An Irishman's Diary


THIS morning we mark the birthday of two great men who, natal synchronicity apart, also shared a deep interest in physics and – albeit to varying extents – in the exploration of space.

Brian O’Nolan, better known as Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, would have been 101 today. And you might think that, after the orgy of celebrations during last year’s centenary, there would now be a lull in activity. But not yet.

Striking an early blow for domination in the second century of Mylesian studies, his native Strabane and its Donegal neighbour Lifford will combine next Friday in the first annual Flann O’Brien Literary Festival Weekend.

The event is hosted jointly by the De Selby Institute – named after the mad scientist of the O’Brien novels – and the Riverine Autumn School, which is part of a visionary cross-Border reconciliation project announced last year.

I slipped the adjectives “mad” and “visionary” into that last sentence for a reason: because, in fairness to De Selby, the terms are often interchangeable. Something today’s other birthday boy knew well.

Robert H Goddard was born 130 years ago in Massachusetts, and his interest in space travel was partly the result of reading The War of the Worlds when he was 16. But a year after that, while exploring the relatively modest altitudes of a cherry tree one day, he had something of an epiphany.

“It was one of the quiet, colourful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet.” Like many visionaries, Goddard was also a modest man, who did not seek publicity except from those who could advance his ideas. Thus his 1920 paper, A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes – which discussed the possibility of sending rockets to the moon – was targeted mainly at the Smithsonian Institute.

Unfortunately those smart-arsed know-nothings at the New York Times also heard about it, and turned Goddard into a celebrity – of the “national laughingstock” variety, as he said himself – with a front-paged story and editorial.

In the latter, they lectured him on the hare-brained nature of his rocket schemes. It was impossible to propel anything in a vacuum, the paper wrote. Everybody knew that.

Although he did subsequently launch the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket, and also had the patent for a multiple-stage rocket of the kind that would eventually take man to the moon, Goddard didn’t live to see the age of space travel.

Almost as regrettable is that he didn’t live to see the New York Times’s “correction” of the original editorial, published 49 years later, in July 1969. But happily, he does seem to have known that his ideas would triumph eventually. “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it,” he said in 1920. “Once realised, it becomes commonplace.”

BRIAN O’NOLAN probably knew that too. On balance, his career was more dedicated to the advancement of jokes than of science. Even so, many of the ideas he toyed with in The Third Policeman are now a lot closer to mainstream understanding of how the universe works than they were, or were meant to be, when he wrote the book.

A few of his visions are still well ahead of their time, however. Unlike Goddard, O’Nolan lived to see at least the start of the space age. And in 1962, it provoked him – under his Myles na gCopaleen franchise – to complain that Ireland was being left behind by the so-called “Super-powers”.

Despite the large amounts of whiskey drunk here, he lamented, we hadn’t achieved even the status of a “Baby Power” yet. To redress which, he proposed sending an Irish rocket (made by CIÉ) into space. And not just space but, outflanking the plans of both US and Soviet Union, he suggested Ireland’s manned mission should go all the way to Saturn.

Behind his quasi-scientific argument for that target, of course, lurked one of his long-cherished vendettas: in this case against those language enthusiasts – the “super Gaels” – who insisted on speaking his beloved Irish in public, badly (it was one of O’Nolan’s conceits that everybody spoke Irish badly except him).

The pests identified each other by wearing the ring-shaped fáinne. Hence Myles’s revenge, which would involve sending their leading members on a voyage to the ringed planet, return from which could not be certain.

Happily, perhaps, his space programme remains in the realms of science fiction. As does his claim, made on the same occasion, that he himself had already visited the moon.

It was on “private business”, he added, explaining a reluctance to go into details. But most Mylesian scholars are fairly sure he was exaggerating on this point. In fact, all the evidence suggests that O’Nolan left Ireland only once, and on that occasion got no further than Germany.

The inaugural Flann O’Brien Literary Festival Weekend runs from October 12th to 13th. More details are at