The hard life meets La Dolce Vita

An Irishman’s Diary in which Flann O’Brien fans think they’ve died and gone to heaven

The Villa Spada

The Villa Spada


The Flann O’Brien conference in Rome began this week, poignantly, on the 30th anniversary of the writer’s death. Not his real death, of course. That was nearer 50 years ago (in 1966). No, this was his fictional death, as revealed exclusively, decades in advance, to readers of The Irish Times.

He was of course writing in his columnist persona, Myles na gCopaleen. As which, he affected to regret something he had done, and predicted he would do so until his “dying day”. Then he added:

“My dying day, by the way, is June 19, 1983 – the whole thing has been fixed at a conference and I should like to pay tribute to the spirit of give-and-take exhibited by the parties. I was asked why couldn’t I make it June 20 – the GAA had a big match on June 19th? I refused to budge [...]”

So, strictly speaking, last Wednesday was only an anniversary of the spurious demise of a non-existent character. Who is, in any case, immortal. Plus, there were no big GAA matches on either. So much for his prediction.

Still, as Paul Fagan – co-founder of the International Flann O’Brien Society – told his fellow scholars on arrival, it was a telling coincidence. That this actual conference about the writer should be taking place in a city known as “Eternal” only added to it.

The conference theme, “Problems with Authority”, refers in part to the tension between the real-life Brian O’Nolan’s role as civil servant and his more subversive writing career. It also nods to the difficulties caused by his multiple fake personae, one of whom – the infamous Myles – was born in several different centuries and died (for Ireland) at least twice.

But the theme took on another layer of meaning on Wednesday thanks to Alison Lacivita. An American who did her PhD in Trinity College Dublin, and is shortly to become an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, Alison was to have presented one of the more catchily-titled papers: “The Artificial Manure Ring – Agriculture in O’Brien”.

Unfortunately, a family in Switzerland for which she had been working while a student forgot to do some paperwork on her behalf. So on the eve of the conference, she found herself deported back to the US, a victim of problems with authority. Undaunted, she delivered her talk via Skype, live from exile, and thereby made herself a hero.

Fans of The Third Policeman may be curious what Alison had to say about the manure ring. Which, as they’ll recall, was allegedly run by a cartel of “Jewmen and Freemasons” and was the presumed source of the wealth for which the narrator and his sidekick Divney murder old Mathers.

Well, naturally, her well-
researched paper did not support the conspiracy theory as outlined. It did, however, place the sub-plot in historical context – de Valera’s Economic War with Britain – which had the side-effect of restricting the availability of fertilisers and did indeed lead to profiteering.

Poor Alison. On the plus side, she missed a heatwave that has had even Romans complaining. But among the many delights denied her was a reception at the Irish Embassy, the magnificent Villa Spada, on Wednesday night. A 17th century mansion, sitting on top of Janiculum Hill, with the sort of views for which you would normally have to visit a gallery, this was a suitably exciting location for the unveiling of a new O’Nolan book.

Well, sort-of new. Most of the material included in The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien has been published before. But in many cases in such obscure places, so long ago, and has since been so completely forgotten that, for most fans, it might as well be new. Certainly it was the cause of genuine excitement for the scholars gathered at Villa Spada. Compared with its launch by co-editors Keith Hopper and Neil Murph it was a mere bonus that the embassy also laid on dinner.

The ambassador was away, unavoidably detained at a late-night meeting at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. But his second-in-command, Eoin Duggan, deputised manfully. A crack chef named Antonio was also on the case.

After which, with darkness making the temperatures merciful, we lingered long in the villa’s garden, under the lime and orange trees. The moon rose over the Janiculum pines. Nightingales sang somewhere. And as a few of us raised a glass to Flann – who never made it to Rome, except in imagination, via one of his novels – we had to concede, guiltily, that this was about as far from The Hard Life as it gets.

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