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Tag: Irish Studies

‘CHRONITIS’: Myles na gCopaleen à la recherche du temps perdu

2016 has been a year of anniversaries for Irish modernism studies, dominated by the Easter Rising commemorations. Though it is perhaps not quite as prominent, among these there have also been a sequence of celebrations of #Flann50: the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Brian O’Nolan, an Irish modernist who is mainly referred to by his pseudonym, Flann O’Brien. This might be the last article to mark that anniversary which comes out this year, and I want to use it to remember not Flann O’Brien but Myles na gCopaleen. This is because, for many readers, it was Myles who died on April Fool’s Day in 1966 (now celebrated as ‘Myles Day’ in Dublin). Remember that, after At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939, Flann O’Brien did not produce another novel until 1961. In contrast, Myles and his satirical Cruiskeen Lawn column appeared several times a week in the Irish Times for a quarter of a century (not to mention his popular 1941 Irish-language novel, An Béal Bocht, or the plays he wrote under that name).


So it seems just as appropriate to recollect Myles as it is to celebrate Flann. Cruiskeen Lawn runs to somewhere between two and four million words. Modern readers are likely to encounter it in one of several slimmed-downed compilations produced after his death, but there are two occasions when O’Nolan chose to reprint anthologies of Cruiskeen Lawn himself. The first was in 1943 when he published this bilingual anthology, which, as Steven Curran has argued in Éire-Ireland (and as its headline suggests) may well be an attempt to sharpen the focus on the satirical persona of Myles by cutting back on the supporting cast:


Front cover of the 1943 anthology of Cruiskeen Lawn

The second occasion was in 1959-1960, when O’Nolan republished about sixty columns in four numbers of a short-lived periodical which was called Nonplus, edited by the novelist Patricia Murphy (née Avis).


Front cover of Nonplus 2 (Winter 1960)


The older O’Nolan also preserves a particular flavour of Cruiskeen Lawn by favouring some types of column over others. Whilst the Brother appears here and there and Keats and Chapman feature twice, just as in 1943, the republished columns are predominantly complex and multilingual satirical sallies into heavyweight topics: aesthetics, language, literature, politics and the national culture. (I should note that it’s been suggested that many of the more ‘literary’ columns were written by co-author Niall Montgomery.)


Some of this reprinted Nonplus material had already been published not once, but twice. This creates unusual effects. One such doubly reprinted column appeared first in 1946 (and this is the version that O’Nolan republishes in Nonplus, but more on that later) and again in 1958. It’s a set of preoccupations about posterity and maturity combined with strange recollections on time that turns into a plagiarising pastiche of the theories of W. B. Yeats.


Sufficiently interested? Okay, I’ll try to summarise.


On 7 August 1946, we find Myles ‘in my office in the Scotch house’ worrying about ‘myself, my future, my writings’ and becoming irritated by the fact that:

I am very ancient yet I never seem to grow old enough. Why, bless me – I occasionally come across something that is new to me! Honest! Certain small grains of knowledge have eluded me, sundry minute subfacts are yet to be gathered into the vast intellect which reposes, were it but known, behind the most beautiful face in the world!

Suitably dissatisfied that he does not feel ‘quite mature’, Myles sends for the proprietor of the pub, Foley, and asks to be put in a whiskey barrel to mature more quickly. Foley refuses, having not ‘a square inch of space in the cellars’. Myles, thinking of ‘some other way of maturing more quickly’, reflects that ‘maturing is not solely a matter of time, but the time factor is important and it happens I know him well’.


He recalls the role of the ‘time factor’ during a strike on the Dublin docks when ‘there was a lot of extra time being imported for building contracts’. Of course, with no-one to transport all that time, ‘do you know what happened? It went bad’. Dealing with this ‘bad time’ caused a further dispute between the ‘time factor’ and the ‘mairrchints’. The ‘time factor’ successfully claimed its right to payment by invoking the ‘war clause’. But the bad time lingered on uncollected as, after all, ‘there was no provision in the rates for wet time’. Of course, in all of this the time factor did ‘himself a lot of hairrm with the mairrchints’.


