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|Died||1 April 1966 (aged 54)|
|Pen name||Flann O'Brien|
Myles na gCopaleen
Myles na Gopaleen
|Occupation||Civil servant, writer|
|Spouse||Evelyn McDonnell (1948–1966)|
Brian O'Nolan (
O'Nolan's novels have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour and modernist
According to Farragher and Wyer:
Dr McQuaid himself was recognised as an outstanding English teacher, and when one of his students, Brian O'Nolan, alias Myles na gCopaleen, boasted in his absence to the rest of the class that there were only two people in the College who could write English properly namely, Dr McQuaid and himself, they had no hesitation in agreeing. And Dr McQuaid did Myles the honour of publishing a little verse by him in the first issue of the revived College Annual (1930) – this being Myles' first published item.
The poem itself, "Ad Astra", read as follows:
Ah! When the skies at night
Are damascened with gold,
Methinks the endless sight
O'Nolan wrote prodigiously during his years as a student at
In 1934 O'Nolan and his student friends founded a short-lived magazine called Blather. The writing here, though clearly bearing the marks of youthful bravado, again somewhat anticipates O'Nolan's later work, in this case his Cruiskeen Lawn column as Myles na gCopaleen:
O'Nolan, who had studied German in Dublin, may have spent at least parts of 1933 and 1934 in Germany, namely in Cologne and Bonn, although details are uncertain and contested. He claimed himself, in 1965, that he "spent many months in the Rhineland and at Bonn drifting away from the strict pursuit of study." So far, no external evidence has turned up that would back up this sojourn (or an also anecdotal short-term marriage to one 'Clara Ungerland' from Cologne). In their biography Costello and van de Kamp, discussing the inconclusive evidence, state that "...it must remain a mystery, in the absence of documented evidence an area of mere speculation, representing in a way the other mysteries of life of Brian O'Nolan that still defy the researcher."
A key feature of O'Nolan's personal situation was his status as an Irish government civil servant, who, as a result of his father's relatively early death, was obliged to support ten siblings, including an elder brother who was an unsuccessful writer. Given the desperate poverty of Ireland in the 1930s to 1960s, a job as a civil servant was considered prestigious, being both secure and pensionable with a reliable cash income in a largely agrarian economy. The
In reality, that O'Nolan was Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen was an open secret, largely disregarded by his colleagues, who found his writing very entertaining; this was a function of the makeup of the civil service, which recruited leading graduates by competitive examination—it was an erudite and relatively liberal body in the Ireland of the 1930s to the 1970s. Nonetheless, had O'Nolan forced the issue, by using one of his known pseudonyms or his own name for an article that seriously upset politicians, consequences would likely have followed—hence the acute pseudonym problem in attributing his work today. He was, indeed, forced to retire from the civil service in 1953. "A combination of his gradually deepening alcoholism and his habit of making derogatory remarks about senior politicians in his newspaper columns led to his forced retirement from the civil service in 1953. (He departed, recalled a colleague, "in a final fanfare of f***s".)
Although O'Nolan was a well known character in Dublin during his lifetime, relatively little is known about his personal life. He joined the Irish civil service in 1935, working in the Department of Local Government. From the time of his father's death in 1937, he supported his brothers and sisters, eleven in total, on his income. On 2 December 1948 he married Evelyn McDonnell, a typist in the Department of Local Government. On his marriage he moved from his parental home in Blackrock to nearby Merrion Avenue, living at several further locations in
O'Nolan was an alcoholic for much of his life and suffered from ill health in his later years. He suffered from cancer of the throat and died from a heart attack on the morning of 1 April 1966.