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

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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.


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Birth of Irish Author Maurice O’Sullivan

maurice-osullivan-houseMaurice O’Sullivan (Irish: Muiris Ó Súilleabháin), Irish author famous for his memoir of growing up on the Great Blasket Island and in Dingle, County Kerry, off the western coast of Ireland, is born on February 19, 1904.

Following the death of his mother when he is six months old, O’Sullivan is raised in an institution in Dingle, County Kerry. At the age of eight, he returns to Great Blasket Island to live with his father, grandfather, and the rest of his siblings, and learns the native language. He joins the Garda Síochána in Dublin in 1927 and is stationed in the Gaeltacht area of Connemara.

O’Sullivan is persuaded to write his memoirs by George Derwent Thomson, a linguist and professor of Greek who has come to the island to hear and learn the Irish language. It is Thomson who encourages him to go into the Guards, rather than emigrate to America as do most of the young people. Thomson edits and assembles the memoir, and arranges for its translation into English with the help of Moya Llewelyn-Davies.

Fiche Blian ag Fás (in English, Twenty Years a-Growing) is published in Irish and English in 1933. As one of the last areas of Ireland in which the old Irish language and culture have continued unchanged, the Great Blasket Island is a place of enormous interest to those seeking traditional Irish narratives.

While Fiche Blian ag Fás is received with tremendous enthusiasm by critics, including E.M. Forster, their praise at times has a condescending tone. Forster describes the book as a document of a surviving “Neolithic” culture. Such interest is tied up with romantic notions of the Irish primitive, and thus when O’Sullivan tries to find a publisher for his second book, Fiche Bliain faoi Bhláth (in English, Twenty Years a-Flowering), there is little interest, as this narrative necessarily departs from the romantic realm of turf fires and pipe-smoking wise-women.

In 1934, O’Sullivan leaves the Guards and settles in Connemara. He drowns on June 25, 1950, while swimming off the Connemara coast. Dylan Thomas commences, but does not finish, a screenplay of Fiche Blian ag Fás.

(Pictured: The ruins of the house in which Maurice O’Sullivan grew up on the Great Blasket Island)

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Birth of Sir Charles Brett, Solicitor & Journalist

long-shadows-cast-beforeSir Charles Edward Bainbridge Brett, Northern Irish solicitor, journalist, author and founding member, and first chairman, of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS), is born in Holywood, County Down, on October 30, 1928. He is known to many simply as Charlie Brett.

Brett is born into a long line of solicitors, the family firm being L’Estrange and Brett, based in Belfast. He is a partner there from 1954 until 1994. He is educated at Rugby School and New College, Oxford, where he is President of the Poetry Society and a friend of Dylan Thomas and attends lectures by Lord Clark.

Between 1949 and 1950 he works in France as a journalist with the Continental Daily Mail, where he is said to have mixed in anarchist and Trotskyite circles.

In 1956, the Earl of Antrim invites Brett to join the Northern Ireland Committee of the National Trust. On finding there are no books written to prepare himself for this, he resolves to write the necessary volumes. In 1957 he becomes the first chairman of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, founded alongside, amongst others Lady Dunleath. Brett serves as chairman for ten years and then as President from 1979 until his death.

With the National Trust he puts his legal skill to use in order to establish a public footpath along the cliffs of the North Coast of Ulster. He also sits on the board of the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin.

In 1971, he is appointed to the board of the newly created Northern Ireland Housing Executive. He serves as Chairman for five years from 1979, during which time 50,000 dwellings are built. He is asked to compile a list of historic buildings in Jersey in 1975. In 1986, Brett becomes the first chairman of the International Fund for Ireland, established to encourage investment in Ireland.

Brett is also involved in Northern Irish politics, being chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party for a time. In 1981 he receives a CBE, this is followed by a Knighthood in 1990.

Brett dies on December 19, 2005. His church memorial is located along those of his family in the Comber Church of Ireland Parish Church of St. Mary, in Comber, North County Down.