An examination of Irish literary idioms in the writing of Brian O'Nolan.
Brian O’Nolan was a master polemic.
He did not like John Millington Synge or the Abbey theatre or the idiomatic peasant speech or ‘Synge-song’ to be heard in that establishment. He did not like the Revival movement, distrusted the Modernists and despised the Gaelic leaguers ('bicycle clips and handball medals’). He did not like Irish, he did not like English, he especially did not like Irish-English or Anglo-Irish or even Hiberno-English. He hated journalists and the ‘sub-language of their own’ that serviced their prerogatives. He hated the civil service, the thick Government and railed contemptuously against the ‘PLAIN PEOPLE’ and the ‘WORKING MAN’. In point of fact it may be surmised that Brian O’Nolan may have had in reservation a particularly bilious vituperative for each and every one us.
As an Irish speaking civil-servant journalist-cum-novelist of the late modernist era who submitted plays to the Abbey theatre, he certainly knew his subject.
A lifetime of cognition has convinced me that in this Anglo-Irish literature of ours (which for the most part is neither Anglo, Irish, nor literature)(as the man said) nothing in the whole galaxy of fake is comparable with Synge. That comic ghoul with his wakes and his mugs of porter should be destroyed finally and forever by having a drama festival at which all his plays should be revived for the younger people of to-day. The younger generation should be shown what their daddies and grand-daddies went through for Ireland, and at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
We in this country had a bad time through the centuries when England did not like us. But words choke in the pen when the English discovered that we were rawther interesting peepul ek’tully, that we were nice, witty, brave fearfully seltic and fiery, strong, lazy, boozy, impulsive, hospitable, decent and so on till you weaken. From that day the mouth corners of our smaller intellectuals (of whom we have more per thousand births than any other country in the world) began to betray the pale froth of literary epilepsy. Our writers fascinated by the snake-like eye of London publishers, have developed exhibitionism to the sphere of acrobatics. Convulsions and contortions foul and masochistic have been passing for literature in this country for too long. Playing up to the foreigner, putting up the witty celtic act, doing the erratic but lovable playboy, pretending to be morose and obsessed and thoughtful – all that is wearing so thin that we must put it aside soon in shame as one puts aside a threadbare suit. Even the customers who have been coming to shop man and boy for fifty years are fed up. Listen the next time there is some bought-and-paid-for Paddy broadcasting from the BBC and you will understand me better.
The trouble probably began with Lever and Lover. But I always think that in Synge we have the virus isolated and recognisable. Here is stuff that anybody who knows the Ireland referred to will simply not have. It is not that Synge made people less worthy or nastier, or even better than they are, but he brought forward with the utmost solemnity amusing clowns talking a sub-language of their own and bade us to take them very seriously. There was no harm there for we have long had the reputation of having heads on us. But when the counterfeit bauble began to be admired outside Ireland by reason of its oddity and ‘charm’, it soon became part of the literary credo here that Synge was a poet and a wild celtic god, a bit of a genius indeed, like the brother. We, who knew the whole inside-outs of it, preferred to accept the ignorant valuations of outsiders on things Irish. And now the curse has come upon us, because I have personally met in the streets of Ireland persons who are clearly out of Synge’s plays. They talk and dress like that, and damn the drink they'll’ swally but the mug of porter in the long nights after Samhain.”
If you are unfamiliar, this is a typically truculent O’Nolan tour de force – pejorative, hyperbolas, contentious in the extreme. Here O’Nolan identifies a thematic process that is revisited again and again in his literature: the precocious incursion of the imagined into the tangible, and the consequences thereof in terms of an Irish consciousness still tremulous and unsure of itself in the wake of tumultuous upheaval. O’Nolan’s recognition of the importance of Irish literature (conjoined with its international reception and reputation) to the psychological well-being of post-colonial Ireland, manifests itself in this and other bitter attacks on the Ireland of English letters. Myles na gCopaleen’s newspaper column, Cruiskeen Lawn, frequently reflected the Irish cultural milieu of the time, which was deflated by a crippling economic depression and a legacy of under-achievement after independence. That these clouds of unfulfilled promise had proliferated was due in no small part to the failure to restore a sense of native propriety and indeed, achieve a rightful ownership of, the cerebral landscape of Ireland, by those recently empowered in self-government. O’Nolan’s characteristically passionate reaction was (in this instance) no doubt motivated by both contempt and pity for what was being advocated as a literary inheritance worthy and representative of Ireland and its people. This desperation, and also an instinctive, perhaps even envious, distrust of a burgeoning modernism in Irish society cultivated from abroad by its exiled savants, prompted O’Nolan to contrive new Irish idioms of sustained logomachic brilliance and comic ingenuity in an effort to save Ireland from its bathetic tendency to ‘Play up to the foreigner'.
The representation of Irish idiomatic speech variously labeled “Anglo-Irish” or “Hiberno-English”, has historically been an obsessive and controversial preoccupation of Irish writers – particularly since English came to be the lingua franca in Ireland. Given the historical weight attached to the former it would be wise to posit a brief (at the very least) examination of how and why the issue of idiom usage came to find itself at the fulcrum of Myles’ “galaxy of fake”.
Myles speculates that ‘The trouble probably began with Lever and Lover’. The validity of this statement of course depends to a greater degree on what exactly that ‘trouble’ Myles refers to encompasses per se. Language ‘trouble’ in Ireland is, and has been of course, one of the main subjects of some endlessly inventive and condescending ‘anthropological’ study - Spenser, Raleigh and, infamously, Mathew Arnold (who felt suitably qualified to delineate the ‘fearfully seltic’ native for the benefit of the Oxbridge literati without ever having set foot on this island). The discipline of Philology likewise has trained its analytical eyes upon our troublesome language(s) over the last couple of centuries, in an attempt to extrapolate and classify among other things, the myriad composite elements that shape and condition our distinctive English. The ‘trouble’ Myles is concerned with however, is not the actual, the tangible displacement of one language for another or why this came to be – in this respect he seems (based on admittedly inconclusive and oftentimes contradictory evidence from Cruiskeen Lawn) to have subscribed to a ‘what’s done is done’ line of thinking – but the literary invocation of that displacement, its disputed empirical validity and its potential as a vehicle for cultural gerrymandering in Ireland.
In terms of the genesis of a literary imitation of Irish-English, the most widely acknowledged progenitor of the classic stage Irishman is probably Shakespeare’s Captain McMorris character from Henry the Fifth, but other examples abound in the plays of his contemporaries. Myles, in fact, was not the first great Irish satirist to stigmatize the Anglo-Irishman’s licentious use of the Queen’s English. Jonathan Swift composed two burlesques - A Dialogue in the Hybernian Stile and Irish Eloquencev – which chastised the English settlers in the Munster plantations for allowing their English to become infiltrated by Irish syntactical construction and Irish words. Swift’s is one of the earliest sustained attempts to articulate a comic-satiric Irish-English dialectical narrative and should be noteworthy for that if nothing else. However in a piece entitled On Barbarous Denominations in Ireland, Swift issued a warning that, in retrospect, is unerringly accurate in its prescience:
…What we call the Irish brogue is no sooner discovered, than it makes the deliverer in the last degree ridiculous and despised; and from such a mouth, an Englishman expects nothing but bulls, blunders and follies
Generally speaking, despite the not inconsequential contribution of Swift and other seventeenth and eighteenth writers of English, it was not until Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent that the proliferation of feckless Irish clowns ‘talking a sub-language of their own’ became manifest as a marketable commodity – especially in English theatres. To blame Edgeworth or indeed Gerald Griffin or William Carleton for the crass commerciality of the plays by Boucicault and Lover would be a trifle harsh – Castle Rackrent is, in its own right a brilliant, scathing social satire on the decadent mores of a faltering ascendancy and of a tenacious, social-climbing Catholic peasantry – but there can be little doubt that it was the colorful vernacular of Thady Quirke and Myles na Cuppalleen that inspired the ‘rollicking note’ in the speech of the Irish characters of the Colleen Bawn, the Shaughraun and other music-hall productions of that type.
‘Let me talk about another thing which has been much on my mind in recent years. I got a slap of it last week, the slap of a flat fish in the face. There is a Kerry young schoolteacher named Bryan MacMahon who writes. He started an article last week as follows:
This week I confess myself tempted by a variety of topics: (a) The Cow of Clare (b) The All-Ireland Football Final (c) Listowel Races (d) Kinsale (e) pratie-coornanes, skidderie-wadderied, shellaky-bookles and pooka-pyles.
