This Project broaches the themes of three major texts of the twentieth century Irish author – Flann O’Brien. It identifies postmodern aspects of his writing in his novels At Swim Two Birds and An Béal Bocht and his newspaper column Cruiskeen Lawn. It also analyses these texts in juxtaposition to the ideologies of postcolonial Ireland. Ultimately it aims to examine the texts, which combine themes of the postmodern with the postcolonial.
Who was Flann O’Brien?
Brian O’Nolan, or Flann O’Brien the pseudonym under which he was better known, was born in 1911 in Strabane, Co. Tyrone. He graduated from University College Dublin and joined the civil service in their Dublin offices. He published his first novel At Swim Two Birds, in 1939 and went on to publish The Dalkey Archive, The Third Policeman, The Hard Life and An Béal Bocht as well as a column Cruiskeen Lawn in the newspaper The Irish Times under a second pseudonym – Myles na gCopaleen. He died on April 1st 1966.
Flann O’Brien is perhaps one of Irish literature’s hidden secrets, however in recent years efforts have been made to reclaim O’Brien’s works as important elements of Irish literature. First published in 1939, O’Brien’s debut novel At Swim Two Birds was described by Joyce as “a really funny book”, further describing O’Brien as “a real writer, with the true comic spirit”. With such positive remarks from a great literary giant such as Joyce, there are many opinions on why O’Brien failed to achieve widespread literary success. Many have blamed O’Brien’s addiction to alcohol, whilst others describe O’Brien’s dedication to his column in The Irish Times as a distraction from his novel writing.
Many literary critics argue over the placement of O’Brien’s books in a postmodern or a late modern context. This project aims to discuss the postmodern aspects of O’Brien texts in the context of the era and setting in which they were produced. Similar to many states that went through colonisation and subsequently gained independence, Ireland experienced a difficult period of adjustment, where the establishment strove for stability in the Irish economy and believed that this could only be achieved through conservatism. The early to mid twentieth century was a time of great upheaval in the politics and governance of Ireland, but also a time of great censorship for the artist; this resulted in the production of many striking texts by some of Ireland’s leading literary figures. O’Brien deals with the insular and puritan approach of the Irish Free State through a playful postmodern tone.
The postmodern aspects and postcolonial backdrop of O’Brien’s writing will be discussed through an examination of O’Brien’s most successful literary achievements – novels At Swim Two Birds and An Béal Bocht, along with the columns of Cruiskeen Lawn. At Swim Two Birds, O’Brien’s best-known novel, it will be argued, is postmodern primarily in terms of its structure, but also in terms of the various characters within the novel and the role they play in creating a postmodern atmosphere. An Béal Bocht, it will be argued is postmodern in terms of content and underlying tone and the examples taken from Cruiskeen Lawn will be analysed in terms of postmodern content and argument. In addition all three texts will be placed within the postcolonial setting of O’Brien’s Ireland and their reactions to post-colonial ideologies will be discussed.
Background of O’Brien’s Era
“For all things go and give place to one another”
Epigraph, At Swim Two Birds
The enigmatic style of Brian O’Nolan* or Flann O’Brien – the pseudonym he was more popularly known by, has excluded the writer from the canon of Irish literature for years. However with the 40th anniversary of his death last year, Dublin City Council launched a campaign to increase interest in his works. Catherine Byrne, Lord Mayor of Dublin described O’Brien’s best known novel At Swim Two Birds as “giving a completely alternative spin on the city” (1). Any writer who breaks the barriers of the literary tradition of his peers, in favour of an even more radical style, is bound for such a remark; O’Brien’s rejection of established rules surrounding nationality and the manner in which he does this sets him apart. O’Brien’s indigenous literary influences, namely Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Behan, and Beckett were already considered to be radical, and O’Brien, it could be argued, is radical in his own manner also, by articulating anti-establishment views in early Free State Ireland.
