O'Nolan's greatest deed no literary one, says the brother


THE WRITER Brian O’Nolan was a “very kind” man whose misfortune was to live through a grim time in Ireland when drink was often his only solace, former Irish Presseditor Tim Pat Coogan said last night.

He was speaking at the publication of The Brother (Myles), a collection of reminiscences by O’Nolan’s sole surviving sibling, Micheál Ó Nualláin, which has been published to mark the centenary of the writer’s birth.

Coogan said O’Nolan’s long-running Irish Timescolumn Cruiskeen Lawn was “the only regular fix of culture” that many people got in the “drab and dreary” 1950s. He personally had been “in awe” of the man.

He said Ó Nualláin’s book did a service in reminding people of the person behind the literary genius, who for years had also supported a very large family, “and his thirst”, on modest wages.

The Brother (Myles)is, by its author’s admission, a “slim volume”, covering the period from about 1932 to Brian’s death in 1966. It features Micheál’s earliest memories of the future writer, including an occasion when the latter cut down a 12-foot high garden trellis and then hammered it into shape as a table.

It was a well-made table, which the younger brother would use for years afterwards. But in the meantime it supported the typewriter on which Brian wrote his classic debut novel, At Swim-Two-Birds.

Ó Nualláin speculates that the brother’s famous molecular theory may have been at work already then, and that part of the table may have worked its way into the book. In any case, the main protagonist of At Swim-Two-Birdswas a Mr Trellis.

Despite all the literary fame, Ó Nualláin argues that his brother’s greatest deed in life had nothing to do with books or newspapers. In July 1937, when their father died suddenly, Brian was suddenly the household’s only breadwinner.

“He became the father of a family of 12, obviously with no experience,” Ó Nualláin writes in the book. “But he accepted his position gracefully and supported the entire family for the next 11 years.” The arrangement only ended when the children had grown up and Brian himself got married.

Last night’s event took place in O’Rourke’s bar in Blackrock, one of Brian O’Nolan’s favourite haunts in later life. Among the pub’s treasures is a framed letter from the writer, dated 1951, disputing an IOU the owner claimed to hold in respect of a £5 drinks bill.

“I have not suggested that you are the type to try a quick one, but I do know – and so must you – that some members of the staff of pubs (especially if they are ‘on the way out’) are not above taking cash from the till and substituting a fake IOU in the name of some accredited customer,” he lectured the publican. The same thing had happened to him in two pubs “in town”, he added. One was an attempt at “plain fraud”, the other an honest mix-up involving a loan to a “curate”.