Authors: Flann O'Brien
Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O’Brien)
being a selection from the column written for
The Nationalist and Leinster Times
, Carlow, under the name of George Knowall
Selected and introduced by
The fiercest of them all
Some notes on playing the game
The bridge at Athlone
Uprooting, upheaval, a coming havoc?
That business about moving house
The forgetting of eaten bread
Some big blunders in literature
Oh, dear me! more holidays!
Manners also maketh the boy
Bringing back the Gaelic tongue
Men and women of the roads
The great perils of being nursed
The ancient game of name-calling
Questions, their pleasures and perils
The great danger of newspapers
Let’s talk of influenza
Dr Livingstone and the Dark Continent
The question of black
Consequences of having a cigarette
A very strange case indeed
Waiting for the imprimatur
Let’s talk about water
Contemplate the spud!
The written word
Those decent folk – my friends
Thoughts on the yoke
The Model T man
Talking of Dr Diesel
The folly of the answer game
One more Guinness
As noble as our newspapers
The world is right-handed
Electors treated as half-wits
Don’t take leave of your senses!
Ah, this eve!
A converted try
A dreadful day
Does tax hurt?
Mowers to movies
From Clongowes to Martello tower
My sympathies to the Carlovians
Some British delusions about the Irish
How would you define the word Celt?
All about golfing
Man in the street
Knowall on the weather
The power of darkness
No work past fifty
To hang or not to hang
Firmness about farms
Don’t say yes – say maybe!
Where’s the nigger in this woodpile?
Old troubles of a newspaper
There’s something fishy here
Taking too much for granted
Do you like doing it yourself?
Moore of the Melodies
The comers and goers
Time for the holliers again!
Spending has problems
The night that I nearly died
Getting well is plenty of trouble
Risks we take on Sunday morning
Hospitals offer poor fare
Mind your language!
Upbringing, uplift, uproar
Enough is too much
Looking back a little
Those forty days
O’Casey ploughs again
An oldtimer’s thoughts
Our national feast-day
Buy home products’
What’s our address?
Some are ‘out of line’
Ah, barefoot days!
The butt of my gut
Our own troubles
My own policy
How do you rate?
By the Same Author
Nothing is easy to pin down about the author of this book, particularly his various
or the names he adopted for them when appearing in print. For my purpose it is simplest to call him Myles, as Myles na Gopaleen was the name he is best remembered by for his excursions into the columns of newspapers.
, this is not simply a supplementary volume to
which was a selection from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, the column he wrote for the
over a period of twenty-five years, because in writing an entirely new column, ‘Bones of Contention’, for the
he adopted not only a new name, that of George Knowall, he also took on a new
that of a quizzical and enquiring humorist who might be found in a respectable public house in Carlow. It had been my intention originally to make a selection from both the
, Skibbereen, but the John James Doe of ‘A Weekly Look Around’ never managed to become a person in his own right, and the column was patchy and tailed off after the first year and barely saw out a second, albeit there were one or two typical Mylesian pieces. To have included them here would have been a disservice to the man who addressed himself faithfully to his Carlovian readers.
One of Myles’s remarkable achievements as a
was that of consistency supported by a spring of imaginative energy; for whatsoever the vicissitudes of life generally, and those attaching to people in and around newspapers in particular, he maintained an extraordinary output right up to and including the year of his death in 1966. Another remarkable strength was the quality of his writing. Homer nods, but Myles’s delight in language never leaves him and whether he is
writing on the seasonal and annual events, the weather or the Dublin Horse Show, he is always able to make something fresh. To write well is not easy, nor is it a gift like perfect pitch; it is difficult and demanding. No one could pick his way round the hazards of journalistic clichés with such deftness as Myles, nor turn them to such good use when it suited his need, as in the ‘Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché’, with which he rewarded the devoted followers of ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’.
he presented to the people of Carlow, under the name of George Knowall, was different from the one who addressed the plain people of Ireland in the
yet his felicitous use of language, his delight in words, and his uncanny ability to see through humbug and cant were employed to the same end.
