Arts Week 2018: Gaelic hardship in Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’

Charlotte Deadman, a researcher in fin de siècle Anglo-Irish culture, the Gaelic League, Gaelic Revival and the Irish literary revival, comments on Arts Week event Gaelic Hardship.

The key theme of this sell-out event was an exploration of movement between languages in Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien’s 1941 novel, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), considered the first post-modernist Irish language novel. The panel – Joseph Brooker, Tobias Harris and Eoin Byrne – commenced proceedings with a timeline tracing O’Nolan’s background (born in 1911 into a highly-literate Irish-speaking Catholic family), his career as civil servant, epistolarian and novelist.

O’Nolan (as ‘Flann O’Brien’) contributed regularly to the letters page of The Irish Times, leading to his own column, ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (‘full little jug’), under the pen name Myles na gCopaleen: O’Nolan’s aliases – ‘brand names’ – were pivotal to his deliberate blurring of identity. In a letter to Sean O’Casey in 1942, O’Nolan wrote that An Béal Bocht was his ‘honest attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of Gael, which I find the most nauseating phenomenon in Europe’. The novel satirises the government’s gaelicising of Irish culture to the point that an onlooker could believe ‘all Irish literature was written for school children and nuns.’

An Béal Bocht was O’Nolan’s only Irish language novel; the fossilisation of the language, as he saw it, persuaded him to henceforth write only in English. However, O’Nolan refused to sanction an English version of his novel; Patrick C. Power’s translation was published in 1973, seven years after O’Nolan’s death. We learnt that the genesis of The Poor Mouth can be located in O’Nolan’s ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column and that the narrative framing – Bonaparte O’Coonassa’s autobiography edited by ‘Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O’Brien)’ – was intended to toy with reader expectations of the genre. The novel’s complex intertextuality draws upon a patchwork of phrases and events excised from well-known Irish language autobiographies, blended with pseudo-Gaelic myths, the significance of some of which has apparently been lost in translation. Eoin Byrne explained that the pen names in The Poor Mouth mirrored contemporary reality: while writers adopted nom de plumes, they all knew who was who and, affecting ignorance, publicly trashed each other.

Guest speaker, Hugh Wilde, read a passage after which Tobias Harris explained the significance of the ‘comic extension’ therein conveyed, suggesting O’Nolan’s ‘Jams O’Donnell’ represents a ‘sense of dual consciousness, of two cultural worlds’ – one promoting the idea of the heroic ‘Gael of Gaels’, the other Anglicised and hostile to the Gaels, expressed in Jams O’Donnell’s duality of language; Harris illustrated this duality, citing Irish passports which bear the holder’s name in both Irish and English.

Eoin Byrne speaks at the event

Eoin Byrne explained that the education system in Ireland set about eradicating the Irish language and that the resultant national linguistic divide became fundamental to a sense of identity: while colonial rule punished speakers of Irish, the Irish Free State’s ‘de-Anglicising’ agenda punished speakers of English. The Poor Mouth is effectively a collage of historical times, chronicling the ‘de-anglicising’ of Ireland, the English language symbolic of oppression.

Joseph Brooker then read a passage which he described as ‘a performance piece’, the Gaelic language portrayed as a marker of social prestige: O’Nolan’s parody of the Gael autobiography genre blurs into nonsense and consequently is incapable of saying anything of worth. Eoin Byrne’s animated re-reading of the passage in its original Irish form was a high spot of the evening.

The final reading was given by guest speaker, N. J. Harris. The event culminated in a focus on the novel’s portrayal of characters ‘living up to stereotypes…to their literary fate’ – although this is Bonaparte’s story, he is symbolically rendered silent – and that, central to the novel, is circularity of time, woven through in variations on the leitmotif ‘their likes will never be there again’. At the novel’s conclusion, parody is displaced by poignancy, reflecting on the cycle of imprisonment that runs in Bonaparte’s family: the novel is ultimately a commentary on the restrictions urban Dublin society inflicted on rural Irish speakers.

The panel summed-up The Poor Mouth as ‘a response to the cultural violence of extreme nationalism’ within the Irish language movement: a demonstration of post-modernist pessimism. This was an excellent evening, striking the perfect balance between informal and informative. I look forward to their likes being there again.

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