Source: Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, London 1996, 497--512.

Flann O'Brien, Myles, and The Poor Mouth

An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth, 1941) was the only book which Brian O'Nolan, alias Flann O'Brien, alias Myles na gCopaleen, wrote in his native language. Why only one, and this in particular? The answer may lie in the identity of the persona to whom the narrative was entrusted, Myles na gCopaleen.

Myles had been the comic hero of Dion Boucicault's play The Colleen Bawn (1860). Blundering but intermittently wily, he shot a murderer and accidentally saved the heroine's life. Liar, convict, horse-thief and poteen-distiller, he was the living antithesis of Victorian respectability, and so was hugely successful on the stage, offering audiences "a vicarious release from the solemn and righteous standards by which they tried to live" [1]. At the same time as English onlookers continued to shower affection on this brainless but loyal fictional character (whose name means Myles of the Ponies), the real Irish were suffering famine at home and economic exploitation in the ghettos of British cities and towns. All too often, competition for work led to riots between Irish and English labourers; and the newspapers were filled with cartoons of the sinister, simianized Fenian agitator. When Irish bombs began to bedevil the domestic peace of England, and when Darwin challenged its spiritual composure, caricaturists had little compunction in depicting the Irish as monkeys or gorillas. Myles was simply the reverse-side of this coin -- a victim of Victorian sentimentality, as his real-life counterpart was a target of Victorian bile. A stage-Irish buffoon, blundering his way through bulls and malapropisms in the foreignness of the English language, he was denied even the dignity of the sufferings of his flesh-and-blood cousin.

The strategy of An Béal Bocht now becomes clear. In the character of Myles na gCopaleen, O'Nolan rescues the buffoon from the Victorian stage and makes him articulate. The feckless clown who had once stuttered in broken English is now permitted to speak in his native language, and so he is shown not as the English wish to visualize him, but as he sees himself. The eclipsing "g", which had been omitted from the final word of his name in The Colleen Bawn, is now restored, so Myles na Coppaleen may resume the fuller status of Myles na gCopaleen. That jocular and exaggerated language, which was once the object of the dramatist's satire, has now become a method, by which other more fitting targets are attacked. Among the new targets are Irishmen (such as Boucicault) who abjectly conform to English stereotypes of the neighbouring island. Hence the mockery of Boucicault's fabricated brogue, of words like "divarsions" and "advintures", which may mean something to amused English onlookers, but have to be pedantically explained to bemused Irish people in footnotes (as scléip and eachtraí ), since the Irish may be encountering them for the first time.

Myles, therefore, attacks more recent writers who have replaced the stage Irishman with a stage Gael, or, as he dubbed them in a letter to Scan O'Casey, "the Gaelic morons here with their bicycle clips and handball medals" [2]. In depicting the realities of poverty in the west of Ireland, An Béal Bocht is not only a send-up of the scenic landscape, Gothic ruins and romantic music of Boucicault's glamorized countryside; it is, even more urgently, an attack on the Dublin revivalists of the twentieth century, who could idealize the saintly simplicity of western life, only by ignoring the awful poverty on which it was based. With The Great Hunger and, later, Cré na Cille, O'Nolan's novel is a subversive anti-pastoral, a characteristic nineteen-forties reaction against some pious evasions of the revivalists. Through the use of his once-despised but now-functional language, Myles succeeds in depicting a world where all men, and not solely the Irish-speaking peasant, are seen for the buffoons that they are. The difference between Myles na gCopaleen and Myles na Coppaleen is the difference between a vehicle and a target.

The project of transforming a fictional character into the controlling author of a book is wholly consistent with the democratic programme mapped out for the modern novel in At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), which argued that each character should be allowed "a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living". The borrowing of Myles from a previous work had also been sanctioned there: "The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required" [3]. Hence, also, the parodies of thinly-disguised refugees from the writings of Tomás Ó Criomhthainn and "Máire".