To those admirers of Myles who know a little about his life, he drops various autobiographical hints that can be picked up and enjoyed. Since what happens to him is as much grist to his mill as are the absurdities recorded in the daily papers, we nearly always get a bulletin about his health when upset, and a gentle swipe at the medical profession and the undignified absurdity of being in hospital when the misfortune arises, as it does periodically in the following pages. We are treated variously to a broken leg, influenza (with a note about a lady who survived an operation when young and spent the rest of her life talking about and embellishing the event), vaccination, a phantom heart-attack wrongly diagnosed, convalescence, hospital treatment, and the operation that probably concerned his last illness. Doubtless he would have agreed that there is only one fatal illness, the one that kills you, and would have used this unfashionable medical apophthegm as a text. Certainly his absence from the pages of the
was of long duration preceding the appearance of the operation piece, but nowhere is the sharpness blunted or his verbal enthusiasm dampened in any of the pieces he wrote after his return.
The Myles of the
is eminently sensible and
proclaims himself born into a lower middle class family, something that ‘connotes, of course, ultra respectability, carefulness amounting to perhaps contempt of the real poor …’. And it is from this position that he writes in these pages, though he personally was never victim to the hypocrisies inherent in that position. He delights in curious and arcane knowledge, though he has no time for ‘facts’ as purveyed say in radio quiz programmes or in the
a ‘book full of extraordinary allegations, for the veracity of which no source or proof is given.’ When he himself takes an interest in something, such as the word ‘dowse’, and follows it through all its meanings and implications, we get a truly adventurous and delightful journey with a courteous and attentive guide.
The Myles of the
is erudite, urbane and informative and on the whole a country cousin to his metropolitan self. I have seen no reason to arrange the material here under subject headings, since he treated his readers with such attentiveness that the pieces are better read chronologically, as they were published, one subject written about once being taken up again at a later date. The provincial Myles was always mindful that his readership was a loyal and local one and he goes out of his way to address Carlovians as such, taking the trouble as often as not to allude to recently published matter in a previous edition, whether an article or an editorial comment. One such, a feature on agriculture, encourages – and this against the tide that took Ireland into the Common Market – a gentle attack on
as being ‘alien and un-Irish’, claiming that in a study of Irish poetry from 1500 to 1750 there is no mention of the subject, save allusions to pasturage, hunting and the keeping of domestic livestock,
deer. Normally, the supplementary matter in a newspaper which devotes a special feature to a subject supports the burden, its central aim being to attract advertising, and it would appear that Myles was as much a licensed jester in the
as he was in the
Indeed, the delight we take in a humorous columnist, from Beachcomber to Peter Simple, is that he can take the mind away from the ponderous absurdities of the editorial and the obsessional attention to the topicalities of the day, and enable us to see things in a truer perspective, for comedy is as much at the heart of the matter as is tragedy, and likewise as durable. Not many columnists can justify publication in book form.
As the George Knowall of the
is a country relation of the Myles of Dublin, so they are both part of a composite human being who wrote those
and the play
For the two former he chose the name of Flann O’Brien and it is difficult sometimes to reconcile even two different Flann O’Briens as one and the same author. There
tides in the affairs of men, surmount them as we may, that do have a profound influence on the direction a man’s life takes.
James Joyce didn’t let World War I interfere with his single-minded literary endeavour, while it involved the whole of Europe in carnage and massacre and
the lives or fortunes of many other writers, both Irish and English; but World War II forestalled the appearance of
by over twenty-five years and made it a posthumous publication. There are various ironies in the life of the author that are almost as mysterious and other-worldly as the events in
and who knows what might have happened had the latter book been published rightfully as it was written, immediately after
I myself have unearthed two characters in
who originally appeared in the pages of a French writer, Alphonse Allais, whose work was only translated into English and published here a couple of years ago.
In bringing this selection together from the columns of the
the intention has not been to search out and garner more of Myles for the sake of it, but to
show again that as one more facet of this many-sided writer appears, there is the certain knowledge that no one will ever be able to see the whole at any one given moment. He was a man who disappeared from his own photographs, knowing that a photograph is not a prophecy, but a moment, an expression frozen in time. His future is in his writing, and this volume is part of that future.
