Glossed in translation – Frank McNally on ambivalent statues, Flann O’Brien rebranded, and the plan to move Nelson’s Pillar

Writing about the statue of William Smith O’Brien earlier in the week, I neglected to mention what may be its most interesting feature, the bilingual inscription.

As has been pointed out to me since, not only does this have two languages, it also has two meanings.

The English one notes that Smith O'Brien was "sentenced to death for High Treason" in 1848, which is legally the case. The sentence was later commuted and he was transported to Tasmania instead, surviving to end his days back in Europe.

But in the Irish version, rendered doubly opaque to the uninitiated by old Gaelic script, the only thing he was guilty of was "ard dílseacht" to Ireland. "High fidelity", that means, the opposite of treason.


This is a recurring theme in Irish history. It was expanded upon decades later in an (undelivered) speech to the jury that George Bernard Shaw wrote for Roger Casement. Shaw's central argument was that Casement could never be a traitor to England, not being English. But the Smith O'Brien version said it in a lot fewer words

By the way, when I suggested on Wednesday that Leopold Bloom passed the statue on Smith O’Brien’s “50th anniversary, or near enough”, that should of course have read “40th”.

The “near enough” still applies. He died in Wales in mid-June 1864.

Records differ on whether it was the 16th or 18th.

Speaking of things lost in translation, I was pleased to learn this week that another O'Brien, Flann, is to be the subject of a new "heritage trail" in his home town of Strabane, Co Tyrone.

Reading the details on a website called, however, I was puzzled by the description of him as a “globally renound” writer.

Clearly there was typo at work here, but which one? I decided, on balance, that the intended word was “renouned”, although what the new noun was remained unclear.

Whatever about it happening globally, renouning is a recognised tradition in Ireland’s northwest. The most infamous example is Derry itself, which was renouned as Londonderry several centuries ago, causing trouble ever since.

And Flann himself was notorious for it. Born Brian O’Nolan (or just Nolan), he rebranded himself not only as Flann O’Brien but as Myles na gCopaleen and a wide range of other nouns. They were mostly proper nouns, but when used to fool the Irish Times letters page, and get spoof correspondence printed, borderline libellous at times, their propriety could be questionable too.

Anyway, the new Strabane heritage trail is an idea of the town’s Business Improvement District, or BID, whose reported plans include many new nouns, especially of the compound variety beloved of management consultancy.

To secure funding, for example, BID had to apply to PIP (“Product Innovation Programme”), a scheme aiming to promote “joined-up literary tourism”. And in developing Strabane’s “literary tourism offering”, as Flann is now also known, the first step will be to “generate an enhanced understanding” of his “marketability”.

Amid all that, it comes as a relief to learn that one of the results could be something as concrete as a Flann O’Brien-themed “hiking trail”.

Fans of The Third Policemen will protest that a “biking trail” would be more appropriate.  But any kind of a trail is welcome. It can always be renouned later.


Getting back to the subject of statues and their removal, I have also been reminded of the remarkable fact that, 76 years before freelance IRA men had the same idea, the British House of Commons – under a Conservative government - voted to evict Nelson’s Pillar from the centre of Dublin.

It was the result of a petition from businessmen here, whose main objection to the monument was that it was in the way.

But the timing of the Bill distracted from its success. It passed in December 1890, on the Monday after the Parnellite split, which would embitter Irish politics for a generation.

Supporting the legislation, the anti-Parnellite leader Tim Healy said he would happily see all the statues moved out of Dublin's main street, O'Connell's included.

Parnell arrived just as the division bell rang and, knowing little about the Bill, voted in favour too. He later smilingly congratulated Healy on his first leadership success.

Had the plan been followed through, Nelson would have been merely relocated.

Nor would he have suffered the extreme exile of one of his successors, the “Floozie in the Jacuzzi”, who is now scandalously over-exposed in a shallow pond at Benburb Street, a former red-light district. The idea was to move the pillar to one end of what is now O’Connell St, presumably the one that, all too soon, was instead occupied by Parnell.