At the root of his interest in the name and nature of Myles na gCopaleen lay O'Nolan s obsession with the problem of establishing his own literary identity. Apart from its use in An Béal Bocht, the persona was used only in the regular columns of The Irish Times as the nom-de-plume of the anonymous author, who was precluded from signing contributions by his status as a civil servant. When the column began in 1939, it was intended that there should be three articles a week, all in Irish, but soon the versatile author turned to English as well. The latter articles appealed greatly to the upper-class readers, and inexorably their proportion and reputation grew. O'Nolan was well aware of the risk of "Paddywhackery" in the face of such an audience. He had read Yeats's warning that every writer must express or exploit Ireland; and for him that choice lay between expressing the nation to itself (mainly in Irish) or exploiting it for the amusement of a "superior" foreign audience (mainly in English). As if to register the costs to self-expression of reverting wholly to English in his newspaper-column, O'Nolan tampered with the spelling of Myles na gCopaleen yet again. A colleague at The Irish Times later recalled: "The change to Myles na Gopaleen was made, I think, after he had begun to gain some celebrity outside Ireland, in deference to the Anglo-Saxon epiglottis. We in The Irish Times cherished the pedantry of the eclipsis in the genitive, but he had his way" [4]. It was as if, by this alteration, O'Nolan wished to indicate a loss of authenticity, a regression to the botched identity of Boucicault's clown. Only in An Béal Bocht did he stake out the secret territory of a separate novel in which he could carry out his original assignment under his honest pseudonym of Myles na gCopaleen.

In saving a part of himself for that great satiric work, he mocked by implication the newspaper editor who had initially commissioned all this stage-Irish folly. For the greatest single irony of An Béal Bocht lies in its dedication to R. M. Smyllie, the magisterial editor of The Irish Times and official mouthpiece of the ascendancy. In the dedication, his name is tampered with, in just the same way that his Victorian compatriots had mangled the spelling of Myles: thus R. M. Smyllie is transformed to "R. M. Ó Smaoille", and thence to the clan-leader "An Smaolach". The only Irish known to Smyllie was whiskey, which he drank from a hand covered in a white glove, a consequence of a promise to his mother on her death-bed that he would "never touch a drop again". Of the native language he knew not a word. Despite repeated entreaties to the uncharacteristically tight-lipped author, Smyllie never managed to ascertain the nature of the book, nor the reason for its dedication. He must, on occasion, have suspected that, despite the elaborate leg-pull, the author was in earnest. For, in dedicating his study of Irish identity to an Anglo-Irishman who could never hope to read it, O'Nolan had pointed to a central theme of his book -- the tragicomedy of mistaken identity that lay behind the manufacture in Britain of the stage Irishman.

A corresponding anxiety about his own identity as an Irish writer haunted O'Nolan to the end, and was manifest in his restless adoption of varying pseudonyms. He once remarked that a writer needs "an equable yet versatile temperament, and the compartmentation of personality for the purpose of literary utterance" [5]. Accordingly, he had resorted as a newspaper columnist to Myles na Gopaleen, as a novelist to Flann O'Brien, as an undergraduate wit to Brother Barnabas, and as a Gaelic satirist to Myles na gCopaleen. Amidst all this chopping and changing, one thing is clear: he never had the gall to sail under the colours of Brian O'Nolan. As Anne Clissman has noted: "it was almost as if, by putting Myles na gCopaleen forward, prepared to take on and conquer the world, Brian O'Nolan could retire to an impregnable and safe position" [6].

All this play-acting with proper names provides a clue to An Béal Bocht comic theme. If the triumph of Myles na gCopaleen is the recovery of his true identity, then the tragicomedy of the characters is that grinding poverty has left them with no identity whatever, not even the sense of a lost one which they might hope some day to recover. Nevertheless, these faceless peasants have aspirations to grandeur, as is clear from their chosen names - Bonaparte, Sitric, Maximilian, Ferdinand, etc. They aspire not towards the emulation of Cuchulain and the ancient Gael, but towards imitation of the great foreign commanders of military history, including Sitric, a Viking who waged unholy war on their ancestors. On his first day at school, Bonaparte O'Coonassa is asked to repeat his name for the roll-call. The litany which follows is a long-winded tribute to ten generations of noble aspiration, which have resulted in a total erosion of Gaelic identity:

Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas's Sarah, grand-daughter of John's Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot...

Bonapairt Michaelangelo Pheadair Eoghain Shorcha Thomáis Mháire Sheán Shéamais Dhiarmada... [7]
At this point, the hopeful litany is cruelly interrupted by a blow from the English-speaking master and the terse announcement in a foreign language that "Yer name is Jams O'Donnell", a sentence which is uttered to every single child in Corcha Dorcha on arrival at school. In such ways is the identity of the eager youth eroded by the master. Bonaparte himself notes the loss of self consequent upon the teacher's interruption of the genealogical tree with a clout:
James O'Donnell? These two words were singing in my ears when feeling returned to me. I found that I was lying on my side on the floor, my breeches, hair, and all my person saturated with the streams of blood which flowed from the split caused by the oar in my skull.

Jams O'Donnell? Bhí an dá bhriathar seo ag gliogaireacht im cheann nuair tháinic mothú arís ann. Fuaireas mé féin sínte ar leataoibh ar an urlár, mo bhríste, mo ghruaig agus mo phearsa uile ar maothas ó slaoda fola a bhí ag stealladh ón scoilt bhí fágtha ag an mhaide ar mo chloigean [8].

