The Spectator reviews “The Short Stories of Flann O’Brien”

On his deathbed in Dublin in the spring of 1966, Flann O’Brien must have been squiffy from tots of Paddy. A bottle of the amber distillate was smuggled in to the hospital on April Fool’s Day by a couple of well-wishers. O’Brien rang the bell to summon a nurse. ‘Sister,’ he told her solemnly, ‘I have two friends who are constipated and need a dose. Would you bring two glasses?’ Within a matter of hours the poker-faced Count O’Blather (O’Brien’s preferred authorial pseudonym) was dead. Flanneurs everywhere had reason to lament the passing of a notable Dublin wit and a writer of comic genius. But all was not lost. O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Third Policeman, was published the following year, in 1967; a novel from the grave, begob.

Flann O’Brien (real name, Brian O’Nolan) was born in 1911 as one of 12 children. His death at the age of 54 was from alcoholic complications and for much of his brief life he was indeed rotten fluthery-eyed drunk on Bass No. 1 Barley Wine, a beverage of near poteen-like potency. The literary funny-man act was of course inseparable from drink; O’Brien was at his satiric best in his ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column for the Irish Times. Written in 1940–66 under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen (Miles of the Little Horses), the column introduced readers to the archetypal Dublin man ‘the Brother’, whose homespun Paddy-boosted philosophy serves as a balm to pretty well every problem except alcoholism.

Beneath the Brother’s compulsive talkativeness one may detect the blarney and brogue of O’Brien the Dublin bar-room virtuoso. Not that he was a froth-blower of Brendan Behan proportions. As a respectable civil servant he could hardly turn up to work reeking of the Cork nectar. By 1953, however, his office-hour drinking had become such a problem that he was forcibly ‘retired’. (‘You were seen coming out of the Scotch House at 2.30 p.m.’, his superiors challenged him, to which O’Brien replied tartly: ‘You mean I was seen coming in.’)

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