I don’t blame the young teacher for he has been taught. The problem is to find out who really started this thing. I fancy it was Carleton, and that he did quite unwittingly. His was of an age of terrible despond, poverty, illiteracy and violence, and his portraits of the peasantry were sincere. He was a very good writer by any standard. Others such as Lover, Somerville and Ross, may be said to be perverted Carletons, showing the natives and their ways in a canon of amiable cawboguery; they were perhaps the founder of the ‘school’ which can in 1954 present the nose-gay of pratie-coornanes, skidderie-wadderied, shellaky-bookles and pooka-pyles.
Perhaps the next isolated phase was that of Synge-George Moore-Gregory-Martyn, with Yeats in the background. They persisted in the belief that poverty and savage existence on remote rocks was a poetical way for people to be, provided they were other people.
Of that bunch, the worst was Synge…’
Myles articulates a leitmotif that is present in many of his cautionary lectures – the harmful reduction of the artistic rendering of dialect to a base product, readily marketable to a credulous, undiscerning audience. He readily identifies the honest literary endeavor of writers like William Carleton, who had come from an extremely humble social background, and whose work must have been compromised to an extent by the harsh economic reality of the time. Myles then mentions a couple of Carleton’s more noteworthy successors and paints them in a somewhat venial light, though artists such as Dion Boucicault for instance (a contemporary of Lover’s) and the named Somerville and Ross have recently enjoyed a revival in their critical fortunes. The upshot of all this is Myles attempt to pin-point who exactly was responsible for institutionalizing the reliable comic prop of phonologically articulated Irish dialect, upon which, a considerable body of eighteenth and nineteenth century Anglo-Irish literature, good and bad, subsequently traded.
What Myles discerns in McMahon’s article is consistent with that leitmotif - the continual re-emergence of a style of writing that seeks to exploit its subject rather than express it (ironically enough, Yeats’ famous conundrum). To put it another way, the legacy of all the stage-comic Irish writing good or bad, was to attenuate the artistic integrity of a prospective writer seeking to articulate his vision of the native vernacular, loading him with the psychological baggage associated with that medium, and by extension pressurising him into resorting to tried and trusted stereotypes in an effort to gain popular acceptance and the kind of commercial security that comes with being included in a consistently successful genre. That, in my opinion, is Myles’ criticism of a writer like Brian McMahon. Though it is personal criticism to a degree - which is perhaps being a little unfair to the writer in question – there is nevertheless a conscious attempt to place his article within the paradigm of a stifling tradition that will allow little or no room for artistic maneuver, and hence to absolve him of ‘blame’ to a certain extent.
Immediately before, and leading up to the re-invention of idiom by the authors of the Revival, it could be said that a perception existed in Irish literary circles, that regarded the textual recreation of dialect as having been arbitrary, ill-disciplined, and in the worst cases amounting to little better than apocryphal novelty – a narrative method to be avoided by the ‘serious Irish author’ at all costs.
The prevailing depiction of dialectical idiom also served to remind the Irish of their inferior relation with England, a particularly sore point considering the recent failure of the home rule agitation by Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Little wonder then that any attempt to re-invest the vernacular with a national, cultural significance would prove to be a contentious, unpopular undertaking, but that’s exactly what the Revival movement attempted to do with somewhat mixed results.
‘It may be hoped that we have seen the last of careless writing
addressed to the English public that was eager to be amused, and did not always take the trouble to distinguish in Irish books between what was futile and what had originality and merit’ (J.M. Synge, Prose P386)
‘Cornerboy of the Western World is my name for that fellow’ (Myles na Gopaleen, Cruiskeen Lawn November 15th 1955).
Take another glance at the extract from Cruiskeen Lawn in the exordium – disregarding the fanciful arrieres pensées of Myles na gCopallen (whom we must never take at face value) – What serious contentions is O’Nolan making about Synge?
Firstly he disputes the canonicity of Anglo-Irish literature as an autonomous body of writing and by implication its enduringly positive critical reception. Secondly he castigates England’s condescending perception of Ireland as an ‘other’- a pastoral ‘seltic’ counterpart to its pragmatic, industrial, Saxon neighbour. Thirdly he attacks those tendentious, ex parte Irish artists who will leap through hoops to cater for a gullible English audience, in repudiation of the responsibilities incumbent upon them towards their subject. Fourthly he denounces the denigration of language by the proliferation of unchecked stage-Irishry. The final part of this diatribe is a direct attack on Synge, of whom Myles (not O’Nolan) would hold responsible for the following process: The poeticizing of the peasant speech for art’s sake (or indeed for the sake of the artist); the failure of Synge and the rest of the prominent Anglo-Irish literati to comprehend a hostile native reception to their work as anything more than gross philistinism and ingratitude; the subsequent attempt to justify the ‘National Theatre’ by placing themselves under the aegis of well-intentioned, but ignorant, international critical acclaim, i.e. preferring ‘to accept the …valuations of outsiders on things Irish’.
One might consider this sort of rant as reminiscent of a school of critical writing espoused by some of Ireland’s more trenchant nationalists, in particular Daniel Corkery, who articulated similar concerns about the negative influence foreign reception had on the artistic integrity of the Irish writer and about the validity of Anglo-Irish literature in a nationalist context. But in examining the polemic of Myles it is vital to be able to discern Brian O’Nolan’s contribution. That O’Nolan had a serious underlying purpose to his Synge-baiting (besides parodying a Corkery-esque reading of Anglo-Irish literature) is beyond doubt, considering the sheer volume of allusions and direct references to Synge in his journalism, and his fiction. It was as if he felt obliged to perpetuate the subject indefinitely, in the hope that it could attain a parabolic status in contemporary literary circles – which begs the question: What is the moral of O’Nolan’s Synge-parable (if it can, indeed, be described as such)?
As always, in trying to differentiate between the ostensibly absurd aspects of Myles’ writing and the darts of reductive, critical analysis, we must accept that there will be considerable overlap between the two – such is the ambiguous nature of O’Nolan’s work. In this instance O’Nolan’s purposeful sentiments are disguised in the most artificially burlesque section of the article i.e. “And now the curse has come upon us….the long nights after Samhain”. This apparently arbitrary, quintessentially Mylesian reductio in fact constitutes the denouement of the piece, reiterating O’Nolan’s latent fear that an unstable, malleable Irish psyche, was in danger of re-inventing a self (increasingly obfuscated by years of social, political and cultural deprivation) based upon a literary paradigm that wasn’t - and never could have been - historically representative of the culture that inspired it.
Seamas Deane, argues that Synge and Yeats sought to attenuate the historical aspect of their work.
imagining it as a version of the personality…Synge’s West [is] not historically accurate so much as imaginatively useful in yielding a sense of the artist’s enterprise in a world which, without these metaphorical suasions, would remain implacably hostile
…it is surely remarkable that the treatment of history as a metaphor by these writers enables them to mount an attack upon the small and squalid soul of the modern bourgeois by glamorizing either the Ascendancy, the peasantry or the medieval clergy.
Deane is critical of Synge and his contemporaries’ efficacious attitude towards history and thus, presumably of this type of art’s suitability as a national literary model. Synge’s dramatic output was never intended to hold a mirror to its subject however, and this seems to have been an underlying misconception in a lot of the earlier critical material pertaining to Synge (Yeats’ oft repeated mantra, ‘art is art, because it is not nature’ borrowed from Goethe, is especially pertinent here).
This is precisely O’Nolan’s concern. His assertion ‘I have personally met…’ is representative of a malaise involving the consecration of a particular body of literature as nationalistic, ethnically representative and as a suitable mechanism for cultural continuity, when it is patently ill-equipped to perform such a difficult function. The results, as Myles burlesque implies – were manifest in a deep-rooted linguistic confusion that was afflicting the very foundations upon which all this illusion of homogeneity was being erected – the idiom of the rural peasantry.
Anthony Cronin, as a friend and colleague of O’Nolans and also as a critic who readily subscribes to the revitalized (and now seemingly unassailable) literary reputation of Synge has commented directly on the Cruiskeen Lawn article in question:
What Myles is saying is slightly different from what Oscar Wilde said: according to Myles, life imitates bad art; but it is noteworthy that Synge is not getting the blame for the new kind of intellectual stage Irishness which undoubtedly has been the source of much of our literature since Independence. In effect, Myles says, Synge raised the tone of stage-Irishism, and made it acceptable in more or less nationalist literary circles. Nationalism or at least the more nationalistic kind of writer, having attacked the Synge-song to begin with, ended by apparently adopting it. The appeal of the picturesque triumphed over the ideal of purity; an ideal strangeness was more important than an ideal sexlessness.
