O'Nolan, Brian (‘Flann O'Brien’) (1911–66), novelist, dramatist and columnist, was born on 5 October 1911 at 15 Bowling Green, Strabane, Co. Tyrone. He was the third of twelve children of Michael Victor O'Nolan (or Nolan) and his wife Agnes Gormley. Both his parents were born in Omagh, his father in 1875 and his mother in 1886.
Michael Victor was the eldest son of Donal Nolan, a music teacher at the Omagh model school; when he and his seven siblings were still only children, the family moved to Belfast and the boys, Michael Victor, Gearóid, Peter and Fergus, all attended Queen's University Belfast (QUB), where they studied classics. On graduating, Michael Victor became an officer in the customs and excise service and, in 1897, was posted to Strabane. He always had a great enthusiasm for the Irish language and began to teach an Irish night class and to organise feiseanna. Through these activities he met Agnes Gormley, the daughter of the principal catholic shopkeeper in Strabane. She was eighteen when they met, and two years later, in 1906, they were married in a ceremony in Irish performed by Michael Victor's priest brothers, Peter and Gearóid. They took a house at 15 Bowling Green, where three sons, Gearóid, Ciarán and Brian, were born. Nine more children were to follow, four more boys and five girls. Two of the girls became nuns; three married. Of the brothers, Gearóid went into business, Ciarán became an Irish-language newspaper editor, Fergus joined the army, Kevin became an academic, Niall became a doctor, and Micheál an artist.
The family into which Brian was born was, on both sides, quite remarkable and was to exercise a profound effect on him. On his father's side there were strong influences from religion, a concern for the Irish language, and an interest in writing. Michael Victor himself wrote an unpublished detective story. His brother Gearóid became professor of Irish at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, wrote an autobiography, and (together with Fergus) published a volume of short stories. Fergus was a teacher and for some time assisted Patrick Pearse (qv) at Scoil Eanna. He had a play produced at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Gearóid also had an interest in card and match tricks, which he taught to his nephews; Brian became quite skilled and developed a life-long interest in such games and puzzles. Agnes Gormley's family had an extensive business in Omagh, a grocery, bakery and public house, until it failed in the 1880s. Her mother then opened a small news agency on Market Street, Strabane, and, in time, her father, John, also opened a shop, on Main Street. Agnes was one of seven children, five boys and two girls. Her brothers were talented and were known as ‘characters’. Eugene, the eldest, had literary ambitions. Tom was a talented violinist, who composed operas. Joe was also a musician and songwriter, an impresario, and director of many local musical productions. George became a sports reporter on the Irish Independent and sports editor of the Evening Mail. His extensive repertoire of anecdotes and the air of glamour that seemed to surround his trade of journalism made a deep impression on his nephew. From these uncles Brian developed his interest in music and he was able to listen for hours to the English talk in the newsagent shop, where the children also had access to comics and to popular literature.
Brian had a somewhat unusual childhood, in that he was markedly isolated from children of his own age. This was partly because the father's occupation necessitated many changes of address. Shortly after Brian's birth the family moved to Glasgow. Thereafter they were at Inchicore in Dublin, where they were living during the 1916 rising. In 1917 Michael Victor was promoted and, because he had to travel a great deal, took a house on the outskirts of Strabane so that his wife could be near her family while he was away. In 1920 he was transferred to Tullamore, Co. Offaly, and the family moved to a large house two miles outside the town. When the Irish Free State government set up the board of revenue commissioners Michael Victor became an employee, and was transferred to Dublin and promoted. He then had a rapid rise through the grades, ending as commissioner in April 1925.
During all this period the children were educated at home, sometimes with a tutor, sometimes with the aid of a correspondence course devised by Michael Victor himself. The language of the household was Irish, the maids came from the Donegal Gaeltacht, and, apart from the O'Nolan and Gormley families, there was little contact with the outside world. Even within the family, Brian, Gearóid, and Ciarán formed an exclusive coterie, inventive and self-contained. They read widely, invented stories which they illustrated themselves, and decided to make their own films by constructing a home projector, drawing the images and writing the film scripts. While Ciarán was mainly the writer and Brian the illustrator, Brian participated in the script writing, which constituted his first creative literary efforts. Brian also played the violin and had a great interest in chess and in photography. All these childhood enthusiasms were later to find a prominent place in his work.
The idyllic childhood came to an end when the family moved to Dublin. They took a house in Herbert Place and the three oldest boys were sent to the Christian Brothers' School on Synge Street. Unused to formal schooling and entering a brutal regime, the boys suffered bullying and intimidation from people Brian was later to describe as ‘gangsters’ and ‘criminals’. In 1927 the family moved to Avoca Terrace in Blackrock and the children went to a new school, Blackrock College. Although Blackrock College was a strong rugby-playing school and Brian was never to be interested in sport, he found the atmosphere more congenial than Synge Street. He began to make friends, though they were rarely invited to his home, which, though occupied by twelve children, two adults, and two maids, was a place of profound silence. He also came under the influence of his English teacher, John Charles McQuaid (qv), and spent hours copying his handwriting and style. He was a frequent speaker at debates, especially in Irish, and began the first of what were to be many manufactured newspaper correspondences. With his brother Ciarán and friends he concocted a correspondence on the subject of homework for the newly established Catholic Standard. At this stage he was strongly nationalistic, debating on the motion ‘Don't buy British blazers’ and removing the union flag from the flagpole of the Royal Irish Yacht Club at Dún Laoghaire. In June 1929 he sat the leaving certificate examination and, without overmuch work, gained honours in Irish, English, Latin and history, and a pass in physics.
