Today’s post at wood s lot features, among other fine things, the great Irish writer Flann O’Brien aka Brian O’Nolan aka Myles Na Gopaleen (Myles na gCopaleen), who is still too little appreciated. Mark (the Woods of wood s lot) links to Robert Looby’s Flann O’Brien: A Postmodernist When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular and a useful site called From: The Pen of…. Myles Na Gopaleen; I’ve already quoted in its entirety O’Brien’s splendidly derailed definition of Irish cur (“…the stench of congealing badger’s suet, the luminance of glue-lice, a noise made in an empty house by an unauthorised person, a heron’s boil, a leprachaun’s denture, a sheep biscuit…”), and I will add here a magisterial sentence from near the end of the same Irish Times column: “In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time.” And here’s a somber passage from another column (both are from the 1940s; his columns are collected in The Best of Myles):

…it is worth remembering that if Irish were to die completely, the standard of English here, both in the spoken and written word, would sink to a level probably as low as that obtaining in England, and it would stop there only because it could go no lower.


  1. If I could choose to be in any city at any time, it would be Dublin in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to meet and drink with O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, John Ryan, JP Donleavy and the rest.

  2. You would have died young, of cirrhosis, but what a life!

  3. I have a very unfond memory of Flann O’Brien.
    Junior year–spring term. Visiting prof from England. Course in 20th Century Brit Lit.
    Everyone was delighted with the prof., delighted with the course, and he was delighted with us.
    Last book to be assigned was At Swim Two Birds.
    Some of it might have been spring fever, but most of all it was the book. We all tried to read it, and we all hated it. Out of twenty students, not even one of us got even close to finishing it.
    None of us could make head or tail of it; none of us could find anything that would lure us further into reading it–we just couldn’t understand it, much less like it. He couldn’t understand why we were not delighted with what he regarded as a masterpiece of comic writing. He just about cursed us out at the last class meeting, and everyone’s delight with him rapidly evaporated: we just couldn’t make him understand that none of us could get a handle on the book.
    And it remains the only book from my college years I never finished reading.

  4. kishnevi, try the Best of Myles. I liked At Swim Two Birds, but it didn’t have me creasing in laughter as Myles did. (I suppose the newspaper writing had to be more accessible, just as a practical matter.)
    On his last quote there, it is mean-spirited. In school in .ie, though, everyone did seem to love English class, and a part of that was the contrast with Irish class; teachers very comfortable with what they were teaching, pupils native speakers who even often read of their own volition, an immense, immense selection of literature available from a huge selection of countries.

  5. If anyone has a right to be mean-spirited about anyone, the Irish have a right to be mean-spirited about the English. And you have to admit it’s perfectly phrased.

  6. “Course in 20th Century Brit Lit.”
    “Last book to be assigned was At Swim Two Birds.”
    What the FUCK! Your class should have desecrated that Saxon with a rope and some gasoline.

  7. J. W. Brewer says

    So I take it we don’t think Myles’ original “mean-spirited” intent was what’s suggested by Aidan’s comment: viz. that the best way to be truly cosmopolitan in adulthood is be exposed to ethnolinguistic nationalism/provincialism in childhood to appreciate the contrast (with the unfortunate English having been deprived of that beneficial experience)?

  8. There are so many complicated things one could say about the relations between the people of these islands. Yours, LH, is debatable but at least civil. But Jim’s … do we need that sort of stuff?

  9. Yeah, I don’t really like that kind of over-the-top rhetoric, especially in an ethnopolitical context. Cool it, Jim.

  10. Picky: I did not say the English were bad people, nor did I mean to imply it. However, I don’t think it could be said to be debatable that the English collectively have given the Irish a lot to resent over the last millennium, any more than it is debatable that American colonists and their descendants have given Native Americans a lot to resent.

  11. We English seem to have gone in short order from arrogantly thick-skinned to weedily sensitive. Sorry!
    Your comment addressed to me is undeniably true. I hope it doesn’t sound too whiney to suggest that your earlier comment would have been undeniable, too, had you said British rather than English.

  12. Sorry for butting in, but you can tell Picky’s English by his use of “sorry” there.

  13. Sorry?

  14. “With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic,” wrote O’Brien of James Joyce (in A Bash in the Tunnel); I think the same could be said of O’Brien himself. He wrote with great force and precision, yet his prose feels barely restrained, as though the words were on the verge of collapsing into uncertainty, absurdity, or the end of everything. His books have a great sadness, too, that’s all the keener for the horror and inspired farce that surrounds it.
    I sympathise with kishnevi: At Swim-Two-Birds is a fine and funny work, but a very obscure one at times — not a book I’d be inclined to recommend to someone until after they’d read and enjoyed O’Brien’s other stories (or plays or poems or journalism). Even as an Irishman I know I miss many of the jokes — especially the Latin ones — but I don’t mind. His like will not be there again.
    Thanks for the links, Mr Hat. Although I subscribe to wood s lot, I tend to stay away when time is tight, and I might have missed this feast of Flann.

  15. I looooved At Swim-Two-Birds when I first read it (before I had read a word of O’Brien) and ever since. On the other hand, I grew up with the Wake, literally at my father’s knee — he was a homo unius libri who spent part of every evening reading and annotating it. So if anything I saw ASTB as basically a more accessible version of FW. I loved Mulligan Stew, too, when someone gave it to me.

  16. I love the name At Swim-Two-Birds.

  17. marie-lucie says

    At Swim-Two-Birds
    Is Swim-Two-Birds a word-for-word translation of an Irish phrase or sentence used as a place-name, with the verb coming first?

  18. Yes. Wikipedia says: “The novel’s title derives from Snámh dá Én (Middle Ir.: ‘Swim-Two-Birds’), a possibly apocryphal place on the River Shannon, reportedly visited by the legendary King Sweeney, a character in the novel.”

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