One Man's Decade-Long Journey with Flann O'Brien

Author Brian O’Nolan uses language as if he’s playing a game of snooker, says Val O’Donnell.

“He’s hitting the ball in all corners,” he says, of O’Nolan, who is better known to most as Flann O’Brien or Myles na gCopaleen.

For more than a decade, O’Donnell has grappled with the author’s wit and words, performing his one-man show Flann’s Yer Only Man for audiences around Ireland.

He performs and, he says, informs about an oft-misunderstood author.

“What most people know about him is that he was a notorious drunk and that he wrote a couple of very difficult books that a lot of people refer to but very few people have read cover to cover,” says O’Donnell.

Yer Man Wrote a Book

On a recent Saturday afternoon, it didn’t take O’Donnell long to launch into a biography of O’Nolan. His knowledge of the author is encyclopedic at this stage.

At Swim-Two-Birds, first published in 1939, is now regarded as one of the first postmodern novels, and was republished in 1959, he says.

“He reluctantly allowed it to be republished and then found that it was a classic,” says O’Donnell. “He said, ‘I’m glad to see that me books survived the Second World War and Hitler didn’t.'”

O’Donnell worked for years as a civil servant before he took up acting. In the 1960s, he was posted in the General Post Office. That is where his interest in O’Nolan began.

“All the older guys would buy the Irish Times and they were mad about him,” says O’Donnell. O’Nolan wrote a column called “Cruiskeen Lawn” for the Irish Times under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen from the 1940s until his death in 1966.

When O’Donnell’s colleagues later learnt that O’Nolan had been published under a different pseudonym, Flann O’Brien, it took them by surprise.

“A fella came in one day, around late December 1968, and said, ‘D’ya hear yer man wrote a book? Yer man wrote a book but it’s under another name, Flann O’Brien!'” says O’Donnell. This had been posthumously published as The Third Policeman.

In 2006, O’Donnell was asked by the Dublin Shakespeare Society to write something for the fortieth anniversary of O’Nolan’s death. He’d had an interest in O’Nolan’s work for some time and was involved with the society at the time.

So he put together a 10-person show. Each actor on stage was assigned a piece of O’Nolan’s writings to perform as a monologue.

O’Donnell had been involved in amateur acting for a long time, but since his retirement in the early 2000s, Flann has taken over.

In 2011, O’Donnell was asked to perform again, for the centenary of the author’s birth. This was the genesis of his one-man show. “We did it over the three weeks and that went well,” he says.

The one-man show was inspired in part by a 1974 performance by the actor Eamonn Morrissey, called The Brother. It was a stage adaptation of O’Nolan’s satirical writings.

As O’Donnell puts it, he had to find “a way of linking the material” to the performance, one that was effective.

O’Donnell also wanted, though, to find his own version of Flann. He bought the collection Myles Before Myles, and drew largely from the author’s early work and student writings when putting the show together. He then decided to take his show on the road.

“So I went to the estate to ask permission to use all that,” says O’Donnell. They said that would be grand – but also asked if he’d think of doing something more biographical, about the writer himself, he says.

“They took the view that very little was known in the public about Brian O’Nolan,” he says.

From Page to Stage

O’Nolan was born in Strabane in Co. Tyrone in October 1911. He studied at University College Dublin, and later worked, like O’Donnell, as a civil servant until 1953.

His father died when O’Nolan was 25, leaving the author to help raise his 11 siblings. As an adult O’Nolan’s notoriously “difficult” behaviour, as O’Donnell put it, was caused by both a sheltered upbringing and a penchant for the gargle.

“He’d an awful time at school because he wasn’t socialised,” says O’Donnell. “Until he had a jar and then he went the other direction.”

Striking the right balance for Flann’s Yer Only Man was difficult. “I had to evolve a show that was both informative and performative,” says O’Donnell. “It wasn’t the easiest thing to do.”

The performance goes like this: O’Donnell dons a dark suit, cardigan and the author’s iconic fedora hat, and proceeds to recite and re-enact extracts from the author’s fiction and non-fiction, with pieces of biography spliced in between.

Terry O’Dea, as producer, has helped stage Flann with O’Donnell over the years. “I’m the nuts and bolts really,” he says.

Audience reaction is always mixed, although those across the border, where O’Nolan was born, tend to get the humour more so, he says.

O’Donnell agrees. “You get a very different reaction at times. There’s no doubt about that,” he says. “He’s not everybody’s fancy. You get, from time to time, people laughing uproariously. And then some asking ‘What’s it all about?’ They don’t get it at all.”

O’Nolan’s writings, he notes, are often absurd, steeped in dark humour and continuous punning.

“You have to be aware that a lot of the language, effectively, is very attractive on the page but won’t really work on the stage,” says O’Donnell. “You have to be free and easy reading with the language.”

Over the last five years, O’Nolan has performed the show in over 30 venues around the country, including seven in and around Dublin. Theatres or pubs, it makes no odds to O’Donnell.

He’s done it in the Palace Bar in Temple Bar, Lanigan’s on the quays and the Brian Boru in Phibsboro. He just wrapped up a two-week stint at Smock Alley Theatre.

Much of O’Donnell’s time, nowadays, is spent with his young grandchild. But Flann will ride again, the actor will brush off his dark suit for the stage once more.

Next up is Salzburg, Austria, where O’Donnell is due to appear at the 4th International Flann O’Brien Festival in July.

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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