The Phantom Flann – An Irishman’s Diary about the framing of Brian O’Nolan for a photograph he wasn’t in
O’Nolan spent his career pretending to be other people. And sometimes even the other people were not who they were supposed to be
‘Clearly not Flann’: Robert Farren, aka Roibéard Ó Faracháin, the poet.
On behalf of Flann O’Brien fans everywhere, I offer belated thanks to Ronan Farren (Letters, December 5th) for solving a mystery that had perplexed our community.
For some time past, Flannoraks were aware of an ever-more-widely circulating photograph, supposedly of the man himself, from Dublin’s Palace Bar, circa 1945. It had even appeared on reprints of his books. But although the location was entirely plausible, as was the hat, the bespectacled figure was clearly not Flann.
My best guess was Niall Montgomery, his friend and collaborator, who did actually wear glasses. But I happily bow to the authority of our letter writer, who assures us the mystery man was his own father, Robert Farren, aka Roibéard Ó Faracháin, the poet. The file is hereby closed. Getty Images, please copy.
It is not without aptness, however, that the real-life Brian O’Nolan should have been supplanted in this way: even to the extent, eventually, that the picture accompanied the review of a new book about him in The Irish Times, the paper his other main pseudonym, Myles na gCopaleen, adorned for 26 years.
He of all people would have understood the existentially-threatening condition implied in a common Hiberno-English phrase: “He’s not himself lately”. O’Nolan spent his career pretending to be other people. And sometimes even the other people (eg Myles, often written by Montgomery) were not who they were supposed to be.
The tendency extended into his books. The Third Policeman is narrated by a murderer whose impending execution is complicated by an inability to remember his own name.
The unfortunate protagonist of An Béal Bocht, by contrast, does have a name, highly-detailed in the Gaelic style, viz: “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas’s Sarah, grand-daughter of John’s Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot . . .” Then he goes to school, where he has to have a simple new English one, “Jams O’Donnell”, beaten into him with an oar.
Palace BarAnthony CroninBrendan Behan
Farren/Ó Faracháin’s unwitting imposture is not foreshadowed in Cruiskeen Lawn, where he featured only sporadically, even though he was a leading figure in what Patrick Kavanagh’s biographer Antoinette Quinn called “the poetry wars of 1941”.
Neutral in conflict
As for Kavanagh, his “life-long enmity” (Quinn’s description) towards Ó Faracháin began when the latter beat him to a well-paid job with Radio Éireann in 1939. Thereafter, artistic differences widened the gulf until Kavanagh included him in The Paddiad: an Irish literary version of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Despite this, Ó Faracháin did him at least one good favour in return. When the novel Tarry Flynn was banned for indecency, Ó Faracháin was asked for and gave the appeals board an opinion that, although involving some “coarseness”, the book was in general life-affirming.
The verdict was accepted, so Kavanagh enjoyed the best of both worlds: a publicity-rich ban, followed by unbanning. According to Quinn, its author was retrospectively grateful for an earlier act of censorship. His review of an Ó Faracháin book was so “vitriolic”, The Irish Times had refused to print it. But getting back to misidentified photographs, I suspected another one recently when reader John Tierney sent me a picture of Kavanagh from 1939. It was published with a New York Times review of The Green Fool, and I’m assured it really was the poet. But there must have been some air-brushing of a man who, not long before, had been feeding calves on Shancoduff. With his youthful good looks, jaunty hat, and general glamour, he could easily have passed for the film-star Spencer Tracy.