Bonaparte remarks acidly to his mother that, if every child in the district is Jams O'Donnell, then "isn't O'Donnell the wonderful man and the number of children he has?" ("feach gur fónta an fear é O'Donnell agus an líon sin clainne aige"). His mother tells him that the Old-Grey-Fellow, his grandfather, was also beaten on his first day at school and called Jams O'Donnell. At this revelation, Bonaparte decides that one day's education is enough and resolves never to return:

-- Woman, said I, what you say is amazing and I don't think I'll ever go back to that school but it's now the end of my learning.
-- You're shrewd, said she, in your early youth.

"A bhean", arsa mise, "is iontach a n-abair agus ní dói liom go bhfillimse ar an scoil sin go deo acht deire an léinn anois déanta agam".
"Táir críonna", arsa mo mháthair, "id mhion-óige dhuit" [9].

If the fawning peasantry betray a pathetic snobbery in baptizing their children with the names of illustrious foreigners, they also show a great distaste for the names of their own tradition: names such as Séan and Séamas have not been found in the area for generations. Conversely, the affluent Gaelic revivalists from Dublin, who visit the district every summer to learn Irish, are equally anxious to conceal their own inherited names. Here, O'Nolan mocks the subterfuge of the founder of the Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde, who employed the pseudonym An Craoibhín Aoibhinn (The Pleasant Little Branch), in order to hide a surname which pointed clearly back to invading English soldiery. In a somewhat hysterical attempt to deanglicize themselves, city revivalists adopt a strategy which is the reverse of that employed by the peasantry: they discard their foreign surnames and adopt Gaelic tides such as An Nóinín Gaelach, Goll Mac Mórna and An Tuiseal Tabharthach (respectively, the Gaelic Daisy, Goll MacMórna and the Dative Case). They also turn their backs on their actual heritage, in an attempt to acquire a spurious identity. By such subtle satire, O'Nolan emphasizes that affluence is no guarantee of a sure identity and that poverty is the inevitable condition of those who have had their past identity taken away. Affluence, at least, has the merit of leaving a person with a choice in the matter, but it does not ensure that he will have the courage to be himself.

O'Nolan was all too well aware that many colourless and weak-kneed people had joined the language movement, in the hope that it would give them a social identity, since they lacked the capacity to mould their own. They adopted the kilt as their public costume, in blissful unawareness that it was a foreign importation. The misconception was so prevalent that even Gaeltacht dwellers were taken in. Bonaparte O'Coonassa believes that the kilt signifies competence in Irish and the Gaelic integrity of the wearer:

There were men present wearing a simple unornamented dress -- these, I thought, had little Gaelic; others had such nobility, style and elegance in their feminine attire that it was evident that their Gaelic was fluent. I felt quite ashamed that there was not even one true Gael among us in Corcha Dorcha.

Bhí fir ann agus gúna simplí nea-ornáideach ortha -- iad sin, dar liom, ar bheagán Gaeilge; fir eile ann le hoiread uaisleachta, shlachtmharachta, agus ghalántachta ina mban-chultacha gur léir go raibh an Ghaeilg go líofa acu. Bhí árd-náire orm nach raibh éinne fíor-Ghaelach inar measc i gCorcna Dorcha [10].

An Beat Bocht fulfils the promise of its tide, for it is a study of the effects on Irish identity of generations of dire poverty. This is simply a matter of the material poverty of the western peasant, also of the spiritual emptiness of the town-dweller who cannot feel himself a true Irishman until he has donned a kilt. In Ireland the phrase béal bocht or "poor mouth" is used to describe the slavish tactic of the person who makes a great show of poverty. This is done in order to wring sympathy and support from onlookers, a tactic which had become traditional in a region laid waste by deprivation. This theme is developed in the novel's sub-title droch-scéal ar an droch-shaol, "a bad story about the hard life". That last phrase became the eventual tide of O'Nolan's next book, which was itself sub-tided "An Exegesis of Squalor", a perfect description of what had been already achieved in An Béal Bocht.

Anti-pastoralists like O'Nolan and Kavanagh were, of course, following a lead which had been given by James Joyce, whose own views on the peasantry became even clearer with the publication in the 1940s of Stephen Hero, in which the main protagonist says: "The glorified peasantry all seem to me as like one another as a peascod is to another peascod. They can spot a false coin, but they represent no very admirable type of culture. They live a life of dull routine, the calculation of coppers, the weekly debauch and the weekly piety" [11]. This might have been an account of a townland where every man has the interchangeable name of Jams O'Donnell. For An Béal Bocht truly is the Irish version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book in which identities are fluid and interchangeable, as characters are trapped in repetitive cycles of time and rains that pelt down without mercy. It takes us beyond the stage-Irish thief who robs the rich for kicks or for revenge to a study of robbers so poor that they filch from one another.

