Tuesday 20 February 2018

A pint of plain is not his only man

Actor Eamon Morrissey performs today at the Dalkey Book Festival. He tells Kim Bielenberg of his passion for the works of Flann O'Brien

As a young man in the early 1960s, Eamon Morrissey was such an admirer of the writer Flann O'Brien that he once approached him in a pub.

The bar, Neary's on Chatham Street, in the centre of Dublin, was a gathering place for some of the leading literary figures of the time, including O'Brien and the poet Patrick Kavanagh (By this time the two ageing literary titans were not on speaking terms, and ignored each other).

Morrissey plucked up enough courage to walk over to O'Brien and congratulated him on his novel At Swim Two Birds, which had been published two decades previously.

"I told him how much I enjoyed it and he almost ate the face off me,'' recalled Morrissey this week. "He said it was ridiculous of me to be praising such a silly book.''

The young actor did not let this unhappy encounter put him off. Almost five decades later, Eamon Morrissey remains the most prolific performer of Flann O'Brien's work.

As a theatre actor and one-time star of the seventies TV comedy Hall's Pictorial Weekly, and more recently as a cast member of Fair City, Morrissey has several strings to his bow. But the work of Flann O'Brien (the pen name of Brian O'Nolan) remains one of his greatest passions.

He blended various passages from O'Brien's novels and newspaper columns to create the show The Brother.

In a two-hour one-man performance, Eamon Morrissey portrays a pint-swilling bar-room bore, who regales listeners with his philosophy, gleaned mostly from the unseen sibling of the title.

Morrissey has been performing the character on and off for 36 years. He once tried to kill him off by putting him on television, but this was counter-productive -- and he became more popular than ever.

This afternoon, Morrissey brings The Brother to the first Dalkey Book Festival in Co Dublin, where he will lead an audience on a Dalkey Archive Trail.

The Dalkey Archive was O'Brien's last novel. It tells the story of the mad scientist and theologian De Selby, who attempts to destroy the world by removing all the oxygen from the atmosphere.

Flann O'Brien presented an image of Dalkey that is different to the one that now prevails (nowadays it is hard to see the place name without the words celebrity and millionaire in the same sentence).

In the novel it is described as an "unlikely town, huddled, quiet, pretending to be asleep . . . Dalkey looks like a humble settlement which must, a traveller feels, be next door to some place of the first importance and distinction'.'

Eamon Morrissey, who moved to Dalkey 40 years ago, says: "In the past there were really two elements in Dalkey.

"There were well-off people who lived along the coast, but there were also quarry workers and people who worked on the trams.''

Flann O'Brien's career as a novelist was in many ways tragic.

Although the first novel At Swim Two Birds was highly praised, most notably by James Joyce, his second work, The Third Policeman, was turned down by publishers, partly as a result of paper shortages during World War II.

"Flann O'Brien used to joke that Adolf Hitler destroyed his career as a novelist,'' says Morrissey.

Much of O'Brien's reputation rests on The Third Policeman, a bizarre crime story, which involves remarkable interactions between men, molecules and bicycles.

Morrissey says, "After the book was rejected, Flann O'Brien pretended that he had lost the manuscript, even though it sat on his desk for years. He couldn't bring himself to tell people that it had been rejected.''

The novel was published a year after O'Brien's death and was quickly hailed as a comic masterpiece. The Brother incorporates passages from the novel.

Performing The Brother did not come without occupational hazards for Morrissey.

The character pontificates in the snug of a pub while smoking cigarettes and drinking pints of Guinness, accompanied by whiskey chasers.

"When I first performed it in the 70s, I used to drink five real pints during the show. But then I found that by the second half I was enjoying it more than the audience.

'so, I had to introduce cutbacks to my alcohol intake. I diluted the alcohol with various mixtures, many of which were disgusting. The audience was often quite curious about what I drink. Sometimes members of the audience sniffed my glass at the end to see if I was really drinking whiskey.''

Health and safety regulations have caught up with The Brother over the years. Now Morrissey is required by law to smoke only herbal cigarettes during performances.

When he first started performing the character, Eamon was able to set the show in the present. Thirty years ago, Dublin pubs were full of middle-aged men putting the world to rights as they puffed away, but now they would not even be able to smoke in bars.

"Now the show is set in the past, but I still think that the humour in it is universal,'' says Morrissey.

Although O'Brien is widely recognised as a comic genius, Morrissey believes that James Joyce cast a shadow over his career.

"He was following in the wake of James Joyce, and he did have a sort of identity problem. Because there he was, wanting to write the ultimate novel about lower middle class men in Dublin. The problem for him was that James Joyce had done it 20 years before.''

The Dalkey Book Festival continues today and tomorrow. Dalkeybookfestival.org

Irish Independent

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