An Irishman’s Diary on the multiple identities of Flann O’Brien
‘When I suggest O’Nolan was born in a “row of houses”, that may be no exaggeration. In any case, the blue plaque is on No 15, which is where the local history society says he first lived. Others believe it should be next door at No 13, now part of the credit union.’
During a break in the Flann O’Brien festival in Strabane at the weekend, I had to visit a chemist’s shop to buy a personal-grooming accessory (a jar of Brylcreem, since you ask). It cost four-something, the assistant said. And I would normally have paid in cash except that, as I realised at the counter, I had no sterling.
So I asked apologetically if she’d mind me using a credit card. Whereupon the assistant explained, also apologetically, that the minimum purchase for so doing was a fiver.
Trawling the counter for something small to round up the total, I was torn between a comb and a packet of throat lozenges. But I opted for the latter, finally, on the grounds that I might possible use throat lozenges occasionally. After that, we did the card thing.
And it was only while leaving the shop I noticed the price sticker on the Brylcreem was in euros. This is when I remembered that, like several of the festival events, I wasn’t in Strabane at all. I was in Lifford, its twin town on the Donegal side of the Border, having crossed the dividing river earlier and forgotten.
There was, of course, no international boundary here back in 1911, when the man who became Flann was born: although the fact that his father was a customs and excise officer perhaps hinted at things to come.
It’s only now, when Strabane has a Border both real and largely invisible that we can appreciate what an apt birthplace it was for this particular writer, who made a career out of identity confusion.
One of the main festival events was a musical dramatisation of The Third Policeman: a novel in which the no-name narrator crosses a major boundary – in this case the one between life and death – without realising it.
He hasn’t changed his money either. But that’s the least of his problems, because unbeknownst to him, most of the subsequent events take place in hell, where consumer opportunities are minimal.
I hasten to add that I’m not comparing either Strabane or Lifford with hell. On the contrary, as all students of Flann O’Brien know, his version of hell was based on the countryside around Tullamore, where he lived during a later, more formative period.
In fact, it’s generally assumed that Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann, aka Myles na gCopaleen, left Tyrone too early for it to have been any influence on his work. But I’m not quite so sure about that.
Browsing in Strabane Library on Saturday, I remembered his comic horror story, Two in One, about a taxidermist who murders his boss and then adopts what he thinks is a perfect disguise – the dead man’s skin – until the two merge, like a sort-of cross-border body, with ghastly consequences.
And what reminded me of that piece of gothic fiction was the all-too-factual story of another Strabane native, William Burke. As half of a double act, with Hare, Burke became famous for his contribution to 19th-century anatomy studies, albeit by taking drastic short cuts in the sourcing of bodies for dissection.
When he was hanged, eventually, his own body was donated to the anatomists. But the British public’s revenge didn’t end there. Leather wallets purporting to be made from the dead man’s skin were soon on sale in Edinburgh, where the police museum still exhibits a handsomely designed calling-card case, said to be a Burke relic.
Maybe that too was part of O’Nolan’s Strabane inheritance, although it’s hard to know, since even basic details of his early life remain murky. Among the other events of the festival, for example, was the publication of a small book, The Houses of Flann O’Brien, by Brian Conway and Mickie Mullin (with photography by Raymond McCarron).
This describes the plethora of homes the writer lived in, at an average of one for every five years. In most cases the association is straightforward. The exception is the row of houses, at Bowling Green, Strabane, in which he was born.
When I suggest O’Nolan was born in a “row of houses”, that may be no exaggeration. In any case, the blue plaque is on No 15, which is where the local history society says he first lived. Others believe it should be next door at No 13, now part of the credit union.
But as the booklet’s authors suggest, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – one of Flann O’Brien’s favourite theories – may have been a factor in the birth, because the man himself is on record as claiming he was born in No 17.