Cronin’s central point about Synge’s mixed reputation in nationalist politics is concurrent with O’Nolan’s expressed disgust (in Cruiskeen Lawn and especially in An Béal Bocht) for the continued misrepresentation of the peasantry, long after Yeats, Gregory, Synge et al had departed from the centre stage. Padraic Pearse had been among the chief critics of Synge during the ‘Playboy’ riots in 1904. By 1913 he was able to eulogize Synge with the same high nationalist rhetoric of martyrdom that others would bestow upon him after his death in 1916. Already Synge’s idiom was being displaced from its rightful context, and was taking on associative meanings and responsibilities that owed nothing to the design of its progenitor. Cronin also remarks that ‘Synge is not getting the blame for the new kind of intellectual stage Irishness’. This seems like wishful thinking in the extreme, considering some of O’Nolan’s later outbursts. The conclusion to the 1954 article I quoted at the beginning of this essay runs as follows:
‘Of that bunch, the worst was Synge. Here we had a moneyed dilettante coming straight from Paris to study the peasants of Aran not knowing a syllable of their language, then coming back to pour forth a deluge of homemade jargon all over the Abbey stage and on top of the head of the of the young Dr Larchet at the piano. Noggins of porter, the white boards, the long nights after Samhain, surely. The irony of it!
When in the West, Synge considered himself (read his own account) an accomplished Savant and artist examining primitive communities and penetrating to their hearts through the crucible of poesy, but making sure to wear a strong bodycoat against the chill winds when engaged in his sacred tasks out of doors: whereas he was an ignorant affected interloper in a uniquely decent, stable and civilised community.
While this was going on lady Gregory…was, so to speak, quietly knitting her Kiltarten, as well as being the Maeceness to Yeats. The set-up is this. These people turn angrily on the British and roar: ‘How dare you insult us with your stage Irishman, a monkey-faced leering scoundrel with ragged knee-breeches and a tail-coat, always drunk and threatening anybody in sight with his shillelagh? We can put together a far better stage Irishman ourselves, thank you. The Irish stage Irishman is the best in the world.
I have done – temporarily. A vanatee, agraw, would ye put me out me supper like a colleen dhas, a bowl of stirabout med with injun meal and a noggin of buttermilk, surely?
Some of Myles accusations about Synge’s intentions, knowledge of Irish and the dramatic narrative he ultimately was to commit to the mouths of the Abbey players deserves some investigation - especially in light of his conclusion that Synge’s idiom amounted to ‘sub-language’, ‘counterfeit bauble’, ‘homemade jargon’.
As far as Synge’s literary intentions and artistic integrity are concerned, there is substantial evidence confirming his dedication to learning spoken Irish:
In 1898 I went to the Aran Islands to learn Gaelic and lived with the peasants. Ever since then I have spent part of my year among the Irish speaking peasantry, in various localities, as I am now doing once more’
There is also ample evidence from his correspondence with Michael MacDonagh in particular, and various other islanders, that O’Nolan’s accusations about Synge’s ignorance and isolation are inaccurate, and that in fact he had gained widespread acceptance and made some very close friends among the islanders. As for Synge’s proficiency in Irish, apart from a fairly thorough university education centered on ‘Celtic studies’ (which included studies of Irish texts) in Dublin and Paris, we have again some evidence from his correspondence that he had achieved fluency by the end of his visits to Aran. Finally, as regards Synge’s idiom, there is now a widely held critical consensus (especially since the publication of Declan Kiberd’s groundbreaking work, Synge and the Irish Language) that criticism of the poetic speech of Synge’s drama, the likes of which Brian O’Nolan meted out consistently in Cruiskeen Lawn, is largely misinformed. Kiberd draws three main strands together in his approximation of how Synge contrived his idiom:
- his own translation from Aran Irish; 2) his recreation in peasant English of linguistic devices normally peculiar to Irish; 3) his immense reliance not so much in ordinary peasant English as on the type of English spoken on Aran by folk whose everyday language was Irish.
O’Nolan says ‘Here is stuff that anybody who knows the Ireland referred to will simply not have’ of Synge’s language. It is unclear what exact significance this rather cantankerous outburst should have – in the very next sentence Myles seems to acknowledge that Synge’s language is art and not nature – ‘It is not that Synge made people less worthy or nastier, or even better than they are…There was no harm there [referring to the peasant idiom] for we have long had the reputation of having heads on us’.
It’s as if O’Nolan’s anger at the hypocritical championing of Synge’s idiom by the nationalist middle-classes who had decades earlier vilified it, their ritualistic, vacuous acknowledgement of the “wonderful, poetic, musical speech of the heroic Gael” (a term which seemed to usurp ‘peasant’ in the modern Free-State), the sheer passivity of their critical faculty, engendered in him such uncontrollable resentment, that he was liable to lash out at Synge the man and his art - which caused little offence in truth, apart from the usual positive or negative reception any piece of art is liable to receive from its audience.
O’Nolan exercised his right to dislike and criticize a body of work which he felt had been unfairly elevated in critical circles, particularly on account of it’s stylized use of idiom. In O’Nolan’s mind it was merely a high-brow variation of the comic idiom of Lever and Lover. The bitterness and the sometimes irrational vehemence related more to what Synge’s idiom was being charged with:
I don’t blame the young teacher for he has been taught. The problem is to find out who really started this thing.
There is, of course, historical precedent in Gaelic literature and in peasant culture, of long oral narratives that are actively invested with personality by the story-teller or seanchaí – and vice versa - which may indeed be the source of the phenomena that is exerting O’Nolan’s concern. However when the literature being inculcated upon our national consciousness – at a particularly vulnerable time remember – is merely ‘a new kind of intellectual stage Irishness’, what does it mean to be Irish then? It means ‘the Irish stage Irishman is the best in the world’ no more, no less. O’Nolan’s desperate barbs at those who would reinvent their Irishness using the paradigms of a literature that was at worse racist, imperialist low-brow comedy, at best of an affectedly romantic-heroic school that owed little to historicity and nothing to political or cultural reality, were no doubt inspired by deep resentment at the Free State’s efforts to re-kindle, not even that, to preserve what was left of Gaelic language and culture.
Apparently the realization of political independence followed by cultural independence was to be a non-sequitur. The first of many let downs after the initial elation of emancipation, the seemingly malignant ailment afflicting the first official language of the State was being disguised by language policy designed to palliate rather than cure. How galling it must have appeared to O’Nolan to see people more willing to adopt the bulls, solecisms and ‘poetic speech’ of their cartoon stage cousins than to remember the Gaelic idioms their forefathers so recently forgotten.
O’Nolan may have accepted that Gaelic would never again be the lingua franca of the Irish people, but he drew the line at accepting the invented idiom of ‘the most monstrous phony and buffeon ever to enter our celtic toilet’ (Synge in case you were wondering) and similar ‘guff’, in its place. Instead he chose idiom-speech-dialect as the battleground on which he would engage the ignorant, the (even at this stage) rampantly corrupt State institutions, the thick Government, the true Dubaliners, the amateur scientists, the cliché-mongers, the bar-stool philosophers, the all-powerful clergy, the zealous Gaelic Leaguer’s, the academics, the modernists, the romanticists – and expose their sorry pretensions as ‘the ultimate in cod'.
In order to insure that all would receive their fair share of acerbic invective in the most efficient and expeditious manner possible, O’Nolan fashioned new linguistic idioms to reflect the confused, corrupt, and tragic-comic Saorstát zeitgeist that had stoked up his smoldering satirical rage.
Before I consider O’Nolan’s prose-fiction I would like to examine his one major play, Faustus Kelly, since this is consistent I believe, with the critical focus I have placed thus far on his professed hatred of the Abbey Theatre. The plot of Faustus Kelly is a straightforward appropriation of the Faust legend, this time revolving around a councilor Kelly who sells his souls to the devil, his recompense for this supreme sacrifice being election to the Dáil. The plot takes a back seat for most of the play however. The real motivation behind Faustus Kelly is, in effect, O’Nolan’s attempt to write the Abbey play:
Faustus Kelly …was written deliberately as an Abbey play. The Abbey had been living for many years off kitchen and middle-class drawing-room, or to be more exact, parlor comedies, usually set in rural or small town Ireland and making fun of the manners and aspirations of rural and small-town people. These pleased audiences because they gave them an opportunity to laugh at the sort of milieu from which they themselves had just escaped.