After some reflections on humanity’s conflicts, happiness and civilisation, Myles then locates ‘in an old diary of my own’ a fragment about how ‘all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other life’ and how ‘Active virtue, as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a code, is therefore theatrical’. It’s all obviously lifted from Yeats and Myles spends the next four hundred words extensively plagiarising Yeatsian dialectics, invoking ‘the ridiculous Camus’ and declaring that he, Myles, alone ‘has the honour to be a saint and proposes to climb without wandering to the antithetical self of the world’.


On 14 April 1958 Cruiskeen Lawn returns to the same material, freshly retitled ‘Chronitis’. Myles reports to his readers that ‘the other day I went – á la recherche du temps perdu, perhaps – into my old office, the Scotch House: the place once wittily I had called Grandeur de Foley’. This is a clear signpost that material is about to be pillaged from an older column. However, ten years on, Myles’s plagiarised worrying is very subtly different:

Yes, worrying. About myself, my writings, my poetry, my future. You see, I have the impression of having been here a long time, yet do not seem to be growing old enough. Extraordinary complaint if you like but I have no corns or ulcers and I am still encountering things which are quite new to me. Surely this is embarrassing immaturity and damn the thing else? Am I inexperienced? Callow? Or is this … innocence?

Whereas the younger Myles says ‘I am very ancient’ in 1946, twelve years later the older Myles has, more vaguely, ‘the impression of having been here a long time’. Rather than being ‘very ancient’ but somehow not ‘growing old enough’, he does not feel old at all and is instead beset by an ‘embarrassing immaturity’. O’Nolan has aged twelve years, but Myles has regressed to a state of childlike innocence. Cruiskeen time, it seems, runs backwards.


Myles in 1958 paves the way for some relativistic distortions when he starts discussing ‘the experience of duration’ and the ‘expositions and expostulations of men such as Minkowski, Einstein, Eddington’. Then, instead of re-using its material he recalls, in new words, experiencing the events of the 1946 column: ‘I had all this disquiet many space-years ago on another visit to the Scotch House’. That is, the events of the earlier account which he plagiarised at the beginning of this new column. This new and old account also includes the story about asking Foley to ‘put me into bond’, and eventually the same account of the dispute over ‘bad time’ starts up again. To describe both columns as a sequence:


  • Myles visits the Scotch House in 1946 where he reflects on maturity and time
  • In 1958 he describes a new visit to the Scotch House ‘à la recherche du temps perdu’, but the textual account of the new visit is plagiarised from the previous one
  • The actual 1946 visit is then described again in the 1958 narrative as a recollection
  • However, in the course of this recollection the column metamorphoses into a verbatim repetition of the 1946 version as if the first column had simply started up again
  • Now return to the beginning: Myles visits the Scotch House in 1946 where he…


The later column ends before we are treated to the same Yeats material but the wording running up to it is identical to the earlier column, apart from the added joke: ‘Any reader with time on his hands might send me some. I’m serious!’. It’s as if there is simply no space (or perhaps time) for the 1946 column to be repeated in full.  To put it another way: the first visit is the textual basis for the second visit, but the first visit returns a second time when it is recollected separately in the text, only for that recollection to turn back into the first visit.


So despite Myles’s promise in 1946 that ‘there won’t be any loop-holes’, the doubling of the two visits to the Scotch House and the way that the later column bleeds back into the earlier version does indeed produce a loop in time. Thanks to the shunting back-and-forth between the event itself and its written depiction at the start of the 1958 column, we can imagine both visits as repeatedly layered on top of each other: taking turns as the event described and the material describing the event.