O’Brien’s debut novel At Swim Two Birds was first published in 1939, in a Dublin that was recovering from the epic that was Joyce’s 1922 publication, Ulysses and concerning itself with the canonical modern writer’s latest publication Finnegans Wake which was published in 1939 also. For a period that was so saturated in the modernist thinking of Joyce and Beckett, O’Brien took a significant risk in publishing At Swim Two Birds at this time, an action for which he suffered greatly. The novel sold only 244 copies before the warehouse in which it was stored in London was destroyed in the Blitz (Looby 2). However, the novel did enjoy a resurgence in popularity when it was re-published during the 1960s. O’Brien’s next novel The Third Policeman was rejected by publishers, and consequently the writer fell into decline. He later published novels such as The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, but these novels were mediocre in terms of the artistic achievements of his first two novels.
Anonymity was perhaps a strategic move by the author who was, at the time, employed by the Irish state. O’Brien did not make the same decision as other Irish writers to live in exile, away from the censorious Irish state. He chose instead to work full-time as a civil servant and to adopt a variety of pseudonyms in his writing. The anonymity of his literary work allowed O’Brien to bring in a steady wage, however it also nourished the author’s appetite for the polyphonic format, which is a defining aspect of At Swim Two Birds, and the daily rants of Myles na Gopaleen.
The Censorship Board, and An Gúm, the State run publishing house for texts written in the Irish language, worked at promoting a stable image of Ireland, which reflected back on the country’s traditional heritage that had been lost during colonisation. However, in a postcolonial era, as Fanon argues “the intellectual and technical capital that it has snatched when going through colonial universities” must be reclaimed for the people in favour of the pre-colonial indigenous culture (120). The Irish Free State opposed any ideas that in any way hindered the purity of an absolute Irish nation, or put the defensive approach of the State into disrepute, therefore a significant amount of literature was banned.
The 1929 Censorship of Publications Act was never enforced on any of O’Brien’s texts, however it was a constant threat. Hopper argues that a censorship mentality, which clouded a postcolonial Ireland, may have influenced his work (59). Hopper goes further to suggest that O’Brien was a “product of his culture [in that he displayed] not just an unwillingness to speak of taboo issues such as sexuality, but an innate ability to speak of such issues at all” (60). O’Brien’s silence on issues such as sexuality is suggestive of an inability on the writer’s part to intuitively discuss these issues, however perhaps O’Brien does address such issues but in a more ambiguous and enigmatic manner. The writer rejected the defensive and insular approach of the State towards nationalism, in favour of cultural polyvalence; often drawing on elements of Irish tradition and combining them with modern culture. The early twentieth century was dominated by an artistic movement known as modernism, which Barry describes as “that earthquake in the arts which brought down much of the structure of the pre-twentieth century practice in painting, literature and architecture [whereby] the most fundamental elements of practice were challenged and rejected” (81). Barry recounts the history of modernism and states that its popularity withdrew significantly in the 1930s as a result of international tensions, but when it enjoyed a resurgence in the 1960s it came to be known as a late modernism (82). However, the lines between, the end of this late modernism and the beginnings of a new artistic movement known as postmodernism, seem to be arguable.
The genesis of postmodernism is debatable; Jencks dates it back as far as 1870 (Appignanesi 3), whilst others hail its arrival with the artist Daniel Buren in 1976 (ibid 5). Some have declared it as a reaction to twentieth century modernism, while others contest that view, insisting postmodernism takes up where the Enlightenment’s modernity or the Age of Reason, which questioned the existence of truth in favour of multiple truths, left off. Either way, postmodernism is: “[a] confusion of meanings stemming from two riddles: 1. It resists and obscures the sense of modernism and 2. It implies a complete knowledge of the modern which has been surpassed by a new age” (ibid 4). Moving from the modern era that saw fragmentation and disarray as a vice, which distanced the individual from a world with which it could not connect, postmodernism celebrates fragmentation, revering it as “an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief” (Barry 84). Postmodernism uses parody, pastiche, satire in order to breakdown the structures of rigid establishment, celebrating the autonomy to do so. Focusing on literature, the question of the author and authorial intention comes under scrutiny from the postmodernists; Barthes published his influential essay announcing the death of the author, restoring the autonomy of interpretation to the reader. He describes the existence of a “zero degree of writing”, which accepts that aspects of a text will always remain enigmatic to the reader. Appignanesi describes it as the existence within the text of “a closure, a retreat and a suspension of meaning” (75). Metafiction became a popular aspect of literature; this new literary tool is defined as “fiction, which self-consciously reflects upon its own nature, its modes of production, and its intended effect upon the reader” (Engler 1). Texts begin to question their own validity and dialogism, or multiple voices echo throughout novels, offering the reader conflicting realities. Reality comes under the intense scrutiny of the postmodernists, where truth is denied in favour of multiple levels of meaning.
