Flann O’Brien and Catholicism

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Part One


Life and works

The writer known as Flann O’Brien was born in 1911 in Strabane, in what is today Northern Ireland, one of twelve siblings He died of cancer in Dublin in 1966. His father, Michael Nolan, was an Irish Nationalist who worked for the British government as a Revenue officer. The family spoke Irish at home. His father changed the family name to the Gaelic form, ‘O Nuallain’.

The O Nuallains lived in a pious Catholic atmosphere with Michael a weekly communicant and going to Mass every day towards the end of his life. According to Flann O’Brien’s friend and biographer, Anthony Cronin: “None of Michael’s children, including Brian, ever questioned the basic tenets of the Catholic belief, though naturally Brian’s Catholicism was coloured and modified by his own temperament and rather nihilistic outlook”.

In his early years, O’Brien was educated in the Irish language at home in Strabane and Tullamore. He first went to school at the age of eleven when his father was posted to Dublin (the Christian Brothers School at Synge Street) and he and his brothers were bullied for their strangeness. These isolating factors probably caused the shyness that contributed to his alcoholism.

Brian O Nuallain was a morose drunk who led an uneventful life as a senior civil servant in Dublin. He showed initial promise in that career but the drink gradually sapped his enthusiasm. Tim Pat Coogan describes interviewing Flann O’Brien in 1964. Apart from getting the famously reticent writer to talk, there was one other problem: keeping him away from the drink. The interview was scheduled for 8.30 on a Saturday morning before the pubs opened. He disappeared at one point and was retrieved from the toilet, stocious in extremis. He had hidden a bottle of whiskey in the cistern and finished it while the crew were eating breakfast. The interview proceeded but, in the only surviving recording of the voice of one of Ireland’s greatest literary figures, 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.

duiblin diversion

John Ryan wrote in a memoir about O Nuallain’s tipsy walk : “He had the most curious way of walking. His legs seemed to be taking off on independent courses – unrelated to the desired destination of the rest of the body. In later years, when he was somewhat the worse for wear, I have seen him ‘hove-to’, that is to say, maintaining position but making slight headway in a sea of pedestrians, while apparently going astern. This complicated manoeuvre was always conducted with the special gravity that the slightly inebriated give to their ambulatory occasions.”


The first Bloomsday. Left to right John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, AJ Leventhal.

O Nuallain only left Ireland once for about three weeks. Even that brief foray to foreign parts is open to doubt because of the tall tales he told about it. He said that he visited Germany in the early thirties during Hitler’s rise to power and married a German woman who died a month later. This, to put it charitably, seems unlikely.

Under various aliases (he has been called a “serial pseudonymist” – Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, Count O’Blather, George Knowall, Peter the Painter, Brother Barnabus, John James Doe, Winnie Wedge, An Broc – this disappointed and rather sad man wrote some the funniest prose ever to appear in print.

He achieved early fame if not fortune. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published in 1939, on the recommendation of Graham Greene. Some believe that it was the last novel James Joyce read. Joyce’s praise of the book has appeared on the cover of many editions. Critical success was negated when the publisher’s, Longmans’, warehouse was bombed and most of the edition lost.

An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) was published in 1941. This was a parody, written in Irish, of Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s autobiography An t-Oileánach and a satire on the fetishisation of Gaelic language and rural culture by urban nationalists. There was not a huge market for this kind of thing. An English translation was published in 1973, illustrated by gonzo artist Ralph Steadman.

poormouth steadman

His next novel, The Third Policeman, was rejected by publishers and only appeared in 1967, after his death. At Swim-Two-Birds initially sold 244 copies. More than 15,000 copies of The Third Policeman were sold in the three weeks following an episode of Lost on US TV in which the book appeared for a few seconds.

3rd policeman1

The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor was published in 1961. The novel was initially very popular, with its first print run selling out within forty-eight hours.

The Dalkey Archive was published in 1965, using some material about the policeman’s atomic theory and the nature of bicycles recycled (pun intended) from the rejected The Third Policeman.

The five novels were republished in a handsome omnibus edition in 2007 by the Everyman Library, with an introduction by Keith Donahue.