Irish Times, 7 August 1946 and Irish Times, 14 April 1958

This loop is discernible only when the first and second versions of the column are read alongside each other, and it appears that O’Nolan used this reprinting opportunity to maximise the possibility of this happening. For as mentioned earlier parenthetically, in Nonplus the column which is republished is an exact replica of the 1946 version and not the 1958 version. O’Nolan reprints the first version at a point when the second version is relatively close to hand – having been published in the Irish Times only two years ago – thus completing the ‘sequence’ and closing the loop which he opened fourteen years previously.


It’s sometimes suggested that O’Nolan re-uses old Mylesian material simply out of convenience or a lack of creativity. But his doing so in order to construct an infinite sequence of visits to the Scotch House (no doubt, he made quite a few) demonstrates that he is up to something much more ingenious than that. By reprinting the first version, and not the ‘plagiarised’ second, in Patricia Avis’s periodical, he is revelling in this practice rather than making any attempt to conceal it.


Nonplus 2, p. 54


Did I mention that the Scotch House pub itself is actually advertised in the same issue of Nonplus­­ on the page after the Cruiskeen Lawn extracts? Just in case, presumably, any reader wanted to try out the whisky or the loophole for herself. Given all this confusion of space and time, it seems fitting to conclude my #Flann50 commemoration with Myles’s own warning about relativity in the 1958 version:

One reads that Newton distinguished two kinds of interval-distinguishing events – distance in space and lapse in time. But what is it that lapses? The time-space men confute Newton and say there is in fact one interval. Do you know, it would put years on a man.

About the Author

Tobias Harris is an M.Phil student at Birkbeck College, University of London, completing a thesis about Brian O’Nolan and his international influences. He has published an essay in the Parish Review and a review in the James Joyce Broadsheet. Tobias attends both of the Joyce reading groups at Senate House, London.

Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities (University of Vienna, 29th September – 1st October)

Irish writers made diversely vital contributions to literary modernism, to an extent arguably disproportionate to the country’s size and population. A few – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, especially – have been central to the modern literary canon. The new modernist studies since the 1990s has tended to provide more historically detailed and archivally evidenced readings of these central figures, while space has also been found for hitherto less regarded artists. Networks of publishing and activity have also been under consideration, and the relation between the overlapping concepts ‘Irish Modernism’ and ‘The Irish Revival’ has been rethought, mainly resulting in greater overlap.


The conference on Irish Modernisms held at the University of Vienna this Autumn set out to increase the attention on the previously overlooked and to bring marginal figures and issues to the centre, filling some of the ‘gaps’ in its title. The call for papers cited the Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism (2014) as a starting point while encouraging work on ‘marginal modernisms and previously neglected genres, forms, and sites of publication or expression’; the conference would be ‘dedicated to testing the borders of Irish Modernism’. This project might be called revisionist, if that term were not already so overloaded with freight in Irish Studies. In the event, numerous papers dealt with well-established names – though in one decentring development, none directly addressed the figure seemingly most central to the whole epoch, W.B. Yeats. This brief report will not seek to cover every paper (strong material on the more canonical writers will go undiscussed below), but rather will note a few elements of the conference in relation to its specific aims of exploring the field’s margins and borders.


In any consideration of canonical ‘gaps’ and absences of attention, questions of gender must figure prominently. The Irish canon of the modernist period is plainly dominated by male writers, raising the question whether this primarily demonstrates a dearth of opportunities for women writers at the time or a failure of critical attention over subsequent decades. No doubt both factors are involved. Some discussion at the conference suggested that women had found access to networks of publishing and publicity easier during the Irish Revival (here meaning, say, the pre-Rising years), and harder subsequently (during the notoriously censorious and restrictive Free State). The middle-class women activists and thespians detailed in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2014) might provide evidence for that view. But much work can still be done to bring into focus the writing of Irish women in the period. One simple way this conference did that was to feature two women as keynote speakers, both of whom focused on women writers. Professor Patricia Coughlan of Cork University spoke on Elizabeth Bowen, perhaps the most canonically settled of all Irish women writers of the period. (Two other papers also addressed Bowen’s fiction.) Professor Coughlan also remained a constant source of knowledge and authoritative perspectives on a range of issues throughout the rest of the conference. In a second keynote address, Lucy Collins of UCD introduced the work of a number of Irish women poets, including Blanaid Salkeld and Sheila Wingfield. Discussion of the poetry was prefaced by an extensive consideration of the nature of canons and periods, and how these more mid-century poets had fallen between the visibility of the Revival at one end of the century and of Eavan Boland at the other.