Behind this desperate hilarity lies a real desolation: as Brendan Kennelly has observed, "this black vision sometimes transcends the satirical purpose it so brilliantly serves, and achieves at certain moments a real tragic intensity" [12]. The satire and the tragedy are finally one, for m mocking the official clichés of previous Irish writers, O'Nolan is emphasizing the plight of a peasantry which has had foisted on it a falsely romanticized ethos... from stage Irish in the nineteenth century to stage Gael in the twentieth, one mask has simply been exchanged for another. For O'Nolan the most distressing aspect of this was the alarming number of Irishmen, in the last century and in the present, who were willing to conform to these stereotypes.

In the figure of the Old Grey Fellow (An Seanduine Liath) may be found the stage Gael, abjectly conforming to the fatuous clichés laid down in the classic Gaelic novels of "Máire" -- to the effect that toddlers put to play for hours each day in fireside ashes, that girls in Donegal may may be courted only in the middle of the night by two men who come match-making with a five-noggin bottle, and so on. He has no theory of his own to pass on to Bonaparte, other than clichés borrowed from Gaelic texts, and from his literary ancestor, the stage Irishman. Even the credulous Bonaparte soon discerns the lineaments of the time-honoured buffoon:

... bedad, it was an incredible thing the amount of potatoes he consumed, the volume of speech which issued from him and what little work he performed around the house.

... by dad, ba dhochreidte an oiread prátaí a d'itheadh sé, an oiread cainte bheireadh sé uaidh, agus a laighead oibre dhéanadh sé fá'n dtigh [13].

His braggadocio is wholly within the tradition, as the maturing grandson notes:

According to what I had heard, he was the best man in the Rosses during his youth. There was no one in the countryside comparable to him where jumping, ransacking, fishing, love-making, drinking, thieving, fighting, ham-stringing, cattle-running, swearing, gambling, night-walking, hunting, dancing, boasting, and stick-fighting were concerned.

Do réir mar bhí closta agam uaidh, eisean an fear ab fhearr ins na Rosa le linn a óige. Maidir le léimní, polltóireacht, iascaireacht, suirghe, ól, gadaíocht, troid, leonadh-eallaí, rith, eascainí, cearúthas, siúl-oiche, seilg, damhsa, maíomh agus tarraingt-a'-bhata, ní raibh éinne sa dúthai ionchunha leis [14].
He is, in short, a man whose whole life has been an epic campaign tor the rehabilitation of the cliché.

The tragedy of rural Ireland is enacted in moments of high farce. That poverty which causes humans to cohabit with pigs and cows an hens may be tragic in cause but it is comic in effect -- as when O'Coonassa family are advised to build an outhouse, but mistakenly conclude that nature has ordained that they, rather than the animals, should go to live in it. After two nights of cold and rain, they entreat to be restored to their rightful abode, back with the beasts. For more than two hundred years, the stage Irishman had been associated in the English folk mind with animals, especially with pigs. According to one historian, the popular notion of the swinish mob helps to account for the porcine features assigned by cartoonists to agitators: "Because pigs played such a vital part in the Irish peasant economy, it was too easy for comic artists to endow United Irishmen with snouts instead of noses" [15]. Such visual metaphors persisted into the present century, when Bernard Partridge, the chief cartoonist of the magazine Punch, used the pig to denote the Irish people throughout the war of independence [16]. In An Béal Bocht, O'Nolan simply took the Englishman's metaphor for the Irishman's literal truth, effectively throwing the cartoons back in English faces with the suggestion that people, if treated for a time as animals in fiction, may begin to behave like animals in fact.

The comedy is never more bitter than when it is most funny. A whole chapter is devoted to the tribulations of living in the same house with Ambrose, a foul-smelling pig; and the Old Grey Fellow actually turns the family out onto the street rather than evict Ambrose. Later, when the government offers a grant for each child in the household who can speak English, he issues a number of piglets with jackets and trousers for the occasion. He stills the doubts of the lady of the house with the following speech extolling Sarah, the family's sow:

She has a great crowd of family at present and they have vigorous voices, even though their dialect is unintelligible to us. How do we know but that their conversation isn't in English? Of course, youngsters and piglets have the same habits and take notice that there's a close likeness between their skins.

