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Irish Literature 102: Irish Witticism Through Kafkaesque Lenses - A Flann O’Brien Biography


Irish literature revolves around a rich culture and extensive history. In the Irish Literature 101 series, the focus was on the general outline of the literary eras in Ireland. However, to better understand this literary tradition, Irish Literature 102 dives deeper into the key literary figures that influenced the literary movements. Additionally, this series constitutes a wide-ranging study on works that are examined in the context of documented events and critical cultural movements.

Irish Literature 102 is divided into the following chapters:

“Answers do not matter so much as questions, said the Good Fairy. A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question, the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question.” ― Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

A portrait of Brian O'Nolan, better known by his pen name, Flann O'Brien.

The beginning: A Hard Life

Brian O’Nolan was the third child of a large family, born in 1911 in Strabane in the North of Ireland; a republican town with strong conservationist and catholic inclinations intensified with the addition of O’Brien’s maternal roots. His father, Michael Vincent O’Nolan, was a service man hired by the UK custom office and an early member of the Irish League. Although he was ought to dislocate his family several times between England, Scotland, and Ireland, he regarded his Irish roots as essential to the identity of his family. All his 12 children were brought up speaking Irish and acquainted with the intimate culture of Ireland.

The children were homeschooled until M. V. O’Nolan was assigned permanently in Dublin. While the Town of the Ford of the Hurdle, at the time was forming strong nationalistic formations along with its literary renaissance movement, this family transition perhaps transformed Brian O’Nolan to Flann O’Brien- the writer’s pseudonym name under which many of his columns and publications appeared.

His writing talent started in his early school days and while imitating the characters of his friends and brothers to write credible-enough papers under their names. His rather eventful childhood inspired the publication of a fictionalized autobiography, the “Hard Life”, with a focus on his education and upbringing with a humorous yet sensational context.

"It is not that I half knew my mother. I knew half of her: the lower half ‒ her lap, legs, feet, her hands and wrists as she bent forward. Very dimly, I seem to remember her voice. At the time, of course, I was very young. Then one day she did not seem to be there any more. So far as I knew she had gone away without a word, no good-bye or good night. A while afterwards I asked my brother, five years my senior, where the mammy was.” The Hard Life, 1961.

A Transition Through Bureaucratic Poetics

O'Brien finished his education at University College in English, Irish and German, in a determination to somewhat follow his father’s path of life. After passing the exam for civil service, he started working for the local government that went on for almost the next two decades (1935–53). However, he embarked on a literary journey parallel to his bureaucratic existence; the authorship in disguise. Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen were the pseudonyms that were used to publish his satirical commentary, and columns in the Irish Times, Abbey Theatre plays, poetry and essays. His most notable publications are packed witty, culturally rich, politically critical and outspoken novels and short stories. Among the Dubliners and literary Irishmen, many resided in Europe, such as the adventurous travels of Joyce and Beckett. O'Brien, however, was nationalist by heart and conduct; he remained in Ireland all his life except for short travels through the UK and a single trip to Germany- most of which is credited to his professional routine. Earning a living through a bureaucratic profession, government institutions, and centrality of state in the life of the common class of Irish society are the dominant themes of O'Brien’s works. All these facades brought forth a new species of the writer, what Ceri Sullivan observes as the “writer-civil servant.”

The Third Policeman (1940)

The Third Policeman is perhaps the most notable work of O’Brien; Kafkaesque, absurd and ultimately ending at a very dark stage, the story is thematically centralized around a bicycle through an unconventional projection. The entire story bears an odd obsession with all its mechanical magic to a point that merges the country and the protagonists with the bicycle into a single, inseparable identity. The half bicycle-half man, the small army of one-legged men, the dark-ish nucleus of the story around a murder, the red tapist policeman, and the provocative dialogues- all are put together with just the right amount of symbolic inventiveness and literary tragedy to make it one the best stories ever in the Irish renaissance history.

From the David and Edward O’Kane exhibition at the Flann O’Brien conference in Salzburg, 2016

Adding to the tragic context of the story, The Third Policeman was published in 1967, a year after O'Brien’s death, and after a series of publication dramas during his time of living. “The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles...when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.” ― Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman

An Béal Bocht (1941)

An Béal Bocht, or the Poor Mouth, is an impeccable piece of satire that links the British colonial administration, state policies, and the image of Irish peasants in the impoverished areas of the Gaeltacht in the West of Ireland. The story rises to an arch when a middle class migrant, Gaelgeoirí, moves from east to west seeking romance; where Irish language and culture are the primary social means of communication, much in contrast with the east. The ironic satire evolving around cultural nationalism, the Gaelic nature of the characters, and advocacy of Irish language are the literary highlights of the story. The book was first published in 1941 in Irish.

“- Celts! He said. “It is a delightful joy to fill my Celtic heart to be here today and to speak to you in Celtic at this Celtic festival, in the heart of Celtic. Let me nail it, I’m Celtic. I’m Celtic from the hood of my head to the fingernail of my little finger - Celtic front and back, outside and inside. You are also all true Celts. We are all Celtic native Celts from Celtic ancestry. He who is Celtic will remain Celtic only forever.” - Myles Na Gcopaleen, An Béal Bocht

Faustus Kelly (1943), Abbey Theatre

One of the most remarkable plays in the history of the Abbey Theatre was authored by Myles na Gopaleen [Flann O’Brien]. Faustus Kelly is another Kafkaesque story, centered around the horrifying aspects of the modern bureaucracy. The main character, Kelly, is a state council chairman that literally makes a deal with the devil in order to win a local by-election. The story is inspired by Goethe’s Faust, turning his archetype of everyman into an architecture of every Irish politician. In the end, the devil finds refuge in hell to escape the modern officialdom.

Abbey Theatre Notice for the First Production of Faustus Kelly, A Play in Three Acts, by Myles na gCopaleen. Monday, 25th January, 1943.

A Literary Denouement

The literary confidentiality of O’Brien was eventually unveiled, which resulted in the loss of his job and official position. This event was a consequence of harsh criticisms issued by a government minister, mocking the man of civil service for his literary inclinations as an Irish novelist but moreover for his poor official performance. Perhaps for his many mental and emotional conflicts, he had turned to an inebriate by the time, which also affected his bureaucratic efficiency. During the last year of his life, his health had declined because of throat cancer disease. After much mental and physical restlessness, and on an exceptionally wintry morning, Brian O’Nolan suffered a heart attack and bid the world goodbye on 1 April 1966.

“He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.” ― Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

Image Sources:

Derry Journal, Life of Flann O'Brien celebrated, April 2021.

The Irish Times, The dead man was not known to gardaí – An Irishman’s Diary on the 50th anniversary of Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’.

Easy Live Auction, O'Brien, Flann Abbey Theatre Notice for the First Production, 2020.


Jürgen Meyer, O'brien's Anti-esotericism: The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive, Universität Vechta, European Journal of English Studies, 2011.

Peter Costello and Peter van de Kamp. Flann O’Brien: An Illustrated Biography. London: Bloomsbury, 1987.

Anne Clune and Tess Hurson, Conjuring complexities: essays on Flann O'Brien, published by Institute of Irish, 1997.


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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