Tim Pat Coogan describes interviewing Flann O’Brien in 1964 after the publication of The Dalkey Archive. The interview was carefully planned. Apart from getting him to talk, there was one other main objective: to keep O’Brien away from the drink. It was to take place at 8.30 on a Saturday morning so that he could be returned home before the pubs opened. But the wily O’Brien escaped the television crew’s vigilance. Disappearing to the toilet in his house when the camera man called for him, he was hauled out some twenty five minutes later, drunk as a lord. He had hidden a bottle of whisky in the cistern and downed the lot while the crew were eating breakfast. Somehow the interview went ahead – O’Brien demanding more drink as he rambled on – with the result that on the only surviving recording of his voice we hear a man slurring his words, obviously drunk. Praised by the producer as one of the “classics of Irish broadcasting,” it was unbroadcastable in 1960s Ireland and is hardly a fitting tribute to its subject.
Flann O’Brien’s real name was Brian O’Nolan. His English novels appeared under the name of O’Brien, while his great Irish novel and his newspaper column (which appeared from 1940 to1966) were signed Myles na gCopaleen or Myles na Gopaleen. He was born in 1911 in Strabane, County Tyrone, and studied Irish in University College Dublin, before joining the civil service in Dublin. His writing career started while he was still in college and for a brief space in the 1930s he edited a magazine called “Blather,” most of which he wrote himself. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish writers of the twentieth century and his death, on April 1st 1966, is remembered in the city he lived in with a “Festival of Fools.”
At Swim-Two-Birds, his first novel, was published in 1939, selling just 244 copies before the London warehouse in which it was stored was destroyed in the blitz. Not a good beginning for a book which famously boasts three beginnings itself. The novel shows a great command of language, with dozens of different styles represented and, true to its own injunction that the modern novel should be “largely a work of reference,” it contains over 40 extracts from other works. A braver critic than I has given the following barest of bare plot outlines: it is “a book (by Flann O’Brien) about a man writing a book (a student narrator) about a man writing a book (Dermot Trellis)” (Hopper). Within this complicated structure, characters cross over from different narrative levels, mixing with their own authors, mythical characters and stock figures from trashy literature and films. In this world authors hire out characters to other authors for the day or week. It is a fantastically complicated book, but O’Brien is not wilfully obscure. He places helpful pointers for the reader along the way, including several “summaries of what has gone before.” Despite all this postmodern trickery (it predates Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night by several decades) the book remains very readable. You read on in a desire to find out what happened next: how and where does it all end? Can such a complex book have a satisfactory ending? The book, in fact, has three endings, as might be expected from the three beginnings, but at the most basic level of narration (i.e. the words put on paper by Brian O’Nolan, alias Flann O’Brien) there is only one ending – and a surprisingly touching one at that.
The following may give a taste of the intricacy of the plot:
Paul Shanahan and Antony Lamont meet with Finn Mac Cool a figure from Gaelic legend (all three are characters in a novel being written by Dermot Trellis, though Mac Cool is also a “real” legend). Mac Cool tells them the story of Sweeny, another figure from Gaelic legend. At several points they interrupt him, one time telling him about Jem Casey, the “Poet of the Pick,” and reciting his poem “Workman’s Friend.” Yet some time later we see Jem Casey meeting with Sweeny.
The mixture of styles, which is a hallmark of the book, produces some fine comic moments, as when a verse in the style of ancient Irish mythology is ineptly added to Jem Casey’s poem, “Workman’s Friend:”
“When money’s tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
When stags appear on the mountain high,
with flanks the colour of bran,
when a badger bold can say goodbye,
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN!”