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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Irish Writer Aidan Higgins

Aidan Higgins, Irish writer of short stories, travel pieces, radio drama and novels, is born on March 3, 1927 in Celbridge, County Kildare. Among his published works are Langrishe, Go Down (1966), Balcony of Europe (1972) and the biographical Dog Days (1998). His writing is characterised by non-conventional foreign settings and a stream of consciousness narrative mode. Most of his early fiction is autobiographical – “like slug trails, all the fiction happened.”

Higgins attends local schools and Clongowes Wood College, a private boarding school. In the early 1950s he works in Dublin as a copywriter for the Domas Advertising Agency. He then moves to London and works in light industry for about two years. He marries Jill Damaris Anders in London on November 25, 1955. From 1960, he sojourns in southern Spain, South Africa, Berlin and Rhodesia. In 1960 and 1961 he works as scriptwriter for Filmlets, an advertising firm in Johannesburg. These journeys provide material for much of his later work, including his three autobiographies, Donkey’s Years (1996), Dog Days (1998) and The Whole Hog (2000).

His upbringing in a landed Catholic family provides material for Higgins first novel, Langrishe, Go Down (1966). The novel is set in the 1930s in a run-down “big house” in County Kildare, inhabited by the last members of the Langrishe family, three spinster sisters, Catholics, living in not-so-genteel poverty in a once-grand setting. One sister, Imogen, has an affair with a German intellectual, Otto Beck, which transgresses the moral code of the time, bringing her a brief experience of happiness. Otto’s intellectual pursuits contrast with the moribund cultural life of mid-20th century Ireland. The book is awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and is later adapted as a BBC Television film by British playwright Harold Pinter, in association with RTÉ. Langrishe, Go Down also receives the Irish Academy of Letters Award.

Higgins second major novel is Balcony of Europe, taking its name from a feature of the Spanish fishing village, Nerja Andalusia, where it is set. The novel is carefully crafted, and rich in embedded literary references, using Spanish and Irish settings and various languages, including Spanish and some German, in its account of the daily life in the beaches and bars of Nerja of a largely expatriate community. The protagonist, an artist called Dan Ruttle, is obsessed with his friend’s young American wife, Charlotte, and by the contrast between his life among a cosmopolitan artistic community in the Mediterranean, and his Irish origins. The book is re-edited in collaboration with Neil Murphy and published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2010, with the Irish material cut and the affair between Dan Ruttle and Charlotte foregrounded.

Higgins later novels include widely acclaimed Bornholm Night Ferry and Lions of the Grunwald. Various writings have been collected and reprinted by the Dalkey Archive Press, including his three-volume autobiography, A Bestiary, and a collection of fiction, Flotsam and Jetsam, both of which demonstrate his wide erudition and his experience of life and travel in South Africa, Germany and London which gives his writing a largely cosmopolitan feel, utilising a range of European languages in turns of phrase.

Higgins lives in Kinsale, County Cork, from 1986 with the writer and journalist Alannah Hopkin. They are married in Dublin in November 1997. He is a founder member of Irish artists’ association Aosdána. He dies on December 27, 2015 in Kinsale.


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Initial Publication of “At Swim-Two-Birds”

at-swim-two-birdsAt Swim-Two-Birds, a novel by Irish writer Brian O’Nolan writing under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien, is published on March 13, 1939. It is widely considered to be O’Brien’s masterpiece, and one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction.

At Swim-Two-Birds is accepted for publication by Longman on the recommendation of Graham Greene, who is a reader for them at the time. It is published under the pseudonym of Flann O’Brien, a name O’Nolan had already used to write hoax letters to The Irish Times. O’Nolan suggests using “Flann O’Brien” as a pen-name during negotiation with Longman. The novel’s title derives from Snámh dá Én, a ford on the River Shannon, between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge, reportedly visited by the legendary King Sweeney, a character in the novel.

The book does not sell well after it is published. By the outbreak of World War II it has sold scarcely more than 240 copies. In 1940, Longman’s London premises are destroyed during a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe and almost all the unsold copies are incinerated. The novel is republished by Pantheon Books in New York City in 1950, on the recommendation of James Johnson Sweeney, but sales remain low. In May 1959 Timothy O’Keeffe, while editorial director of the London publishing house MacGibbon & Kee, persuades O’Nolan to allow him to republish At Swim-Two-Birds. More recently, the novel is republished in the United States by Dalkey Archive Press.

The initial reviews for At Swim-Two-Birds are not enthusiastic. The Times Literary Supplement says that the book’s only notable feature is a “schoolboy brand of mild vulgarity.” The New Statesman complains that “long passages in imitation of the Joycean parody of the early Irish epic are devastatingly dull” and the Irish novelist Seán Ó Faoláin comments in John O’London’s Weekly that although the book had its moments, it “had a general odour of spilt Joyce all over it.”

However, most of the support for At Swim-Two-Birds comes not from newspaper reviewers but from writers. Dylan Thomas, in a remark that would be quoted on dust-jackets in later editions of the book, says “This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” Anthony Burgess considers it one of the ninety-nine greatest novels written between 1939 and 1984. Graham Greene’s enthusiastic reader’s report is instrumental in getting the book published in the first place.

Stephen Fry has declared At Swim-Two-Birds one of his favourite books. In 2011, the book is placed on Time‘s top 100 fiction books written in English since 1923.