Lucy Collins’ paper did the most to introduce truly little-known writers. Other papers tended rather to turn a spotlight on writers with some reputation: thus Daniel Curran and Karl O’Hanlon on the poetry of Thomas MacGreevy and Denis Devlin respectively. Fionna Barber, a scholar of art history, brought visual arts more to the fore; the fine Dublin painter Mainie Jellett was an intermittently recurring reference point. The conference seemed to have an appetite for such material, suggesting that comparisons and connections between literature and painting might be a border to test in future. A different tendency was the revelation of obscure works from well-known names. Two examples stood out: Michael McAteer reported on The Queen of the World, a science-fictional time-travelling pot-boiler from the renowned mythographer Standish James O’Grady, and Michael Connerty disclosed the existence of scores of turn-of-the-century comic strips by Jack B. Yeats. A slide show offered examples of the strips, which were an extraordinary spectacle: animal characters including a clever circus horse (a possible connection with Yeats’ better-known paintings of circuses), a venerable flying proto-superhero named Dickie Bird, and the consulting detective Chubb Lock Holmes (which might call to mind Hugh Kenner’s whimsical comparison, in the 1950s, of Sherlock Holmes to W.B. Yeats). Questions remain about the material: did Jack Yeats write the scripts as well as draw the pictures? But Connerty’s material posed the relationship between modernism and mass culture in a spectacularly entertaining new way.


One other theme was an emphasis on networks and institutions rather than individuals. Tobias Harris talked of Dublin magazines of the 1920s, raising questions about the role of printers as well as writers. With characteristic originality and flair, Ronan Crowley introduced the roman a clef as a genre of the Irish Revival, with a long list of novels cutting across seemingly disparate spheres from naturalism to Ulysses and Murphy. And Des Lally, a scholar based in the West of Ireland, reminded us of the importance of Dublin’s Gate Theatre in the 1930s, as a cosmopolitan home for the arts which also sheltered marginal and prohibited sexual identities. It seemed to me that such a paper could point the way to further accounts of places and social spaces that enabled the production and circulation of the modern Irish arts.


Some overarching questions were aired in a closing panel. Should the corpus of ‘Irish modernism’ be extended in time, even all the way forward to Eimear McBride? My own sense is that what academics call ‘modernism’ as a whole has expanded enough by now, and if anything we need ways to keep the category in check. Still, if the corpus of relevant works enlarges to take in lesser-known authors of the era, then in what way are the new works to be read? Would Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ or data mining be a more suitable way to handle such large hoards of textual material? Or do those hitherto neglected authors, like those cited by Lucy Collins, deserve more sustained individual attention? Should we, Paul Fagan wondered aloud, revisit such critical classics as Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition (1962)? And when will George Moore come back into fashion?


From a distance, one might wonder at the conference’s location. Irish Studies may naturally thrive in Ireland, but it has also found homes around the rest of Europe like that of Vienna’s Centre for Irish Studies – fostered notably by the late Professor Werner Huber, who died just months before this conference and was remembered fondly here. It might be true that fully to understand Irish writing, you need to spend time in Ireland. But it could also be that the discussion of such writing is sometimes enhanced by taking it elsewhere, to a kind of neutral territory. Co-organizers Tamara Radak, Paul Fagan and John Greaney can be commended for making Vienna such a place at this conference.


About the Author

Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His books include Joyce’s Critics (2004) and Flann O’Brien (2005).



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