Brian O'Nolan

Brian O'Nolan
Brian O'Nolan.jpg
Born(1911-10-05)5 October 1911
Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland
Died1 April 1966(1966-04-01) (aged 54)
Dublin, Ireland
Resting placeDeans Grange Cemetery, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown
Pen nameFlann O'Brien
Myles na gCopaleen
Myles na Gopaleen
Brother Barnabas
George Knowall
OccupationCivil servant, writer
Alma materUniversity College, Dublin
GenreMetafiction, satire
Notable worksAt Swim-Two-Birds,
The Third Policeman,
An Béal Bocht,
The Hard Life
The Dalkey Archive
"Cruiskeen Lawn"
SpouseEvelyn McDonnell (1948–1966)

Brian O'Nolan (Irish: Brian Ó Nualláin; 5 October 1911 – 1 April 1966) was an Irish novelist, playwright and satirist, considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. Born in Strabane, County Tyrone, he is regarded as a key figure in postmodern literature.[1] His English language novels, such as At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, were written under the pen name Flann O'Brien. His many satirical columns in The Irish Times and an Irish language novel An Béal Bocht were written under the name Myles na gCopaleen.

O'Nolan's novels have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour and modernist metafiction. As a novelist, O'Nolan was influenced by James Joyce. He was nonetheless sceptical of the cult of Joyce which overshadows much of Irish writing, saying "I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob."


School days

O'Nolan attended Blackrock College where he was taught English by President of the College, and future Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid.[2]

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.[3]

The poem itself, "Ad Astra", read as follows:

Ah! When the skies at night
Are damascened with gold,
Methinks the endless sight
Eternity unrolled.[3]

O'Nolan also spent part of his schooling years in Synge Street Christian Brothers School. His novel The Hard Life, is a semi autobiographical depiction of his experience of the Christian Brothers.

Student years

O'Nolan wrote prodigiously during his years as a student at University College, Dublin (UCD), where he was an active, and controversial, member of the well known Literary and Historical Society. He contributed to the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne (Fair Play) under various guises, in particular the pseudonym Brother Barnabas. Significantly, he composed a story during this same period titled "Scenes in a Novel (probably posthumous) by Brother Barnabas", which anticipates many of the ideas and themes later to be found in his novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. In it, the putative author of the story finds himself in riotous conflict with his characters, who are determined to follow their own paths regardless of the author's design. For example, the villain of the story, one Carruthers McDaid, intended by the author as the lowest form of scoundrel, "meant to sink slowly to absolutely the last extremities of human degradation", instead ekes out a modest living selling cats to elderly ladies and becomes a covert churchgoer without the author's consent. Meanwhile, the story's hero, Shaun Svoolish, chooses a comfortable, bourgeois life rather than romance and heroics:

'I may be a prig', he replied, 'but I know what I like. Why can't I marry Bridie and have a shot at the Civil Service?'
'Railway accidents are fortunately rare', I said finally, 'but when they happen they are horrible. Think it over.'

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:

Blather is here. As we advance to make our bow, you will look in vain for signs of servility or of any evidence of a desire to please. We are an arrogant and depraved body of men. We are as proud as bantams and as vain as peacocks.
Blather doesn't care. A sardonic laugh escapes us as we bow, cruel and cynical hounds that we are. It is a terrible laugh, the laugh of lost men. Do you get the smell of porter?

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 " 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."[4]

Civil service

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 Irish civil service has been, since the Irish Civil War, fairly strictly apolitical: Civil Service Regulations and the service's internal culture generally prohibit Civil Servants above the level of clerical officer from publicly expressing political views. As a practical matter, this meant that writing in newspapers on current events was, during O'Nolan's career, generally prohibited without departmental permission on an article-by-article, publication-by-publication basis. This fact alone contributed to O'Nolan's use of pseudonyms, though he had started to create character-authors even in his pre-civil service writings. O'Nolan rose to be quite senior, serving a private secretary to Seán T. O'Kelly (a minister and later President of Ireland) and Seán McEntee, a powerful political figure, both of whom almost certainly knew O'Nolan was na gCopaleen.[5]

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.[6] "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.[7] (He departed, recalled a colleague, "in a final fanfare of f***s".[8])

Personal life

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.[9] 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 South Dublin before his death.[10] The couple had no children.

Health and death

Grave of Brian O'Nolan/Brian Ó Nualláin, his parents and his wife, Deans Grange Cemetery, Dublin

O'Nolan was an alcoholic for much of his life and suffered from ill health in his later years.[11] He suffered from cancer of the throat and died from a heart attack on the morning of 1 April 1966.[9]

Other Languages
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Браян О’Нолан
català: Brian O'Nolan
čeština: Brian O'Nolan
español: Flann O'Brien
français: Flann O'Brien
italiano: Flann O'Brien
Nederlands: Flann O'Brien
português: Brian O'Nolan
română: Brian O'Nolan
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Brian O'Nolan
svenska: Flann O'Brien
Türkçe: Brian O'Nolan
українська: Фленн О'Браєн