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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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Death of Poet & Novelist Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh, Irish poet and novelist whose best-known works include the novel Tarry Flynn, and the poems “On Raglan Road” and “The Great Hunger,” dies in Dublin on November 30, 1967. He is known for his accounts of Irish life through reference to the everyday and commonplace.

Kavanagh was born in rural Inniskeen, County Monaghan, on October 21, 1904, the fourth of ten children of James Kavanagh, a cobbler and farmer, and Bridget Quinn. He is a pupil at Kednaminsha National School from 1909 to 1916, leaving in the sixth year at the age of 13. He becomes apprenticed to his father as a shoemaker and works on his farm. He is also goalkeeper for the Inniskeen Gaelic football team.

Kavanagh’s first published work appears in 1928 in the Dundalk Democrat and the Irish Independent. In 1931, he walks 80 kilometres to meet George William Russell in Dublin, where Kavanagh’s brother is a teacher. Russell gives him books, among them works by Feodor Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Browning, and becomes Kavanagh’s literary adviser.

Kavanagh’s first collection, Ploughman and Other Poems, is published in 1936. It is notable for its realistic portrayal of Irish country life, free of the romantic sentiment often seen at the time in rural poems, a trait he abhorred. Two years after his first collection is published he has yet to make a significant impression. The Times Literary Supplement describes him as “a young Irish poet of promise rather than of achievement.”

In 1938 Kavanagh goes to London and remains there for about five months. The Green Fool, a loosely autobiographical novel, is published in 1938 and Kavanagh is accused of libel by Oliver St. John Gogarty who sues Kavanagh for his description of mistaking Gogarty’s “white-robed maid for his wife or his mistress.” Gogarty is awarded £100 in damages. The book, which recounts Kavanagh’s rural childhood and his attempts to become a writer, receives international recognition and good reviews.

Patrick Kavanagh dies on November 30, 1967 from an attack of bronchitis, bringing to a close the life of one of Ireland’s most controversial and colorful literary figures. Kavanagh’s reputation as a poet is based on the lyrical quality of his work, his mastery of language and form and his ability to transform the ordinary into something of significance.