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Kevin Barry, in his foreword to Anthony Cronin’s biography of Flann O’Brien (aka Brian O’Nolan and Myles na gCopaleen), No Laughing Matter, states that Flann had posthumously found the ideal biographer. I have just finished reading it, first published in 1989 and recently re-issued. I fully concur with Kevin Barry. Cronin’s style is unsurpassable and his honesty in dealing with his subject, who was also a friend, is impressive. Barry opens his intro with an interesting statement:

It feels like a different world. In fact, the city of Dublin, as it is presented here – and it is a character or player in the book in its own right – seems to be not just of another era but of another dimension entirely.”

The tragic downward spiral of Flann into alcoholism and all its attendant evils for his life as a writer is well documented. The dominant thought I am left with is how the world has changed for young people, men and women, writers, students, workers. Cronin depicts the dark decades of the first half of the twentieth century with the pinpoint accuracy of one who was actually there.

We feminists are well aware of how far we have travelled in the past century and how far we must still venture. But what of the menfolk? Cronin depicts a man’s world in the Ireland of those decades which was grim in the extreme. Those at the bottom departed De Valera’s ‘cosy homesteads’ in droves for distant parts . Eldest sons inherited farms and businesses. The rest, even those who were fortunate enough to have second and even third level education, were condemned to inhabit a world of what we would now call toxic masculinity. Flann and many of his contemporaries, Behan and Patrick Kavanagh among them, were caught up in this cruel world circumscribed by pub culture and the unrelenting pressure to be the ‘hard man’. One of Flann’s works is entitled The Hard Life. Indeed.

Women, it must be said, do not figure hugely in this biography. Flann’s wife, one suspects, was a woman of fortitude and loyal to a fault. We are not told much about her. Flann’s mother seems to have endured the same crucifixion as many other Irish mothers. Who today has eleven children? Of the five sisters we are told little or nothing. Flann’s father, a civil servant like his son, died suddenly at what we would now call a relatively young age. How startling to hear that a civil servant’s widow was not entitled to a pension. The widow’s pension as we know it did not exist. This left our hero, son number three and the only member of the family in employment, as breadwinner for this army of twelve people then living in Avoca Terrace, Blackrock. This is the kind of a trap which few young men or women nowadays experience. Add to this the struggle to make it as a writer while holding down the day job and being expected to turn up at all the ‘literary’ pubs in town, put away copious amounts of drink, and flaunt the wit first made famous at the UCD Literary and Historical Society. “…literary Dublin”, we are told, “…central to its myth of itself as a place where heavy drinkers who were also wits consumed many hours of each day in literary converse enlivened by anecdote and epigram.” One assumes that a vast amount of tobacco was also smoked. It sounds like unbearable pressure. One had to be a ‘character’.

The position of the intellectual in post-independence Ireland was not an easy one. One could not be too daring. Parental pressure was a reality. Breaking a parent’s heart was a big issue. Celibacy was taken for granted for large numbers of people well into adulthood and even middle age. The state of Ireland’s economy at the time permitted few to have what we would now call a life. Cronin recalls the huge numbers of young men working as clerks and civil servants and living in ‘digs’ in 1940s Dublin.

          “Many of these civil servants were confirmed bachelors who would spend their entire lives in digs, perhaps graduating to more comfortable circumstances and favoured status, but still propping the evening newspaper up against the sauce bottle at the evening meal and coming down to breakfast with hangovers after a night of pint drinking.”

Breakfast, dinner and ‘the tea’ in the evening. That was the Ireland before foreign travel and interesting food. The metaphor of the sauce bottle is brilliant and will remain with me. Cronin is equally good on the horrors of the dance halls. He recalls his own arrival in Dublin to attend UCD in the forties and his discovery of Flann’s Myles na gCopaleen column in The Irish Times.

I bought The Irish Times whenever I could afford it because The Irish Times was a symbol of liberation from the values of one’s Irish Independent reading forebears and of graduation to intellectual Dublin”.

We read of Flann’s altercations with Gardaí and his record of reckless driving. It is striking that one does not associate this sort of thing nowadays with men of his level of education. The drink, of course, explained much of this just as we associate the drug culture of today with rock musicians and their entourage.

I had cause to rejoice at the end of this book. It struck me that young men are now allowed to be human. I suspect that this is one of the benefits of the women’s movement. We no longer tolerate the machismo that made for such misery for so many. There is no longer any compulsion to regard the pub as the centre of one’s existence. We have also largely freed ourselves from smoking cigarettes. Young men are now allowed to push the baby’s buggy down the street without being jeered at for not being a ‘hard man’. Our fathers would not have dared. Young men are allowed to change a nappy, to cook a meal, to go to a parent/teacher meeting. They are now permitted to participate in family life to the full beyond the role of mere breadwinner. Dublin is transformed. The country is transformed. Now if only young people could afford a nice place to live we would really be getting somewhere.