The Luck of the Irish

FlannRoger Boylan in More Intelligent Life:

Posthumous success is better than no success at all, but it’s still rotten luck when the applause erupts only after the curtain has fallen for good. Flann O’Brien was an Irish author who would have turned 100 this October 5th. Bad luck dogged him all his life, and he died unappreciated in 1966. He was so self-effacing and elusive that Brendan Behan, an Irish poet and novelist, said of his contemporary: “You had to look twice to see if he was there at all.” But in death O’Brien enjoys a cult following that expresses its devotion in Flann O’Brien pubs, literary conferences, T-shirts and the appearance of one of his books in an episode of the TV series “Lost”.

“Flann O’Brien” was the invention of Brian O’Nolan, who used the nom de plume as a way to hide his writing from his employers at the Irish Civil Service. (For this reason he also used the name Myles na Gopaleen, or Myles of the Ponies, to write columns in the Irish Times—a reference to a character in a 19th-century Irish play by Dion Boucicault.) O’Nolan was confined to speaking and writing in Irish (Gaelic) at home as it was the only tongue countenanced by his nationalist father. But he escaped into English as a child, via the works of Kipling and Conan Doyle, and ultimately preferred the language for his own books. After university, where he performed adequately, he entered the civil service and enjoyed a certain degree of independence until his father died. This promoted him to paterfamilias and sole supporter for his ten siblings, his mother and his wife, Evelyn. Writing was his only escape, which he indulged in the interstices of the job.