Laughing matter – An Irishman’s Diary on a Mylesian symposium in 1986

There were 150 “Mylesians” registered for the symposium, which took place at Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, where the great man spent much time in his student days.

There were 150 “Mylesians” registered for the symposium, which took place at Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, where the great man spent much time in his student days.

 

Imagine spending three days laughing your head off – and getting paid for it. Such was the happy fate of the present writer when reporting for this newspaper on a symposium devoted to the life and work of Flann O’Brien, otherwise known as Myles na Gopaleen and, less often, under his real name of Brian Ó Nualláin/Brian O’Nolan.

Proceedings

It was doubly appropriate that the event started on April Fool’s Day, 1986: perfectly timed to celebrate a comic genius and one who left this world on that very date, 20 years before. Okay, it wasn’t all fun and games: I had to furnish some 2,000 words to the paper on the proceedings.

There were 150 “Mylesians” registered for the symposium, which took place at Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, where the great man spent much time in his student days.

Tonic

As he might have put it himself, Myles was “fond of a drop” and, in an opening lecture, his friend John Ryan recalled attending the writer’s funeral and meeting the poet Patrick Kavanagh, who told him about a recent visit to Myles in hospital. Kavanagh poured a naggin of gin into a glass for him and added a “half-thimbleful” of tonic.

“Almighty God, are your trying to drown the gin entirely?” protested Myles.

Ryan reeled off a list of Dublin pubs that Myles frequented in his day. Novelist Benedict Kiely, who was chairing the lecture, commented that he felt the urge to say “Pray for us” after every name.

The illustrious Canadian scholar Hugh Kenner was another lecturer and his presence was a further indication that, as well as being a “character” and “a gas man”, Myles/Flann was also a literary heavyweight.

Kenner devoted his attention to The Third Policeman and noted that the word “Garda” does not appear anywhere in the text. Meanwhile, in the best Mylesian tradition, a plan was hatched among the participants to have a man in Garda uniform arrive at Newman House after the lecture, to “take particulars”. Myles would have enjoyed that, but the prank was aborted and we were told that the real Garda Síochána refused to supply the uniform.

Column

In a lecture on Day Two, Proinsias Mac Aonghusa suggested there should be an annual celebration of Myles and his work, along the lines of James Joyce’s Bloomsday. He suggested October 4th, the date in 1940 when the satirical “Cruiskeen Lawn” column first appeared in The Irish Times. Happily, there is now a special day devoted to the great man: April 1st, as it happens, with readings and performances in the Palace Bar, where Myles met this paper’s editor, RM (Bertie) Smyllie, who took him on as a columnist. As yet there is no Myles summer school.

Working as a civil servant, as he did for many years, it was no doubt essential to use pseudonyms for his literary and journalistic output.

Mac Aonghusa told us how the author had a row with The Irish Times over his column and swore that “Myles na gCopaleen” (spelt with a “c”) would never write for the newspaper again. Subsequently the dispute was settled but, in order to keep his pledge, the columnist changed the spelling to “Myles na Gopaleen”.

Election

In his biography of the writer, No Laughing Matter (Grafton Books, 1989), Anthony Cronin describes how his subject ran, as Brian O’Nolan, for a seat in Seanad Éireann. That was in the 1957 general election and, possibly due to a lack of name-recognition, he was eliminated after the first count on the National University of Ireland panel.

The chief organisers of the symposium were Anne Clune and Tess Hurson, and among the writer’s relatives who attended were his widow, Evelyn, and three brothers.

Micheál Ó Nualláin, who died last July aged 88 years, gave a lecture on the life of the family and described his sibling as “the shyest man in Ireland”.

Motto

It isn’t part of the journalist’s brief to attract advertising but I was still quite proud of the fact that, on the third day of my symposium coverage, a long-established firm of brewers took out an ad with a picture of their best-known product and the motto: “Myles better – no beer comes near”. The author himself would have said, “The pint of plain is your only man”, although that might be too gender-specific nowadays. Flann/Myles would doubtless have had an amusing take on political correctness. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. We shall not see his like again.