Trinity plays host to Flann 100 as admirers celebrate comic genius

Mon, Oct 17, 2011, 01:00

FLANNORAKS OF all types gathered yesterday at Trinity College Dublin for the final day of Flann 100, a centenary celebration of the writer Brian O’Nolan’s birth.

In attendance at the cultural programme were scientists and artists, journalists and writers, academics and students, and Flann fans of all ages, who came armed with absurd anecdotes about Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen, depending on their interest in his life/novels/satirical columns.

A panel discussion entitled “The Writer’s Writer” teased out the inescapable influence of O’Nolan’s work on Irish comic writing.

Speaking first, Frank McNally, whose Irishman’s Diaryin this newspaper flirts with Flann-like obsessions concerning language and logic, shied away from descriptions of him as O’Nolan’s heir. McNally first came across the writer’s work as a civil servant, where he identified with the drudgery of office life described in At Swim-Two-Birds. O’Brien is easy to imitate, McNally said, but impossible to match as a comic stylist; you can steal from him, but you can’t better him.

Fellow journalist and novelist Ed O’Loughlin also spoke about the seminal influence of At Swim-Two-Birds. He first came across the book as a teenager in Co Kildare in the 1980s, where the postmodern plot and endless punning provided relief from the depression of an Irish recession and a prescriptive school curriculum. The final speaker, playwright Arthur Riordan, regaled the audience with a lively rendition of one of his own ballads, Why Can’t A Man Have a Drink?from his 2005 musical Improbable Frequency, which invented a “mythical Myles” who experimented with the laws of probability and punning in order to ensure Irish neutrality during the second World War. Riordan’s stage version of O’Brien’s final, unfinished “barely started” work Slattery’s Sago Saga has just finished a sell-out run at the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Elsewhere there were performances of excerpts from At Swim-Two-Birds,featuring actors from Sligo’s Blue Raincoat ensemble, who have brought the writer’s work to the stage on several occasions over the last decade, most memorably in The Third Policemanin 2009. Writer Val O’Donnell, meanwhile, performed excerpts from The Irish Times Cruiskeen Lawncolumn, which he recently adapted for the stage. And actor Jack Lynch enlivened a rough guide to the writer’s oeuvre by Dr Eibhlín Evans.

In a twist of Mylesian absurdity, however, the highlight of the day’s cultural programme proved to be a science lecture by Prof Dermot Diamond, in which Diamond convincingly argued that O’Brien was not just a literary genius but a scientific prophet. Diamond set recent experiments in the fields of thermodynamics, quaternion theory and atomic theory against excerpts from O’Brien’s books, suggesting that O’Brien anticipated some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century.

Diamond also invented his own theories about how O’Brien would have responded to developments in nanotechnology, whose importance can only be appreciated by its invisibility. Actor Fergus Cronin performed the literary excerpts in variety of different guises, including a familiar one of the writer himself in trench coat and black hat.

But what would O’Nolan have made of the celebrations, which were more reverent in spirit than those who know about the heady nature of his public-private life and the ridiculous romps his novels would suggest?

He would surely have joined his fans for a pint of plain in the Palace afterwards. And later found it ripe for satire.