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

Later Years

Sickness Unto Death

O’Nolan led a solitary bachelor’s life until 1948, when he met and married Evelyn McDonnell, a typist in the government offices where he worked. He was 37. She was 39. No children followed.

Over the next several years, he would be injured in multiple car crashes as well as a bus accident. Alcoholism deteriorated his health. He would also be hospitalized for jaundice, pneumonia, influenza, kidney disease, an eye surgery, and eventually throat cancer. He died of heart attack while undergoing radiation treatment for the latter on April 1, 1966—“April Fool’s Day, his final joke,” his brother Micheál cracked. He was 54.

He was buried in a plot alongside his parents in Dublin’s Deans Grange Cemetery, with his wife, siblings, and literary friends in attendance. In 1989, Anthony Cronin published a biographical tribute, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien.

Learning to Swim Again

After failing to find a publisher willing to risk a bet on The Third Policeman, O’Nolan all but gave up aspirations of becoming a famous novelist. For the next 20 years, he wrote newspaper columns, short stories, and plays.

In 1959, O’Nolan unexpectedly received an inquiry from Timothy O’Keeffe, an editor at the London publisher MacGibbon & Kee, asking if his firm could be permitted to reissue At Swim-Two-Birds. Since Longman’s never reprinted it, the way was clear.

The publication rallied O’Nolan. Despite poor health, he wrote a new novel, The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor, a takeoff of An Béal Bocht in English, and reworked borrowings from The Third Policeman into The Dalkey Archive, issuing both, fittingly, as Flann O’Brien.

The year after O’Nolan’s death, O’Keeffe brought out The Third Policeman with MacGibbon & Kee, giving Flann an afterlife like its central character, who could not remember his own name.

Uncommon Dedication

With a Joycean compounded pun, O’Nolan dedicated The Hard Life (his “misterpiece”) to Graham Greene in gratitude for his recommending the initial publication of At Swim-Two-Birds, no doubt with the hope of further promotional favor. Greene was flattered, but did not offer any critical endorsement.

In a chummier gesture, O’Nolan inscribed a copy to Paddy O’Brien, head barman at McDaid’s and later Grogan’s, Dublin pubs frequented by a literary coterie that included O’Nolan, fellow writer Brendan Behan, poet Patrick Kavanagh, Envoy publisher John Ryan, and his friend Anthony Cronin, who would write his biography.

Another friend, Sean O’Sullivan, who did the cover artwork for An Beal Bocht, produced the dustjacket drawing for The Hard Life.

Yet another acquaintance (surely a Frenchman by his handwriting style) jotted on a cigarette box a loose quotation of one of Pascal’s aphoristic pensées, which O’Nolan used as an epigraph for his comic novel: “all the world’s problems come from not knowing how to sit alone in one’s room.”

Peddle to the Mettle

Declining health and rising tax and medical bills prompted O’Nolan to seek more sources of income. His friend and fellow author, filmmaker, and toy collector Leslie Daiken suggested peddling his manuscripts to an American library. The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin was starting to purchase literary archives and eventually bought the manuscripts of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Dalkey Archive in 1965. Southern Illinois University acquired a larger group of manuscripts and correspondence from O’Nolan’s widow, Evelyn, shortly after his death the following year.

Boston College purchased most of O’Nolan’s remaining papers from his youngest brother, Micheál, following Evelyn’s death in 1995, which included the medals for debate and other items O’Nolan mentioned in the letter to Daiken.

To the Bitter End Whether restricted to bed or forced to walk with a cane, O’Nolan kept up his social relationships, correspondence, and critical wit.

Six months before his death, he hobbled to Dublin’s Gate Theatre to watch a performance of Hugh Leonard’s stage adaptation of The Dalkey Archive, his latest and last novel, published the previous year. The next day, he complained vociferously to a friend, the British actor Denis Carey, about the poor portrayal of the character of Augustine. He slyly suggested that Carey show his letter to producer Phyllis Ryan, demanding that the bumbling performer be fired.