Brian O'Nolan was a funny man. His Cruiskeen Lawn columns in the Irish Times hilariously desconstructed colloquaial sayings, pompous journalism and godawful clichés. He effortlessly penned anecdotes on the poets Keats and Chapman, attacked Sean O'Faolain - then editor of The Bell - pretentious artists and the 'professional classes'. October 5 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of O'Nolan's birth.
Documentaries describe O'Nolan's capacity for hilarity as being matched only by his capacity for porter. One recent television documentary depicted O'Nolan as a belligerent drunk in his later years. Another anecdote situates him barely upright on Merrion Square one afternoon, stumbling along the fence repeatedly spewing "Fuck the fucking fuckers".
Googling Flann O'Brien (the alias under which O'Nolan submitted novels) uncovered this recorded interview from 1998 with Michael O'Nolan, his younger brother. It describes a kindness and introversion that previous accounts overlook. And it explains how the rejection of his second novel, The Third Policeman profoundly affected O'Nolan.
His first novel, At Swim-Two Birds was accepted in 1939 by the publishing house Longmans where Graeme Greene was a reader. Greene had left Longmans by the time The Third Policeman was submitted and Michael says this is why it was rejected (Longmans rejected it as being 'too fanstastic'). "When [an artits's] best work is rejected, it does have a very big say in their life and I think that really affected his entire life," his brother Michael says in Part 2 of the interview below.
When asked about The Third Policeman thereafter, O'Nolan pretended the manuscript was lost. O'Nolan's wife said in another interview that despite financial problems, she never worried him about resubmitting it for publication. She was interviewed by John Wyse Jackson who edited collections of Cruiskeen Lawn, the satirical column O'Nolan wrote in the Irish Times under the pseudonym Myles Na gCopaleen (derived from the Dion Boucicault play The Collen Bawn). "If he were sober it would only have upset him and if he had drink taken he would have told me to puff off," she told Wyse Jackson. Though she recounted one occasion when O'Nolan said it needed to be recast in the third person. She also said in this interview that O'Nolan never trusted "people in Dublin literary circles". On his death she took it from a drawer and sent it for publication.