My guess is that the phrase “the luck of the Irish” is of American origin. When one contemplates the lives that some of the best Irish writers have led in and out of the pubs of Dublin during the past half-century or so, “curse” comes to mind as a better word than “luck.” Hence the sobering title of Anthony Cronin’s superb biography, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien, published in London almost a decade ago and recently released here.

“Curse” comes to mind as a better word than “luck.”

O’Brien, a novelist and satirist, was actually three in one—an entity the novelist Dermot Bolger has called “that wondrous multi-layered mind which singularly comprised the Unholy Trinity of Flann O’Brien, Brian O’Nolan and Myles na Gopaleen.” Can any other writer—or any other person —have gone by so many different names over the course of a lifetime? Myles (one instinctively wants to call him by the first name of the nom de plume he adopted for the long-running column he wrote for The Irish Times starting in 1940) was born into the riverrun of modern Ireland in 1911. Cronin’s “life and times” approach is fitting, because a writer of O’Brien’s cut is imaginable only in a country that could never quite make up its mind exactly what it was. Those were days when Joyce, and then Beckett, exercised a colossal absence from their self-imposed exile in Paris, when Brendan Behan was playing the stage Irishman in New York and Dublin, when Myles and the poet Patrick Kavanagh were twin eminences who between them dominated Dublin’s literary pubs.

Irish was—by the choice of his father, an upper-level civil servant—the language of the household in which the young Brian O’Nolan grew up. This linguistic decision represented a patriotic cultural gesture—not unusual among the educated middle-class families of the emerging nation, who turned their backs on the language of their English nemesis. When he himself became a civil servant, the subject of this biography was sometimes Brian O’Nolan and sometimes Brian O Nualláin. Though he came to loathe the civil service, his job became a necessity: his father died young, and it fell on O’Nolan’s shoulders to support a family of twelve. Though drink was at first a recreation, no doubt his later dependence on it owed something to the tedium of his job, much of which involved sitting in the Dáil, or Irish parliament, listening to the tedious speeches of politicians: “For some seven years my duty as a Private Secretary necessitated almost daily attendance at Leinster House. Garrulity is a feeble word to describe what I encountered in Dáil Eireann… .” When one of his superiors in the civil service warned him avuncularly about his increasingly frequent recourse to a public house near his office—“You were seen going into the Scotch House”— O’Nolan replied, “You mean I was seen coming into the Scotch House.” He died in his mid-fifties from throat cancer brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking.

O’Nolan emerges from Cronin’s account as an example of a classic Dublin type seen not uncommonly even today: the disappointed man. During the years of life that are the most productive for many people, O’Nolan went through a creative silence during which he wrote no fiction, a period that lasted twenty years. He wrote his popular newspaper column under the Irish name Myles na Gopaleen, who was the stage-Irish hero of a play by Dion Boucicault. The name means “Myles of the little ponies”—and perhaps O’Nolan intended a playful bilingual pun on the little noggins of whiskey he liked to carry around in his pockets when he went to The Irish Times offices and to the racetrack, or on the race horses he followed avidly.

The euphoria of Independence did not last.

His column, “The Cruiskeen Lawn” (“Little Brimming Jug”), enjoyed iconic status among Irish readers. The column’s popularity must have had something to do with its cynical wit, which expressed the letdown many people felt upon finding that the euphoria of Independence did not last —an instance of national postpartum depression. One of O’Brien’s books, An Béal Bocht (“The Hungry Mouth”), has in the last few years lent its name to a popular pub in the Bronx which functions as a literary center for recent immigrants and other lovers of Irish poetry. The contemporary heir of “The Cruiskeen Lawn” is the column “Nights And Days in Garavans,” written by the fictional Morgan O’Doherty (Jeff O’Connell) for the Galway Advertiser.

And yet, brilliant as it is, the Cruiskeen Lawn appears not to have satisfied its author, who was a novelist of startling originality. Patrick Kavanagh’s repeated judgment may have been right: “That poor little na gCopaleen [Kavanagh uses the pedantic form of the genitive plural that Myles had at first favored when signing his columns] has never found a myth that would carry all the stuff in his column, that would lift it on to a creative plane.”

With all his faults and by God he has plenty, the Irishman can jump.

Since Irish was his first language, it is not hard to see why his disillusionment about an teanga, the (Irish) tongue, would have hit O’Nolan so hard. “It is common knowledge,” Myles observed bitterly, satirizing Eamon de Valera’s vision of an Ireland where happy Gaelic-speaking peasants farmed blissfully and comely maidens danced at the crossroads, “that certain categories of Irish speakers are boors. They (being men) have nuns’ faces, wear bicycle clips continuously, talk in Irish only about ceist na teanga and have undue confidence in Irish dancing as a general national prophylactic… .” Perhaps saddest of all, O’Nolan was not even able to acknowledge his masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds, dismissing it as “mere juvenilia.” The book, which appeared in 1939, might lay claim to being the first postmodernist novel written in English. Its title contains a literal translation of a place-name from the Irish. Graham Greene neatly summed up its plot as follows: “you have (a) a book about a man called Trellis who is (b) writing a book about certain characters who (c) are turning the tables on Trellis by writing about him.” Trellis loses control over his characters only when he falls asleep. These devices, which would seem to owe something to Gide and Pirandello, have much less novelty value today than they had then. But unlike today’s postmodernism, O’Brien’s book has the freshness and sprightliness of a joke being told for the first time. For me the delight and charm of the book lie not so much in its overall premise, but in the author’s brilliance as a satirist and parodist. In one character, Finn MacCool, O’Brien parodies the ancient Irish poetry he would have read in school, which can only speak in high, traditional style of matters such as the wanderings of the mad king Sweeny. This mixes hilariously with the other characters’ more mundane interests. Here are the characters of Trellis’s novel talking among themselves:

I will relate, said Finn.
We’re off again, said Furriskey.
The first matter that I will occupy with honey-words and melodious recital, said Finn, is the reason and the first cause for Sweeny’s frenzy.
Draw in your chairs, boys, said Shanahan, we’re right for the night. We’re away in a hack.

Hilariously, Finn’s interlocutors, ordinary middle-class Dubliners, tolerate Finn as a harmless long-winded eccentric. O’Brien’s parodies of their own garrulousness are exact and delightful. He captures the repetitiveness and unconscious buffoonery of their speech with unerringly precise mimicry. Shanahan glosses one of Finn’s tales as follows:

The upshot is that your man becomes a bloody bird.
I see, said Lamont.
Do you see it, Mr. Furriskey, said Shanahan. What happens? He is changed into a bird for his pains and he could go from here to Carlow in one hop… .

That was always one thing, said Shanahan wisely, that the Irish race was always noted for, one place where the world had to give us best. With all his faults and by God he has plenty, the Irishman can jump. By God he can jump. That’s one thing the Irish race is honored for no matter where it goes or where you find it—jumping. The world looks to us there.

The best comedians are, famously, often the saddest men. In a column written less than a month before his death, Myles wrote that anybody “who has the courage to raise his eyes and look sanely at the awful human condition … must realize finally that tiny periods of temporary release from intolerable suffering is the most that any individual has the right to expect.” Cronin notes, “He died peacefully and rather unexpectedly on 1 April 1966, April Fools’ Day.”