University and first employment
At University College Dublin (UCD), where he studied English, Irish and German, O'Nolan acquired new friends among the very talented generation who were the first to be educated in an independent Ireland. Donagh MacDonagh (qv), Niall Montgomery (qv), Niall Sheridan (qv), Denis Devlin (qv), Brian Coffey (qv) and Charles Donnelly (qv) all had literary ambitions and were self-conscious modernists, clearly much influenced by James Joyce (qv), whose work they read and imitated in the student magazines National Student and Comhthrom Féinne. O'Nolan became an admired and effective contributor to the debates of the Literary and Historical Society, winning the medal for impromptu debate in the 1932–3 session and later (unsuccessfully) challenging Vivion de Valera (qv) for the position of auditor. It was in Comhthrom Féinne that he created the first of his fictional pseudonymous characters, Brother Barnabas. Through this character he indulged his satirical bent, his love of puns, hatred of cliché, pretension and hypocrisy, mastery of the art of literary pastiche, and his delight in demonstrating his own brilliance.
He graduated in 1932 with a second-class honours degree and began work on a Master of Arts (MA) thesis, ‘Nature in Irish poetry’. This was finally accepted in 1935. As a graduate student he continued his association with the Literary and Historical Society and with Comhthrom Féinne, and it was in the pages of this magazine, in an article entitled ‘Scenes in a novel’, published in 1934, that the germ of his first published novel, At Swim-Two-Birds appeared. In August 1934 he, his brother Ciarán and Niall Sheridan founded a magazine called Blather. Brian both wrote for and illustrated the magazine, a purely comic creation, which, although it lasted for only five issues until January 1935, allowed for the appearance of his second great pseudonymous creation, Count O'Blather, some of whose writings indicate that his creator was still working on At Swim-Two-Birds.
In January 1935, O'Nolan applied for a post as junior administrative assistant in the civil service. He began work in the Department of Local Government in July of that year. He was ‘established’ in July 1937 on the same day as his father suddenly died. In the absence of any widow's pension and with his two older brothers unemployed, Brian became the sole support and effective head of the household. In 1937 the financial burden was eased by his promotion to private secretary to the minister for local government.
Novels, journalism and theatre
While O'Nolan was working on At Swim-Two-Birds he was also working on a novel in Irish, which he afterwards abandoned. Like At Swim, envisaged as a pastiche and parody, in imitation of Finnegans Wake it was entitled ‘Bhark I bPrágrais’ (work in progress). A short extract was published in Ireland Today in 1938 while O'Nolan was negotiating the publication of At Swim-Two-Birds, which was published by Longman, under the pseudonym ‘Flann O'Brien’, in March 1939. Initially neither a critical nor a commercial success, it nevertheless received a special prize from the AE Memorial Fund. The first publication sold only 244 copies and the remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid on Longman's London premises. It was not to become truly successful until its republication in England in 1960. It has since been hailed as a prime example of the anti-novel and as both a modernist and post-modernist work of the first importance. It has exercised a profound influence on the Irish imagination and on the work of very many modern writers.
In the summer of 1939 O'Nolan began work on The third policeman. It was finished by January 1940 and sent to Longman. Although widely regarded as one of the most important Irish novels of the twentieth century, it failed to find a publisher at the time. Disappointed by this and by the lack of success of At Swim, O'Nolan invented various stories about the loss of the typescript of The third policeman. He may have continued to work on it throughout the 1950s, but in the 1960s, when his new publishers, MacGibbon & Kee, were looking for anything from him, he declined to produce the typescript and it remained ‘lost’ until after his death, when the book was published to great critical acclaim in 1967.
At the same time as the persona Flann O'Brien, novelist, seemed to be encountering a sea of difficulties, a new persona was being born. In a manner similar to that of his earlier schoolboy mock correspondence in the Catholic Standard, O'Nolan intervened in a controversy in the letters page of the Irish Times with a series of letters under different pseudonyms. This led to a meeting with R. M. Smyllie (qv), the editor of the Irish Times, and an invitation to write a regular column. From 1940 to 1966 with interruptions occasioned by illness or quarrels with the newspaper, the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column by Myles na gCopaleen appeared in both Irish and English with occasional productions in hybrid languages of O'Nolan's invention. It was a vast amalgamation of satire, parody, odd inventions, linguistic games and fantastic biographies, which allowed its author to comment on every aspect of contemporary Ireland and its culture and to create characters and concerns that became established features of everyday Irish life, repeated and retold all over the country. Generally the columns were written in batches of six, on Sunday afternoons, on an old Underwood typewriter at a table in the dining room of the house at Avoca Terrace, where his younger siblings might well be doing their homework, and delivered to the Irish Times in the evening. As the column continued, Myles na gCopaleen became a familiar character in Dublin though the identity of his creator was not clearly known.
