The Brother: memories of Brian


In the following extracts from 'The Brother (Myles)', artist Micheál Ó Nualláin reflects on the hard life of his older sibling.


I MADE MY first acquaintance with Brian as far back as 1932, yet I remember this as if it happened yesterday. I was four years old at the time. I was out on the raised lawn in our back garden on a beautiful summer’s day. I was wearing a floppy summer hat and a child’s suit with two ducks in front staring at each other. I was amusing myself with a hatchet, or as Maureen Potter would have called it, a hacha. Brian must have seen me from one of the windows at the back of the house and rushed out to ensure that I would not do myself a grave injury. I remember seeing him approaching me up the steps. He had a pale white face and two slightly prominent front teeth, like those of a rabbit. He came up to me and said in Irish (which was the language of our home) “Tabháir Damh” (the north of Ireland dialect; “Tabhair Dom” in Munster).

I did exactly as he bade me do. I gave it to him when he was about eight feet from me. It hit him on the most delicate part of his anatomy. No, no, not there. It hit him on his ankle, where the skin is next to the bone. He hobbled about on one foot, holding his pained ankle, and issued a string of words I had never heard before. All I know is that they were not Irish words.

Some months later I was moved from the nursery to share a bedroom with Brian on the top floor of the house. Behind the lawn in the back garden stood a twelve-foot high trellis stretching across the entire width of the garden. Behind the trellis was a vegetable garden and at the end of the garden a hen run girdled its width.

The trellis had 3in by 4in uprights at 5ft intervals which was the main support of the trellis. During winter gales, part of the trellis would be broken and knocked to the ground. There were many broken parts of the trellis in the house. Around 1937, Brian made a small table; the top measured 5ft by 2ft approximately. This table was made solely from parts of the trellis. He brought it up to his bedroom and wrote At Swim-Two-Birdson it.

Whether the molecules of the table got mixed up with the molecules of the script, the main character in the book is called Dermot Trellis. You will not find the name Trellis in any Irish telephone directory.


Few people are aware that Brian was very poor for a long time. From the time he was forced to resign from his senior position in the department of local government, to receiving a pauper’s pension, he had to live on a pitiable pension and also support his wife.

I was at this time still living in the family home at number 4 Avoca Terrace, Blackrock. Brian was living around the corner at number 81 Mount Merrion Avenue (the numbers on these houses have since been changed). I went around to his house to see him. This was in 1954. He was wearing his overcoat and typing an article. There was no heat in the house. My young brother Niall and myself clubbed together and bought Brian a modern paraffin oil heater.

The payment Brian received for his Cruiskeen Lawn column in The Irish Times was derisory and did not improve until Douglas Gageby became the paper’s editor some years later. In the meantime Brian started to write a column for the Nationalistand Leinster Leaderunder the pseudonym George Knowall. Later in the 1960s, he wrote for television, including a series for his friend Jimmy O’Dea which was called O’Dea’s YourMan. With sundry other articles, Brian subsidised his pension, but he remained a poor man for the rest of his life.

The republishing of At Swim-Two-Birdsby MacKibbon Kee gave him a new lease of life. He embarked on two new novels, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive. His best novel, The Third Policeman,was still unpublished and languished at home in his house. It was eventually published by MacKibbon Kee posthumously. It was an enormous success and was published worldwide, as far away as Japan and China. If Brian were alive today, he would be enjoying huge royalties from all his works.


Brian joined the civil service in 1935. Soon afterwards he bought his first car. He worked in the Custom House in the department of local government. He used to drive into town, giving our father a lift in; he worked in Dublin Castle as a revenue commissioner, one of those people we used to hate because nobody enjoyed paying their taxes.

In July 1937 our father died suddenly. Brian was the only member of a family of twelve with a proper full-time job. He became the father of a family of twelve, obviously with no experience. He accepted his position gracefully and supported the entire family for over eleven years. Myles was given his father’s keys to the hall door. At this point he moved from sharing a bedroom with me. He would hang his overcoat on the hallstand. The overcoat soon became his flag of residence. The family lived mostly in the basement and I would be asked to see if he was at home in the evenings. I would go out to the hall to see if his overcoat was there. Brian often told me that there was a bag of sweets in his overcoat pocket.

Brian and his close friends Paddy Kavanagh and Brendan Behan were considered to be alcoholics, and Brian was thought the worst of the three of them. I believe that drink ruined his life.

Brian achieved much in his short life, especially his two great novels, At Swim-Two-Birdsand The Third Policeman, and his famous column Cruiskeen Lawnin The Irish Timeswhich he wrote for over twenty-five years.

But his finest achievement was to support and carry a family of 12 on his back for 11 years until some members of the family were earning a living. He was never recognised for this achievement during his lifetime.

In 1966 Brian was undergoing X-ray treatment for throat cancer. He was saved from the agony of dying from throat cancer by having a major heart attack. He died in that early morning of April 1st (April fool’s day, his final joke).

I would like to think that when he presented himself for entry at the Pearly Gates, St Peter asked him, “Is it about a bicycle?”


IN 1947 I enrolled as a student in the National College of Art and Design. I was determined to get involved in portraiture. To gain entry to this class of work, it would be necessary to get a well-known sitter for the portrait, so that the public could decide whether it was a good or a bad likeness.

I did not know any well-known person, so I felt stymied from the start. Then eventually I thought of Myles. After all, we shared a room, which was my studio at home and his writing den on a Sunday. I broached the subject and asked him to sit for me. He would not hear of it. I was greatly disappointed.

Then I realised that Myles was in fact sitting at his typewriter in my studio every Sunday. I could not put a canvas on my easel and paint him at work: he would see me and the canvas. But I could make covert studies and paint all the background – work-table, typewriter, and so on – when he was away the rest of the week. I did this.

Then in December of that year, 1948, Myles got married and left the family home. I was left with a surreal-looking canvas of effectively a finished and detailed painting of the background and foreground, while the subject of the painting was just blocked out and unfinished.

I kept it in the hope that I would finish it some day in the mid-1950s. I moved from the family home in Blackrock and rented a studio flat in Monkstown.

Myles, who had been fired from his job in the department of local government, visited me some years later. He explained that his wife was ill in hospital with TB and since he could not buy half an egg, he asked if he could stay with me for a few weeks. I said certainly, but I warned him that I was doing a lot of painting and he might have to sit for me. He said he was game ball; everything had changed.

I put him in the place in which I had started the painting in the family home in Blackrock.

In about two hours I had his portrait painted. I swung around the easel to let him see the large painting (40in x 36in). He looked at it, bewildered and said, “How can you remember all that detail, the bookcase, my table and typewriter?” I answered, without batting an eyelid, “I have a photographic memory”.

This is an edited extract from The Brother (Myles) by Micheál Ó Nualláin, Dublin, 2011