It’s not often that you can get a chance to meet one of your heroes, but Val O’Donnell’s one-man show about the life and times of Flann O’Brien was pretty close. His performance in the United Arts Club was informative, lively and throughly entertaining. The setting, in a large upstairs room, had the feeling of an evening in a friendly parlour, would definitely have met with the great man’s approval. And as it happened, his sister-in-law Anne O’Nuallain was in attendance, lending an air of authenticity and continuation to proceedings. After his introduction ‘Flann’ entered the room with a bicycle pump (think The Third Policeman!), a few books under his arm…and, of course, a pint of Guinness. As theatrical props go it has to be the best ever – slainte. Dressed in a black, three-piece suit and the obligatory black hat, ‘Flann’ looked the part and gave a wonderful performance that had the audience grinning and laughing out loud at some of the stories. We heard about O’Brien’s early life, college days and work in the Department of Local Government from where he was forced to leave in 1953.
This was due to his barely veiled observation of his boss who demanded his early dismissal. He had published his first book, At Swim-Two-Birds, in 1939 to great critical acclaim. It was praised by the great British writer, Graham Greene, who recommended it to hs publishers, Longmans. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Dylan Thomas, among others, thought highly of it, but sadly, it never made the mainstream breakthrough that his writing has since done. ‘Flann’ recited pieces from various books, The Dalkey Archive, The Hard Life, his Irish Times column An Cruiskeen Lawnand other satirical work. They were challenging at the time of their writing (part of the reason why they never received the acclaim they deserved) and still have a resonance today. Altogether it was a tour-de-force and left me (and others, no doubt) wondering where my Flann O’Brien books were and that I should really dip into them again. Just before he finished ‘Flann’ recited with perfect rhythm and feeling what is probably O’Brien’s most famous piece The Workman’s Friend, otherwise known as A Pint Of Plain Is Yer Only Man, and if you closed your eyes for a moment you could almost feel that the great man was in the room. A special night – I’ll drink to that.