Tá fuirean mhór clainne fá lathair aici agus tá bíogadh breá gutha ionnta má's do-thuigthe féin a gcanúin againn. Cá bhfios dúinn nach i mBéarla a bhíonn a gcóluadar le chéile acu? Dar ndói, cleachtaíonn daoine óga agus muca óga na nósanna céanna agus feach go bhfuil géar-chosúlacht idir a gcroicean [17].
The inspector, when he comes, is given the benign assurance that "All speak English, Sor", including Jams O'Donnell (whoever he might be), rhe official departs happy with a job well done.

The Old Grey Fellow's judgement that there is little difference between a piglet and a youngster is vindicated by a curious event in following chapter. One of the subsidized piglets strays from the farm and is lost, but returns in triumph a month later with not only its jacket and trousers intact, but also its pockets fi11ed with a pipe, tobacco, whiskey and a shilling for good measure. These are the classic props of the Stage Irishman [18], but in this case they constitute the unlikely reward for an evening's work with a professional linguist who tape-recorded the animal's grunts in the belief that they represented a particularly erudite form of Irish. That the collector should later have gained an honorary distinction from a German university for this work adds to the magnificence of the jest. Towards the end of the book Bonaparte O'Coonassa is himself lost for a time in the mountains before he manages to stumble back, naked and hungry, to his native parish. The lesson is not lost on the Old Grey Fellow, who lectures his feckless grandson:

-- There's no understanding the world that's there today at all, said he, and especially in Corcha Dorcha. A pig rambled off on us a little while ago and when he returned, he had a worthwhile suit of domes on him. You went off from us fully-dressed and you're back again as stark-naked as the day you were born!

"Níl míniú ar an saol atá iniú ann", ar seisean, "i gCorcha Dorcha go háirithe. Tamall ó shoin d'imigh muc ar seachrán uainn agus nuair d'fhill sé bhí culaith fhiúntach éadaigh uime. D'imigh tusa uainn lán-ghléasta, agus táir tagaithe arais anois, tú có lomnocht is bhí tu an chéad lá" [19].
It is in the same chapter that Bonaparte is prompted to put to the Old Grey Fellow the overwhelming question which is implicit in every page of the book:
-- Are you certain that the Gaels are people? said I.
-- They've that reputation anyway, little noble, said he, but no confirmation of it has ever been received. We're not horses nor hens; seals nor ghosts; and, in spite of all that, it's unbelievable that we're humans - but all that is only an opinion.

"An bhfuilir cinnte", arsa mise, "gur daoine na Gaeil?"
"Tá an t-ainm sin amuí ortha, a uaislín", ar seisean, "acht ní frith deimhniú riamh air. Ní capaill ná cearca sinn, ní róinri ná taibhsí, agus, ar a shon san, is inchreidte gur daoine sinn; acht níl sa mhéid sin acht tuairm" [20].
On the opening page of the book, Bonaparte had acknowledged that a person's name and his memory are the twin keys to his identity. Having been robbed of his name by the schoolmaster and having the memory of his father in early youth, he is well entitled to whether he has any human personality or is merely interchangeable with dumb animals. Certainly, he has no understanding of sex and no idea of where he came from:
I was born in the middle of the night in the end of the house. My father never expected me because he was a quiet fellow and did not understand very accurately the ways of life.

I lár na hoíche sin sea rugadh mise i dtóin an tighe. Ní raibh aon choinne ag m'athair liom óir duine cneasta a bhí ann agus ní go rochruinn a thuig seisean cúrsaí an tsaoil [21].

Such ignorance seems widespread in Corcha Dorcha. Later, when the Old Grey Fellow decides to dress the piglets as English-speaking children, he tells Bonaparte's mother with cryptic cynicism that she will have a large household by the next morning. Even this woman seems baffled at such rapid procreativity for she says: "It's a wonderful world, but I'm not expecting anything of that kind and neither did I hear that a house could be filled in one night" ("is íontach an saol atá inniu ann -- ach níl aon choinne agamsa lena leithéid agus ní clos riamh go raibh líonadh tí ann in aon oíche"). When Bonaparte attains his majority, he remains woefully ignorant of the facts of life:

I thought that babies fell out of the skies and that those who desired them needed only to have good luck and a spacious field.

Cheapas gur as na spéarthaí a thuit na leanaí agus nach raibh de dhíobháil ar éinne a bhí ag duil leo acht an t-á agus páirc bhreá fhairsing [22].
Inevitably, when his own first son is born, he thinks that his household has been blessed with nothing more portentous than the arrival of another piglet - he cannot recognize his son for what he is, just as he has earlier failed to recall the memory of his own father. All continuity of identity from one generation to the next has been shattered by this elementary ignorance, just as the schoolboy's recital of his genealogical tree was rudely interrupted by the master.

