Alex Massie

The genius of Myles na Gopaleen must not be subjugated by the imperialism of Flann O’Brien

The genius of Myles na Gopaleen must not be subjugated by the imperialism of Flann O'Brien
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Faith, has it really been two score years and ten? It has you know. Well, would you credit that? I know. Fifty years! Seems appropriate, though. What? That he'd leave this day. For sure. I mean, of all the days to pick! This one would be among the best. Possibly the very best. You're not wrong there. I might even be right. Woah, hold your horses! Even the little ones? Especially them. Brutish little creatures. Brutes, yes.

Be that as it may - and mark my words, it may (even in April) - today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Flann O'Brien, the second-greatest* Irish writer of the twentieth century. There should, by rights, be scarcely a dry eye in The Palace bar today. This includes the glass ones.

Actually, now that I think of it, Flann O'Brien was the second-greatest writer in his own head. I mean the novels - particularly At Swim Two Birds, The Third Policeman, The Poor Mouth are fine - but the real genius grew in The Cruiskeen Lawn, the daily column Myles na Gopaleen contributed to The Irish Times for more than a quarter of a century. It remains unrivalled, unparalleled, and unsurpassable. A GUBU column really: Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented.

Granted, the epistles in Irish are beyond me and so, for shame, are those scratched in Latin. But never mind. The column remains, in aggregate, an astonishing achievement. The later years, plagued by the drink and then by the cancer, were angrier but then there was much to be angry about. Even satire can only put up with so much for so long. But above all it is written with brio. There was little like it before and has been nothing like it since. Devotees can recite whole chunks - ideally without prompting or invitation - of The Catechism of Cliche. They are on nodding terms (the only kind) with Steam Men. They indulge Keats and Chapman for fear of something worse. Even Bores are acceptable, and so, on the whole, is The Brother. Most of all they appreciate the terrible beauty of The Plain People of Ireland.

Excerpts are an agreeable futility. The only way to appreciate the column is by swallowing it hook, line, and sinker. Even so, amidst everything else there are serious issues to be discussed. Or, if not discussed, mocked. Life itself was the target on the appropriate grounds that if it had to be then it should not be like this.

You may understand, perhaps, why I'm drawn to passages such as this (from 1944):

‘To be decently ashamed of where one was born is the civilised attitude […] rejecting parochial affiliations […] repudiate the national attachment’; proposed ‘statutary denationalisation’ so that ‘the man irretrievably born Irish and thoroughly unproud of it [is] accord some gentle and statutary exit’; ‘Why is there no legal provision whereby an Irish persona can divest himself of Irishry? Why does not Irish Oifigiul […] contain in each issue a list of ex-Irishmen, decent souls who find the game no longer amusing? (Pray heaven, reader, am I saying the wrong thing again?) Why is there not a decent and entirely honourable quiettus available to those of us who have - let us be quite open about this - never entered into the sweaty conspiracy known as the Walls of Limerick? Is the disease then […] incurable? My own submission is that it is not - that if taken in time wonders can be done […] You will be aware of the formula prescribed as the preliminary to civil marriage. You must publish a notice in the papers, certifying that your name is so-and-so, that you have not attended a place of public worship for so many weeks, and so on. Similar renunciations … should entitle a man born here to statutory denationalisation … to be a person, completely unaware of nationalistic neuroses is a very fine ambition.’

Well, quite. Other concerns are equally timeless. Myles' jeremiads against the idiocy of the Dublin Corporation, the chiselling ineptitude of the civil service in which he (himself) served, the larceny of the banks and much else still strike home today. The irony was that this faker tore apart the fakery and humbug in which the nation swaddled itself. Every country, but perhaps especially every small country, needs a Myles.

As journalism goes, this is pretty good. It still, remarkably, feels alive today. That is, it exists in two time zones: that in which it was written and yet also, at the very same time, that in which it is read now. No-one who loves Ireland, or even Dublin, can fail to be revived by an afternoon stroll across The Cruiskeen Lawn.

The man who is tired of Joyce might rightly be weary of life but he's ready for Myles na Gopaleen.

[This article's headline is shamelessly pilfered from Frank McNally of The Irish Times who carried a torch for Myles when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so.]

*After Beckett.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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