clichés of other writers, and by repeatedly inserting them into his own vivid, animated narrative, Flann O’Brien achieves unfailing satiric and comic effects. He mocks evasion; he parodies inertia. And in showing the verbal tiredness of others, he proves his own tremendous exuberance. The language of The Poor Mouth is remarkable for its substained energy. There is nothing flabby or soft about it. It has an intellectual cut and keenness, a constant hitting of the satirical bull’s-eye, a stabbing accuracy, that simply cannot fail to delight any mind which recognises that a respect for language is a respect for life itself. Unless we try, with all our hearts and minds, to say what we mean, we do not mean what we say. That is what I mean by 'respect’.

Flann O’Brien shows no mercy whatever to those who lack this respect. In one of the most memorable chapters of his book, there is a Grand Feis in Corca Dorcha, and it is opened by an t-Uactarán [184] himself, who gives an 'oráid’ - a big speech. This is a fine example of inflated pomposity and self-importance, a windy exercise in self-delusion, a substitution of chauvinism for intelligence, an outburst of rhetorical drivel. It is also wickedly funny:

- 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.)

["A Ghaela", aduirt sé, "cuireann sé gliondar ar mo chroi Gaelach a bheith anseo inniu ag caint Ghaeilge libhse ar an fheis Ghaelach seo i lár na Gaeltachta. Ní miste dom a rá gur Gael mise. Táim Gaelach ó m’ bhathais go borm mo choise - Gaelach thoir, thiar, thuas agus thios. Tá sibhse go 1éir fíorGhaelach mar an gcéanna. Gaed Ghaelacha de shliocht Ghaelach is ea an t-iomlán againn. An té atá Gaelach, beidh sé Gaelach feasta. Níor labhair mise (ach oiread libh féin) aon fhocal ach Gaeilge ón lá rugadh mé agus, rud eile, is fán nGaeilge amháin a bhí gach abairt dár ndúras riamh. Má táimid fíorGhaelach, ní foláir dúinn bheith ag plé ceist na Gaeilge agus ceist an Ghaelachais le chéile i gcónai. Ni haon mhaitheas Gaeilge bheith againn má bhíonn ár gcomhrái sa teanga sin ar neithe neamhGhaelacha. An té a bhíonn ag caint Gaeilge ach gan a bheith ag plé ceist na teanga, níl sé fíorGhaelach ina chroí istigh ní haon tairbhe don Ghaelachas a leithéid sin mar gur ag magadh faoin Ghaeilge a bhíonn sé agus ag tabhairt masla do Ghaelaibh. Níl aon ní ar an domhan chomh deas nó chomh deas nó chomh Gaelach le fíorGhaeil fíorGhaelacha a bhíonn ag caint fíorGhaeilge Gaelaí i dtaobh na Gaeilge fíorGhaelai. Fógraím an fheis seo anois ar Ghaeloscailt! Na Gaeil abú! Go maire ár nGaeilge slán!"
   Nuair a shuí aón Gael uasal seo síos ar a thóin Ghaelach, d’éirigh clampar mór agus bualadh bos ar fud an chruinnithe.]

It is at this feis too that our hero Bonapart gets drunk for the first time. Flann O’Brien’s account of Bónapart’s hangover must be one of the funniest and most accurate descriptions of that unpromising state ever written. There is simply no questioning the authority of this description:

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.)

[Ní go ró-bhinn a d’éirigh liom máis ininste an fhírinne liom. D’imigh na céadfaithe ar seachrán, is follus. Thit an lug ar an lag orm, thit lug eile ar an lug sin agus níorbh fhada go raibh na luganna ag titim go tiugh ar an chéad lag agus orm féin. Ansin thit cith laganna ar na luganna, luganna troma ar na laganna ina dhiaidh sin agus i ndeireadh báire tháinig lug amháin mór donn anuas ar mhullach gach ní eile, ag cur múchta ar an solas agus ag cur stop le réim an tsaoil. Níor mhothaíos aon ní eile go cionn i bhfad, ní fhaca aon ní agus ní chuala fuaim ar bith. Is i ngan fhios dom a lean an domhan ag casadh ar a bhealach in aird na formaiminte. Bhí sé seachtain sular bhraitheas go raibh bíogadh na beatha fós ionam agus bhí coicís eile ann sula rabhas lánchinme go raibh mé béo. Chuiaigh leathbhliain thart sula raibh érithe aniar ar fad agam as an easláinte a bhronn obair na hoíche sin orm, Dia ag déanamh grása orainn go léir. An dara lái feise níor airíos.]

There is of course a note of exaggeration in that, and exaggeration is one of Flann O’Brien’s most effective satiric devices. It might be more accurate of me to use the word 'distortion’ rather than the word 'exaggeration’. The passage dealing with those whom Flann [185] O’Brien calls the fiorGaels is, quite obviously, distorted; nobody would ever speak like that. Yet, in the language of certain people whose commitment borders on fanaticism, there is an element, a seed, of precisely this bloated verbal absurdity. What the accomplished satirist does is to take that element, that seed, which is of course only part of a total picture, and, by sheer style, make the part appear as though it were the complete thing. By the deft use of this kind of emphasis, the satirist draws our contemptuous attention to the element which he himself abhors. This, if you like, is the morality of his mockery, the ethical point of his distortion. The satirist is the enemy of the phoney element which probably, to some degree at least, exists in all of us. His target is the pretentious and the ridiculous, his weapon is mockery, his aim is the spotlighting, and if possible, the eradication of the pompous and the hypocritical.

