On the centenary of Brian O’Nolan

It is the centenary, give-or-take, of the birth of the Irish scriever Brian O’Nolan, famous nowadays for comic-fantastic novels such as ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’, ‘The Third Policeman’, and ‘An Béal Bocht’ (the latter written in his native Irish). He wrote under many names, the best known of which is Flann O’Brien, and for years under the cognomen of Myles na gCopaleen (Myles of the little horse) he wrote the humorous column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ in the Irish Times. What follows is a small selection of my tributes to him, originally published, shall we say, elsewhere; a small number of my contributions to the canon of adventures of those two pals – yer man Keats and yer man Chapman.

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Keats and Chapman were once obliged to make a journey across the city by public transport. They boarded a bus and it set off. The vehicle was quite ancient and close to obsolescence, and its progress was erratic. This was made worse by the fact that it was a very windy day, and every time the bus passed a side-street or a gap in the buildings, it was struck by violent side-winds and caused to lurch terribly, as if about to capsize. Also the window-catches were defective, the windows would not close, and great draughts of air made it impossible for Chapman to continue to hold his copy of The Thunderer before himself to read. Chapman, being able to stand no more, paradoxically stood. He seized the conductor and began to make loud protestations about the fitness-for-purpose of the bus. The conductor took him on, arguing strongly that no one but Chapman was complaining. The exchanges between them became (in best cliché fashion) heated, and Chapman was within moments of being put off at the next stop. Keats, however, rose and put a placatory hand on the shoulder of each one of them.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “De gusty bus non disputandum est.”

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Keats and Chapman were at home, each at peace reading a newspaper. Chapman looked up from the cartoon page, and remarked on the genius of the American artist Charles M Schultz in the way that he made the little bird Woodstock talk to his pal Snoopy in a series of minuscule, vertical penstrokes.

“Talk is cheep,” observed Keats.

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Keats was trying to listen to the Test Match on the radio one day, but was disturbed by Chapman, who was roaming from room to room in their shared apartment, overturning stuff, opening drawers, and cursing loudly. It became too much to bear when Chapman burst into the lounge where Keats was sitting and started to ransack the place. Keats sighed, switched off the radio, and asked Chapman what the divvil he thought he was playing at.

Chapman said, “I’ve been looking for my copy of Homer. It’s nowhere to be found. A mystery! In my opinion it’s been stolen!”

“I’ll look into it,” said Keats.

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Keats was a gracious man, and would never turn down an invitation to this meeting or that soiree or the other book-signing. Chapman wondered at his goodwill as much as at his stamina. One day Keats received a polite letter from a literary society based in a small town in the West of Ireland.

“I know these people well,” said Chapman to him. “I’ve given a talk there once, as have many of my friends – and yours I think.”

“I don’t know them,” said Keats. “What like are they?”

“They’re decent folk,” replied Chapman. “And they’ll be delighted to see you. But there’s one thing I ought to warn you about. There is one surname that is so common in that area that almost everyone bears it. They consider themselves to be a clan as much as a town. It seems that anyone who isn’t a Murphy there is an O’Murphy or as MacMurphy; even the local Punjabi shopkeeper named his eldest “Murphy” in their honour. What you have to watch out for is this: they have heard every possible joke about the name, every bon mot about potatoes, every quip about one chap called Murphy two hundred years ago who must have travelled round on a bike and, as Dryden put it, scattered his Maker’s image through the land. Say what you want, but just don’t mention that name!”

“I’ll mind that,” said Keats.

The pair travelled to the West of Ireland, to the little town, and were put up in the temperance hotel where the literary society were to hold the reception in his honour. Came the evening and they went down to the function suite where they were greeted with applause. Chapman, who was of course already known to them, introduced Keats as they circulated, and many a hand was shaken.

The formalities of the evening went ahead. Keats of course gave a reading of some of his own poetry, which was received with a reverent hush and a standing ovation at the end of it all. The rest of the evening was taken up by several items, which included:

“A tale or two of Finn MacCool” presented by the society’s shanachee Mr Eamon Murphy,

A solo upon the uilleann pipes by Mr James Murphy,

A recitation “On the visit to us of Mr John Keats” by the society’s Bard Mr Brian Murphy,

A song by Miss Kathleen Murphy, accompanied on the piano by her sister Miss Niamh Murphy,

A slide-show on the delights of Murphyville, Georgia USA, presented by Mr Hiram J Murphy III,

A blessing upon the gathering given by Father Liam Murphy,

A vote of thanks to Keats and to everyone involved proposed by the society’s Hon Sec Mr Brendan Murphy, and seconded by the society’s Hon Treas Mrs Deridre Murphy, and

A closing address given by the society’s Chairman Mr Arthur Wellesly Murphy.

That was not, however, the end of proceedings, as there was one final item on the agenda – the presentation to Keats of a cut-glass Waterford decanter, specially engraved to mark the occasion, paid for out of society funds. This was handed to Keats, with the thanks of all present, by the society’s President-for-Life Mr Aloysius Murphy.

Keats appeared overwhelmed, lost for words, and responded in his poor French.

“Murphy beaucoup!”

Chapman tore at his beard.