Robert Alter describes At Swim Two Birds as “one of the earliest postmodern novels” (223) and this project takes a similar viewpoint by highlighting the postmodern aspects of O’Brien’s texts. O’Brien’s literature incorporates a number of literary techniques and devices, which can be seen to reflect an evolution that was occurring in literary format and tone. The playful and satirical qualities devoid of the mundane, depressive resonance, which appear in the modern texts of Eliot and Joyce, place O’Brien as a very early postmodern writer. In addition his focus on working class society moves the writer away from the often elitist attitudes of high modernism.
Following in Joyce’s footsteps, O’Brien harbours a mix of bitterness and respect for the writer. The Dalkey Archive satirises Joyce, while at the same time, O’Brien is said to have been the primary founder of the Bloomsday celebrations. This example typifies O’Brien’s contradictory and unstable personality, but perhaps alludes to his objective towards a deconstruction of the system of hegemonic beliefs that plagued the early Irish Free State. Keith Booker draws an analogy between O’Brien and Joyce by pointing out Joyce’s use of dialogism or multiple voices within a text to create a fragmented modern atmosphere. However O’Brien in contrast uses dialogism to “introduce one point of view after another, only to undercut them all and to identify them all as ridiculous” (Booker 5). O’Brien can be seen to hide behind his characters, using them as tools to display varying points of view. However, each of his characters is ultimately destroyed through ridicule, rendering it impossible to attribute a definite political stance to O’Brien.
O’Brien’s treatment of Irish mythological characters acts as a critique of the postcolonial attitude of the Irish Free State, with O’Brien refusing to revere the out-dated mythological character Finn Mac Cool, instead transporting him into a postmodern setting. Drawing on the tradition of pastiche, O’Brien uses the mythological character as a critique of the Celtic Twilight, which was encouraging a renewed interest in Irish tradition. O’Brien blends aspects of modern Ireland with that of its past; one of Ireland’s latest pastimes, American cinema, is used as a contrast to the outdated mythological characters which were attempting a resurgence. For instance Finn Mac Cool is a fellow housemate of Ringsend cowboy Shanahan in At Swim Two Birds. The American cowboy westerns are used in juxtaposition with Irish heritage. Finn Mac Cool is portrayed as a long-winded storyteller who bores the other characters in The Red Swan, whilst Shanahan is one of the leading heroes in the rebellion against Trellis. An Béal Bocht also satirises the Irish tradition, with clear similarities between aspects of the novel and traditional Irish myth Immram Curaig Máel Dúin (Farnon 103), in which the characters encounter a number of strange animals, such as a creature who can turn himself inside out (ibid). O’Brien can be seen to treat the Irish storytelling tradition in a paradoxical manner, satirising the exaggerated aspects of Irish mythology.
The definition of Ireland, Irish nationalism and the individual state is a huge concern that is addressed in O’Brien’s texts. The constant questioning and deconstruction of Irish culture highlights O’Brien’s rejection of a romanticised Ireland. O’Brien, having grown up with the Irish language as his native tongue, harboured a certain amount of scepticism towards the romantic Ireland of Yeats’ Celtic Twilight and the insular approach towards the Irish language and culture. An Béal Bocht can perhaps, be seen as a forum for O’Brien to voice these concerns. Ironically, An Béal Bocht, a critique of the hegemonic and patriarchal attitude towards the Irish language, was itself written in the Irish language; however it has also been argued that O’Brien wrote the novel “as gaeilge” in order to prove the language’s practical use.
An Béal Bocht uses parody and satire in order to ridicule the essentialist Gaelgóir, who allowed the Irish language and culture to define and dictate every facet of his personality. Juxtaposing the mood of An Béal Bocht with the arguments of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the atmosphere of postcolonial Ireland becomes apparent. Reclaiming and redefining pre-colonial Ireland has caused a conflict in the Irish culture, which has split between the conservative Irish nationalists and those who sought to redefine a new Ireland. The omniscient power of Ireland enforces itself upon O’Brien’s texts, yet the content and tone of An Béal Bocht allows the author to offer a strong comment on postcolonial Ireland.
