An alleged hoax

An Irishman’s Diary: Mystery of Flann O’Brien ‘interview’ with Joyce’s father

In a recent Irishman's Diary Frank McNally wrote about Brian O'Nolan's (Flann O'Brien's) role as secretary of the commission which produced a notoriously inadequate report into the Cavan orphanage fire of 1943, a very rare case of O'Brien's "day job" taking on a public dimension. This brought to mind another of O'Brien's more unusual incarnations, his alleged role as author of an allegedly fake interview with John Stanislaus Joyce, father of James Joyce.

As the "allegeds" in the foregoing sentence may indicate, a great deal of mystery still surrounds this anonymous, undated interview: it was first published in full in A James Joyce Yearbook , 1949, edited by Joyce's friend Maria Jolas. Mrs Jolas later wrote that she found the interview among Joyce's papers when she sorted them in 1949. It was seized on and used by many Joyce scholars. But there has long been a rumour that the interview was a hoax, the invention of Flann O'Brien. Naturally concerned about this allegation, Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann asked O'Brien's friend, Niall Sheridan, about the issue. (He never did ask O'Brien, though he knew about this claim for a long time.)

Sheridan, rather amazingly, confirmed to Ellmann (and also to O’Brien’s biographer, Anthony Cronin) that he and O’Brien had indeed called on Joyce senior in late 1930 or early 1931. He added, however, that neither wrote down anything about it and that the published interview did not reflect what transpired on their visit.

The strongest evidence that O'Brien may have written the interview came from the late expert in Anglo-Irish literature, John V Kelleher: he told the US academic Margaret Heckard that in 1950 he had shown the James Joyce Yearbook to O'Brien's friend Niall Montgomery. Montgomery immediately burst out laughing and brought Kelleher to meet O'Brien, who was reportedly tickled to discover that his hoax had got as far as the James Joyce Yearbook , though he had no idea how this had happened.

An apparently overlooked aspect of the controversy is the fact that the first biography of James Joyce, that of Herbert Gorman published in 1939, includes an excerpt from the interview, an anecdote about the tenor Barton McGuckin. As in all Gorman’s citations, no source is given, but this proves that the interview was indeed among Joyce’s papers at the time, since there was nowhere else that Gorman could have obtained it. Moreover, all the details in it do fit the known facts of John Stanislaus’s life. So, improbable as it may initially seem, it does look as if the interview is genuine and that it was probably commissioned by Joyce.

The voice in this interview (which is available online by entering "John Stanislaus Joyce interview" on a search engine) could certainly be that of John Stanislaus. It is a marvellous, oral concoction, by turns self-aggrandising, sentimental, lyrical, elegiac. As Anthony Cronin, in his biography of O'Brien, No Laughing Matter , acutely remarks, "If one had any doubts about the authenticity of the interview they would be on the grounds that it is all a little too much in character and too picturesque in tone and idiom."

It does not read as if it’s the transcript of a private interview commissioned by James Joyce with his father; it reads rather as if it were intended for publication in a journal. It begins: “ ‘Begor I’m not too bad considering everything, and how are you?’ Thus replied Mr Joyce when I visited him the other evening . . .”

But despite certain oddities, it does look, given the evidence of Gorman’s citation, that this is most likely the authentic voice of John Stanislaus Joyce, and not that of Flann O’Brien impersonating the old man. One other intriguing, highly tentative possibility suggests itself. What if the voice is not that of John Stanislaus but that of someone who knew that voice extremely well, and also knew all the details John Stanislaus cited? What if Gorman had asked James Joyce if he could supply a sample of his father’s talk, and James had duly obliged? This could account for the slightly manufactured effect that Cronin mentions.

If the voice of the interview is not that of John Stanislaus Joyce (and the most likely scenario remains that it is) then it would take something of a genius to imitate it so well, or at least to invent such an oral tour de force . But in this case we are dealing with two geniuses, and one was much better placed than the other to be the author.