Flann O’Brien, Brian Ó Núalláin by birth, wrote short-stories and novels in the latter part of the first half of the 20th Century. He also was a prolific journalist, writing for The Irish Times under the pseudonym of Myles na gCopaleen. In 1941, at the height of The War, he published to a gaelic-speaking audience An Béal Bocht. The name translates to “the poor mouth,” as in the Irish phrase “to put on the poor mouth.” Such was a tactic of exaggerating one’s poverty for the sake of sympathy and charity, a tactic I am sure at least some of us can understand. The book is largely a satire of the rural Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking people of the country-side left largely untouched by the rampant changes of modernity, as well as the urban Irish who treated them dastardly.
O’Brien wrote the book in Irish Gaelic, and never commissioned nor desired a translation in his life. It wasn’t until long after his death in 1966 that a translation was prepared. Reading it, I am tickled and titillated with the juicy slab of this gaelic sensibility. The translator’s preface suggests in its preface that “the author … was an accomplished Gaelic scholar and handles Gaelic in this work in a masterly but also in an idiosyncratic manner which makes translation at times a rather exciting task.” I think this might give the reader the wrong impression about O’Brien’s way of writing, as if it escapes the bounds of what we should expect of Gaelic narrative.
When Flann O’Brien wrote The Poor Mouth in Irish Gaelic, he was exploiting more than just the language as a veil for his political intentions. His intentions were masterfully hidden not simply behind satire, but a literary sensibility intrinsic to Irish, or more specifically Gaelic, language and culture. When I call what otherwise might be deemed a style of writing a sensibility, a point is being made that as a way of writing, telling stories, and even conversing on a daily basis, the verbosity and hyperbole found in Irish literature reflects to some extent how the Irish constitute their experience. O’Brien makes uses this sensibility because it speaks in a culturally specific way to his intended, Gaelic-speaking, Irish audience.
This sensibility has its roots in Irish antiquity. It is most obviously recognizable for its unique verbosity and fantastic hyperbole. In the ancient Gaelic epic, Táin Bó Cuailnge1 or “the cattle raid of Cooley,” the use of hyperbole is frequent; and if spoken aloud, the mouth is packed with words. The most prominent hero of ancient Irish lore, Cúchulainn, kills many foes and friends, often in a single blow. From a young age, which is to say seven to ten years old, he is already laying waste to enemies. The most dreaded of his feats is his Warp-Spasm (riastradh), which he undergoes here (translated by Thomas Kinsella) as a child attacking a group of other, slightly older warrior-children:
‘The Warp-Spasm overtook him: it seemed each hair was hammered into his head, so sharply they shot upright. You would swear a fire-speck tipped each hair. He squeezed one eye narrower than the eye of a needle; he opened on eye wider than the mouth of a goblet. He bared his jaws ear to ear; he peeled back his lips to the eye-teeth till his gullet showed. The hero-halo rose up from the crown of his head.
‘Then he made onslaught on the boys. He laid low fifty of them before they got to the gate of Emain. Nine of them,’ Fergus said, ‘flew past Conchobor and myself—we were playing fidchell—and he came leaping after the nine of them from across the fidchell board.
For all his many, short encounters, Cúchulainn has a particularly lengthy battle during the main story of the Tain, with a childhood friend, Ferdia. The depiction of this battle is amazing and dense with words, and include another occurrence of his Warp Spasm.
…They took up their two finely-marked feat-playing shields and their eight shields with sharp rims, their eight darts and their ivory-hilted straight swords and their eight small ivory darts that flew between them like bees on a pleasant day. They threw nothing that didn’t hit.
…Cúchulainn warped in his fury-spasm; he blew up and swelled like a bladder full of breath and bent himself in a fearful hideous arch, mottled and terrifying, and the huge high hero loomed straight up over Ferdia, vast as a Formorian giant or a man from the sea-kingdom.
Then they fought together so closely that their heads touched at the top and their feet at the bottom and their hands in the middle around the edges and knobs of their shields. So closely they fought that their shields split and burst from rim to belly: so closely they fought that their spears bent and collapsed, worn-out from the tips to the rivets: so closely they fought that their shield-rims and sword-hilts and spear-shafts screamed like demons and devils and goblins of the glen and fiends of the air: so closely they fought that they drove the river off its course and out of its bed, leaving dry space in the middle of the ford big enough for the last royal burial-ground of a king or queen—not a drop of water on it except what the two heroes and high warriors splashed there in their trampling and slithering in the ford: so closely they fought that the horses of the men in Ireland broke loose in panic and terror, rearing and raving, and broke their shackle hoops and hobbles and reins and ropes, so that the women and children, the infants, the ill and the imbeciles broke out soutwestward from the camp of the men of Ireland.
For over 1,000 years, the people of Ireland have had a particularly wordy and over-the-top way of conveying events, objects, emotions, and people that seems to at once entertain and inform. Taken literally, much of this technique may seem obnoxious, if not entirely for comic value, as if the Gaels had a really a more serious, realistic way of talking. However, when Cúchulainn finally kills Ferdia, the mood is immensely tragic despite the hyperbole.
