An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth)
An Béal Bocht, published in 1941, is O’Brien’s Irish language triumph. It satirises attitudes to Irish speakers and parodies the literature of the Irish speaking areas. Critics are fond of saying that to appreciate the book one must know the targets of O’Brien’s satire – among them the memoirs of Peig Sayers and Tomás O’Criomhthain, as well as Dubliners who have learned Irish but whose image of the Irish is uncritically romantic.
But this is to do O’Brien a disservice. An Béal Bocht is not half a book. It is whole and complete and hilarious in itself. Naturally there are intertextual references and in-jokes that the uninitiated will not always recognise, but these jokes are generally funny in themselves. O’Brien’s use of Irish, too, is masterful and native-speaker proficiency is required to fully appreciate all the nuances. But is this not true of any book? The better the reader the better the book. A reader who starts this book knowing nothing of the Irish Revival, the Irish language movement or linguistic politics will finish it knowing a lot more. Indeed, I can think of no better or more entertaining way of learning about this aspect of Irish history than reading this book.
Here, it would be traditional to explain to “outsiders” the background to the book so that they could better appreciate it. In fact, though, An Béal Bocht is itself the explanation of this background. For example, I could explain why it takes the form of a memoir (of one Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa), but once you realise it is a parody you will understand why this is so: it must be because many of the writers he satirises used the memoir form.
Similarly, if you were not aware that Irish language enthusiasts from Dublin could be condescending in their idealisation of the “true Irish” you certainly will be after reading the description of Sitric Ó Sánasa. Ó Sánasa is particularly highly praised for his poverty by the Dubliners, who say they had never seen anyone so poor or true-Irish. One of them even breaks Sitric’s bottle of water because it was spoiling the effect of poverty.
And what is the “outsider” to make of Micheálangaló Ó Cúnasa’s reply to a friend’s remark that the weather looks like it will turn bad: “it is no small thing said that you have said and if it is true for you then it is no lie you have told, but the truth”? Merely that the Irish literary revival idealised the “poetry” of ordinary Irish speakers. This is a technique used by O’Brien elsewhere. In At Swim-Two-Birds we meet the phrase “it is true that I will not” which means “no” in reply to a request. In The Third Policeman the narrator says “Your talk is surely the handiwork of wisdom for not one word of it do I understand.” In An Béal Bocht the Dublin Irish enthusiasts mistake the grunting of a pig for beautiful melodious Irish simply because they cannot understand it.
The book’s nine chapter headings contain brief summaries, consisting of key words, of the contents of the chapters. Only one chapter heading does not contain key words such as: “hardship,” “the bad life,” “black sadness,” “the bad thing chasing me,” “death and ill-fortune,” “hunger and ill-fortune,” “misery and hardship,” and “misery and ill-fortune.” You hardly need to know in advance that Peig Sayers’s memoir dwelled on misery and hardship to appreciate the humour here.
Having insisted that An Béal Bocht is a book open to all and trying to encourage anyone and everyone to read it, regardless of their knowledge of the social and literary background, I must finish by saying that it is worth learning Irish to read this masterpiece in the original.
It could be argued that O’Brien never realised his full potential. At Swim-Two-Birds, which in later years O’Brien denigrated, only achieved notable success in 1960 (it had been republished in America in 1951, but had not sold very well). The rejection of The Third Policeman was a terrible blow to his literary career though his drinking cannot have helped his development as a novelist either. When he retired early from the civil service on grounds of ill health (though it was actually because of something he had written about a government minister) rather than take the opportunity to concentrate on writing a novel he continued to spin money with newspaper columns in various newspapers under different pen names. None of them had the quality of his Cruiskeen Lawn column, which he continued to write. He was aware that the drink was keeping him from the long term effort needed to produce a novel (apparently he was usually in bed by early evening, having been drinking since morning). Given his personal circumstances, it is amazing he managed to write the newspaper column (often six days a week, and sometimes, as legend has it, dictated from a drunken stupor) as well as a play, Faustus Kelly (1943), and two novels The Hard Life (1961) and The Dalkey Archive (1964), neither of which, however, are as well regarded as his other novels.
The path marked out by O’Brien is still being followed today, though not always with such success. Private Eye reviews Paul Auster’s Oracle Night with some exasperation: “Here we have a writer writing a story about a writer writing a story, based on a story suggested to him by another writer, who got the idea from a book by yet another writer, which contains within it another story by yet another writer being read by an editor with a view to publication… Yet more stories and ideas for stories run off at tangents or get lost in the serious-looking (but quite unnecessary) footnotes.”
Who knows that if his publisher had not accepted The Third Policeman, or if O’Brien had had the self confidence to try and eventually succeed in placing it elsewhere the course of post war Irish – and world – literature might have be
en very different.
Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter (London: Grafton 1989)
Monique Gallagher, Flann O’Brien: Myles from Dublin (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1991)
Keith Hopper, Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist (Cork: Cork University Press 1995)
Private Eye, 1101, March 5th – 18th 2004.