Bonaparte is not the only character in Corcha Dorcha who has difficulty in distinguishing the human from the animal - nor are pigs the only beasts with whom humans are compared. In Victorian physiognomy the Irish were often represented as dogs, just as the English were likened to bulls, the Americans to bears, the Chinese to hogs, and so on. In Comparative Physiognomies (1852), James W. Redfield wrote: "Compare the Irishman and the dog in respect to barking, snarling,howling, begging, fawning, flattering, backbiting, quarreling, blustering, scenting, seizing, hanging on, teasing, rollicking... you will be convinced that there is a wonderful resemblance". Redfield went on to make a distinction between the aristocratic Irishman, represented by the noble wolfhound, and the base-born "scavenger-dog" [23]. It was such lore that O'Nolan satirized in his depiction of Sitric O'Sanasa, the impoverished Stage Irishman in extremis, a man so poor that he has to fight with dogs for a dry bone. In competing with dogs for survival he becomes one in fact, as the Irish had already grown canine in Victorian fiction. Bonaparte reports:

I often saw him on the hillside fighting and competing with a stray dog, both contending for a narrow hard bone and the same snorting and angry barking issuing from them both.

Is minic a chonnac é sa dubh-luachair amuí ar thaebh an chnuic ag troid agus ag córaíocht le mada fánach, cnámh caol eatartha mar dhuais san iomathóireacht, an sranfach agus an tafan conafach céanna ag teacht uatha araon [24].
Through the character of Sitric, O'Nolan mocks all those writers who would sentimentalize the holy poverty and sacred simplicity of the Gaelic peasant -- "it had always been said that accuracy of Gaelic (as well as holiness of spirit) grew in proportion to one's lack of worldly goods" ("bhí sé riamh ráite go mbíonn cruinneas Gaeilge (maraon le naofacht anama) ag daoine do réir mar bhíd gan aon mhaoin shaolta"). One sentimental visitor, who spies Sitric deriving heady pleasure from a bottle of water, dashes the vessel to earth on the grounds that it "spiled the effect". Sitric cannot afford even that most stage-Irish nourishment, the humble spud. One of his neighbours, Máirtín Ó Bánasa, remarks tersely that "Whoever is without a spud for long is unhealthy" ("an té bhíonn gan phráta, ní bhíonn sé folláin") -- a bow to Adam Smith who had written of the "nourishing quality" of the Irish potato, as evidenced by the strength of London Irish porters and the beauty of London Irisn whores [25]. Verging on collapse from hunger, Sitric is saved by Mártín who offers him the boiled potatoes which he had intended as a feed forr his own pigs. In the process Sitric has become the reductio ad absurdum of the stage Irishman -- with his fang-like teeth and protruding upper lip, he comes to share bones with howling dogs, spuds with squealing pigs, and is even driven on one occasion to swallow that most hackneyed of props, a piece of turf from the bog. The basic features of Boucicault's character are still retained -- like Myles-na-Coppaleen, Sitric lives in a bare den by a rock-pool on a hill. However, through living in sucn proximity to animals and sharing their food, it is no surprise that Sitric finally opts for animality, preferring an underwater life as a seal to the frugal possibilities for humanity in Corcha Dorcha. The land-dog whom we met at the start of Chapter Eight soon degenerates into a badger, but his future and final status is anticipated when he starts to drink rain for nourishment. By the end of the section Bonaparte reports a sighting of a group of seals with Sitric among their number:
At times since then he has been seen at high tide, wild and hirsute as a seal, vigorously hunting fish in the company of that community with whom he had decided to stay. I have often heard the neighbours say it would be a good idea to hunt down O'Sanasa, because by then he would have grown into a tasty trout-fish and might have a winter's oil in him. I do not think, of course, that anyone has had the courage to chase him.

Chonnacthas ar bharra taoide corr-uair ó shin é, féachaint mhongach air ar nós na rón féin, agus é ag soláthar iasc go rabach i gcoluadar na muintire ar ghlac sé lóistín leo. Is minic a chuala-sa na cóursain a rá gur mhaith an bheart an Sánasach do sheilg, mar go mbeadh sé fán tráth sin fásta 'na bhreac bhlasta agus go mbeadh solus geimhrí ann. Ní dói liom, áfach, go raibh sé de mhisneach ag éinne dul sa tóir air [26].
In this chapter on Sitric O'Sanasa, O'Nolan takes with myopic literalism some of the racist metaphors prevalent among the Victorian English and among the ascendancy in Ireland. Such metaphors had gained a particular currency in the 1860s, when Fenian outrages antagonized the British populace and theories of evolution disturbed me traditional folk mind. "Just as Darwinism appeared to lay bare the ugly realities of the struggle for survival, so Fenianism appeared to reveal the elemental beast in the Irish character" [27]. Those respectable folk who resented having their bodies compared to those of black troglodytes could now make their own comparisons. It was scarcely surprising that they should have found closer resemblances between the apes and those races whom they feared or exploited, the Irish and the Negroes.