Cúchulainn caught [the gae bolga] in the fork of his foot and sent it casting towards Ferdia and it went through the deep and sturdy apron of twice-smelt iron, and shattered in three parts the stout strong stone the size of a mill-stone, and went coursing through the highways and byways of his body so that every single joint filled with barbs
‘That is enough now,’ Ferdia said,’ I’ll die of that. There is strength in the thrust of your right foot. It is wrong I should fall at your hand.
‘Hound of the bright deeds,
you have killed me unfairly.
Your guilt clings to me
as my blood sticks to you.
By the way of deceit
no good can come.
I am struck dumb.
I am leaving this life.
My ribs are crushed in,
my heart is all blood.
I have not fought well.
Hound. I am fallen.’
From the earliest recorded past of Gaelic literature, the use of hyperbole and verbosity was far richer than mere emphasis or irony, though that too seems included in the emotional complexity of the Gaelic sensibility. The Gaelic sensibility represents an emotional substratum to the explicit expression available in the words they used. The Gaelic sensibility emerged from a dimension of the lived experience of the Gael that exceeds mere information; it was far better for expressing truth than fact. It is absolutely no wonder that O’Brien chose to write in the immanently colloquial manner, in Gaelic, when he wanted to at once avoid easy detection by those in power as well as strike at an ancient chord with the Gaels.
The Poor Mouth has now been called a satire long enough that it is inarguable that, on some level, it really is a satire. What makes this designation problematic is that by writing with this distinctly Gaelic sensibility, what is intentionally satirical and what is simply Gaelic sensibility is not at all obvious to the outsider. To the absolute alien of Irish-Gaelic culture and language, which most people are, it may seem that the Gaelic sensibility is itself the satirical mood of the book. In places this may be true, but it is easily taken beyond that, and the book is quickly reduced to absolute satire, rather than an emotionally colorful tale.
Reducing The Poor Mouth to mere satire would compare to using “magical” to describe the otherwise realist writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jorges Borges. It smacks of an ideological belief in an absolutely true way things are, and an absolute writing style that taps into this, where all non-conformists fit in only as silly or absurd variations. In other words, an attempt to cover up the inescapable inconsistency of the prevailing ideological description of experience, an inconsistency introduced by the fact that the outside sensibility just doesn’t make sense within the prevailing one. Magical Realism, in light of an already established Realism, emerges out of the same attempt to make sense of, though effectively explain away literature that obeys many of the conventions of Realism, except where it does not. The magical realist authors inconspicuously introduce elements that resist assimilation into the prevailing way of making sense of the world, precisely because no line is drawn between them and that sensibility. These so-called magical elements that contradict the prevailing ideological description of reality, which underpins Realism’s claim to writing about reality, are made assimilable by classifying them as magical. This is justified as not really being Realism, but a kind of fantasy-fiction that pretends to depict how things really are.
These so-called magical elements, especially when derived from regional and religious folklore, function the same way as Irish-Gaelic sensibility in a book like The Poor Mouth. Here we have a paradox: these sensibilities are not describing the reality of the realists as the realists describe it, except they are, and precisely in the same way that the realists describes reality in Realism. Each sensibility is a metaphorical tool-kit for symbolically constituting experience. No one of them is true in the sense that the rest are false. This resolves the apparent paradox of at once not describing and yet still describing the same reality as the realists. The paradox persists only when we believe that the reality of Realism is absolute, and the sensibilities of Magical Realism and Irish-Gaelic Literature are merely imaginary.
In this way, the non-satirical nature of The Poor Mouth becomes impossible when we do not realize that there is here another way of making sense, and in language expressing that sensibility, of experience. This is why O’Brien didn’t want the book translated. As the old saying goes, something would be “lost in translation.” In this case, it would be a core element of the Gaelic sensibility, the Gaelic language itself as the structuring agent of experience. As something is lost, something would be gained too. To the extent that the Gaelic sensibility is lost in translation, it would be covered up, filled in, and explained away by the English sensibility. This is precisely in the Lacanian sense, where there is a lack in the English sensibility to account for the Gaelic sensibility, and that lack is covered-up by explaining The Poor Mouth as mere satire. This notion of “English sensibility” is largely a contextual issue of mid-20th Century Ireland. The fact is, there has been a general confusion about the Gaelic sensibility for over 2000 years. In Green English, Loreto Todd quotes Roman historian, Diodorus Siculus, as saying about the Celts that “In conversation they use few words and speak in riddles, for the most part hinting at things and leaving a great deal to be understood.”
How are we, then, to really appreciate The Poor Mouth? The simple answer is that we must be sharp, native readers of Gaelic literature itself—like O’Brien’s intended audience. Obviously this is not possible, so the next best thing to do is to become thoroughly acquainted with Irish language, history, and culture. Only by building this kind of context can the metaphorical texture of The Poor Mouth and other books like it be felt. Ironically, reading a translation of The Poor Mouth is itself an act of building this context. Reading it and becoming familiar with the way the Irish use language, both their own and their adopted English, is central to learning the nuances of not just Irish literature, but the Irish experience itself.