Design a site like this with
Get started

Book Review: Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority

J.D. McAllister, University of Cambridge

Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan & John McCourt (ed.), Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017)

S. E. Gontarski (Florida State University) has coined the term ‘the grey canon’ to denote the vast cache of archival material that has become available to Beckett scholars over the past two decades.[1] The publication of Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority (2017) marks a comparable archival turn in scholarship on the riotous (post-)modernist author Brian O’Nolan, demonstrating the scholarly approaches to what may be termed, following Gontarski, the O’Nolan grey canon. This expands the remit of modernist studies to complicate and develop a critical understanding of O’Nolan as an adept writer of a number of literary forms. Although some of this material is unavailable outside of specific archives, the publication of The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien last year makes some of the material drawn on in this collection more accessible to scholars and students.[2]

The volume collects essays by established and early-career scholars following Problems with Authority: The Second International Flann O’Brien Conference in 2013, and the editors should be commended on their selection of a range of exceptional essays that indicate the very best in modernist scholarship. Throughout the collection, the contributors pay close attention to a range of material from the grey canon that redefines the parameters of O’Nolan’s work across genres, making this publication a key source for students of O’Nolan and modernist fiction more generally. Further, they examine sites of authority in a range of discourses, with the political and religious emerging as the key discursive spaces of O’Nolan’s subversive stance. This volume therefore sets the bar very high for scholars whose work examines the troubling of authority in the linguistic texture of modernist and post-modernist fiction.

In their introduction, Ruben Borg (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Paul Fagan (University of Vienna), and John McCourt (Università di Macerata) write that the volume highlights ‘O’Nolan’s clowning with bureaucratic, religious and scientific power in the sites of the popular, the modern and the traditional in both national and international contexts’ (p. 8). The essays move between these contexts, analysing O’Nolan’s multi-faceted talent of sliding seamlessly between registers and tones through his unique linguistic skills. In an insightful essay on O’Nolan’s implicit engagement with Japanese involvement in the Second World War, Catherine Flynn (University of California) writes that O’Nolan’s column Cruiskeen Lawn in the Irish Times (written under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen) is ‘linguistically and programmatically apart from the rest of the paper’ as a ‘space of play rather than reportage or advertisement’ (p. 79). Flynn demonstrates how this column navigated the rigorous censorship of war commentary by the Irish Times, burying criticism ‘behind several layers’ of linguistic play through a strategy of the ‘half-said thing’ (p. 82).

Flynn’s phrase ‘a space of play’ is the common theme of a number of essays in the volume that explore O’Nolan’s carving out of a ludic, linguistic space from which authority can be troubled and destabilised. Indeed, Cruiskeen Lawn receives much attention for its subversive textuality in the sites of the political, linguistic, and scientific. In her essay ‘Lamhd Láftar and Bad Language: Bilingual Cognition in Cruiskeen Lawn’, Maria Kager (Utrecht University) draws upon psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic critical literature to discuss O’Nolan’s bilingualism. Kager points to the ‘phonetic fidelity’ (p. 68) of O’Nolan’s Cruiskeen Lawn column in her discussion of the intricate complexities of his writing in Irish and English, and notes that O’Nolan was a ‘rare bilingual writer who started his career as a bilingual writer’ (p. 54). She draws on a number of studies showing that bilingual speakers develop a metalinguistic awareness through a sensitivity to the structures of language and its creative potential. Kager thus demonstrates that O’Nolan’s bilingualism manifests in his linguistic play with translation, multilingual puns, and in the precision with which he renders differences in pronunciation and syntax. These strategies evince the subversive power of O’Nolan’s writing, in which authority is parodied, subverted, and ironised through the troubling of hegemonic discourses.

Other essays of note include Katherine Ebury’s (University of Sheffield) ‘Physical Comedy and the Comedy of Physics’, an analysis of O’Nolan’s spirited engagement with contemporary scientific ideas, in which she demonstrates the novels’ ‘intertextual relationship with popular science’ (p. 98). In particular, Ebury explores the subversion of scientific authority in O’Nolan’s response to the scientific advances of the 20th century. In the site of the philosophical, Dirk Van Hulle (University of Antwerp) brings his critical knowledge of extended mind theory to bear on The Third Policeman, a theory that expands the notion of cognition through arguing that the mind is a ‘coupled system’ of ‘biological organism and external resources’.[3] Van Hulle puts O’Nolan’s understanding of cognition in conversation with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, to suggest that O’Nolan wrote against the Cartesian model of mind to create an ‘ontological confusion of inside and outside’ (p. 115). Van Hulle reads O’Nolan’s writing of the mind as a development of Joyce’s configuration of the mind in interaction, situating O’Nolan within a trajectory that runs from Joyce through to Beckett’s dissolving of the internal and external in his late works. Lastly, Maebh Long explores O’Nolan’s search for a post-independence national identity in her analysis of the Irish stereotype in his work. She argues that O’Nolan’s contributions to Blather and Comhthrom Féinne ‘explore the authoritative and the inauthentic in Irish identity through subversive uses of brogue and the stage Irishman’ (p. 41).

Unfortunately, not all the essays included can be outlined in this review, but the collection includes further pieces by Carol Taffe (Independent Scholar), Ronan Crowley (University of Antwerp), R. W. Malsen (University of Glasgow), Ian Ó Caoimh (University College Dublin), John McCourt, Louis De Paor (National University of Ireland), Alana Gillespie (Utrecht University), Ruben Borg, Dieter Fuchs (University of Vienna), and Tamara Radak (University of Vienna), all of whom explore different facets of O’Nolan’s sustained ‘problem’ with authority and the subversive linguistic texture of his prose. The contributors to this collection all convey the energy and delight with which O’Nolan destabilises the authority of particular discourses. This volume thus fits perfectly into to the on-going critical reflection on modernism’s troublesome relation with authority. The theme of this year’s BAMS conference, Troublesome Modernisms (June 2019), was a call to ‘to examine anew the multiple modes of modernist argumentation, contestation and dissent’, to explore modernism’s capacity for trouble both in its own time and in the 21st century. In conversation with this critical debate, Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority suggests strategies for reading the subversions of O’Nolan’s prose, demonstrating the efficacy of particular critical readings for uncovering the trouble inscribed within modernist writings.

Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority is available here.


[1] S. E. Gontarski & Anthony Uhlmann (ed.), Beckett after Beckett (Gainesville: Florida University Press, 2006), p. 143.

[2] Maebh Long (ed.), The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien (Victoria, TX: Dalkey Archive Press, 2018).

[3][3] Andy Clark & David J. Chalmers, ‘The Extended Mind’, in The Extended Mind, ed. by Richard Menary (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010), pp. 27-42 (p. 39).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

Up ↑