Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’ and the Altitudinous Authenticity of the Gael

Flann O’Brien’s satirical, picaresque novel The Poor Mouth was written in Irish and a decent English translation was a long time in the making. O’Brien was deeply informed on the subject of Irish literature; his M.A. Thesis was entitled Nature Poetry in Irish. An Béal Bocht, to give it its original title, took its inspiration from the semi-fictionalised autobiographical memoir foisted on Irish schoolchildren, authored by Peig Sayers, or Tomás Ó Criomhthain. As a lifelong lover of the language, aswell as a not unskilled prose stylist in his own right, O’Brien seems uncannily capable of emulating the same understatedly ariose, yet monotonous and repetitive qualities that comprises the diction of these pieces. Capturing the very particularity of the pastiche that O’Brien was conveying with a straight face as far as the content itself goes, must have been a staggering task for a would-be translator. I’m glad it exists.

 
O’Brien’s satire takes particular aim at the essentialist notions of those who would hold the native Irish speakers up as being ‘the most Irish,’ of deserving beatification in the Irish Free State for their lack of engagement with the fiendish Saxons. Such notions are of course ahistorical; O’Brien names his protagonist Bonaparte O’Coonassa, reaching back to the failed revolution of the late eighteenth century in Ireland, and the assistance received from the French against the English. For this Napoleon was rewarded with canonical status in manifold artifacts from the Irish folk tradition, along the lines of enemy of my enemy is &c. rationale. If you’re into Irish folk/want to hear more along these lines here’s a link to an archived episode of The Rolling Wave from RTÉ Lyric FM on the subject.

The worst offenders against O’Brien’s sensibilities are the antiquarian, self-identified Gaeilgeoir academics who invade O’Coonassa’s region of Corca Dhorcha. In these scenes we see O’Brien re-treading the ethnographic trips of John Millington Synge and his ilk who beheld the inhabitants of the West of Ireland, in their prodigious poverty, a more meaningful or authentic Irishness, allowing the Irish Literary Imagination and those responsible for it to culturally agitate for self-determination, while retaining their disregard for the urban poor.

In these sequences, there remains the familiar trope of the native being completely misunderstood by the credulous would-be ethnographer, who, when seeking to record one of the many stories the islanders are known to have in their repertoires, instead becomes an internationally renowned and decorated scholar for recording the inchoate grunts of a pig dressed in a suit, dressed as such by the natives to game the government into providing them with cash for the welfare of their kids.

O’Brien is unsparing too in his treatment of the Gaelic, who he, in one of his correspondences, derided as being in many cases, a ‘moronic’ people. One should note that O’Brien modulates the ethnography trope slightly in that the subjects of the study are not getting one over on the interloper, but merely sit mute in darkness, unable to summon up a narrative for the benefit of the scholar. The pig merely takes the initiative. The backward indigence and fatalism of the natives comes in for O’Brien’s scorn, in one particular sequence in which Sitric O’Sanassa seems to be an object of some envy among his neighbours for the extremity of his starvation and poverty, makes a memorable request of his onlookers, which confirms the multi-directionality of O’Brien’s satire:

 
“would ye carry me to the seaside and throw me into the sea? There’s not the weight of a rabbit in me and ‘twould be small deed for well-fed sound men to throw me over a cliff.”

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