Genius of Genre The Pen Names and Personas of Flann O'Brien

The writer who sometimes called himself Flann O’Brien produced work in English and Irish under many guises and in many genres. His genius and satirical wit confounded readers. Purporting to be the defender of the “Plain People of Ireland” as Myles na Gopaleen, he also subversively mocked their manner in a variety of media.

Born in the north of Ireland in 1911 as Brian O’Nolan—or Brian Ó Nualláin, in Irish—this career civil servant routinely adopted literary pseudonyms. His pen names provided his various personas with selfhood and the freedom to poke fun at contemporaries during an era when Ireland, emerging from centuries of British rule, was establishing an independent, if conservative, social and political order.

Through each of his pen names, O’Nolan dismantled cultural norms and literary genres by abrogating the authority of their forms. Collectively, these identities point toward a man with ambitions to become a master of mass media, auguring the ploy epitomized by Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “the medium is the message.”

A Note About Naming Conventions: It is hard to write about an author known to different reading communities by different pseudonyms. In keeping with contemporary scholarship, the anglicized birth name Brian O’Nolan refers in this exhibit to the biographical subject. Authorial pseudonyms are used when talking about works O’Nolan attributed to them.