Kevin Myers: Had Myles escaped he might have become a literary giant
Last Saturday, just about the most brilliantly shocking supplement in the history of Irish journalism (give or take) appeared in this newspaper.
It featured the monotone half-decade, 1950-54. Grey rosary processions of women in grey cardigans were blessed by grey bishops, while other grey bishops scattered grey droplets of holy water on grey soldiery in grey serge. Ireland was the colour of a granite jail cell, lit by the forlorn candle of guttering hope. Another supplement, for the late '50s, is due tomorrow: peruse it, and rejoice that you are alive today.
The past for most countries is usually worse than the present, but in Ireland, much, much more so. This country then belonged to what we might call the Hiberian Triangle: Portugal, Spain and Ireland were apparently locked in a bizarre experiment in which all widows permanently donned black weeds, and the three states rigorously enforced largely Catholic laws. The Iberians needed fascist dictatorships to impose their authoritarian Popery: but here it was done with the democratic consent of perhaps the most brow-beaten, brainwashed, robotic people in Western Europe. This had become an island of despair, leeched dry by emigration, and made philistine by a vigorous isolationism commanded by an austere and authoritarian clergy. Here it was, in all its glory: the abomination of desolation that had resulted from 1916 and the demented cult of Ourselves Alone. Yet beneath this grey sanctimony festered an underworld of sexual degradation, rape and abuse, from those poor pimply lads of the Artane Boys' Band to the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries.
Irish censors in 1954 were banning around 150 books a month. Amongst the authors whose works were included in the first prohibited list that year was dear old Ben Kiely, then a young writer, Emile Zola, not so much young as dead, George Simenon, John Steinbeck and Raymond Chandler. So one can only wonder at the frustration, anger and torment of a writer like Myles na Gopaleen/Brian O'Nolan/Flann O'Brien as he strove to be an artist.
Next Wednesday sees the centenary of the birth of that singular trinity: of Brian O'Nolan, the civil servant who was also Flann O'Brien, the author of 'At Swim Two Birds', 'The Dalkey Archive' and 'The Third Policeman', and also Myles na Gopaleen, writer of the Cruiskeen Lawn columns in 'The Irish Times'. These latter are mostly known today through a single-volume compilation that was first published in 1968. They tend towards wry kindliness. Many of the other, and now largely unseen columns can scarcely contain the anger and scorn at the dire land in which they were written.
Yet Myles na Gopaleen's real triumph was the very act of surviving and glowing in the mudplain that was Ireland. His creations, 'The Brother', 'The Plain people of Ireland' and 'WAAMA', and others, stand today as a real achievement. But alas, in serious literary terms, they are merely minor in merit. Had the young man that was to become Myles fled oppressive, impoverished Ireland and the ruinous alcohol-culture that both stifled intellectual growth and perpetuated infantilism, he might have become a giant of the English language. Who is to say? Certainly his grasp of English grammar and his nose for cliche, cant and tautology make his columns still a joy: but they sometimes also make him quite an unpleasant person, a bully who was quick to jeer at those less talented than he was.
And most paradoxically, he even denied the existence of the darkness in which his quill scribbled. "There is a funny idea abroad (by which I mean, of course, in Ireland) that if you scream loudly enough against 'censorship' you are therefore a litherary man and an 'intellectual'," he once wrote in the course of an attack on some nameless opponent of Irish censorship. Denying that the censor inhibited thought in any way, he then sneered, somewhat contradictorily, of his target: "How has this paragon of animals shown that he must not be guarded like an infant?"
Myles essentially belongs to his time; and though a great deal of his whimsy is still beguiling, especially to students, its appeal tends to wilt beneath the remorseless weight of his undergraduate cleverness, especially as the trickery behind his verbal sleights-of-hand becomes more obvious. No doubt he was the most inventively brilliant Irish newspaper columnist of the 20th century: but that, alas, made him primarily a linguistic conjuror, not a great writer. And of his novels, much the same.
Myles was just 54 when he died. Largely unmentioned in the general encomia that his name still arouses amongst the faithful is the blight of alcoholism, from which he emerged but fitfully for the odd hour or two of creative lucidity a couple of days a week. He wrote his own plangent life-curse twice-over, with his paean to "a ball of malt", and his oft-intoned refrain, "a pint of plain is your only man". Yet he was perhaps as great as any writer could possibly be at a time when the adolescence of the supremely talented was routinely embalmed in alcohol, and then sent on a melancholy, stupefied journey into middle-aged immaturity and early death.