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

Brotherly Love

Brotherly Love

O’Nuallain, Micheál, ‘Brian O’Nolan’ [NEED: Medium, Date of Creation], Irish Room, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Flann O’Brien Papers MS1997-027

The O’Nolans were a large family. Brian was the third oldest and Micheál the youngest of 11 children with 16 years between them.

Micheál studied painting at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design. Wanting to learn portraiture, he tried, but failed, to get Brian to sit for him. So Micheál started a canvas without his subject present, painting the writing desk, typewriter, and bookshelf that stood in the corner of the room they shared, hoping that his brother would eventually give in and pose for him.

Not until some years later, after they had both left the family home, did Micheál finally have his chance.

Brian had been forced to resign from his civil service job and his wife was some weeks in the hospital. He went to stay with Micheál, who used his apartment as a studio.

One day, Micheál pulled out the canvas he had kept hidden, and without showing it to Brian, had him sit in a chair.

Within two hours, the portrait was finished. Micheál swung the easel around and showed the likeness to his brother. “How can you remember all that detail, the bookcase, my table and typewriter?” he asked, bewildered. Without batting an eyelid, Micheál boasted: “I have a photographic memory!”


O’Nuallain, Micheál, ‘Hat and Coat,’ charcoal study, 1948

Box 27, folder 6, Flann O’Brien Papers MS1997-027

In his memoir titled The Brother (Myles), Micheál Ó Nualláin presents another nostalgic image of his elder sibling:

In July 1937 our father died suddenly. Brian was the only member of a family of twelve with a proper full-time job. He became the father of a family of twelve, obviously with no experience. He accepted his position gracefully and supported the entire family for over eleven years. … He would hang his overcoat on the hallstand. The overcoat soon became his flag of residence. The family lived mostly in the basement and I would be asked to see if he was at home in the evenings. I would go out to the hall to see if his overcoat was there. Brian often told me that there was a bag of sweets in the pocket.

Micheál kept the overcoat and several other of his brother’s personal effects. Burns Library acquired them from Micheál in 1997 along with a collection of his brother’s papers and books and a number of his own paintings, drawings, and sketches.