Review by Hugh McFadden

Insight into a mixed-up, ultimately ruined genius

The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien. Maebh Long (ed.). Dalkey Archive Press; 603pp; €20; 23 cm; 978-1- 6289-7183-5.


In his relatively short life and misfortunate writing career the novelist Brian O’Nolan, a.k.a. Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, seems to have been a patient in almost every hospital in Dublin, apart from the maternity hospitals. For years before he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 54, he suffered from a succession of serious illnesses, including respiratory problems (he was a heavy smoker), stomach illnesses including gastroenteritis (he was a heavy drinker), liver disease (alcohol again), and for some time before a heart attack killed him he was being treated for throat and neck cancer. The death certificate may have specified cardiac arrest as the cause of death, but the real underlying cause was addiction to alcohol and nicotine, the dreadful ‘lifestyle’, as the Irish euphemism has it. And the extraordinary thing is, that right up to his death, O’Nolan in his correspondence professed himself mystified as to why he was repeatedly ill: an example of the ability of the alcoholic to blind himself to the reality of alcoholism. […]

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September/October 2018(issue no.381)

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