Exaggeration and distortion are probably the most characteristic features of the writing from beginning to end of this book. The very setting of the novel is a distortion, although a delightful one. From his house, reeking of pigs, the baby Bónapart can see Donegal, Galway and Kerry - a spectacle hardly available to any other house in Ireland. The food is dreadful. The weather is worse. It’s hard to tell which of the two is dirtier - the people or the pigs. It is a world of unrelieved stupidity, filth, superstition and congestion. Fate is totally malignant and every circumstance is moronically accepted as part of God’s will. And at the back of it all lies the origin and product of an béal bocht - poverty. At bottom Flann O’Brien is showing us the sad, ravaging mental attitudes that result from severe physical poverty - materialism, opportunism, suspicion, the closed mind, incestuous stupidity, the lack of definite identity (everybody in the area is called Jams O’Donnell), the prevalence of brutality and thievery, and the strange, predominant sense of evil and oppression. Listening to that list, you might think this is a gloomy book, a modern anatomy of melancholy and malaise. It is, on the contrary, packed with laughter, full of its own special gaiety, even when it describes one of those figures of total poverty that lie scattered not only through Irish history, but are buried in the consciousness of the race:

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 [186] 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)

[Bhí fear ar an mbaile seo uair agus Sitric Ó Sinasa a bhí mar ainm air go firinneach. Bhí togha na seilge aige, croí na féile agus gach deáthréith eile ar a mbíonn moladh agus urraim le fáil i gc6ónai. Ach faraoir, bhí iomrá eile amuigh air nach raibh maith ní rafar. Bhí scoth an bhochtanais, an ocrais agus na hanacra aige freisin. Bhí sé~ fial flaithiúil agus ní raibh an ruidín ba lua dá raibh riamh aige gan roinnt ar a chornharsana: ina dhiaidh sin, ní cuimhin liom le m’linn féin aon rud beag dái laghad aige ar a sheilbh féin, flu amháin oiread beagphrátaí is bhí riachtanach le hanam agus corp a choiméid i bhfastó ar a chéile. I gCorea Dorcha, mar a raibh gach sampla daonna beo, bocht, bhí seisean i gcónai aginn mar ábhar déirce agus atrua. Danine uaisle a tháinig i mótors ó Bhaile Atha Cliath ag breathnú na mbochtán, mholadar go hard é as ucht a bhocthanais Ghaelaí agus dúradar nach bhfacadar éinne riamh ar a raibh dealramh chomh fíorGhaelach. Buidéal beag uisce a bhí ag Ó Sinasa uair, bhris duine uasal é de bhrí, mar dúirt sé gur spile sé an effect . Ní raibh duine beo i nÉirinn inchurtha le Ó Sinasa ar fheabhas a bhochtanais agus iomad na gorta a bhí breactha ina phearsain. Ní raibh muc ní cupán ní aon rothaí-tí aige. Is minic a chonnac é sa dubhluachair amuigh ar thaobh an chnoic ag troid agus ag coraíocht le mada fáinach, cnámh caol crua eatarthu mar dhuais san iomathóireacht, an sranfach agus an tafann conafach céanna ag teacht uathu araon. Ní raibh aon bhothán aige ach chomh beag, ná taithí ceart ar fhoscadh ná teas cistine. Bhí poll tochailte aige lena dhá láimh i lár na tire agus ar bhéal an phoill chuireadh sé seanshacanna agus craobhacha crainn nó rud ar bith eile a bheadh úsáideach mar dhíon ar an bhraon a bhíodh anuas ar an dúiche gach oíche. Daoine iasachta a bheadh ag gabháil thar bhráid, cheapadh siad gur broc a bhí i dtalamh san am a bhraithidís an t-anáil trom ag teach ó thóin an phoill, agus féachaint fhiánta ar an áitreabh go hiomlán.]

I am not happy, however, to call this book a satirical fantasy, and leave it at that. There is, in fact, in the work a strong tragic awareness of those powerful forces which can victimise man. Throughout the book, the elements lash down on the heads of everybody, man and beast alike. What strikes the reader is the relentless nature of this oppression, the fierce tireless energy of its tyranny. Flann O’Brien sees man as a sort of target for the fury of nature. Now I realise that this, like the picture of poverty, is a necessary part of his satirical picture, but I can’t help feeling that this black vision sometimes transcends the satirical purpose it so brilliantly serves, and achieves at certain moments a real tragic intensity. And Flann O’Brien’s language reflects this occasional strange hovering between the satirical and the tragic.

Nevertheless, the novel, as a whole, stays in the mind for its comic vigour, for its devastation of various Holy Cows, for its mocking onslaught on attitudes that are usually either mindless or slavish, or both. It is the work of a highly civilised mind, angered and appalled by certain aspects of the life and literature it is most deeply involved with. It is also the work of that most driven kind of moralist - the writer for whom the precise use of language is evidence of the mind’s capacity for intellectual passion, the heart’s capacity for sincerity. Behind it all is love of lucidity and candour, as well as this constant recognition of the mystery of life. The irreverence that abounds in [187] the novel springs from the deepest possible respect for both life and language. This is one reason for its enormous emotional range: it is funny, sad, bitter, outrageous, bleak, insulting - and totally unforgettable. It is searingly honest, and it should be read, if possible by everybody. The Poor Mouth may be about various kinds of poverty, but for the reader it is an immensely rich experience.

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