Naming and shaming: OutFlanning Flann when it comes to unreliable names

An Irishman’s Diary about Arthur McBride and Flann O’Brien errors

Portrait of Brian O’Nolan, by his brother Mícheál Ó Nuallain

Portrait of Brian O’Nolan, by his brother Mícheál Ó Nuallain

 

‘Me and my cousin, one Arthur McBride” begins the classic anti-recruiting ballad that has made the cousin in question famous. But listening to the song again recently, I was struck by the contrasting anonymity of the narrator: all the more notable because he refers to himself in the opening word, before changing the subject and thereafter training the spotlight on his relative.

Perhaps this was mere modesty.

After all, the unidentified man also goes on to give Arthur the best lines, as with lawyerly sarcasm he picks apart a Napoleonic-era British sergeant’s boasts about the money, clothes, and “charming young wife” guaranteed as part of the army’s remuneration package.

Or was it just that the lyrics’ rhyming structure required somebody’s name, and McBride’s was better qualified, given the song’s location by the “seaside”, where the “tide” plays a major role (in the end receiving the rapiers of which the recruiting party is disarmed)?

But then again, speaking of lawyers, there would seem to be a conflict of interest in the narrator’s retention of namelessness while confessing his part in a case where charges of assault with shillelaghs, not to mention malicious damage to a drum, may subsequently arise.

This being so, and considering the usual attitude to informers in Irish history, one might wonder how the ballad made anti-authority heroes out of two men one of whom, potentially, is shopping his cousin.

If only Flann O’Brien were still around to comment. Flann made anonymity an art form, most notably in his novel The Third Policeman. There the narrator not only mentions himself in the opening line, he confesses to murder and fills in details that might otherwise escape investigators, viz: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Philip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade . . .”

The hanging he thereby qualifies for is postponed indefinitely, however, by an inability to remember his own name. Police are instead forced to try and guess it: “Would it be Mick Barry? “No.” “Charlemagne O’Keeffe?” “No.” “Sir Justice Spens?” “Not that.” “Kimberley?” “No.” And so on, ad absurdum.

Pseudonyms

No doubt he would have agreed with Bob Dylan (one of many singers to cover Arthur McBride, by the way) when the latter wrote: “Oh my name it is nothin’/My age it means less”.

But O’Nolan would nevertheless surely have been astonished by a feature in the latest Times Literary Supplement, which, albeit without intending to, does for Flann-related names what the St Valentine’s Day massacre did for Chicago’s North Side Gang.

Sligo of Southpaw

Collected LettersTLS

For bad measure, the review claims O’Nolan was educated by the “Christian Brotherhood”, which is close, but somehow makes the Brothers sound even more sinister that he considered them.

I like to think Flann (and the editor of his letters, Maebh Long, who recorded all these names correctly) would retain a sense of humour in the face of such outrages, although O’Nolan could be merciless towards sub-editors who got things wrong.

If Na gCopaleen’s ghost is tempted to mount his small horse in high dudgeon, however, I might remind him of a historical howler he seems to have committed himself in this newspaper once.

In a 1947 column, while setting up an elaborate pun, he suggested it was “the great Hugh O’Neill [who] escaped from Dublin Castle on Christmas Eve, 1591”, suffering horribly during a trek through the snow-bound Wicklow Mountains.

In fact it was Hugh’s cousins – Art and Henry O’Neill – along with Red Hugh O’Donnell, who escaped, losing a life (Art O’Neill’s) and two toes (O’Donnell’s) in the process.

But don’t worry, Myles. Even Homer nods, occasionally. On which note, this might be a good time to mention a small error that (ahem) I committed here last week about a forthcoming production of the Odyssey in Derry and Donegal. I suggested it was from a translation by Emily Watson. That should of course have read Emily Wilson.

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