Cycle of life and death: Frank McNally on an unlikely Flann O’Brien tribute and a tale of two Turners

Brian O’Nolan’s remains have resided in Deansgrange Cemetery since his death in 1966

I understand the sensitivities of those bereaved relatives who don’t want the proposed cycle path through Dublin’s Deansgrange Cemetery. But from a literary viewpoint, as an anniversary this week reminded me, it would be a small tragedy if it doesn’t happen.

Wednesday was the (111th) birthday of Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien, whose mortal remains have resided in that cemetery since his death in 1966. Or at least, some of his mortal remains reside there. By the terms of his infamous Molecular Theory, a big part of him may be elsewhere.

As explained in O’Brien’s comic masterpiece, The Third Policeman, humans and other entities with which they come in contact are continually exchanging matter. Bicycles are especially permeable.

People who cycle a lot, like postmen, gradually exchange personalities with their bikes, and vice versa, until the worst affected humans take to standing on roadsides with one foot propped on the footpath and bicycles start sneaking into kitchens and stealing food.


On his entrance into the novel’s underworld, The Third Policeman’s unnamed narrator finds himself wrestling with the great question: “Is it about a bicycle?” Everything subsequently is, it seems.

Even O’Brien’s wild imagination might not have envisaged the accidental tribute to him of a “permeable” (the official term) cycle route through Deansgrange. But his last novel The Dalkey Archive, advanced the connection between bicycles and the afterlife. Adapted for the stage by Hugh Leonard, it was retitled: When the Saints go Cycling in.


A new exhibition of JM Turner paintings, from London’s Tate, opens in the National Gallery on Saturday. But strange to say, and thanks to the same O’Nolan, I have seen it already, a similar exhibition having run in Boston earlier this year when I was attending the International Flann O’Brien Conference there.

That one was called Turner’s Modern World. In Dublin, by contrast, the hosts have gone for a religious angle, Turner: The sun is God. This is inspired by his reported last words, in keeping with a man who spent his life capturing the effects of light, although the quotation has also sometimes been given a Christian interpretation, based on the possibility that the word he meant was “son”.

To observe the storm, according to the note, Turner asked sailors to ‘lash’ him to the Ariel’s mast

Either way, his belief art is unquestionable. One of the most impressive parts of the Boston show was the note accompanying his seascape: “Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water and Going by the Lead. The author was in this storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich.” (c1842)

The prosaic (and prolix) title belies the drama of the picture, in which the ship is barely visible in a vortex of sea and snow. To observe the storm, according to the note, Turner asked sailors to “lash” him to the Ariel’s mast. He added: “I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did.”

Alas for unbelievers, the Boston curators cast some doubt on whether this remarkable exercise in research ever happened. It “may be fiction”, they ventured, noting that no ship called Ariel left Harwich in 1841/2, while a similarly named vessel — “Fairy” — did, but “sank with all hands”.


A man who was in the audience in Boston, Bill Smith, turned up in Dublin this week, as he does every October for the theatre festival, and took time out to present me with a cap.

No it wasn’t a cap for making the first XV at the FOB conference. It bore the message “James Joyce Ramble” and referred instead to an event I narrowly missed in Boston: an annual 10k in which runners are bombarded along the route by extracts from Joyce’s works, delivered by actors.

One of Dublin’s oldest pubs, the Lord Edward is a good place for channelling ghosts, especially from Ireland’s revolutionary past

Bill’s devotion to Irish theatre matches Turner’s devotion to art, although despite booking tickets to everything in the festival programme, he probably missed a double-header I attended on Friday night.

Another Joycean, Des Gunning, had mentioned that, for the day that was in it (October 6th), he and others would be re-enacting the short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room around a fireplace in the Lord Edward Pub.

But when I arrived they were in a queue to use the room, which had been double-booked and was also hosting a rehearsal of the new-season Dublin Ghost Bus Tour.

One of Dublin’s oldest pubs, the Lord Edward is a good place for channelling ghosts, especially from Ireland’s revolutionary past. The eponymous Fitzgerald, after whom it is named, lived nearby.

But for some reason I was reminded a lesser-known figure from that period, Samuel Turner, Fitzgerald’s friend and later betrayer.

Turner was an ardent United Irishman for a time. He seems to have changed his mind, however, or had it changed by money. This was not known in his lifetime. But students of nominative determinism may not be surprised that, sometime circa 1798, apparently, Turner turned.