Eimar O’Duffy: a forgotten 1920s Irish author with satirical vision
Cuanduine trilogy mixed Irish mythology and science fiction in comedy that still works
Eimar O’Duffy died in 1935 from an ulcer. He was estranged from his father, at odds with the new Irish State, an Irish man in England, often in pain and ever-shadowed by money worries.
It can sometimes seem that Eimar O’Duffy (1893-1935) is most remembered for being a forgotten writer. John Hogan begins his slim 1972 biography of O’Duffy with the line “Eimar Ultan O’Duffy is virtually a forgotten writer”, then quotes Vivian Mercier’s 1946 essay on O’Duffy: “The late Eimar O’Duffy . . . was simply ignored.”
O’Duffy, of Anglo-Irish stock, became a captain in the Irish Volunteers and was sent by Eoin MacNeill, along with Bulmer Hobson, to stop the 1916 insurrection in Belfast. He wrote a wide variety of books and plays, but it is the Cuanduine trilogy that is his great achievement. King Goshawk and the Birds is the first part of the trilogy and is an important landmark in the Irish comic novel tradition.
King Goshawk can be seen as part of a fabulist tradition – James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold, Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey, Flann O’Brien’s work – where realities are addressed through fantastic scenarios drawing on myth and legend. This obtuse strategy can be seen as a result of colonialism: people evicted from the materiality of their own country seek to reclaim “power” by declaring an imagined republic ruled by the tongue. But O’Duffy has a sometimes dark, vitriolic, satiric edge solely his own.
King Goshawk and the Birds is set in Ireland and England in an imaginary future some 30 to 40 years from the time of writing (1923) and is a savage satire on capitalism and the blood hero cult of Cuchulain as used in the Revivalist writings of Yeats and Lady Gregory and embodied by Pearse. King Goshawk is the King of Industrialists and he gives his wife the present of all the songbirds in the world; having collected them all, he later he charges the public in to see them – the ultimate in privatisation.
A character called The Philosopher (a nod and a wink to James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold) heads to the heavens and engages the services of Cuchulain by telling the story of an impoverished mother whose son is sent to war, “where, after he had slain several other women’s sons, he was killed in his turn.” Meanwhile, the rich man whose motorcar was used to drive the dying boy from the field was compensated for his car.
Back on earth, the Philosopher obtains for Cuchulain the use of the body of grocery clerk Robert Emmett Aloysius O’Kennedy to wear as his own – mythological hero contrasted with the small concerns of the then Irish citizen. Cuchulain is initially filled with terror at his host’s feelings for the creature known as The Boss, and he is assailed by worries that are strange to him: whether his clothes are fashionable or if people are gossiping about him. Cuchulain’s bodily contortions of cartoonish nature as he confronts Aloysius’s Boss are worthy of Flann O’Brien. Cuchulain is shown to be no great fit for the human world, but useful as a mirror to show the faults of that same world. He has a son – Cuanduine – who continues his quest.
Parodies of newspapers
King Goshawk was written from 1923 to 1926. In 1925, O’Duffy left Ireland disillusioned and moved to England, where the last section of the book is based. This move reinvigorates this final section with a new energy as Cuanduine becomes a celebrity.
Parodies of newspapers – reports in differing styles, very funny small ads for accommodation and sensationalist stories – pervade this section and may be seen as influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses. (One set of small ads for rental accommodation has a running joke about children not being allowed. One can surmise that this was based on O’Duffy’s personal experience.)
There are also pops at political posters, a chapter in play form and, in the final section, a dissection of Larky Gigglesworth’s popular song Blue Bananas that is worth the price of admission alone. There are also Rabelaisian lists including a list of photos taken of Cuanduine. Ultimately this is savagely funny, raged-filled satire that has a surprising contemporary relevance. As he says of war, “nobody ever knows the real cause or meaning of these wars, and that if anyone asks he is immediately put to silence”.
As Cuchulain wears Aloysius O’Kennedy’s body, Aloysius’s spirit soars into outer space and ends up on the planet of Rathe in the second book of the trilogy, The Spacious Adventures of The Man in The Street. Here O’Duffy critiques society through an imagined one that is an often an inversion of his contemporary one, for instance the very funny conceit that eating is treated like sex so the inhabitants are monophagus – they must choose a food and then stick with that for the rest of their lives. Common sense Aloysius argues the benefits of capitalism against the utopian Rathean argument: “And what, he asked, was the good of inducing those who already consumed as much as they wanted, to consume more, when there were other people who did not get enough for their ordinary needs?”
There is an impressive creation of another world, though betimes the detail can be a little too much.
Arguments are impressively set out and not simply one-sided, adventures are had and there are some very, very funny set pieces.
Mysteries of economics
Asses in Clover is even more angry and vitriolic than the previous books. O’Duffy had come under the influence of the ideas of Social Credit (he actually wrote a book based on this theory called Life and Money). Like all of his work, Asses could have done with a little editing, but it is surprising how relevant it is to today’s world and specifically what this country has gone through in the last 10 years. King Goshawk is back but behind the scenes is the real power, Slawmy Calder, who “cared not two pins what the world did so long as he had the management of it”. He founds the Sacred Congregation “to inculcate in the public the spirit of faith in the mysteries of economics, and of reverence for economic laws, so necessary for the proper working of the financial system”.
Above the Temple of Broadway door is the following illuminated text: “THE SKY IS THE LIMIT. ANYONE OF YOU CAN BECOME THE PRESIDENT OR A MILLIONAIRE GET GOING AND GO GETTING.”
Cuanduine meets Mac Uí Rudaí (Son of Things) whose initial modest ambition – to own a cottage and have a wife and kids and a little left over – failed while his hugely ambitious brothers achieved their get-rich ambitions, thus indicting the capitalist system of extremes.
The book examines this system through the matrix of religion, newspapers, economists, warmongers and leaders as truth is twisted into submission by expediency: “‘Gas, in fact, is far too efficient a weapon to be resisited. Chemical warfare has come to stay.’ In effect, Chemical Warfare has a will of its own, and man is its humble servant . . . On all counts then the International fleet is to be exonerated from blame in this matter; for they cannot truly be said to have employed Chemical Warfare: it was Chemical Warfare that employed them.”
O’Duffy died in 1935 from an ulcer. There is the feeling of a constant outsider – estranged from his father, at odds with the new Irish State, an Irish man in England, often in pain, ever-shadowed by money worries. Yet he sustained an idealism for a better world that, fuelled by anger and rage, lights up this often-hilarious trilogy.
The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street and King Goshawk and the Birds have been republished by Dalkey Archive Press. The latest edition of Asses in Clover was published by Jon Carpenter in 2003