Silence, Exile and Punning: Joyce and O’Brien

It is difficult to consider O’Brien without mentioning that man, James Augustine Joyce. O’Brien often dealt with Joyce in his Irish Times columns. O’Brien’s  biographer Anthony Cronin wrote that O’Brien walked the same streets, attended the same University as Joyce. “Writers of supreme genius usually do pose problems for their immediate literary successors, but more especially so if they seem to have used up the very life material which one is destined by birth and upbringing to use oneself”.

O’Brien was a Catholic all his life, rooted in Dublin, unlike Joyce who rebelled against church and nation –“silence, exile and cunning”. However, critics like LAG Strong, Hugh Kenner and TS Eliot have argued that remnants of Catholic belief can be detected in all Joyce’s work. O’Brien himself, in his essay  for Envoy,  “A Bash in the Tunnel”,  suggests that Joyce never discarded his attachment to the Church: “He declared that he would pursue his artistic mission even if the penalty was as long as eternity itself. This seems to be an affirmation of belief in Hell, therefore of belief in Heaven and God”.

It has become something of a conventional wisdom to assert that Brian O’Nolan clung to his Catholicism throughout his life and and Joyce did not. Re-reading O’Brien’s books, particularly The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive alongside A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I wonder if this is strictly accurate.

In A Portrait, Cranly asks Stephen if he intends to become a protestant. Stephen replies: “I said that I had lost the faith,  but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?”

Repeated comparisons with Joyce annoyed O’Nolan/O’Brien intensely. He wrote to publisher Tim O’Keefe, “If I hear that word ‘Joyce’ again I will surely froth at the gob”. In “A Bash in the Tunnel”, O’Brien wrote of Joyce: “He declared that he would pursue his artistic mission even if the penalty was as long as eternity itself. This seems to be an affirmation of belief in Hell, therefore of belief in Heaven and God”.

“Some thinkers- all Irish, all Catholic, some unlay- have confessed to discerning a resemblance between Joyce and Satan”.

“It seems to me that Joyce emerges, through curtains of salacity and blasphemy, as a truly fear-shaken Irish Catholic, rebelling, not so much against the Church but against its near-schism Irish eccentricities, its pretence that there is only one Commandment, the vulgarity of its edifices, the shallowness and stupidity of many of its ministers. His revolt, noble in itself, carried him away”.

“What is Finnegans Wake? A treatise on the incommunicable night-mind? Or merely an example of silence and punning?”

O’Brien asserts that Joyce uses humour, “in the same way as Shakespeare does but less formally, to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and genuinely think that they will be in hell or heaven shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency: Rabelais is funny, but his stuff cloys. His stuff lacks tragedy”.

In The Dalkey Archive, O’Brien re-invents Joyce as a curate (in the hospitality trade rather than the parishional) who condemns Ulysses and writes pamphlets for the Catholic Truth Society.

Claude Cockburn, in his introduction to an edition of Stories and Plays, refers to “two qualities of conditions which affect Irish writers not, by any means, exclusively, but with rare and particular intensity. Or you could call them two aspects of the same force. Fear of imminent hell or heaven, the sense of doom in the Irish Catholic heritage, can be seen as oppressive, constrictive”. Cockburn suggest that the Catholic heritage was not necessarily restrictive for O’Brien. “The process is an example of Lenin’s dictum that freedom involves recognition of necessity. Recognised and understood, the most rigid limitations can be transformed into productive conditions of achievement”.

We should of course beware of attributing to an author the opinions voiced by his characters. Thomas DePietro wrote, “For all the evidence of Flann’s raucous fictional blasphemies and Myles’s cantankerous ramblings, O’Nolan remains elusive, a man who found in art and artifice a means for submerging his real identity, a writer whose unmediated voice we never hear … Flann remains further removed from his creations – he is simply the author of four wonderful novels, not a persona in them. And that’s important because O’Nolan’s larger intention seems clear: he seeks to deny the author his authority. In effect, he wants no part of Flann’s books; he wants to discourage us from finding the man in the work.”

This conjures up a similar image to Joyce’s description of God paring his fingernails as he observes his creation.

To be continued