O’Nolan’s criticism of the Abbey extended well beyond Synge’s art itself though, he frequently attacked the Synge and O’Casey penned lexicon of Abbey speech and in particular the generations of pellucid imitators who rigidly adhered to the precepts of vernacular excellence laid down by their more illustrious predecessors.
In an article entitled ‘The Rev. Abbey Theatre’ in the Cruiskeen Lawn of 22 Nov 1955 Myles comments on reviews of contemporary Abbey playwright, MJ Molloy’s, ‘The Will and the Way’:
‘…it has been freely said that Mr Molloy in masterly fashion ‘reproduces the poetical speech of the West’. Connoisseurs of agony will be interested, though they might be better occupied gorging, gulping, and regurgitating the shameless blather of the greatest ruffian of them all – Synge.’
In Faustus Kelly we can discern a more concerted satirical effort by O’Nolan than the usual two or three lines of throwaway stage-speech that tended to adumbrate each one of Myles’ Synge or Abbey articles. The idioms bequeathed to the dramatis personae constitute something of a hotchpotch of styles, drawing together elements of Synge’s poetic Western dialect, O’Casey’s Dub-a-lin spake, and also borrowing from some of the more archaic music-hall predecessors of the (supposedly) high-brow national theatre. O’Nolan subjects the former idioms to the rigors of prosopopeia and creates a veritable baste of an Abbey man – Shawn Kilshaughraun - possibly the most archly contrived Stage-Irish clown in the history of Irish drama. The character description of Shawn lets us know what we’re in for early on:
SHAWN KILSHAUGHRAUN enters from main door, back right. He is a thick, smug, oafish character, dressed in a gawkish blue suit. He exudes a treacly good-humour, always wears an inane smile and talks with a thick Western brogue upon which sea-weed could be hung.
Shawn’s ‘thick Western brogue’ is constituted of every imaginable cliché associable with the Irish: solecisms; malapropisms; bulls; blarneys; begorrah’s; the cupla focail…the list is endless,
Bail o Dhia annso isteach./Well isn’t it the fine glorious Summer evening, thanks be to God. Do you know, the air is like wine. I’m half drunk, drinkin’ it in/Yerrah, now, you’re coddin’ me surely. You’re trying to take a rise out of me…a man was once telling me that in Russia they do have the new potatoes in March…Imagine a new plate of spuds on St Patrick’s day. (With feeling) I’d spend ten years on a thrashing machine for that.
The cúpla focail is undoubtedly a nod towards the venial, cliché spattered idiom of Irish political speech which Shawn’s would-be predecessor, Kelly, specializes in. Shawn insists on answering every question put to him with ‘I do, I do’, (regardless of the context) as if to authenticate his peasant credentials by imitating the mistranslation common to earlier forms of Irish-English idiom due to misappropriation of fixed English onto Irish words regardless of their variable meaning in common usage. This phenomenon was also frequently cited by Synge apologists in defense of those excerpts of his dialectical writing, which drew on poetic license to a greater degree. Shawn also seems to be able to speak Dublinese on occasion, mixed with a little Colleen Bawn for good measure,
You’re roight, me bucko. A soft….well-made….dacent…God-fearing….Irish gentleman. Ah, Paddy Hourigan, may God be good to him, for a finer, neater, better-made, dacenter Irishman never wore a hat.”
Shawn’s loquacious, feckless clowning might be categorized as a fairly blunt satirical instrument in O’Nolan’s linguistic armory as far as this sort of thing goes. Having said that Faustus Kelly is conceived in ostensibly farcical terms – take Shawn’s name for example. The spelling of the Christian name ‘Shawn’ is reminiscent of Synge’s pitiable Shawneen from The Playboy of the Western World and of the ‘colleen bawn’ style typography used to convey dialect in Anglo-Irish literature. The etymology of ‘Killshaughraun’ could be interpreted as significant of O’Nolan’s quest to loosen the grip of those ‘comic ghouls’ who had continued to infest the theatre in Ireland and had remained remarkably popular with the public in spite of the attempted reconstitution of Irish cultural values post-independence. Kil or cill means ‘graveyard’ and the Shaughraun was one of Dion Boucicault’s classic nineteenth century stage Irish vehicles. Perhaps O’Nolan was hoping Shawn’s unredeemable imbecility could shame his audience into suppressing the craving for ritualistic self-parody and snobbery that the Stage Irish character had continued to thrive upon in the aftermath of the departure of his imperial patrons. His passing might in turn be presided over by a critically resuscitated Theatre-going audience and the broad-sheet coroners would return a verdict of ‘death by absurdity’ in their supportive reviews. Whether Shawn would have been received in the required critical context by his audience is unclear however – notwithstanding Myles’ coterie of middle-class intellectual devotees – Shawn could just as easily have been welcomed as another distinguished stage clown to be added to the pantheon of Irish greats.
Whatever its value as a drama, the text of Faustus certainly exudes a malevolent tone that is consistent with the bitter satire of the Cruiskeen Lawn pieces on Synge and the Abbey. The play also seems to predict later Cruiskeen pieces attacking more contemporary idioms, particularly the cliché affected spiel of Irish politics (‘This I will say’). There are some truly monstrous soliloquies of the purest cliché entrusted to Kelly. Beginning in Act II with the line ‘Yes, fair enough. I think I’ll say a few words about the Banks…’ Kelly spews forth a barrage of wonderfully evasive, aseptic vagary in a tone that is so self-consciously inoffensive that it is becomes unbearably offensive in its timidity.
Besides the overtly political stuff O’Nolan also takes the opportunity to lampoon O’Casey’s comic Uncle Peter/Covey construct which is consistent with his overall parody of the most recognizable elements of the typical Abbey play. Reilly, who is a comic synthesis of the Covey and Uncle Peter, takes on many of the comic characteristics of both men. He has the ‘man of the people’ self-righteousness, the pseudo-Marxism and the constantly provocative whine of the Covey, while at the same time the idle-threats, bloated self-importance and comical lack of respect (from the other characters) of Uncle Peter. He also has all of the funniest lines in Faustus Kelly, which play on the inherent absurdities of bureaucratic procedure and the mock-stoic deference ceded to it in back-water political forums such as the one presided over by Councilor Kelly. In case we miss the joke Reilly is even permitted to utter some of the most recognizable of wor-eds from O’Casey dictionary of Dublinese while O’Nolan yet again takes the opportunity to remind us of what these halfway idioms are replacing (and why):
‘…the unfortunate rate-payers out there aren’t saddled with thruppence in the pound for teaching Irish and for filling the heads of a lot of poor chisellers with ‘taw may go h-mahs’ and ‘Gurramaghaguts’ and the Lord knows what bogman’s back-chat.’
In An Béal Bocht O’Nolan employs a more intertextual, subtle and ingenuous style of parody than the blunt indignation that permeates his English prose. The reason for this tactical adjustment may be considered a reflection of the social status of his new satirical targets as much as the methodological influence of the new literary medium he was composing his satire in. Whereas in the past O’Nolan/Myles has switched to English when satirizing the dialect of the Anglo-Irish set, in An Béal Bocht he returns to the Gaelic to take on a group of writers and cultural commentators whose myopic Gaelic idioms were exploiting peasant culture to its detriment.
Just as O’Nolan had attacked the stage Irishman of Anglo-Irish letters by parodying the speech idiom employed in works of that type, he now ridiculed the idiom of the recently indoctrinated ‘stage Gael’, by parodying the nostalgic first-person narrative employed in the rash of Gaelic autobiographies that were published post-independence in an effort to provide for a non-existent modern Irish literature. In recounting the misfortunes, misery and deprivation of the Gaels of Corkadoragha, Myles revisits a familiar O’Nolan theme; speech assimilating its own aesthetic invocations to the point where it becomes unclear if indeed life is imitating bad art or vice versa.
