Flann and the language of silence


The first Cruiskeen Lawn columns were written in Irish, a language both loved and spurned by the author, writes David Wheatley

THERE IS a lot of silence and talking to oneself in Irish writing. In his essay Ireland at the Bar, James Joyce describes the tragic case of Myles Joyce, an Irish-speaker tried in English and sentenced to death for the Maamtrasna murders of 1882, “a stupefied old man . . . deaf and dumb before his judge”.

From Myles Joyce and James Joyce it is a short step to the Myles whose centenary we are now celebrating, and the fantastical case he describes in a Cruiskeen Lawn column of being put on trial for the theft of an armchair. Insisting on speaking Latin, he is mistaken for an Irish-speaker and found guilty by the furious judge. “This sort of thing makes a farce of the language movement”, the detective sergeant chips in.

In another column, Myles pondered the dilemma of whether it is possible to be silent in more than one language. Is “silence” the same thing as being I do thost, acoustically speaking? (Or acoustically not speaking, rather.) If ever a writer was qualified to answer this question, it was Flann O’Brien. Raised in an Irish-speaking household, he wrote his early Cruiskeen Lawn columns in Irish, but in later life he was effectively a Gaeltacht of one. Drinkers who approached Myles in Dublin pubs would frequently get short shrift, but woe betide the innocent foolish enough to address him in Irish. This was strictly off-limits.

With so many people taking shelter within him – Brian O’Nolan, Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, Brother Barnabas, George Knowall – it is understandable that our man should find other people surplus to his conversational needs. But for a writer whose work sparkles with such vernacular brio, the silence and solitude of Flann O’Brien is indeed peculiar, even paradoxical. What is this inwardness at the heart of his work?

Irish writers conventionally choose Irish or English, not to mention other languages, but the greatness of Flann O’Brien is the tenacity with which he lives between tongues, as surely as Sergeant Fox lives between the walls of his station.

No writer is more at home in Irish, yet none has spurned the language more ferociously or, when we consider the novels he might have gone to write after An Béal Bocht, more tragically either. No writer had more to say (Cruiskeen Lawn, in its impossible totality, stretches to more than three million words), yet none is more withdrawn, mysterious, unknowable – mute.

The secret of Irish writing lies buried in the language of silence, and no one speaks it more fluently than Flann O’Brien.

David Wheatley is a senior lecturer in the English department, University of Hull