Invisible Ink no 226: Brian O’Nolan


He stands at the heart of 20th-century Irish literature, a key post-modernist, the very essence of Irishness, who can teach you how to dilute water and how not to turn into a bicycle, yet his books are slipping from memory. Born in 1911, in County Tyrone, Brian O’Nolan wrote under a number of pseudonyms, starting with Brother Barnabus at University College Dublin, where his lifelong themes were established. Later, came more familiar names, Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen, under which he wrote his column in the Irish Times. The identities were created because as a civil servant he was unable to write as himself without upsetting politicians (in fact, he was eventually forced to retire).

Standing somewhere between Becket, Joyce, Pirandello and Brecht in relation to his characters, a Gaelic-writing lifetime alcoholic whose problems with Irishness, religion, and women are enough to send biographers into a lather, why is he of interest now? Because, through satire, surrealism, wit, frustration, cerebral rigour, and a certain amount of errant foolishness, his works form a bedrock on which present-day Irish literary identity is built. He’s also hilariously funny.

And here we have the crux of the problem; he’s a comic writer, and like the best comic writers his humour conceals razor-barbs of truth, but like all comic writers he is doomed to be inadequately appreciated.

There are five novels, of which At Swim-Two-Birds (now a Penguin Classic) could be described as a Celtic Tristram Shandy peppered with Irish mythology, a nonsensical multi-layered comic fantasy published in 1939, the year of Finnegan’s Wake. The author attempts to keep all his characters together at the titular hotel in order to finish his novel, only to have them plot against him. The Third Policeman and its 20 years-later sequel The Dalkey Archive share the same material and feature mad science, philosophy, farce, satire, the theft of the world’s oxygen, and cameos from St Augustine and James Joyce, although the second book is based on footnotes from the first, and is patchy at best.

O’Nolan’s greatest fit with his readership was in his dazzling columns, which are collected in a number of volumes. Here, he’s at his most verbally dextrous, whether explaining the puns of Keats, solving Dublin’s electrical problems, or dismantling journalistic clichés (a chapter that should be read by every hack), and it’s safe to say that without him there would have been no Father Ted. Enough said.