Flann O'Brien is now acclaimed as one of Ireland's most original novelists but, as Roger Boylan explains, his life was a story of misfortune 


Posthumous success is better than no success at all, but it’s still rotten luck when the applause erupts only after the curtain has fallen for good. The Irish author Flann O’Brien was born in 1911. Bad luck dogged him all his life, and he died unappreciated in 1966. He was so self-effacing and elusive that Brendan Behan, an Irish poet and novelist, said of his contemporary: “You had to look twice to see if he was there at all.” But in death O’Brien enjoys a cult following that expresses its devotion in Flann O’Brien pubs, literary conferences, T-shirts and the appearance of one of his books in an episode of the TV series “Lost”.      

“Flann O’Brien” was the invention of Brian O’Nolan, who used the nom de plume as a way to hide his writing from his employers at the Irish Civil Service. (For this reason he also used the name Myles na Gopaleen, or Myles of the Ponies, to write columns in the Irish Times—a reference to a character in a 19th-century Irish play by Dion Boucicault.) O’Nolan was confined to speaking and writing in Irish (Gaelic) at home as it was the only tongue countenanced by his nationalist father. But he escaped into English as a child, via the works of Kipling and Conan Doyle, and ultimately preferred the language for his own books. After university, where he performed adequately, he entered the civil service and enjoyed a certain degree of independence until his father died. This promoted him to paterfamilias and sole supporter for his ten siblings, his mother and his wife, Evelyn. Writing was his only escape, which he indulged in the interstices of the job.  

Despite the pseudonym, everyone in Dublin’s incestuous literary circles knew him. When he started openly mocking the civil service and expressing political opinions—a serious transgression for an employee of the state—he was invited to retire at age 42, in 1953. His pension, together with the slender income from his writing, might have let him succeed as a novelist. But O’Nolan was better at self-sabotage than self-promotion, and he died at 54 of cancer and alcoholism. He still left behind five novels, three of uneven quality and two, “At Swim-Two-Birds” and “The Third Policeman”, that are among the greatest accomplishments in English-language fiction.  

He finished “At Swim-Two-Birds” when he was 28 and sent it off to Longmans, a London publisher, where by a rare stroke of good luck Graham Greene was reader. “I read it with continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage,” recalled Greene, who urged publication. From Paris, James Joyce, in a blurb written to help promote the book, pronounced its author “a real writer, with the true comic spirit.” O’Nolan was cautiously optimistic. But the cosmic balance was soon restored. War broke out and in 1940 the Luftwaffe destroyed the London warehouse in which the entire print run of the novel was stored; fewer than 250 had been sold. Then in 1941 Joyce, who had promised to help with publicity, suddenly died, along with O’Nolan’s hopes for the book. “[I]t must be a flop,” he wrote, wallowing in gloom. “I guess it is a bum book anyhow.”         

In fact, it’s every bit the masterpiece Greene said it was—a thrilling mix of wild experimentation and traditional Irish storytelling. Stylistically, “At Swim-Two-Birds” runs the gamut from mock-epic—“Finn MacCool was a legendary hero of old Ireland…Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal”—to a kind of arch naturalism—“Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind…” The narrative is divided into three parts, described with admiration by Jorge Luis Borges: “A student in Dublin writes a novel about the proprietor of a Dublin public house, who writes a novel about the habitués of his pub (among them, the student), who in their turn write novels in which proprietor and student figure along with other writers about other novelists.” It’s an intricate puzzle played for laughs, a novel simultaneously subversive of, and reverent towards, the Irish epic tradition. It was ten years before the Luftwaffe’s draconian edits were reversed and the book was reprinted.  

Meanwhile, O’Nolan’s other masterpiece, “The Third Policeman”, which he finished in 1940, had been rejected by his publishers. Intending no compliment, they said that it was even more “fantastic” than “At Swim-Two-Birds”. And so it is—a surreal murder mystery narrated by the murderer. The setting looks like rural Ireland but isn’t; it's an Irish Hell populated by demons in the guise of philosophical country policemen, like Sergeant Pluck, who formulates an atomic theory of the bicycle according to which bicycles and their riders exchange atoms until each consists of parts of the other. The novel’s not a whodunit, because we know from the start that the narrator is the murderer. Nor is it an academic satire, despite the mock-scholarly footnotes about the crackpot theories of a scientist named De Selby (nocturnal darkness is “an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air”; sleep is “a series of fainting fits”). Rather, the book is a cosmic (and comic) vision of hell and eternity, with its denouement in the afterlife. Like “At Swim-Two-Birds” it parodies traditional narrative form, but does so in an even weirder way, like a cross between “Tristram Shandy”, Dante’s “Inferno”, and “Alice in Wonderland”. It’s one of literature’s few funny nightmares.  

But O’Nolan never saw it in print. Too wary of further rejection to send it out again, he told friends it had disappeared: lost on a train, in one version, or blown out of a car by the wind in another. The truth was, it was safe at home atop a sideboard. It stayed there until he died, when his widow Evelyn sent the manuscript to MacGibbon & Kee, who had published his other books. “The Third Policeman” came out in 1967, the year after O'Brien's death, to great acclaim. 

In some ways, O’Nolan made his own luck. He nursed a combination of arrogance and self-hatred, exacerbated by booze and a Manichean sense of doom. If he wasn’t despising the critics for not hailing his genius, he was berating himself as a failure on the unrealistic grounds that his arcane, brilliant work never made him rich. He went so far as to confess that thoughts of Margaret Mitchell's novel “Gone With the Wind” kept him awake at night. “I mean,” he said, “the quantity of potatoes earned by the talented lady novelist.” With more self-confidence, O’Nolan could have forced his works onto the attention of publishers and the public. But he’d lost it, and had none of the glamour or PR talent of contemporaries such as Brendan Behan, J. P. Donleavy and Sean O’Casey.  

The novels he did publish were secondary stuff: “The Poor Mouth”, a parody of Celtic-revival sentimentality, written in Gaelic; “The Dalkey Archive” (which later gave its name to a publishing house), a heavy-handed comedy in which James Joyce appears as a washed-out Jesuit bartender; and “The Hard Life”, an account of the eccentric upbringing of two orphaned brothers. Of the three, “The Poor Mouth” comes closest to the standard of learned, madcap parody that characterizes “At Swim-Two-Birds” and “The Third Policeman”. The books sold relatively well, but acclaim was muted. “Seldom has so much promise accomplished so little,” wrote the critic Hugh Kenner in 1983 in his book "A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers". 

And yet his “little” is a lot, and the best of it is without peer. On the centenary of his birth, Flann O’Brien’s genius is finally receiving its due. He would have approved, partly out of pride, but mostly out of respect for the craft. As he once remarked, “Whether a yarn is tall or small I like to hear it well told. I like to meet a man that can take in hand to tell a story and not make a balls of it while he's at it.” Despite some knots and frayed edges, O'Brien knew his way with a yarn.

Roger Boylan is a writer based in Texas and the author of "Killoyle" and "The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad". 

Picture credit: Getty