At Swim-two-bards – Frank McNally on a long literary week in Boston

An Irishman’s Diary

By a spooky coincidence, the sixth international conference of the Flann O’Brien Society found itself sharing a city and the second week of April with the fifth international conference of an Edgar Allen Poe association.

"Flann in Far Amurikey" was the modest sub-title of the former event, "Poe Takes Boston" the bolder claim of the latter; although I can confirm that Boston College, at least, remained firmly under the control of Flannorak forces all week.

In fact, there was little crossover between the conferences, except perhaps on the spiritual plane.

The two writers have more in common than you might think, including roots in Ulster.


Poe is now remembered mainly as a horror writer, yet most of his work was humorous.

O’Brien had a strong tendency towards the macabre, but is chiefly famous for making people laugh.

Even the Poe statue in Boston has Flannish echoes. It portrays the haunted author striding along, accompanied by a giant raven but also holding a suitcase which has fallen open, scattering papers.

The parallel is with O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, a masterpiece published only posthumously and long the subject of rumours including one that the manuscript had blown out of his car-boot on a trip to Donegal.

I had missing manuscript issues of my own in Boston, as it happened. Two days before flying there, I bought a new laptop, in the setting up of which something strange happened to the most recent file on the old laptop.

Unfortunately, that was the 4,500-word script of my Boston keynote talk. It still needed a lot of work, even without problems caused by treacherous technology. But as I discovered the morning before departure, the entire text had been transformed into unreadable hieroglyphics.

In the ensuing panic, I took both laptops back to the shop and pleaded with them to undo whatever terrible mistake I had made: a task entrusted to their tech expert, a man we’ll call “Steve”.

One of the things I like about tech people is that they never appear worried. Steve was no exception. As I mopped away the cold sweat, he went about the job calmly and when the first thing he tried didn’t work, he just tried another, and so on, without any hint of uncertainty.

Half an hour passed and the file remained scrambled but no trace of a frown furrrowed Steve’s brow. Then an hour passed and as the things he tried became more time-consuming, he asked if I had anything else to do in town.

Why yes, I said, I had to get a Covid test (preferably negative) before flying. So he said: “You go do that.” And I did. And when I came back another hour later, the file was still unreadable.

Even then, Steve retained his cool. No doubt it was only in my hysterical imagination that he seemed to have taken on a certain corvid quality, or that I thought I heard a slight flutter of wings behind him.

But when I pointed out that my time was short and asked when we might finally retrieve the file, he shook his head. Quoth the raven (I’m paraphrasing): “Nevermore!”

At around the moment I should have been packing my suitcase, therefore, I instead had to sit down at the new laptop and reconstruct the speech from memory. It took six hours straight and I was afraid to read it back.

Getting through Dublin Airport was a relaxing affair compared with the script rewrites on either side of the Atlantic and above it. Another 24 hours later, I was staring at a Boston hotel bedroom ceiling, wondering if what was jetlag, stress, or the tap-tap-tapping at my chamber door that was keeping me awake.

Happily, there were no ravens in the conference audience. Plenty of ravers, though, as revealed during a series of late nights that followed. Which said, literature was never far from proceedings, if only because our nights had a habit of ending up in one of the college libraries, with whiskey-fuelled singsongs and arguments until 5am.

Boston's commitment to Irish literature knows no end. Had the Flann conference been two weeks later, it would have coincided with something called the James Joyce Ramble: a 10km race in which 2,000 participants are subjected to readings of Finnegans Wake, Ulysses, and Dubliners by actors in period costume.

This high-speed Bloomsday, which doubles as a fundraiser for human rights charities, is held every April rather than June.

The latest instalment is on Saturday 24th. And I’m very glad it wasn’t last Saturday, or some of us would have been heading straight from the conference venue to the start-line, after another hard night in the library.