Three is a curious number and if he could speak to us now, I wonder what author Flann O’Brien would make of the three plaques in Ireland erected to commemorate him. He’d probably make a darkly memorable quip that appeared at first glance lighthearted. This after all is the writer who brought us (via one of his novels’ characters) the hellishly catchy poetics of “a pint of plain is your only man“. Or he might query the essence of the number itself, turn the glyph on its head and spin it madly. As a satirist and (some say) Ireland’s first postmodernist, his imagination was unbounded.
Unpacking this plaque, we see he was born Brian Ó Nualláin (Brian O’Nolan) 100 years ago on the 5th October 1911 in Strabane, County Tyrone, now a county in Northern Ireland but at the time pre-partition when the whole island was ruled from Westminster. So his nationality is bound up with borders that shifted dramatically in his lifetime.
His mother tongue was Irish, the young Brian speaking no English until he was seven. Hence the bilingual plaques, and his Irish-language novel An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth). But like his near contemporaries Joyce and Beckett he catapulted to the peaks of prose from these margins, doing amazing things with the English language.
O’Nolan left Strabane to attend Blackrock College and then University College Dublin. After that he entered the Irish civil service and remained there for the rest of his working life, supporting a family of ten after his father’s early death. Not for him the forays round Europe and flânuer lifestyle. He was more likely to be found debating life and literature with other local wits in the many pubs of Dublin. But this was the context that fuelled his very particular vision.
At Swim-Two-Birds presents itself as a first-person story by an unnamed Irish student of literature. The student believes that “one beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with”, and he accordingly sets three apparently quite separate stories in motion. The first concerns the Pooka MacPhellimey, “a member of the devil class”. The second is about a young man named John Furriskey, who turns out to be a fictional character created by another of the student’s creations, Dermot Trellis, a cynical writer of Westerns. The third consists of the student’s adaptations of Irish legends, mostly concerning Fin Mac Cool and mad King Sweeney.”
[Source: At Swim Two Birds - Wikipedia]
Three stories within a story… there’s that number again. It might be classed as postmodernism but suffice to say the book is very readable and painfully funny. The same goes for his later novel (now slated to be filmed) The Third Policeman which has cast a long shadow over playful fiction. It was even featured momentarily in season two of Lost in 2005 and Lost scriptwriter and producer Craig Wright suggested it provides a context for Lost’s mythology.
Next in our investigation of the plaques we come to the matter of his three names (four if you include the Irish spelling of his first), possibly confusing for the Open Plaques naming system (we currently list two of them). Brian O’Nolan, the civil servant. Flann O’Brien, the pseudonym of the literary author. And Myles na cGopaleen – his pen-name as the famous satirical ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ columnist for The Irish Times newspaper, a column that brought him more notoriety in his lifetime than his books and made him unpopular with the grandees of the Irish state. The name itself is an odd assemblage, and Brian / Flann / Myles had some arch comments [source] on its interpretation:
Capall is the Irish word for “horse” (from Vulgar latin caballus), and ‘een’ (spelled ín in Irish) is a diminutive suffix. The prefix na gCapaillín is the genitive plural in his Ulster Irish dialect (the Standard Irish would be “Myles na gCapaillíní”), so Myles na gCopaleen means “Myles of the Little Horses”. Capaillín is also the Irish word for “pony”, as in the name of Ireland’s most famous and ancient native horse breed, the Connemara pony.
O’Nolan himself always insisted on the translation “Myles of the Ponies”, saying that he did not see why the principality of the pony should be subjugated to the imperialism of the horse.
Finally, we arrive at the perennially thorny issue of what constitutes a plaque and whether we should include a bronze relief depicting O’Brien that has this year been inset into the pavement outside The Palace Bar in Dublin’s Fleet Street, a celebrated watering hole he frequented along with fellow writers Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh. Is this a plaque, and by who’s reckoning? Are there even any words on it? We wait in readiness until someone verifies this state of affairs more precisely.
I’ve talked mostly about plaques, places, tongues and names here because I can’t do justice to this author’s scabrous columns and mindbending fiction; for that you can look elsewhere. He died on 1st April 1966 and while I’m not sure who the joke was on, the legend on his Dublin plaque states one thing at least that seems unambiguous – Ní bheith a leithéid arís ann (trans: His like will not be here again).
Happy centenary Flann O’Brien. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the big celebrations, although I made it to the centenary of Bloomsday in 2004, which you co-organised the very first celebration of in 1954. I hope on your bi and tricentenary, you’ll still set people marvelling and talking.
If you find further plaques to Flann or anyone else, you can check if we have them listed yet and if we don’t, you can add the information directly to our website. We include plaques globally. See the plaques we currently have for the Republic of Ireland and the UK.