Newlyn, March 1984
The pieces collected here were first published in the
Car low, between 1960 and 1966, under the heading of ‘Bones of Contention’.
For a reason not clear at all, humans impute to animals motives and behaviours quite alien to them; it is not easy to work out the inter-relation of the man-animal kingdom. Notionally, man is the ascendant and
class. Is he in fact, though?
The red setter lying at the fire knows every word I say. And if you were to lay a finger on me, without even going to the trouble of pretending you are going to hit me, he would spring up and tear you asunder.
Although cats are not strictly speaking domesticated at all, preserving a private life of their own (particularly its nocturnal side) they are faultless time-keepers inasmuch as they show up on the dot at meal times and in cold weather they take the fullest advantage of fires. In matters of cleanliness indoors they are most fastidious
it is fallacy that they are afraid of dogs. A cat on the war-path will terrify any dog, though a chase is often conceded as a matter of exercise and fresh air.
We attribute almost limitless intelligence to monkeys, no doubt because of their anthropoid appearance and the human skill with which they drink tea and smoke cigarettes. Elephants we consider very wise and admire the gentleness with which they behave, notwithstanding that they weigh several tons.
What of the rat? He is not a very personable fellow and often carries a selection of typhus and bubonic germs in his fur coat. All the same, I confess I cannot withhold from him a certain measure of approval. His cunning is proverbial and must be highly commended, if only expressed in his feat of remaining alive at all. Probably no creature in this part of the world has so many mortal enemies. Not only are dogs, cats and humans after him but he has special enemies such as the hedgehog. I have read that it is estimated that there are
8,000,000 rats in Ireland alone, a great number of them natives of Dublin.
Few of us have soldiered in the Far East and for that reason have only the most perfunctory acquaintance with the great beasts such as the lion, tiger and leopard. The snake family we hardly know at all, thanks no doubt to St Patrick. Our nearest bears are probably in Siberia, crocodiles infest the foetid swamps of India and the Abominable Snowman is still tramping around the slopes of the Himalayas. Apart from indigenous minor fauna – the rabbit, the hare, the goat and the deer – that seems to be about the limit of our knowledge of the Wild, a compound of snooping, hearsay and Walt Disney. I keep away deliberately from the subject of salmon for therein we have a mishmash of poaching, gunplay and perjury. In a way, we can claim to be innocent enough.
We live with Nature, hoping that modest benefit may accrue to us without undue exertion; we give thanks when a fat grouse dies from heart failure at our feet, and with resignation we accept the fact that pheasants cannot expect to live forever.
But these notes of mine today are directed to asking the reader to name the most ferocious animal in this part of the world. The badger or the bull? Neither. The dog whose fangs drip with hydrophobia? No. Man himself? Hardly. Quoting from two books I have read, let me name the brute.
It is the shrew. The shrew is a little thing weighing about half an ounce, in appearance very like a small mouse except that he has a long pointed snout and a shorter tail.
Naturalists are agreed that, considering his size and needs, nothing in the whole animal kingdom can
compare with the common shrew in savagery and voracity. Tigers are clumsy messers in comparison and they always pick a smaller animal when in search of prey.
The shrew is permanently in a towering rage and, notwithstanding the fact that in his last meal of a few hours ago he ate three times his own weight, he is perpetually a martyr to hunger. If nothing better can be found, he will kill and eat another shrew – murder and repast taking merely a matter of seconds. But he has no hesitation in attacking, killing and trying to eat the whole of a rat, who must look mammoth in proportion to himself. Part of his armoury is that, apart from the ability to unleash a filthy smell, his tiny biting apparatus contains a glandular poison which can paralyse victims almost no matter what their size. His appetite is quite insatiable, his unending rage is quite startling and by the time he is 15 months old he has eaten himself to death. He is afraid of absolutely nothing except the possibility of doing without his dinner.
Should the Irish farmer beware of the shrew and even set shrew-traps? He should not be, for the shrew eats snails, slugs and every manner of insect while awaiting some larger and more succulent dish. But the question does not arise, for there are no shrews at all in Ireland. St Patrick again!