An Irishman's Diary

 

If Dublin City Council doesn’t do the decent thing by naming that new bridge after Flann O’Brien, maybe fans of the writer should appeal to Paris or another European city to oblige instead. There would be perverse logic to such a move, after all.

O’Brien is often included in a trinity of Irish writers, alongside Joyce and Beckett, both of whom have now been honoured by Liffey bridges. But Joyce and Beckett are famous, among other things, for getting out of Dublin as quickly as they could, and spending the rest of their lives on mainland Europe.

Whereas Brian O’Nolan – the real-life Flann – spent almost his entire life in the city they abandoned. Indeed, despite Tyrone origins, he made a virtue out of being a Dubliner. He rarely left it. After a trip to Germany as a young man, he never went abroad again.

In his youth, the concept of dying for Ireland was highly prized. But it’s not too much an exaggeration to say that, as one of its first public servants, post-independence, O’Nolan helped popularise the concept of living for Ireland. His allegiance to its capital, in particular, was unswerving.

I could quite understand that, having named recent bridges after Joyce, Beckett, and O’Casey (yet another emigré), the council might now think it had sufficiently honoured literature.

And yet, considering that the new bridge nearly-enough links what were O’Nolan’s two main places of employment – the Custom House and the old Irish Times (not to mention the site of the Scotch House pub, which for years he called his “office”) – well, it would look like a deliberate snub if they named it after anyone else.

Which is why I think that, if the snub happens, O’Nolan fans should start a campaign to have a bridge named after him in Paris. Or Zurich. Or Trieste. Or any of the other great European cities to which he didn’t emigrate.

Prague would be even better. O’Nolan never went there either. But a Flann O’Brien Bridge in the capital of Bohemia would crown the post-modernist joke: honouring this most un-Bohemian of writers, who wore a suit, kept his day-job, and suffered for a family of 12 (after his father died) rather than for art.

Such a memorial is not beyond the realms of possibility, as I was reminded recently by an e-mail from the International Flann O’Brien Society. There is indeed such a society, based in the University of Vienna, where it hosted a conference to mark last year’s O’Nolan centenary.

I was there myself. And so much fun was it that the organisers promptly decided to repeat the exercise every other year, in different venues. Hence the second biennial IFOBS conference, scheduled for next June in another great city famous for never having been visited by O’Nolan: Rome.

One of the points made in Vienna was how well Flann O’Brien translates throughout Europe, especially in German-speaking countries. It’s a small irony, therefore, that an awards scheme to be inaugurated at next year’s event will not sound as amusing in German as it is to anglophone readers.

When he wrote his “come-back” novel, The Hard Life, in 1960, O’Nolan hatched a plan to get the book banned by Ireland’s notorious Censorship Board. He thought he could achieve this – and the resultant publicity – just by giving a rude name to one character, a Jesuit priest. The ruse was achieved by implying the priest had German ancestry.

Apparently Brendan Behan didn’t think the name alone sufficiently offensive. He recommended O’Nolan give the character a disease too. Thus did Fr Kurt Fahrt SJ, as he was christened, also suffer from psoriasis.

But in the event, neither detail managed to offend the censors. So on top of being a writer who hadn’t emigrated, O’Nolan had the added embarrassment in 20th century Ireland of going to his grave without ever having had a book banned.

It may be some consolation to him, posthumously, that the fame of his rudely-named creation will be cemented by a new annual award for Flann O’Brien criticism: the Fr Fahrt SJ Memorial prize. There are to be two such prizes, in fact: one for a book-length work, the other an essay.

And if nothing else, O’Nolan’s thwarted censorship plot may now at least prevent the growing body of Flann O’Brien scholars from ever taking themselves as seriously as Joyceans. In any case, the awards are to be known informally as the “Big Fahrt” and the “Little Fahrt”. And if you still want one, the closing date is November 30th. For more information see univie.ac.at/flannobrien2011/IFOBS.html.

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