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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 Short Story Writer Seán Ó Faoláin

sean-ofaolainSeán Proinsias Ó Faoláin, Irish short story writer, is born as John Francis Whelan on February 22, 1900 in Cork, County Cork.

Ó Faoláin is educated at the Presentation Brothers Secondary School in Cork. He comes under the influence of Daniel Corkery, joining the Cork Dramatic Society and increasing his knowledge of the Irish language, which he had begun in school. Shortly after entering University College Cork, he joins the Irish Volunteers and fights in the Irish War of Independence. During the Irish Civil War he serves as Censor for The Cork Examiner and as publicity director for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). After the Republican loss, he receives M.A. degrees from the National University of Ireland and from Harvard University where he studies for three years. He is a Commonwealth Fellow from 1926 to 1928 and is a Harvard Fellow from 1928 to 1929.

Ó Faoláin writes his first stories in the 1920s, eventually completing 90 stories over a period of 60 years. From 1929 to 1933 he lectures at the Catholic college, St. Mary’s College, at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, England, during which period he writes his first two books. His first book, Midsummer Night Madness, is published in 1932. It is a collection of stories partly based on his Civil War experiences. He afterwards returns to his native Ireland. He publishes novels, short stories, biographies, travel books, translations, and literary criticism – including one of the rare full-length studies of the short story, The Short Story (1948). He also writes a cultural history, The Irish, in 1947.

Ó Faoláin serves as director of the Arts Council of Ireland from 1956 to 1959, and from 1940 to 1990 is a founder member and editor of the Irish literary periodical The Bell. The list of contributors to The Bell include many of Ireland’s foremost writers, among them Patrick Kavanagh, Patrick Swift, Flann O’Brien, Frank O’Connor and Brendan Behan. His Collected Stories are published in 1983. He is elected Saoi of Aosdána in 1986.

Seán Proinsias Ó Faoláin dies after a short illness on April 20, 1991 in the Dublin nursing home where he had lived for two years.

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Birth of Daniel Corkery, Writer & Academic

daniel-corkeryDaniel Corkery, Irish politician, writer and academic, is born in Cork, County Cork on February 14, 1878. He is unquestionably best known as the author of The Hidden Ireland, his 1924 study of the poetry of eighteenth-century Irish Language poets in Munster.

Corkery is educated at the Presentation Brothers and St. Patrick’s College of Education, Dublin where he trains as a teacher. He teaches at Saint Patrick’s School in Cork but resigns in 1921 when he is refused the headmastership. Among his students are the writer Frank O’Connor and the sculptor Seamus Murphy.

After leaving St. Patrick’s, Corkery teaches art for the local technical education committee, before becoming inspector of Irish in 1925, and later Professor of English at University College Cork in 1930. Among his students in UCC are Seán Ó Faoláin and Seán Ó Tuama. He is often a controversial figure in academia for his “nativist” views on Irish literature, views which result in conflict with many Irish Language scholars, most notably Pádraig de Brún and his niece Máire Mhac an tSaoi. Ó Tuama, however, is frequently a staunch defender of Corkery’s reputation.

In his late twenties Corkery learns Irish and this brings him into contact with leading members of the Irish Language revival movement, including Terence MacSwiney, T. C. Murray and Con O’Leary, with whom he founds the Cork Dramatic Society in 1908. His plays Embers and The Hermit and the King are performed by the society. Later plays are staged at the famous Abbey Theatre, including The Labour Leader (1919) and The Yellow Bittern (1920).

Corkery is also a writer of short stories, including the collections A Munster Twilight (1916), The Hounds of Banba (1920), The Stormy Hills (1929), and Earth Out of Earth (1939), and a novel, The Threshold of Quiet (1917).

Corkery also writes non-fiction works, including The Hidden Ireland (1924), a highly influential work about the riches of eighteenth-century Irish poetry. In this he attempts to reconstruct a worldview preserved by Gaelic poets amongst the poor and oppressed Catholic peasantry of the Penal Laws era, virtually invisible in the Anglo-Irish tradition that has dominated the writing of Irish history. “An instant, influential classic,” writes Patrick Walsh, “its version of the past provided powerful cultural underpinning to the traditional nationalist history that became, in the 1930s, the educational orthodoxy of the new state.”

Corkery serves as a member of Seanad Éireann from 1951 to 1954 when he is nominated by the Taoiseach.

Daniel Corkery dies on December 31, 1964. His papers are held in the Boole Library of University College Cork.


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The Censorship of Publications Act

The Censorship of Publications Act is passed on July 16, 1929. The laws enacted by the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929 are introduced in an era of political isolationism and cultural and economic protectionism. Ireland’s culture is very moral and religious. Catholicism, the religion of 93% of the population, is the fundamental philosophy behind the censorship laws.

A main aim of the new legislation is to prevent the introduction of unwholesome foreign influences like materialism, consumerism and immorality from abroad. Specifically, this means works that are considered to be indecent or obscene, newspapers whose content relies too much on crime, and works that promote the “unnatural” prevention of conception or that advocate abortion. Irish writers who are found offensive are officially regarded as agents of decadence and social disintegration who are striking at the roots of family life and moral decency. For example, Father P.J. Gannon thinks that the Act is “but a simple measure of moral hygiene, forced upon the Irish public by a veritable spate of filth never surpassed.” He thinks that all literature must provide “noble ground for noble emotion.” President Éamon de Valera feels that the arts in Ireland are to be encouraged when they observe the “holiest traditions,” but should be censored when they fail to live up to this ideal.

Although the new laws are typical of censorship laws in many other countries in the 1920s and 1930s, they are implemented with an eagerness which gradually alienates and embitters many Irish writers. It causes some writers to leave the country. The author Mervyn Wall explains that during the 1930s there is “a general intolerant attitude to writing, painting and sculpture. These were thought dangerous, likely to corrupt faith and morals…One encountered frequently among ordinary people bitter hostility to writers…Obscurantism had settled on the country like a fog, so of course anyone who had eyes to see and the heart to feel, was rebellious.”

The Academy of Letters established by William Butler Yeats attempts to fight censorship with solidarity among writers, but it achieves little in this field. The fight against literary censorship is fought mainly by isolated figures. Seán Ó Faoláin, perhaps the most vociferous critic of the censorship laws, writes, “Our Censorship…tries to keep the mind in a state of perpetual adolescence in the midst of all the influences that must, in spite of it, pour in from the adult world.”

Among the first thirteen books to be banned, announced in the Iris Oifigúil in May 1930, are Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall and several books on sex and marriage by Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes. Surprisingly, none of James Joyce‘s writings are ever banned by the Board, while copies of his works are burned by the British Customs, and Ulysses is banned in the United States for several years.