The pride of the 'Times'

 

Cruiskeen Lawn dispensed altogether with such things as plot or character development, or anything else that got in the way of his imagination

THE THEN Irish Times editor, RM Smyllie, joked that he only gave Brian O’Nolan a column to rescue the reputation of his letters page. There may have been some truth in this. For at least 18 months before his formal debut in 1940, the man who became Myles na gCopaleen had run amok in the paper under various false identities, including Flann O’Brien, who thus made his literary bow.

Sometimes Smyllie was in on the conspiracy, as when a mocking letter earned the wrath of writer Frank O’Connor. More times he was not. Soon, faced with yet another suspicious missive, he would sense O’Nolan’s “fine Italian hand” in the forgery. Giving the miscreant his own outlet – Cruiskeen Lawn – was one way of controlling him.

But O’Nolan’s main attraction for a unionist newspaper then awkwardly repositioning itself in a young Free State, was that he wrote, fluently and with great wit, in Irish; which is what he was hired to do, until the column became a victim of its own success.

Another senior editor would recall – with no apparent scepticism – that he knew Cruiskeen Lawn was a hit when it provoked a series of letters – unusual for journalism in the first official language. In any case, that success brought the lure of a wider readership, which could not be resisted long.

After a year of being exclusively in Irish and a slightly longer period of bilingualism, the column soon appeared in English only. There were attempts to persuade Myles to revert to the mother tongue, occasionally, but to no effect. By 1944, Cruiskeen Lawn (“little brimming jug”) had become what it would be for most of its 26-year run: the funniest English-language newspaper column anywhere.

In the early years, it carried on the anarchic spirit of At Swim-Two-Birds, O’Nolan’s (1939) now classic but ill-fated first novel, published under the Flann O’Brien franchise. There was even a certain logic to the development, since the narrator of ASTB had declared redundant the idea that a novel should have a single beginning or end, or that readers should be required to join in at the start.

It was not then public knowledge that the author had deftly extricated himself from this position with an equally brilliant follow-up novel, The Third Policeman, which had both a single beginning and (insofar as a description of hell can) an end, but was rejected by publishers.

In its absence, the early Cruiskeen Lawn could be seen as a continuation of ASTB’s artistic statement, dispensing altogether with such things as plot, character development, or anything else that got in the way of where the author’s crazily brilliant imagination wanted to take him.

Its greatest character was the supposed creator himself, “Myles of the Little Horses” (or “Myles of the Ponies”, as O’Nolan affected to prefer, on the grounds that “the sovereignty of the pony should not be subjugated by the imperialism of the horse”), who took his name from a stage-Irish character in one of Dion Boucicault’s plays.

By his own accounts, Sir Myles na gCopaleen was several hundred years old, having been born in Montevideo in 1646 and in various other times and places since, including London’s Paddington Station in the 1860s.

He had been present at many great historic and scientific events: studying music under Scarlatti, collaborating with Einstein and helping Clemenceau restore order to France after the first World War.

In Ireland, at various times, he had been Provost of Trinity College and district justice of Ballybofey. He was also occasionally a flea-bitten drunk who enjoyed giving lip to gardaí and judges during his own regular appearances before the District Court. On other occasions still, he had refused a professorship in architecture at UCD, resisted pressure to accept the Irish presidency, and shocked nationalist opinion by accepting a knighthood.

Around this monstrously comic creation, the author assembled a range of equally outlandish characters, including the know-all Brother, the eternally punning Keats and Chapman, and of course the steam-man, an obsessive railway veteran who could work himself up to heights of indignation on the subject of poppet valves or the hated “full regulator, short cut-off” school of engine driving.

O’Nolan probably borrowed some of the architecture of the column from JB Morton, whose Beachcomber ran for 50 years in the Daily Express and shared at least superficial qualities with Cruiskeen Lawn. Most of the latter was like nothing else, however. Which said, in common with all writers, Myles was not averse to stealing a good idea, where necessary.