As regards the former, there are several scenarios in An Béal Bocht that are ostensibly pastiches of Synge. When the Old Grey Fellow lies in the ditch in deference to the passing gentleman, one is reminded of a similar incident where Synge himself met a beggar in a ditch while traversing the Wicklow mountains in The Aran Islands and other tales. The transparently allusive storm scene in chapter five brings Riders to the Sea immediately to mind (as does the method of narration – Synge had heard a similar story recounted by an Aran islander named Mourteen - a seanachaí like Ferdinand - and based his dramatization on it), though as the Old Grey Fellow intimates to Bonaparte, there is plenty of precedent for this sort of thing in the ‘dea-leabhair’ of the Ultonian writers. Leaving aside these fairly obvious parodic mechanisms I would like to concentrate solely on Myles’ deconstruction of the narrative style of the Gaelic Autobiographies, and in particular the complex allusions present in the innovative style of An Béal Bocht that point to the problematic loss of context that is an inevitable consequence of the actual technique of articulating dialectical nuance in literature.
Speckled throughout the text are archaic stage-Irishisms such as, ‘divarsions’ and ‘advintures’ (the suitably ‘Oirish’ phonological spelling embellishes their ironic treatment outside their usual context) which are explained as footnotes in the Gaelic as scléip and eacthraí respectively. Here O’Nolan plays on the etymology of such words to emphasise their alien construct and also to reverse the tide of burlesque language back upon the English. Just as Anglo-Irish authors such as Maria Edgeworth felt it necessary to include a glossary of any Anglicized Irish words that occurred in the spoken dialect of their Irish characters (for the cognitive benefit of a predominantly English readership), so Myles felt it necessary to likewise explain any ‘Gaelicized’ English words used by the characters in his own book, thus illustrating the absurdity and artificiality of this kind of literary construct. Any ‘true Gael’ who happened to read An Béal Bocht would approach such anachronisms as thoroughly unfathomable, hence the footnotes. This inversion of the condescending literary bias present in idiomatic language rendered for the English is subjected to its own illogical process with bizarre results in Chapter Three – ‘I go to school’. The (anti) hero, Bonaparte, is asked to recite his name by the schoolmaster on his first day of school. He proceeds to orate an impressively long-winded Gaelic lineage, and is seemingly on his way to pre-history when he is interrupted by the sharp blow of an oar to his head. ‘Your nam is Jams O’Donnell’ corrects his school-master. Here O’Nolan reinvests phonological dialect with fresh satirical purpose by rendering the English as the foreign, the solecistic, the anachronistic. ‘Phwat is your nam?’ is more representative of stage-German orthography (An Béal Bocht was written and published during the Second World War remember) and places in stark relief the alien construct of English idiom as it sounds to the Gaelic ear. This new idiom is designed as a critical rejoinder to the English habit of utilizing comic, phonological orthography as a medium for heaping xenophobic ridicule upon the imperfect English spoken by natives of other cultures, which in turn meant to underline English intellectual superiority.
Interestingly this strange phonological orthography does occur elsewhere in O’Nolan’s writing, in Faustus Kelly in fact. Shawn Kilshaughraun is given a couple of lines that include ‘Phwat’ as it appears on the pages of An Béal Bocht. The significance of this is to draw attention to the fact that Shawn’s ridiculously contrived dialect is just as foreign to the actual spoken English dialect of Ireland as it is to the English of the foreigner, which presumably, he is attempting to mimic (‘Phwat’ because of its altered orthography, suggests its incongruous status in Shawn’s lexicon of blarney – another clever appropriation of stage Irish stylistic protocol by O’Nolan). The overall effect emphasizes the confusion of language and the inadequacy of dialect as a signifier in literature, especially when we take into consideration that the stage English of Shaw and the incomparable eccentric phonological construct of the ‘Pwhat’ idiom are supposed to signify the same thing in O’Nolan’s narrative – the articulation of standard English! This clever deconstruction of the unsatisfactory medium of recreating dialectical speech in Irish literature supersedes O’Nolan’s more conventional parody and gives him a surer basis to justify his often obstreperous opposition to idiom driven Anglo-Irish literature.
Leaving aside the word-play and parody for a moment, the serious satirical purpose of Chapter Three is in illustrating how vital elements of the self were irretrievably lost in translation from one idiom to another. In Corkadorgha everyone’s English name is Jams O’Donnell – identity is erased, a kind of idiomatic genocide is perpetrated by Anglicization. The final chapter in which Bonaparte possibly meets his father - his recognition of the paterfamilias being founded on the apparently ubiquitous English name, Jam’s O’Donnell – lends to a primarily farcical text a real tragic intensity and provides a heartfelt retaliation to those who would advocate Thomas Clarke’s supposition that:
The dialect at its best is more vigorous, fresh and simple than either of the languages between which it stands” (Literature in Ireland)
On a purely superficial level this chapter is also a blatant parody of Máire/Séamas Ó Grianna’s Caisleán Óir, a stock Gaelic autobiography of the kind that were churned out ad infinitum in the thirties, forties and fifties by the State publishing house, An Gúm. Myles is mercilessly consistent in parodying the moribund idioms of this category of modern Gaelic literature, the ‘dea-leabhair’ as he calls them, just as he did the idioms of the Anglo-Irish literature of Synge and his contemporaries. The “dea-leabhair” are consulted as an infallible guide as to the appropriate Gaelic conduct to be perpetrated by the true-Gael. It seems there is a literary precedent for every conceivable Gaelic action that the Old Grey Fellow and Bonaparte execute in An Béal Bocht. Indeed the Old Grey Fellow tends to get extremely agitated when, if ever, Gaelic protocol is momentarily forgotten:
Well, said the Old-Fellow, when I was a raw youngster growing up. I was (as is clear to any reader of the good Gaelic books) a child among the ashes. You have thrown all the ashes of the house back into the fire…and not left a bit for the poor child on the floor – to let him into. It’s an unnatural and unregulated training and rearing he’ll have without an experience of the ashes.
The Gaelic books also dictate the situation of the Ó Coonassa’s miserable gale-swept (the ‘true-Gael’ must truly be aware of the true etymology of the word “gale”) hovel, for
It has always been the destiny of the true Gaels (if the books be credible) to live in a small, lime-white house in the corner of the glen as you go eastwards along the road.
Also at the beginning of Chapter Five the Old Grey Fellow announces: “ ’Tis no good for the people to be living in the shadow of one another if all that’s left of them is shadows” at which Bonaparte muses “I never did hear that anyone’s shadow was effective as a shelter against the hunger”. While the proverb itself is obviously a parody of a particular literary convention (i.e. the use of seanfhocail like ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine / People live in one another’s shadows’, a characteristic trait of Peig Sayers’ writing) and Bonaparte’s credulous reaction is consistent with Myles’ antithetical rendering of the ‘true-Gael’. The real irony of this scene however, is the reality of Gaelic poverty and squalor, juxtaposed with the perception of life in the Gaeltacht inculcated upon the Irish public by Revivalist literature and theory, a familiar Mylesian topic. Because Bonaparte realises that the true Gael must live according to the conventions thrust upon him by the Revival, the State and the Church through their tendentious literature, he therefore takes the Old Grey Fellow’s proverb literally and ponders how it might preserve him from the hunger and famine that is a daily reality in Corkadoragha. Bonaparte’s reality is fashioned by the idiom of the dea-leabhair, so much so that he conjures the words and proverbs of those books into imagined physicality. Where else but in O’Nolan’s idiosyncratic, fantastical fiction could an impoverished Gael seek shelter from the elements in a hackneyed proverb?
While the first three Chapters of An Béal Bocht reads like a mosaic of satirical and parodic ideas loosely tied together, Chapter Four sees the previously tentative (derogatory) references to Gaelic establishment replaced by all-out attack, as the Language Revival finally hits Corkadoragha:
Oftentimes now there were gentlemen to be seen about the road…addressing the poor Gaels in awkward unintelligible Gaelic and delaying them on their way to the field. The gentlemen had fluent English from birth but they never practiced this noble tongue in the presence of the Gaels lest, it seemed, the Gaels might pick up an odd word of it as a protection against the difficulties of life. That is how the group, called the Gaeligores nowadays, came to Corkadoragha for the first time.
The arrival of the Gaeligores is at first acknowledged by the Old Grey Fellow as a portent that “the end of the world will arrive before [the] very night!” (The irony being that thanks to the political ineptitude of the “Gaeligores” who were to become policy-makers in the new Irish State, the end of the Gaelic world very nearly came to pass). Although - unluckily for the Gaels of Corkadorgha - the Old Grey Fellows premonition proves to be somewhat premature, it does mark the beginning of a passage of sustained comic invention that is unsurpassed in the works of Myles, Flann or Brian.