This is the burden of tragic knowledge in An Béal Bocht. O'Coonassa's demand to know if the Gaels are in fact human is also the question put by O'Nolan, a writer who was as agitated as any Victorian by what he called "the incompatibility of the flesh and the spirit". Benjamin Disraeli once remarked that the Victorian English wanted to be angels, but feared that they might be apes. That same neurotic dichotomy lies behind O'Nolan's blackest humours, with one crucial difference. He inverts the priorities of the Victorians, yearning not for the sanctity of the angelic but for the bliss of the primitive. He said that "imbedded in the flesh (and by no means in the spirit) is this disastrous faculty of reason. It has ruined many a man, the same reason" His elaboration of that idea went as follows:

To sensible, thoughtful people, the thought of life, as life goes, must be something of a nightmare. It begins to look as if we humans were right until we developed consciousness with its two children, Memory and Imagination. If man was not "blessed" with consciousness or cursed with Memory, he could not look back. And if he were not "blessed" or cursed with Imagination, he would think nothing about the future [28].

In An Béal Bocht, O'Nolan has taken the insulting metaphors surrounding the stage Irishman and explained that they are literally true, not just of the Irish but of the "awful human condition" [29]. Behind the comical conventions, he has discerned the truth which neither the English caricaturists nor their Irish victims could face. In attacking these conventions with their own evasions, he has also provided his own deeply comic answer. Though that answer inverts that of the Victorian theorists, it arises from an equally agonized awareness of the contesting forces of spirit and flesh in humankind. An Béal Bocht may be one of the first parodies in modern Irish, but it is also one of the last Victorian melodramas.

Many other assumptions concerning the Irish in the nineteenth century receive mocking treatment in An Béal Bocht. The idea that the race was inherently lazy and incapable of being taught anything gained wide support, as did the conviction that "Irish Celts could no more change their temperaments than they could change the colours of their eyes" [30]. Among the Irish in England, crime was believed to be inevitable and newspapers were studded with reports of the fighting Irish. In 1861, for example, though only one quarter of the population of Liverpool was Irish-born, the Irish accounted for over half the defendants appearing in city courts on charges of assault, drunkenness and breach of the peace [31]. By the later 1880s, almost one half of all Irish news items reported in The Times of London concerned political and agrarian crime, giving further credence to the idea that crime was endemic in the land. Needless to add, many native Irishmen were themselves convinced that this was indeed the truth.

The inevitable outcome of these policies is enacted in the classrooms of Corcha Dorcha, where every child is told that it is his destiny to be guilty of misdeeds, to be beaten and forced to answer to the name "Jams O'Donnell". The concept of the Irishman as an irredeemable and unchangeable idiot is itself not far removed from Aristotle's classic deftion of comedy: "the comic character is static and goes on revealing itself". That sense of predestined failure communicated itself to many impressionable Irish people and was, no doubt, heightened by what O'Nolan called "the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic" [32]. Those older characters in An Béal Bocht such as Bonaparte's mother or the Old Grey Fellow repeatedly tell the lad that he must play in fireside ashes and accept the grinding poverty and inevitable sense of failure. They are the unwitting accomplices of a tradition which deprived the Irish of identity. It is fitting, therefore, that when Bonaparte comes face to face with his father in the final chapter, he should be on his way to the same jail in which the father has already served a sentence of twenty-nine years -- the exact span of the sentence on which he now embarks, in keeping with the inexorable logic of idiotic predestination which has propelled the book. It is even more brutally appropriate that he should have been sentenced after a trial in English, which he could not understand, for a crime which he did not commit. He is the peasant equivalent of Kafka's nameless citizen, a Joseph K. of the western world.

He who could not distinguish his first-born son from an outhouse pig now fails to identify his own father, until the broken old jailbird hoarsely mutters that his name is "Jams O'Donnell". At this point, only, does Bonaparte see the truth: that his identity is that of the thieving, drunken, vagrant that was once his father and will soon be his son. Like every other character in the novel, his features are never described, for, like the stage Irishman, he is more caricature than character, relying for his effect more on props than on the self-constructed personality. How could Myles na gCopaleen -- who had just recovered his identity after more than a century of frustration -- describe such a man? For Bonaparte, like all his stage-Irish predecessors, has no face.

