The one and only Flann O’Brien


We all go to bed for a week every month. Every single man, woman and child in the country. Cripples, drunks, policemen, watchmen – everybody. Nobody is allowed to be up. No newspapers, buses, pictures or any other class of amusement allowed at all. And no matter who you are you must be stuck inside the bed there. Readin’ a book, of course, if you like. But no getting up stakes.

(The Best of Myles, Picador 1968, p. 46).

A plan for getting through the war, courtesy of Myles na gCopaleen, otherwise known as Flann O’Brien and Brian O’Nolan. It could be useful right now for getting through the times we’re enduring in Australia, the US and Europe. Particularly if you spend your time reading the great Flann O’Brien novels At Swim-Two-Birds, The Dalkey Archive and The Third Policeman and the celebrated Cruiskeen Lawn articles from the Irish Times that appear in The Best Of Myles.

Gert first read At Swim-Two-Birds as a teenager. She met for the first time the philosopher de Selby, inventor of the theory that human existence is “an hallucination containing the secondary hallucinations of day and night” (the latter an unsanitary condition of the atmosphere owing to accretions of black air) , the mirror theory according to which, if you have a long enough series of mirrors, you can see yourself as a child (but not as a baby, owing to the curvature of the earth) and the Atomics theory that, by an exchange of atoms, people who spend a lot of time riding bicycles become half-person and half-bicycle. De Selby’s mysterious experiments involving vast quantities of water and long periods of hammering have never been fully explained, but are believed to have something to do with this Atomics theory.

In The Dalkey Archive we run into James Joyce, now repentant and spending his time writing pamphlets for the Catholic Truth Society, and become embroiled in a lengthy theological discussion with St Augustine of Hippo.

The Third Policeman, is, as the blurb on the Picador edition says, “a chilling, macabre tale of unending guilt.” Just as funny as the others, it is also a genuinely disturbing reflection on life, death, hell and eternity.

The Cruiskeen Lawn articles still make Gert cry with laughter. The Escort Scandal involving unemployed ventriloquists, the Book Handling service for wealthy but illiterate patrons, the Myles Patent Ballet Pumps to help fat ballet dancers leap, the Bogus Telephone for those who like the social cachet of having a phone but don’t really want one….. the gems of Myles are endless.

Celebrated admirers of Flann O’Brien include Borges, Grahame Greene, Anthony Burgess and Joyce himself, even if O’Brien did say “I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob.”

If you haven’t read his books, you’re in for the treat of a lifetime.  He would have been 107 on October 5th.

16 thoughts on “The one and only Flann O’Brien

  1. Remember when we told Shane at our French class that he had to read The Third Policeman because he was already half man, half bicycle? (I don’t know if we went as far as to accuse him of that, but his bicycle-love has never been in doubt.)

  2. I’ve always shied away from this author in the past in the belief that his work would be too challenging for me. Isn’t it funny how we form particular impressions about some writers even when we’ve never actually read any of their work?

    1. Yes, I do that too. Even titles can put you off – for example, I only learned the other day the “The Guns Of Navarone” is not a wild west movie! I might even watch it now.

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