The Gaeligores in An Béal Bocht seem more concerned with ‘the Gaelic’ than the living conditions of the miserable vessels that propagate its continued existence as a living idiom, who also happen to be starving to death around them,
Why and wherefore, said [the Old Grey Fellow], are the learners leaving us? Is it the way that they’ve left so much money with us in the last ten years that they have relieved the hunger of the countryside and that for this reason, our Gaelic has declined?
I don’t think that Father Peter has the word decline in any of his works, said the Gaeligore courteously. ‘He struck out for the doorway’ – do you use that sentence?
Forget it boy! Said the Old-Fellow and left him with the question still unsolved in his skull.
The Old Grey Fellow identifies the purity of the sweet Gaelic speech of the true-Gael as being directly proportionate to the severity of his poverty. This becomes something of a running joke in An Béal Bocht as the Gaeligores seem to do everything they can to perpetuate the miserable living-standards of the Gaels, as in the case of the truest true-Gael of them all, Sitric Ó Sanassa:
The gentlemen from Dublin who came in motors to inspect the paupers praised him for his Gaelic poverty and stated that they never saw anyone who appeared so truly Gaelic. One of the gentlemen broke a little bottle of water which Sitric had, because, said he, it spoiled the effect. There was no one in Ireland comparable to Ó Sanassa in the excellence of his poverty; the amount of famine which was delineated in his person.
Myles comically amplified emphasis of the pompous and delusory nature of the Gaeligores reaches a zenith in his description of the Corkadoragha Feis. As each speaker takes his turn to pontificate a mind-numbingly tedious and prolonged oration stressing the absolute importance of all things Gaelic, the Corkadorgha Gaels in the crowd begin to collapse and die of starvation. Myles mercilessly satirises the narrow-mindedness and insular nature of Revivalist thinking in the speech of the “Eager Cat”.
Gaels! said he…Gaelic is our native language and we must, therefore, be in earnest about Gaelic.I don’t think the Government is in earnest about Gaelic. I don’t think they are Gaelic at heart… I don’t think the university is in earnest about Gaelic. The commercial and industrial classes are not in favour of Gaelic. I often whether anyone is in earnest about Gaelic. No liberty without unity! Long live the Gael!
By including the ambiguous phrase “no liberty without unity!” Myles takes the opportunity to parody the exalted status of the peasant-Gael in the idiomatic propaganda of nationalist politics. The Old Grey Fellow interprets the phrase as “no liberty without royalty” (the speaker says Seoirse, which means George instead of saoirse, freedom) for, as Bonaparte recounts to us, “He always had great respect for the King of England.” So once again Myles warns of the inherent dangers of false idioms, in the case of the deprived community of Corkadorgha those dangers prove ultimately to be fatal.
‘Yes! I think that I shall never forget the Gaelic feis which we had in Corkadoragha. During the course of the feis many died whose likes will not be there again and, had the feis continued a week longer, no one would be alive in Corkadoragha in all truth.
In summation then O’Nolan’s attempts in An Béal Bocht to achieve, in his criticism of the obsessive literary preoccupation with the peasantry and peasant idiom, a synthesis between the disparate ethnic, cultural and political organizations that apparently perceived the inimitable poetic speech of the peasantry, whether in Irish, English or Irish-English, as the fallow soil in which, whatever their personal take on a ‘correct’ socio-cultural dogma for Ireland was, their vision of Ireland could grow and prosper. Myles viewed with equal contempt the various efforts to prioritize either: the ancient Gaelic forms (preserved mainly through literature); ‘caint na ndaoine’ (see also his references to Fr. Peadar Ó Laoghaire and Séadna) or Irish-English dialect, as the ‘correct’ idiom of Irish expression (literary or otherwise) that the loyal Saorstát citizen should aspire to. To support this contention I would draw attention to the episode in which the Old Grey Fellow takes Bonaparte up to the Rosses for the first time. While traveling along the road they encounter a stranger (who had been ‘carousing in Scotland’) and enter into conversation with him:
We continued conversing lightly and courteously together for a long while, discussing the affairs of the day and talking of the hard times. I gathered quite an amount of information about the Rosses from the other two during the conversation and also about the bad circumstances of the people there; all were barefoot and without means. Some were always in difficulty, others carousing in Scotland. In each cabin there was: (i) one man at least, called the ‘Gambler’, a rakish individual, who spent much of his time carousing in Scotland, playing cards and billiards, smoking tobacco and drinking spirits in taverns; (ii) a worn, old man who spent the time in the chimney corner bed and who arose at the time of night-visiting to shove his two hooves into the ashes, clear his throat, redden, his pipe and tell stories about the bad times; (iii) a comely lassie called Nuala or Babby or Mabel or Rosie for whom men came at the dead of night with a five noggin-bottle and one of them seeking to espouse her. One truly knows not why but that is how it was. He who thinks I speak untruly, let him read the good books.
After a bout of ‘hunting’ the pair retire to the house of a great friend of the Old Grey Fellow’s, Ferdinand O’Roonassa. Ferdinand’s house and manners are arranges exactly as per Bonaparte’s recent schooling in the ‘dea-leabhair’ had said they would be, and Ferdinand, the seanchaí proceeds to orate a story that also adheres to the prescribed formula (and which bears a strong resemblance to Synge’s Rider to the Sea). When Bonaparte reaches Maeldoon O’Poenassa’s dwelling in the penultimate chapter he is treated, yet again, to a rendition of the same story, this time in an archaic Irish idiom of the type written between 1000-1250 AD. In many ways this sequence of audacious literary ‘coincidence’, marks the point in An Béal Bocht when all O’Nolan’s satirical vagaries – the puns, the in-jokes, the barely disguised swipes at various prominent revival figures - are consummated into one vivid, coherent reductio of ‘all this costly revival business'. As O’Nolan excoriates the synchronic layers of idiomatic expression he exposes as inherently absurd the notion that there could in fact be a true idiom that alone can express with complete integrity the idiosyncrasies of the Gaelic muse.
In a letter to Brian O’Nolan dated 2nd April, 1942, Sean O’Casey wrote,
Many thanks go to you from me for sending me a copy of your Béal Bocht. Lots of things come my way, loudly or silently calling for a good word (though I seriously declare before God my word is no more than the opinion of an intelligent man), and rarely deserving one (in my opinion); but yours is a happy exception…the swish of Swift…genial laughter of Mark Twain…a Gaelic Polonius…I like your book immensely.
It speaks volumes for the unadulterated cheek of O’Nolan that he could have sent O’Casey a copy of one of his books in search of a favourable quote for the cover – and got it! It’s a wonder he didn’t send O’Casey a copy of Faustus Kelly, or indeed At Swim two Birds, he does mention the former in his reply to O’Casey’s rather grandiloquent letter,
It is a pity you do not come to Ireland – an odd time for a look around. The recent revival of The Plough at the Abbey was an enormous success. I am about to start trying to write a play called “Faustus Kelly”. Kelly sells his soul to the devil in order to become a T.D.
The insincere deference is quite out of place with the normal treatment of O’Casey in his fiction, consider the Cruiskeen Lawn article of Nov 12 1955, which was admittedly written at a time when the tone of his column was becoming increasingly irrational and vociferous. He begins by quoting Ulick O’Connor (rather dubiously):
His Christy Mahon is the equivalent of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Byron’s Don Juan or Cervantes’ Don Quixote…With Mr O’ Casey the synthesis between the realist drama and the poetic school was achieved…His work, said Mr. O’Connor, is the greatest achievement of its kind since Shakespeare’s…is there a suggestion that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by O’Casey? I hope so. After they have finished with Joyce, some Harvard men should be got to develop the theory.
Some of the most memorable exchanges in At Swim two Bird consider the redoubtable ‘Jem’ Casey, the poet of the pick, and the motley entourage of Dubs, Shanahan, Furriskey and Lamont. O’Nolan constructs a crescendo of narratives, anchored by the Finn oracle, but constantly interspersed with the apocryphal and nonsensical dialectic of the three credulous imbeciles.
Finn in his mind was nestling with his people.
I mean to say, said Lamont, whether a yarn is tall or small I like to hear it well told. I like to meet a man that can take in hand to tell a story and not make a balls of it while he’s at it. I like to know where I am, do you know. Everything has a beginning and an end.
It is true, said Finn, that I will not.
O that’s right too said Shanahan.
