Last Wednesday I was lucky enough to hear Professor John McCourt of Università Roma Tre give a fascinating talk on the relationship between two Irish authors – James Joyce (1882-1941) and Flann O’Brien (1911-1966). Instead of comparing the writing of the two authors, McCourt discussed O’Brien’s mixed opinions on Joyce.
O’Brien (whose real name was Brian O’Nolan) was an ambivalent Joyce fan. He praised Joyce’s humour and expert rendering of Dublin idioms and, in 1954 (along with John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, and Patrick Kavanagh), organised the first ‘Bloomsday’ celebrations. However, O’Brien regularly ridiculed Joyce’s literariness and experimental writing style, and was critical of Joyce’s decision to flee Ireland. In O’Brien’s 1964 novel, The Dalkey Archive, Joyce is stripped of his literariness – he appears as a pub barman. While others derided Joyce’s apparent blasphemy, O’Brien was more reflective on the matter; he felt that, deep down, Joyce was a proper Irish Catholic – his supposed sacrilegiousness was just an odd form of affirmation. After Joyce’s death in Zurich, O’Brien campaigned (unsuccessfully) for the author’s body to be repatriated to Ireland.
For McCourt, the majority of O’Brien’s pronouncements on Joyce were self-reflexive. O’Brien portrayed Joyce as a good Catholic as that is how he saw himself. O’Brien could not see past the comic elements of Joyce’s writing because this is how he perceived his own work – merely as a set of humorous stories.