Or maybe it was just coincidence that his catechism of cliche, a regular feature from 1942 onwards, was very similar in structure to a series of New Yorker columns by Frank Sullivan, featuring “cliche expert” Mr Arbuthnot, which first appeared in 1935.

The difference is that O’Nolan gave the idea a Catholic twist. And he made it a lot funnier. As collected in New Yorker anthologies, Sullivan’s pieces look clunky now. Myles’s skewering of the hackneyed phrase has lost none of its edge. Show-off that he was, he didn’t even confine himself to English. Occasionally, mid-catechism, he would slip effortlessly into Latin, of whose cliches he was equally a master.

Such brilliance was, alas, confined to a very small readership, even after the move to English. One of his many name changes – the dropping of the eclipsis in gCopaleen, thenceforward simplified to Gopaleen – may have been with one eye on a larger audience abroad. If so, it didn’t help.

Cruiskeen Lawn would have been syndicated to 500 newspapers, had it been written in the US. Whereas, in the event, it hardly even crossed the Irish Sea. Towards the end of the war, for example, when O’Nolan was at the height of his powers, George Orwell wrote an essay lamenting how genteel comic writing had become since the days of Swift and Thackeray.

The best recent exemplars, he suggested, had all been “Catholic apologists” such as Beachcomber, Belloc and Chesterton. He might have added Myles na Gopaleen (behind whose many masks lurked a serious Catholic) to that list, if he’d known of him. But neither then, nor when unfavourably contrasting England’s humorists with their American counterparts, did Orwell mention Myles.

Even among those who did know him, there was a tendency to dismiss the column as a waste of a writer who could have been good. As early as 1947, a profile in The Bell said of O’Nolan that his best work was “far behind him” and damned the journalism as “brilliant but futile”. He was still only 36.

That set the tone for much subsequent comment, especially when, in later years, alcoholism, ill-health, and general crankiness diminished both the man and his column. Even by the late 1940s, the column had become more straightforwardly satirical, increasingly dependent on Irish politics and cultural life for inspiration. In the process, it eventually cost him his day job, something excessive drinking and absenteeism had not managed to do.

Until then, O’Nolan had successfully balanced his civil service career, much of it as private secretary to successive ministers, with his role as a newspaper humorist. The tensions involved can be guessed at from one telling fact about this man of multiple identities: that during this 14-year double life, his real name seems to have featured in this newspaper only once. This was when he was thanked, in formal civil service English, for his role as secretary to the tribunal that investigated (and probably whitewashed) the 1943 Cavan orphanage fire.

It was a column lampooning his own minister that finally forced O’Nolan’s resignation, not long after he had made the mistake of posing under the stopped clock of Dublin coal-merchant (and lord mayor) Andy Clerkin: a clock Myles had chosen to portray as a symbol of everything that was wrong with Ireland. It had never been a secret that O’Nolan was Myles. It was equally well known, however, that other writers sometimes filled in for him. This lent an element of deniability to any given column; a defence the picture made less tenable.

Published daily at its peak, Cruiskeen Lawn was only a sporadic feature by the 1960s. O’Nolan’s last column, published on the day he would die – April 1st, 1966 – was a rather sad rehash of the book-handling theme, a classic of the early years. It was an attempt to reheat the souffle by a man probably in no condition to work; although by then The Irish Times was paying him whether or not the column appeared.

In the years after he died, it remained the convention for critics to regret Cruiskeen Lawn as a drain on the resources of a man who would otherwise have written more masterpieces such as ASTB and The Third Policeman. For decades, Hugh Kenner’s dismissive question – “Was it the drink was his ruin, or was it the column? For ruin is the word” – sounded like the final verdict.

But in recent years a new generation of critics has elevated the collected Myles as a literary masterpiece in itself. There is now talk of creating a “wiki” version, in which modern technology, with its infinite linking powers, would finally catch up with O’Nolan’s mercurial, free-ranging brain. In the meantime, even as the critics take its author more seriously than ever before, the best of Cruiskeen Lawn remains what it always was, first and foremost: funny.