I sensed him looking at me as I sat in the tobacco fug of the Palace Bar in Dublin’s Fleet Street back in the ’60s engrossed in Joyce’s Dubliners. His scrutiny from the adjacent bar stool was unsettling. Suddenly, without apology, he tapped his finger on the page and nodded at me, signalling silent approval of my choice of book. Fixing my eye, he asked: ‘Did you ever hear of O’Brien?’ I shook my head. ‘Now there’s a hard man who runs Joyce close,’ he said. Then, pausing for dramatic effect, he added portentously: ‘And it was in this very bar he’d be drinking.’ Flann O’Brien, who loved to parody pub conversations, would have relished the bathetic conclusion. But I owe to that chance acquaintance a great debt. Over the next hour, he introduced me to the writing of a drunk and waspish comic genius who stretched the boundaries of literary invention and became a legend of Irish letters.
Flann O’Brien was the nom de plume of Brian O’Nolan, an Irish civil servant born in Tyrone in 1911. In his suit, overcoat and broad-brimmed hat (it was joked that he wore the same clothes for forty years) he cut an unremarkable figure in the peat-fumed streets of the grey backwater that was then Dublin. There was nothing of the bohemian about him; no Behanesque swashbuckling, no Wildean flamboyance.
But O’Nolan’s conventional appearance masked a bizarrely fecund imagination that was fuelled by his prodigious knowledge of Irish and European literature as well as Celtic folklore and legend, leading his friend the literary critic Niall Montgomery to describe him as an ‘Aristophanic sorcerer’. Piling lunacy upon lunacy, he created beautifully written edifices of the absurd in which fictional characters create other fictional characters who come alive, bicycles take on human characteristics and vice versa, St Augustine appears in an underwater cave, and a crazed savant believes that night is an ‘unsanitary conditio
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