…if University education were universally available and availed of, the country would collapse in one generation

The words of Brian O’Nolan, variously Brian Ó Nualláin, Myles na gCopaleen, Myles na Gopaleen and, of course, Flann O’Brien. That O’Nolan was referencing his own dissolute student days at UCD only mildly distracts from the prophetic undertone of his words:

I paid no attention whatsoever to books or study and regarded lectures as a joke which, in fact, they were if you discern anything funny in mawkish, obtuse mumblings on subjects any intelligent person could master single-handed in a few months. The exams I found childish and in fact the whole University concept I found to be a sham. The only result my father got for his money was the certainty that his son had laid faultlessly the foundation of a system of heavy drinking and could always be relied upon to make a break of at least 25 even with a bad cue. I sincerely believe that if University education were universally available and availed of, the country would collapse in one generation.

Given that third level graduates accounted for 41.3% of the 25-34 year olds in the Republic back in 2007 (see p11 of the CSO report), which was the second highest level in the EU at the time, arguably we should be well on our way to collapse (by the way, gender differential was -12.6% indicating that, statistically, women are leading the way to this collapse). It would seem that the underlying risk of such a ‘knowledge’ economy is being mitigated, to some extent, by emigration of the same demographic. A further gauge of the proximity of the precipice will come from today’s publication of the stress test of the Irish banks. Conveniently, news of Anglo Irish Bank losses of €17.7b euro have been slipped out today as well (already higher than indicated a month ago which doesn’t bode well for the utility of the stress test).

O’Nolan would no doubt have had some comment to make on all this. While he is, obviously, well known for his novels, his greatest literary output (estimated at 3m words) was via his An Cruiskeen Lawn Irish Times column (mainly as Myles na gCopaleen) and published as The Best of Myles (and variants). The literary status of his journalistic output is hotly debated although, with the availability of digital archives, some advise that his best pieces need to be read in the context of the actual edition of the paper and current events to fully appreciate them (like blogging, only better, and, well, literary).

O’Nolan’s legacy is extremely broad including his journalism, novels, short stories and a handful of plays. Many hold his greatest novel to be The Third Policeman and sales recently jumped on the back of a reference in the TV series Lost. Probably more enjoyable, but just as complex, is At-Swim-Two-Birds, which Brendan Gleeson is trying to turn into a film this year (the centenary of O’Nolan’s birth is 5th October 2011). O’Nolan didn’t particularly hold with adaptations between forms (Ridiculusmus toured a fantastic three-man stage version to the Old Museum Arts Centre back in 1995 so I have to disagree with O’Nolan here).

At-Swim-Two-Birds was the last novel Joyce ever read. While O’Nolan was a huge fan of Joyce, I am still suspicious that his wonderfully funny A Bash in the Tunnel, another story within a story that was supposed to be delivered as a paper to a conference on Joyce, is actually an overlooked piece of ascerbic dindsenchas (etymological lore to explain the title). I think the title is meant to be a derogatory reference to Joyce as a homosexual and the rest of the story is a sleight of hand to distract the reader. That is entirely in keeping with O’Nolan’s sense of humour.

O’Nolan died on 1st April 1966, so, rather than irritating someone with a prank, maybe take some time to read some of his work instead (I’m recommending A Bash in the Tunnel*).

 *First appeared as the introduction to an issue of Envoy: A Review of Literature and Art in a special issue on James Joyce. Also available in Flann O’Brien Stories and Plays (or here).

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