Relate them, said Conán, the account of the madness of King Sweeney…
That’s a grand fire, said Furriskey, and if a man had that, he can’t want a lot more… A fire, a bed, and a roof over his head, that’s all. With a bite to eat, of course…
I will relate, said Finn.
We’re off again, said Furriskey.
O’Nolan is quick in spotting the myriad comic opportunities in the consubstantiation of two such widely differing idioms and using them to express essentially the same topics. The mock-stoicism and of Finn’s epic verse is contrasted hilariously with the ludicrous bathos afforded the Jem Casey ‘pomes’. The effect of this dichotomy of high and low idioms is – as is also demonstrated in the Táin Bó / ‘cow-punching’ saga and the Maeldoon / Ferdinand bifurcation in An Beal Bocht – a curious synchronicity of idiom that seems to survive translation and vulgarization.
Just Jem Casey, a poor ignorant labouring man but head and shoulders above the whole bloody lot of them…not a man in the whole country to beat him when it comes to getting together a bloody pome.
The nonsensical discourse that is precipitated by the recitation of Jem Casey’s ‘pomes' - the bar-stool patriotism and the ever dependable comic prop of the hyperbolic, righteous, idle-threat, is strongly reminiscent the Clithroe/ Brennan/ Langon scene in Act two of the Plough and the Stars. Finn’s interjections parallel those of the Pearse figure in The Plough. His (unheeded) warnings on the historical maledictions that rewarded those who interrupted a speaking poet in ancient times provide a hilarious counterpoint to the heady words of blood-letting and martyrdom in the Pearse-figure’s speech. Finn himself is (unwittingly) parodied in Lamont's tale of the leaping Sargent Craddock, which is merely an episode from Fionn’s Buile Suibhne transposed into the patois of Dublinese. In the imagined realities of O’Nolan’s fictions, it seems as if ancient idioms are snubbed, denigrated bastardized and yet recreated in a contemporaneous other. Fionn’s mellifluous prosody becomes, somehow, Lamont’s to command and recycle. There is a passage in O’Nolan’s letter of reply to O’Casey that might shed a little light on this recurring phenomenon in his fiction:
(Irish is)...essential, particularly for any sort of literary worker. It supplies that unknown quantity in us that enables us to transform the English language and this seems to hold true for people who have little or no Irish, like Joyce. It seems to be an inbred thing’.
So despite the fact that Lamont’s character is expressed as literally an Irish fiction – he speaks O’Casey-ish, his thoughts and actions are confined to the Irish pub paradigm’s immortalised in ‘Cyclops’, he is in fact a borrowed character from a novel by another imagined author, William Tracey – he is still somehow a member of ‘the Story Tellers book-web’, the all-encompassing Irish literary cannon. What is more, he has the authority to reiterate that cannon in any form he likes. Finn’s protestations against such an arbitrary bastardization of the Gaelic past encapsulate the sense of acute loss that is characteristic of the displacement of tradition and history from one idiom to another:
‘Who but a book-poet would dishonor the God-big Finn for the sake of a gap-worded story?
O’Nolan further qualifies the magnitude of this loss in deriding the motivation behind attempts to restore a continuity between ancient Irish literature and contemporary forms and the half-way idiom’s advocated to bridge that gap:
You can’t beat it of course, said Shanahan with a reddening of the features, the real old stuff of the native land, you know, stuff that brought scholars to our shore when your men on the other side were in the flat of their bellies before the calf of gold with a sheepskin around their man. It’s the stuff that put our country where she stands today, Mr. Furriskey, and I’d have my tongue out of my head before I’d be heard saying a word against it. But the man in the street, where does he come in? By God he doesn’t come in at all as far as I can see.
This is O'Nolan the master-satirist, wielding with seemingly nonchalant ease a number of apposite comical tropes. On one level there is the Joycean perfection of syntax, the choice of words, the realisation of a perfect type for a specific satirical comment. Then there is the overtly lyrical swipe at O’Casey in the Peter/Covey idiom that affects his character’s discourse – again the overbearing taste of artifice infecting the free movement of dialect. The subject is vital – a caustic take in the lip-service paid to ‘the wee maternal tongue’ and the sort of convoluted ahistorical nonsense that was invented by starry-eyed folklorists and Gaelic theorists in an attempt to create and justify a purified Gaelic lineage and an exalted, Hellenistic academic standing for Gaelic literature and culture (Daniel Corkery’s Fortunes of the Irish Language, would be an example of this kind of inventive conjecture). Finally at the end of Shanahan’s polemic O’Nolan slips in a subtle coup de grace. Despite Shanahan’s passionate affirmation of how important all the ‘old stuff’ is, he sees its preservation in purely utilitarian terms. What’s in it for me, the man in the street, the working-man, the plain-people of Ireland? O’Nolan had a veritable lexicon of terminology to describe the ignorant din of the penny-grabbing mob that had grasped power after the British had decamped permanently. This lexicon of stock idioms and cliché was his response to the need to articulate a fiction that would reflect a mundane, banal Ireland steeped in economical sensibility in lieu of the anachronistic literature of heroism, Gaelic mysticism and stoic redress, that no longer bore any relation to the aspirations and sensibilities of a slightly deflated, disappointed Saorstát generation.
The student narrator of At Swim says “The modern novel should be a work of reference.” O’Nolan’s writing style is a projection of this maxim, a matrix of traceable idiomatic styles plucked from the fields of creative literary discourse, from analytical and clerical disciplines, and from the commercial media.
Anne Clune identifies ‘some thirty-six different styles and forty-two extracts’ in At Swim Two Birds, which gives some idea of the complexity of the book. Many commentators have noticed the heavy influence of Joyce, and in more recent criticism the relationship has been represented more in terms of admiration through parody than just as an undergraduates homage to the exiled master. The latter sort of appraisal infuriated O’Nolan to such an extent that he eventually disowned the novel altogether referring to it casually as the immature work of a pretentious undergraduate. Nevertheless his experimentation with narrative style and methodology must have been to a great degree prompted by Ulysses. Niall Sheridan who inspired the Brinsley character in At Swim seems to confirm this reading in his biographical reminiscence "Myles, Flann and Brian – the springtime of genius" in which he recounts the main literary influences that the UCD intelligentsia of O’Nolan’s time shared:
“Elliot was a big influence with us, as were the French writers The Wasteland had brought back into vogue. We felt that the Anglo-Irish Renaissance was already a spent force, though the stature of Yeats – especially since the Tower poems – was beyond question. Sam Beckett, whom we knew personally, had opened new horizons with Murphy. Joyce, of course, was in the very air we breathed”
It's easy to pick out something like the Aeolus chapter in Ulysses as antecedent to the parodic journalistic idiom and structure that abounds in O’Nolan’s writing and perhaps this is a fair observation (especially taking into account Sheridan’s statement). However what O’Nolan does with banal, staid idioms like journalese is borne out of a genuine, bitter, experience and knowledge of the medium and is less an exercise in linguistic gymnastics or anarchism (he pilloried Finnegans Wake on those grounds) than a concerted attempt to draw attention to the daily abuse of language in the news media and how that denigrated language then enters the intellectual food chain to the detriment of collective creative writing. O’Nolan was also drawing upon his direct experience of ‘dead languages’ like journalese, like the language of civil-service bureaucracy and legalese, perhaps in response to the charges that were frequently leveled at those writers (like O’Nolan) who believed that Irish could take its place as a modern, malleable language, that it was essentially ‘dead’ – i.e. unable to express modern concepts or words in its own right. O’Nolan revealed the misguided authority of such brash pronouncements by showing how forms of English themselves were dying, losing their de facto meanings under a tide of clíché, which in turn inspired his famous, long-running ‘catechism of cliché’ piece in Cruiskeen Lawn. He also occasionally, constructed his English in a ‘dead’, Latinate paradigm, which in its self-conscious pedantry and torpid exactitude imagined an English language quite as dead as the Latin or old and middle Irish to be found on the dusty shelves of Academic libraries. The results of this linguistic experiment is a queer, affected syntax and a wordy, precise idiom that is constantly used to revitalize stock comic situations.
