This month marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Brian Ó Nualláin. Eugene Dunphy casts a warm eye on his life and work.
On the 14th of January 1955, the following curious question appeared in the Irish Times: ‘What name can I invent that no man can possibly bear?’ So asked Myles na gCopaleen, one of the many nom-de-plumes used by Brian Ó Nualláin (Brian O’Nolan), the satirist, novelist and playwright who was born on the 5th of October 1911 at 15 Bowling Green in Strabane, that ‘happy-go-lucky town at the confluence of two tumbling rivers’ in County Tyrone.
The third of twelve children, all of whom were home-schooled through the medium of Irish, Brian’s mother Agnes (née Gormley) came from an ardent nationalist family that owned a bookshop in the town, and his father Michael, apart from working full time for the customs service, became the first Chairman of the Tyrone GAA.
In 1923, shortly after Michael received news that his customs and excise skills were required in Dublin, the O’Nolan family left Strabane and headed to the capital where they set up home at 25 Herbert Place, Brian attending Synge Street Christian Brothers’ and later, Blackrock College.
Pursuing a third-level education at University College Dublin, Brian graduated with a degree in Celtic Languages, and while at UCD he contributed a series of fantastical articles to the student magazine Comhthrom Féinne, under the pseudonym ‘Brother Barnabas’, and to another surreal under-graduate gazette called Blather.
Fluent in Irish, French, German and Latin, Brian joined the Irish Civil Service in 1935, and soon rose through the ranks to become private secretary to Seán MacEntee and Seán T. O’Kelly. It was a safe job, and though not at all fulfilling to the soul of an aspiring artist, it helped to support his mother and siblings after the death in July 1937 of his father.
All the while, Brian, who now adopted the persona of Flann O’Brien, continued to put the finishing touches on At Swim-Two-Birds, his seminal novel written in English and published in 1938. Brimming with satire and dark humour, and exploring the ‘illusion of existence’, Flann read excerpts on Radio Éireann in August 1939. The novel included that unforgettable ‘pome’, The Workman’s Friend:
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can.
When life looks black as the hour of night,
A pint of plain is your only man …
On the 4th of October 1940, the readership of the Irish Times was introduced to yet another of Brian’s alter-egos, Broc (‘badger’), writer of the celebrated Cruiskeen Lawn (‘little full jug’), a column which would become a regular feature in the newspaper for the next twenty-five years. Though originally penned in Irish, Cruiskeen Lawn gradually morphed into English, and in subsequent columns he adopted the mantle of Myles na gCopaleen (‘Myles of the little horses’), the name of a character in The Colleen Bawn, a play by Dion Boucicault based on Gerald Griffin’s The Collegians.