If there is one writer who should have become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the last century it would be Brian Ò Nualláin (anglicised as Brian O’Nolan), even though he would have refused to accept an honour from a society of literature, let alone a British one prefaced by the word ‘Royal’, or as he might have put it in his Catechism of Cliché:

What would it be?

It would be anathema to him.

As for the question of which pen he might use in signing the book of Fellowship – Byron’s, Dickens’ etc –, it would be more a question of who would be holding the pen. Brian O’Nolan lived in Ireland from 1911 to 1966, worked as a civil servant but wrote novels under the name of Flann O’Brien, newspaper columns as Myles na gCopaleen, and letters to the Irish Times as Brother Barnabas, George Knowall, Peter the Painter and, possibly, Winnie Wedge.

From which you might deduce that this was a man who was self-protective, self-effacing, self-doubting, retiring, even retrusive, and you would be right. He was born into a Catholic – and Nationalist – family in County Tyrone, the third of 12 children (6 brothers 5 sisters). His father was a peripatetic official in HM Customs service before Independence and a Tax Inspector in Dublin after, and he was alleged never to have spoken to his children even though they were home-schooled until they moved to Dublin. If anyone did speak it was always in Gaelic and his third son, Brian – aka Flann O’Brien etc – always expressed himself in his writing by using his second language, English, in a wildly inventive, witty and essentially satirical fashion. If he showed any feeling it was always in inverted commas, inflected with irony and self-reflexive punning.

His catalogue of misery included having to become the family’s principal source of income after the death of his father and being a religious sceptic while feeling oppressed by the Catholic sense of doom. He said of Joyce – a constant irritation and inspiration – “with laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic”; he could have been describing himself. In addition to the inertia of Dublin in the 40s and 50s, he worked within the hulking bureaucratic corpus of the civil service and he never found a supportive publisher or readers belonging to a shared culture. It’s hardly a surprise that he developed a deep, enduring and fatal addiction to drink.

As Flann O’Brien he wrote two of the most inventive, innovative and funniest of the 20th century novels: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. In those novels he created a universe as original, comic and hermetic as those of Damon Runyan, P.G. Wodehouse and Lewis Carroll. The self-contained universe of At Swim-Two-Birds is peopled by students, cowboys, characters from other novels and Irish mythology, who murder their fictional creator and then write their own novel in which he is brought back to life and put on trial.

The novel parodies every sort of genre from legal proceedings and Westerns to sermons and tabloid journalism, tying together subjects as improbable as kangaroos’ fur and women’s legs, Rousseau and “buff-coloured puke”. It’s surrealist, revolutionary, post-modern and, like Kafka, translates the minutiae of the local and specific into the universal. “A satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity,” says a character.

Shortly after publishing this novel, which initially sold 244 copies, O’Brien wrote The Third Policeman. It was rejected by his publisher and did not appear until a year after his death. It’s part thriller, part comic vision of hell, part satire on academia and Irish self-dramatization, and part a discourse on bicycles. A policeman muses on atomic theory with respect to the bicycle “as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…”

By his late twenties O’Brien had written his best work, but until his death at the age of 55 he wrote a column for the Irish Times, initially in Gaelic but switching later to English with occasional smatterings of German, French or Latin. He mocked the Dublin literary elite, Irish language revivalists, politicians and the “Plain People of Ireland” with an astounding skill and wit, underscored by a loathing of “blather” (bullshit). He manufactured elaborately baroque puns, and often pursued preposterous ideas to their ludicrous conclusions, such as a marginalia-faking service for people who’d bought libraries they had no intention of reading, or “how to help that person who, by birth or profession, is in the somewhat embarrassing condition of being an Irishman”.

It would be good for the RSL to restore posthumous justice to a man who wrote at least two works of genius with the gift of making the ordinary fantastic and the fantastic ordinary. After his death his writing acquired cult then classic status, bolstered by the enthusiasm of Joyce (At Swim-Two-Birds was the last novel he read: “that’s a real writer, with a true comic spirit”), and by Grahame Greene (“One of the best books of our century”); Anthony Burgess called him “a very great man”. Who could fail to warm to a man who wrote three ballets for radio and, ever topical, said: “The majority of the members of parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at crossroads.”

Richard Eyre

Sir Richard Eyre is a theatre, film and opera director, writer and former Artistic Director of the National Theatre (a position he held from 1988 to 1997). He has received many awards for theatre, television and film, was knighted in 1997, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2011.

Flann O’Brien

Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) was the pseudonym of Irish author, playwright and satirist Brian Ó Nualláin. His writing was influenced by the works of James Joyce, as evidenced by his most celebrated and experimental novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939).

Further reading

The Third Policeman (1939-40: published 1967)
Faustus Kelly (1943)
The Hard Life (1961)