The Faces of Flann O’Brien

In his centenary year, the Institut für Anglistik honors the Irish poet and novelist with an international conference re-evaluating his legacy

TVR Books | Brigitte Petrisch | July / August 2011

Irish writer Brian O’Nolan didn’t know how to be ordinary; a civil servant by profession, he always had a lot going on on the side. With tireless energy and irrepressible wit, he wrote stories, poems, essays and rambles, and eventually a couple of fine novels. At least. But how much and how many, no one knows exactly. Because he kept changing his name.

As "Brother Barnabas," O’Nolan produced the stories that would be considered his ‘juvenilia’ and a short-lived monthly called Blather, and as "Myles na gCopaleen," he wrote an almost daily column in The Irish Times and published a novel in Gaelic. However, O’Nolan was probably most famous under the pseudonym "Flann O’Brien," under which he published, in English, his two novels At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman.

As varied as his names were his many readers. Long known primarily as a provincial writer in Ireland, Flann O’Brien alias Myles na gCopaleen was also hailed as a post-modern novelist ahead of his times by literary scholars. So while Irish and academic readers alike celebrated his writing, their reasons could not differ more: in Ireland, the author enjoyed enormous popularity as newspaper columnist Myles na gCopaleen, but never gained a wider readership for his novels; in academia, scholars celebrated his novels for their literary innovation, but like academics the world over, collectively condemned his journalism as the author’s ruin.

Long acknowledged alongside Joyce and Beckett as the ‘holy trinity’ of Irish novelists, it took a long time for opinions to merge, for Flann O’Brien’s novels to be read outside academia and for scholars to acknowledge the literary merit of the newspaper columns of Myles na gCopaleen. Over the years, however, Flann O’Brien alias Myles has slowly emerged from the obscurities of provincial literature and academic research to gain international status as a cult author.

Today, Brian O’Nolan has achieved world-wide popularity for his intelligent and sometimes garrulous humor; his novels are celebrated as comic masterpieces and At Swim-Two-Birds has even been called the funniest novel ever written. Rather than accusing the "Cruiskeen Lawn" columns of preventing an otherwise promising writing career, literary scholars now consider it the opus magnum of this multifaceted author.

In honor of Brian O’Nolan’s centenary in 2011, the University of Vienna’s Department of English Studies (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik) will host a conference on the author’s significance and legacy in an international context.

100 Myles: The International Flann O’Brien Centenary Conference will be held at the English Department from Jul. 24-27 and bring to Vienna scholars from countries as diverse as Ireland, Singapore, the UK, France, Germany, Romania, Poland, the USA, Turkey, etc. Holding to the conference’s international perspective, the keynote addresses will provide a glimpse of the many different approaches to Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen as a writer. Keynote speakers will include the Irish poet and author Anthony Cronin and Oxford scholar Keith Hopper, who have both published biographies and critical studies of Brian O’Nolan and his works.

Adaptations, cultural appropriations and translations will be presented and discussed by The Irish Times’ columnist Frank McNally, whose column "An Irishman’s Diary" might be regarded as a literary heir of "Cruiskeen Lawn," the Austrian film-maker Kurt Palm, who directed the only existing film adaptation of an O’Brien novel, and the German performer and translator Harry Rowohlt, who translated all major works of Flann/Myles into German.

Vienna is a fitting location for this conference, with a long-standing tradition of adapting the work of the Irish author for stage and screen: Examples include Der Pooka MacPhellimey, ein Angehöriger der teuflischen Zunft and Kurt Palm’s In Schwimmen-Zwei-Vögel, the only film adaptation of O’Brien’s novels to date. Honoring this tradition, the conference will be accompanied by a varied ‘Fringe Flann’ arts program, including film screenings (The Martyr’s Crown, John Duffy’s Brother, Babble), performances ("The Science of Flann O’Brien," The Brother), readings (Julian Gough, Roger Boylan, Eamon Morrissey) and an art exhibition ("Myles Away from Illustration: The Influence of Flann O’Brien on the Visual Arts").

These contemporary adaptations and appropriations, as well as the international line-up of conference speakers, aim to contest the view of O’Brien/Myles as a purely local phenomenon, confirming his status as an author of international significance and better integrate the global community of ‘O’Nolan studies’ scholars, initiating further and more diverse examinations of his work.


For more info on the 100 Myles International Flann O’Brien Conference, please visit the conference’s website:

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