My hero: Flann O’Brien by John Banville

The author of the comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds would have laughed at the notion of being anybody’s hero

Ireland loves, or pretends to love, its literary heroes, so much so that we put quotations from Ulysses on little brass plaques and nail them to the pavements for tourists and Dubliners alike to tread on, give to a gunboat the name of that most peace-loving Irishman, Samuel Beckett, while Oscar Wilde is represented by a hideous statue indecently asprawl on a rock behind railings opposite his birthplace. What the reaction would be of Flann O’Brien, Myles na Gopaleen, Cruiskeen Lawn (Irish for “the full glass”) or Brian O’Nolan – his real name, more or less – to the gushing lip-service we pay these days to our dead writers (he died 50 years ago on 1 April) can be easily guessed: a sardonic shrug, and a turning back to the bar to order another ball of malt.

He was a slightly late arrival among the generation that included James Joyce, Beckett, Frank O’Connor, Seán O’Faoláin, Patrick Kavanagh and, later again, Brendan Behan. Born into a somewhat peculiar nationalist family, his first language was Irish, although it was as a prose stylist in English that he wrought his finest achievements. Chief of these is the novel At Swim-Two-Birds, a comic masterpiece that he unluckily published on the eve of the second world war, and which only attained its true status after its author’s death.

O’Brien yearned for Europe, into which Joyce and Beckett had triumphantly flung themselves, but in his lifetime he made only one trip abroad, to Germany. He disdained the self-heroicising of the likes of Joyce, with his wish to “forge the uncreated conscience of my race”, and rejected the myth of the selfless artist wedded to his art. “But it could be argued,” his biographer Anthony Cronin writes, “that in [O’Brien’s] case, he was, in time, destroyed by its opposite, by a too ready acceptance of the necessity of emulating the life pattern of the majority who do not have a special vocation and are not burdened by the claims of art.”

O’Brien was a philistine as well as a consummate prose stylist, an artist who threw away his talent, a Catholic who allowed himself to drift into the sin of despair, and a great comic sensibility thwarted and shrivelled by emotional self-denial. He would have laughed at the notion of being anybody’s hero.


John Banville

The GuardianTramp

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