The final paradox in this story of Mylesian identities lies in the fate of Brian O'Nolan. Having put an end to the role of Myles na gCopaleen as perpetual victim of English ridicule, the author himself became the ultimate victim of his newly-acquired persona. So successful was the column conducted thrice-weekly by Myles na Gopaleen in The Irish Times that it lasted for over twenty-five years, "on a level of wit, invention and intellectual virtuosity without parallel" [33]. The cost was massive. Throughout the period, O'Nolan produced no works to equal the brilliance of his three early and major novels, At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, and An Béal Bocht. More than one of his friends asked a difficult question: "had Myles na gCopaleen never existed would the genius of Flann O'Brien have flowered in other unpredictable masterpieces? [34]" The answer must be a tentative "yes", with the caveat that the persona to blame was not Myles na gCopaleen but Myles na Gopaleen. For he was the fatal clown, the licensed jester, who lurked within O'Nolan, whom he roundly despised but whom he could never fully suppress. He offered his author the quick success and easy laughs which hold a deadly attraction for the Irish artist who knows he should express, but fears he may have to exploit, his material.

If O'Nolan succumbed early to that temptation to placate his newspaper audience, he did not do so before he had written three comic masterpieces. That is the measure of the immense talent wasted in the service of R. M. Smyllie. It was a common temptation in the period, identified by Patrick Kavanagh as the call to play the fool, to be another "gas bloody man", to enact in public the role of writer rather than to confront in private the anguish of real writing. In the case of Brian O'Nolan, the wonder was that he had endured as an artist for so long, for according to R. N. Cooke, he had already donned, with only some pangs of conscience, the jester's mask even before he graduated from university. Cooke's assessment of the brilliant student debater is a fitting epitaph of the real achievement and actual waste of one of Ireland's major writers: "Unfortunately, his fame as a funny-man was such that he was typed as a debater. The Society expected it from him and he seldom disappointed... [35]" But his real potential, as thinker and as artist, may have never been suspected, and was surely not realized.


  1. David Krause, introduction, The Dolmen Boucicault, Dublin 1964, 32.
  2. Quoted by Anne Clissmann, Flann O'Brien: A Critical Introduction to His Writings, Dublin 1975.
  3. Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, Harmondsworth 1967, 25.
  4. Jack White, "Myles, Flann and Brian", Myles: Portraits of Brian O'Nolan, ed. Timothy O'Keeffe, London 1973, 63.
  5. Brian O'Nolan, "De Me", New Ireland, March 1964, 41.
  6. Clissmann, 3.
  7. Myles na gCopaleen, An Béal Bocht, Dublin 1964, 30; Flann O'Brien, The Poor Mouth, tr. Patrick Power, London 1978, 23. Hereafter BB, PM.
  8. BB 23; PM 30-1.
  9. BB 25; PM 34.
  10. BB 42; PM 51-2.
  11. James Joyce, Stephen Hero, London 1966, 54.
  12. Brendan Kennelly, "An Béal Bocht", The Pleasures of Gaelic Literature, ed. J. Jordan, Dublin 1977.
  13. BB 10; PM 14-15.
  14. PM 63; BB 52.
  15. L. Perry Curtis Jnr., Apes and Angles: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature, London 1971, 31.
  16. Bernard Partridge, Punch, 24 December 1919; 18 February 1920; 13 October 1920.
  17. PM 36; BB 27.
  18. Curtis, 60.
  19. PM 110-11; BB 98-9.
  20. PM 100; BB 87.
  21. PM 13; BB 8.
  22. PM 78; BB 67.
  23. James W. Redfield, Comparative Physiognomy, New York 1852, 253-8.
  24. PM 89; BB 75.
  25. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1, 201-2.
  26. PM 98; BB85.
  27. Curtis, 102.
  28. Myles na gCopaleen, "Cruiskeen Lawn", Irish Times, 30 July 1953.
  29. Ibid., 2 March 1966.
  30. Curtis, 95.
  31. Kevin O'Connor, The Irish in Britain, London 1974, 22.
  32. Brian O'Nolan, "A Bash in the Tunnell", Envoy v, 17, May 1951, 11.
  33. Niall Sheridan, "Brian, Flann and Myles", 40.
  34. Ibid., 53.
  35. R. N. Cooke, Centenary History of the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin, ed. J. Meenan, Kerry 1955, 242. For an extended consideration of wasted talent see Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien, London 1989.