…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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  • Mac

    I haven’t read A Bash.. I shall have to pick it up.
    I hear that Brendan Gleeson’s plans on making At Swim are looking shaky thanks to cuts 🙁

  • John Ó Néill

    I think he fears cuts in the Irish Film Board budget (or the Board itself) might sink the project, but hopefully other investors might be found. Talk was of Cillian Murphy and Gabriel Byrne being interested so it may have enough big names to be financially viable.

  • The Third Policeman

    Good blog on the man himself John, but just a quick correction, Cruskeen Lawn (his articles) are published as the Best of Myles, Myles Away from Dublin, Myles at War etc. The Dalkey Archive is a novel (one of his weaker ones imho).

  • John Ó Néill

    Sorry – correction made (the errors of skim editing). I also didn’t add a source for A Bash in the Tunnel (again updated).

  • John D

    At Swim-Two-Birds is the best of O’Nolan’s work imho — I’ve read it three times. But there’s some great stuff collected in “The Best Of Myles” — see for instance his Catechism of Chiche …

    And did you not mention he was an Ulsterman — born in Strabane? How will the Assembly celebrate the centenary of this great man?

  • John Ó Néill

    John D, I’m not aware of any plans in the North or by the Assembly – tomorrow there will be an inaugural Mylesday in the Palace Bar in Dublin (there is also an associated blog). There are various academic conferences planned, such as in Vienna and Trinity, with less formal events like a Flann O’Brien reading group that was taking place in Dalkey and ends this weekend.
    I’d imagine there must be something planned in Strabane for this year, though.

  • John D

    John O N — Thanks for the info about Mylesday, which I wasn’t aware of. Oh to have been in Dublin today (1 April)!
    To be fair, Strabane District Council website has a Flann O’Brien centenary celebration planned — or rather “to be confirmed” — for the week beginning 30 September this year. Let’s see how the Plain People of (Northern) Ireland manage that …

  • FXR

    Photos from the Myles Day afternoon.

    Technical note: Photos were taken using the Pint And Shoot method. For some (the later ones in the evening) a Guinness filter and a wobbly stool were used for effect.

  • John Ó Néill

    Just bumping a Joycean thread of sorts.

    To save yourself the trouble of reading Ulysses, read A Bash in the Tunnel and you’ll be fine.