The origins of this particular trope are well known, but a straightforward parody of the ancient hyperbolic style of Old and Middle Irish epic composition this is not. Though O’Nolan’s knowledge of Gaelic poetry was extensive enough and therefore texts such as the Fiannaíocht and Buile Suibhne were available to him as a primary source, his parody is not so much a translation of the heightened rhetoric and repetitiveness of Gaelic lays as a parody of the heightened rhetoric and repetitiveness of ancient Gaelic literature in translation, another of his dead languages. Though O’Nolan delineated many of his sermons on deceased English with a tone of bravura contempt, his take on the translation-ese of Standish Hayes O’Grady is executed in a more playful, conciliatory mode as per Ciarán Ó Núailláin’s definition of his satire. There has been quite a bit of critical attention diverted towards O’Nolan’s Gaelic sources in recent years, most noticeably Brendán Ó Conaire’s essays and his book Myles na Gaeilige, from which there seems to be an emerging consensus that the satire involved in Myles rendering of Fionn and Sweeney is deeply influenced by Standish Hayes (not to be confused with James) O’Grady’s writing, in particular his Silva Gadelica:
However, it is clear that, in addition to using a bizarre style in order to increase awareness of the portrayal of Fionn as a ridiculous giant, it is the author’s intention to parody translations of Fiannaíocht prose, and I would like to suggest that the translations of Standish H. O’Grady in Silva Gadelica are the principal butt of his humour.
The elements of O’Grady’s writing that excite O’Nolan’s prose are a reflection of a bygone academic language mixing latinate words and syntax, archaic forms of English sentence construction and words, the long lists of compound words and adjectives (O’Grady’s style was obviously also a huge influence on the aforementioned ‘dead-English’ construction that occurs in the ‘biographical reminiscence’ sections).
With that he rose to a full tree-high standing, the sable cat-guts which held his bog-cloth drawers to the hems of his jacket of pleated fustian clanging together with muscle-humps and carbuncles of tangled sinew, the better for good feasting and contending with the bards…
I am a bark for buffeting, said Finn
I am a hound for thorny-paws.
I am a doe for swiftness.
I am a tree for wind-siege.
I am a windmill.
I am a hole in a wall.
Another aspect of O’Nolan’s style that is noticeable in terms of both form and idiom in At Swim Two Birds is the language of bureaucracy.
John Garvin, a less well known scholar and intellectual, who also happened to be the senior civil servant in the Department for Local Government when O’Nolan entered it in 1935, once observed of the latter:
(O’Nolan) quickly picked up a working knowledge of our administration but it took some time to channel his rich linguistic flow within the bounds of objectivity and exactitude and make him realize that official letters were not an appropriate medium for expressing his personality”
How ironic then, in the light of this comment especially, that O’Nolan was to use precisely those ‘bounds of objectivity and exactitude’, as a means of delineating his unique artistic personality. If his academic education at UCD was to furnish major sections of his first novel with literary and empirical source material, so equally would his first few years in the civil service. In a Cruiskeen Lawn article appropriately entitled ‘From Day to Day’ Myles mimics his progenitor's penchant for wordplay, demonstrating how clerical language can become oblique and idiosyncratic in its methods of signification, and thus frequently outwit a reader’s expectations in the shabby fashion referred to by the At Swim narrator.
I have been studying the characteristics and habits of civil servants for years because they are in reality very interesting persons. (Persons, mind – not people)…Observe that he does not go into his office in the morning. He proceeds from his residence towards his office. When he reaches his office, even then he does not go into it – forbears even to enter it. He attends at his office. By means of this ingenious tactic he is now in his office.
At Swim Two Birds is full of that sort of blunted artificial idiom and facetious decorum. O’Nolan also sometimes employs a somewhat compressed syntax, reflecting the innovative nature of short-hand docu-reporting (a skill which was essential to O’Nolan’s official duties which included at various stages taking notes of Dáil proceedings, being commissioned to write the final report of the findings of a public enquiry and of course the everyday occupation of transposing dictated letters and writing memos). The latter aspect of O’Nolans bureaucratic idiom proliferates largely in the form of the At Swim, which resembles at times, a document of enquiry rather than a conventional fiction per se. This compares to the ‘compartmentation of identity’ advocated by the author, the obsessive habit of describing or naming every person or thing in quantifiable, qualitative, classifiable adjectives, as well as possibly a wry comment on an inherited hierarchical British class system that was re-aligning itself to express an emerging native snobbery. We get characters, idea’s, idiom, occupations even rashers described in terms of a quantative class scale like for example the ‘Holder of Guinness clerkship the third class’ which is how the narrator refers to his uncle in At Swim.
Trading primarily on a bureaucratic form and idiosyncratic phraseology (in O’Nolan’s rendering of it at least) lends, paradoxically a fresh and vital bent to O’Nolan’s prose, by demonstrating how clichéd language constructs adopt esoteric meanings which can then be sensationalized by withdrawing that clichéd word or phrase, from its closed linguistic circuit and reintegrating it in a context within which it once sat comfortably. The inherent ‘strangeness’ and comic potential of this tactic comes primarily from the difference between what is signified in the clichéd form of the word and what might be signified in its restored or new context. This, of course, became something of a raison d’être in Myles na Gopaleen’s catechism of clíche.
O’Nolan’s appropriation of other subsets of commercial linguistics, particularly that of news reporting was another mainstay in his newspaper column and is also featured in his fiction. Perhaps the first noticeable lapse into a sensationalist style occurs at the beginning of At Swim where the narrator peruses a letter from a V.Wright, the backers friend, who, in exchange for a small fee, furnishes the narrator with racing tips, and more importantly with an inexhaustible supply of hackneyed sayings, racing cliché and SENSATIONALIST typography and syntax:
‘So much for the past, now for the future. SENSATIONAL NEWS has reached me that certain interests have planned a gigantic coup involving a certain animal who has been save for the past month….INFORMATION from the RIGHT QUARTER …a GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY to all who act ‘pronto’…I will present this THREE-STAR CAST-IORN PLUNGER….
Apparently the origin of Mr V. Wright’s correspondence is Niall Sheridan who had shown O’Nolan a bona fide letter of this type only to find it appearing a few days later in a early draft of At Swim. It is easy to see why O’Nolan would be attracted to this crass capitalist idiom – there is an archaic charm now to the proto-tabloid style of the language that in the hands of master-satirist like O’Nolan presents any number of comic opportunities and humourous contexts. In The Hard Life O’Nolan revisits this particular idiom and exploits its comic potential to near exhaustion. The figure of ‘the brother’, already a staple in Cruiskeen Lawn, becomes the opportunist Manus who builds a mail-order University from the V. Wright template of sensational literature, just another example of O’Nolan’s boundless enthusiasm for appropriating mundane idioms and fashioning from them fantastical fictions.
‘I decided – foolishly perhaps – to delete the entire narrative and present in its place a brief résumé (or summary) of the events which it contained, a device frequently employed by newspapers to avoid the trouble and expense of reprinting past portions of their serial stories. The synopsis is as follows:….FOR THE BENEFIT OF NEW READERS
O’Nolan’s use of the language of journals and other archetypes associated with professional writers is in part a method of self-parody, in part a badge of honour which he constantly drew attention to, (i.e. his ability to make his living as a literary handyman) and in the main just a reflection of his remarkable instinct for the comic potential of idioms that are not inherently funny.
Take his use of scientific jargon, a comically absurd deduction which betrays the difficulties inherent in inventing terms and signs for difficult concepts and abstract theories. In a Cruiskeen article, “Ravelled Sleeves”, Myles sets out his own theories on scientific theory:
I think Einstein was mischievous and futile….Einstein’s Theory is just that – a theory, an explanation of the universe in novel terms; it has no practical application, though it could induce spiritual necrosis in some students of it.
We may also observe this mock-authoritative attitude to theoretical science in the wonderful footnotes that chart the inane theories and experiments of the celebrated savant De Selby in The Third Policeman.
Brian O’Nolan’s genius lies in his ability to assimilate disparate idioms and recapitulate them in new, vital, unique comic forms. His talents are born out of a deep understanding of the constant loss and replication of meaning, epitomized by his fascination with cliché, in his estimation a perpetually destructive mechanism undercutting the reception of language in all its articulated forms. His ability to exploit the inherent absurdities of that mechanism are informed by a deep understanding of the inherent futility of the language disputes that have raged in Ireland. He certainly does not abstain form entering into that argument for to do so would have meant disavowing the genuinely held concerns that he undoubtedly harbored for his country and it's cultural legacy. He had could not bring himself to sever his emotional ties as Joyce and others had. O'Nolan understood the essential contradiction in fighting a lost cause while at the same time ridiculing those historical figures like Synge who did likewise. Despite the twin addictions of satire and parody that everywhere inflect his prose, he never finally allowed his talent to be permanently effaced by the relentless cynic inside him.
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