Flann O’Brien and The Hard Life

flannobrienthe hard lifeJust after St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to have a laugh reading Flann O’Brien, pseudonym of Brian O Nolan, one of the most satirical Irish writers ever. In the late 1930s and throughout the 40s, when there was nothing much to laugh about in the New Irish State, O Nolan kept up a steady barrage of satire in his novels and newspaper columns which spared none of those in power.

The Hard Life was published in 1961, but the story is set in the early years of the twentieth century. It is narrated by the young Finbarr, who arrives with his older brother at the house of their uncle Collopy after their mother dies. The boys are sent to the brutal and ignorant Christian brothers to be educated. While the older boy quickly turns to money-making schemes, fabricating and selling self-help manuals and dabbling in a variety of fraudulent activities, Finbarr observes what is going on around him and tries to make sense of it.

At the kitchen table doing his homework, he witnesses the verbal jousts between his uncle Collopy and the Jesuit priest Father Fahrt. Collopy is a reformer, infuriated by the inaction of the municipal authorities at Dublin Corporation. His enthusiasm is constantly dampened by the priestly circumspection of Fr Fahrt:

We had a committee meeting last Wednesday. Mrs Flaherty was there. She told us all about her dear friend Emmeline Pankhurst. Now there is a bold rossie for you if you like, but she’s absolutely perfectly right. She’ll yet do down that scoundrel, Lloyd George. I admire her.

— She has courage, Father Fahrt agreed.

— But wait till you hear. When we got down to our own business, discussing ways and means and ekcetera, out comes the bold Mrs Flaherty with her plan. Put a bomb under the City Hall!

— Lord save us!

— Blow all that bastards up. Slaughter them. Blast them limb from limb. If they refuse to do their duty to the ratepayers and to humanity. They do not deserve to live. If they were in ancient Rome they would be crucified.

— But Collopy, I thought you were averse to violence?

— That may be, Father. That may well be. But Mrs Flaherty isn’t. She would do all those crooked corporators in in double quick time. What she calls for is action.

— Well, Collopy, I trust you explained the true attitude to her — your own attitude. Agitation, persistent exposure of the true facts, reprimand of the negligence of the Corporation, and the rousing of public opinion. Whatever Mrs Flaherty could do on those lines, now that she is at large, there is little she could do if she were locked up in prison.

— She wouldn’t be the first in this country, Father, who went to prison for an ideal. It’s a habit with some people here.

– Catherine Vigier, Zeteo contributing Writer


Flann O’Brien, The Hard Life: an exegesis of squalor. In Flann O’ Brien: The Complete Novels. New York, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007.

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