The banning of almost every serious Irish contemporary novel also created the strange literary culture in which O’Brien revelled, one in which officially approved reading was narrowed to theological reflections, Gaelic sagas and peasant narratives while the thirst for contemporary stories was slaked by imported cowboy stories and cheap crime thrillers.
O’Brien’s main novels draw much of their humour from the absurd conjunctions implicit in this unlikely mix. At Swim sets heroic and folkloric figures (Finn MacCool, Sweeny, The Good Fairy, The Pooka MacPhellimey) literally alongside the cowboys Slug and Shorty. The Third Policeman draws on detective stories and science fiction as well as Catholic theology and mediaeval Gaelic literature.
Flann O’Brien, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan, also wrote under the pen name of Myles na Gopaleen. He was born in 1911 in County Tyrone. A resident of Dublin, he graduated from University College after a brilliant career as a student (editing a magazine called Blather) and joined the Civil Service, in which he eventually attained a senior position.
He wrote throughout his life, which ended in Dublin on April 1, 1966.