A bridge name too far

An Irishman’s Diary: How Flann O’Brien is snubbed in Dublin but at home in Rome

It was a cunning move by Dublin City Council not to include Uncle Tom Cobley on its otherwise-exhaustive “shortlist” of 17 candidates from which the name of the new Dublin bridge will be chosen. Otherwise, even more questions might have been be asked about the obvious absentee.

If his ghost is still with us, Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen must surely suspect that there are dark forces at work somewhere to prevent his possible immortalisation by a piece of publicly-funded civil engineering.

At the very least, noting that nominated names include “James Connolly” and “the Patriots Bridge”, he would have to conclude that while dying for Ireland is still a popular concept in 2013, living for it remains sadly under-valued.

It’s true that the two decades of his life spent working as a public servant in the young Free State were marked by a gradual decline in productivity. And that this coincided with him spending less and less time in the Custom House, his official place of employment, and more and more time in the Scotch House, a pub across the river on Burgh Quay.


No doubt the possibility that the new bridge – which makes a very similar journey – might be interpreted as a celebration of civil service absenteeism will be held up as a reason for his snubbing by City Hall.

But for good or bad, it was in the Scotch House and such bars that the real-life Brian O’Nolan developed his ear for Dublinese: the language he so glorified in his other career, as writer. And it was there also that he established the crucial distance between his literary self and his role in the Department of Local Government: the better that he could satirise Ireland’s decision-makers.

It might not be claiming too much to say that, as his public service north of the Liffey waned, it simultaneously waxed south of the river via his famous Irish Times column. Which, among other things, featured his own honours system, including an award for outstanding bureaucracy: the "County Manager's Hat". Of course, even then, he was probably burning his bridge-name prospects.

His exclusion from the shortlist wouldn’t seem quite so blatant had it been part of a general policy to overlook writers. Whereas, on the contrary, just about every other scribe not previously honoured is included. Not only that, but choosing exile from Dublin seems again to have been part of the criteria.

Liffey bridges already celebrate Joyce and Beckett, both famous for getting out of the city as quickly as possible, and O’Casey, who emigrated too. Now, potential new laureates include Wilde, Stoker, and Yeats, who also saw fit to spend large parts of their lives in more exotic places, such as London, Paris, the Côte d’Azur, and Sligo.

Brian O’Nolan and Dublin were, by contrast, inseparable. Once he became established there, he never left, except once, for a holiday in Germany.

Oh well. Even as the city he loved spurns him, other European capitals are queuing up to pay tribute. Thus readers may recall that, during the 2011 centenary, events included a Flann O’Brien symposium in Vienna, one of the many foreign cities he could never be bothered to visit. Now, two years later, it’s the turn of Rome, whose doors he also failed to darken, except in imagination.

O'Brien's late-career novel, The Hard Life, includes a sub-plot set there, circa 1910, where its protagonist Mr Collopy seeks the pope's support for a scheme to provide women's toilets in Dublin. So when scholars gather in the Eternal City later this month for the second Flann O'Brien International (univie.ac.at/flannobrien2011/rome2013.html), they will be following in Collopy's footsteps.

Not too closely, it’s hoped. As Flanneurs will know, Collopy comes to a tragic end in Rome, when – SPOILER ALERT! – a morbid density condition, the side-effect of a quack medical treatment, causes him to crash through the floor of a concert hall balcony.

The Last Rites are administered by his companion, Fr Kurt Fahrt SJ, on whom hangs a poignant tale about Flann O’Brien’s later career. To wit: the priest’s rude name was a calculated attempt to earn the book a ban and free publicity. Alas, this was 1960 and censorship – an honour already showered on a whole generation of Irish writers – was no longer quite that easy to invoke.

So he was snubbed then too. And yet posterity has partially vindicated him. The Rome symposium, which begins June 19th, will naturally involve academics discussing such subjects as “Dualistic Ontology” in O’Brien’s works. But as a necessary restraining device, it will also include presentation of the first biennial award for O’Brien scholarship: the Fahrt Memorial Prize.