At the same time as he started writing the column, O'Nolan began a book in Irish. An béal bocht (The poor mouth) was described by its author as a parody of An tOileánach (The islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain (qv). It was read as a satirical treatment of the Irish-language movement and its more fanatical adherents, and it was very well received, although some objected to its image of Irish life in the Gaeltacht as being dominated by torrential rain, squalor and poverty.
At this time of enormous productivity, O'Nolan made his first foray into the world of theatre. His sketch about illegal after-hours drinking, ‘Thirst’, was staged at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 1942, and in the same year he wrote ‘Faustus Kelly’ as a comic exposure of the horrors of Irish political discourse. It was, he said, based on his experience of having to attend the dáil every day as part of his duties as ministerial private secretary. ‘Faustus Kelly’ was staged at the Abbey Theatre, to a mixed reception in January 1943. Six weeks later his adaptation of Karel Capek's ‘Insect play’ was staged at the Gaiety Theatre to an unenthusiastic reception.
In March 1943 O'Nolan was promoted to acting assistant principal officer and was appointed secretary to the tribunal established to inquire into the causes of a fire at a Cavan orphanage in which thirty-five children had died. He had to endure sixty-four days of very distressing evidence. Immediately before the establishment of the tribunal he had applied to move into the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, which ran Radio Éireann, but was unsuccessful. His dissatisfaction with his job was exacerbated by the effect on him of the tribunal, and his disenchantment with the world in general was heightened by his horror at the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the war (August 1945). In February 1948 he was promoted to acting principal officer in the Department of Local Government, and in December of the same year, to the great surprise of his friends, he married Evelyn McDonnell; she was the daughter of a farmer from north Co. Dublin, and worked as a typist in the roads section of the Department of Local Government, where O'Nolan was her superior. After a private ceremony (only the witnesses were present) and a honeymoon in west Cork the couple went to live on Mount Merrion Avenue, Blackrock, from where they moved in 1960 to Waltersland Road, Stillorgan. They had no children.
The 1950s were not kind to O'Nolan. Apart from the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column, he produced comparatively little – a few articles, a couple of short stories, a number of columns for provincial papers under other pseudonyms, and, possibly, some stories in the Sexton Blake detective series. He was beset with problems. He was frequently absent from work due to illness or accidents. He was a heavy drinker and often referred to a local pub, the Scotch House, as his ‘office’; he had a continuing feud with the Gardaí in Blackrock about accusations of drunken driving. Given his position as a civil servant, the content of his column often offended; in particular, his diatribes against the recently instituted (1953) An Tostal festival, his attacks on Andy Clerkin, the lord mayor of Dublin, and on the Fianna Fáil government in general, angered the minister, Patrick Smith (qv). O'Nolan resigned for ‘health reasons’ in February 1951 but managed to obtain a small pension. He thus became financially dependent mainly on the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column, but this too was in difficulty. O'Nolan objected to cuts or changes in his material, while the editorial team was wary of libel. Throughout the period there were frequent quarrels and rapprochements. His wife was ill for a time in 1956 and his mother died that year to his great distress. He too was frequently ill, though in 1957 he made a (totally unsuccessful – he came last) bid for election to the seanad for the National University of Ireland (NUI) constituency.
O'Nolan constantly looked for ways to extend his income by writing or full-time employment, but he was at a very low point when he was contacted, in May 1959, by Timothy O'Keeffe (qv) with an offer to republish At Swim-Two-Birds. Its republication marked the beginning of a period of renewed creativity. In a very short time he produced The hard life: an exegesis of squalor (1961), which, described by Brendan Behan (qv) as ‘a gem’, continues a comic obsession with the grotesqueness of corporeality. In 1962 he wrote a number of plays for television and, in spite of many illnesses and accidents, rewrote substantial parts of The third policeman as a new novel, The Dalkey archive (1964), changing the setting from hell to heaven and, perhaps prophetically, dedicating it to his Guardian Angel, ‘impressing upon him that I'm only fooling and warning him to see to it that there is no misunderstanding when I go home’. He began work on another novel, ‘Slattery's sago saga’, wrote television scripts for a comedy series starring Jimmy O'Dea (qv) and another series called ‘Th’ oul lad of Kilsalaher’, and returned to writing ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ regularly. In 1965 The Dalkey archive was dramatised by Hugh Leonard (qv) and At-Swim was translated into French. It was, in some ways, an annus mirabilis, but in September O'Nolan was diagnosed with cancer and, although still continuing to write ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, was too ill to do any work on ‘Slattery's sago saga’, which remained unfinished when he died in hospital, on April Fool's day, 1 April 1966.
The main collection of O'Nolan papers is housed at the University of Southern Illinois. The typescript drafts of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Dalkey archive are at the University of Texas at Austin.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).