The structure of At Swim Two Birds rebels against the established format of the novel. Identity is a problematic issue for O’Brien, which resonates throughout his writing. The outmoded structure of the quintessential novel is thrown into disarray on the first page of At Swim Two Birds by the declaration “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with” (9). Metafictional techniques allow O’Brien to introduce anarchy into the text and in addition swift changes in narratorial voice play with the established literary structures. The tri-levelled text offers opportunity for O’Brien to experiment with levels of imagined reality, which the reader assumes to exist within the novel. Ultimately O’Brien is a prime example of Barthes’ mantra on the death of the author, whereby the text is let loose on itself, unleashing chaos on established reality.
Using the pseudonym of Myles na gCopaleen to protect his career as a civil servant, O’Brien used his daily feature in The Irish Times – Cruiskeen Lawn, to debate a broad range of topical issues facing the Irish population. Taking into account Barry’s observations on the treatment of class in postmodern works, O’Brien can be seen to adopt a postmodern tradition through his creation of “The Plain People of Ireland” amongst others. Barry defines a central characteristic of postmodernism as the challenge of “the distinction between high and low culture […] texts which work as hybrid blends of the two” (91). The topics dealt with by Myles na Gopaleen in Cruiskeen Lawn can be seen to address the dichotomy between the working class and the upper class in Ireland. In addition, O’Brien uses the dialogism of Cruiskeen Lawn to introduce his readers to varying viewpoints on many different issues such as the place of the Irish language in a modern Ireland and the Censorship of Publications Act. Ultimately, O’Brien uses the multiple voices to break down any sense or logic to the arguments, offering no answers to any of the questions posed, yet proving the point that there is no right or wrong answer in the first place.
At Swim Two Birds, An Béal Bocht and Cruiskeen Lawn provide suitable sources through which the critic can analyse O’Brien’s reactions to the decisions taken by the establishment of postcolonial Ireland – which concerned themselves with Ireland’s future and its ability to survive independence from the British Crown as a Free State. In addition, the three texts provide qualitative examples of O’Brien’s ability to produce a postmodern text, both in terms of tone and structure.
The notion of a novel that is both postmodern and postcolonial may seem oxymoronic, in that the postmodern promotes a distance from any form of identity and cultural certainty, while postcolonialism addresses the effects of colonialism and its subsequent removal has on a nation state. If O’Brien’s writing is distinctly postmodern, how can it also be postcolonial? O’Brien broaches the postcolonial aspect through a variety of postmodern literary tools. Sampling aspects of Irish culture and heritage, O’Brien introduces them in a parodic manner to modern Ireland. The writer blends American culture with Irish heritage, namely Cowboys from the typical American western films and Finn Mac Cool from Irish folklore, this meeting of two apparently disparate cultures provides O’Brien with a platform on which to play around with cultural icons, blending a deconstructed state with the postcolonial mentality. Therefore, this apparent contradiction of the postmodern mixed with the postcolonial is an experiment of O’Brien’s, in which he can be seen to apply the philosophies of a postmodern fragmented identity to the defensive and conservative mentality of postcolonial Ireland.
Without any doubt, O’Brien introduced a new form of writing to Ireland. Impelled perhaps by a drive to define himself as anything but Joyce, O’Brien may have stumbled upon postmodernism. On the other hand, maybe the rapidly evolving Free State Ireland was a suitable subject for O’Brien to consider the cultural dichotomies that existed. In the literary works of O’Brien, the ideologies of postcolonial Ireland can be seen to come under the heavy shadow of a postmodern influence. Postcolonial independence’s cultural defensiveness is undercut by O’Brien’s postmodern playfulness, inevitably producing starkly unique texts, which reflect an Ireland that was struggling to find its feet in newfound freedom.
2 Myles na gCopaleen
“It’s banned, o’course”
“Overheard” Cruiskeen Lawn 1938-66
Myles na gCopaleen, the alternative pseudonym of Flann O’Brien was given a voice in a daily column – Cruiskeen Lawn of the newspaper The Irish Times and was begun by O’Brien in 1938 and continued until his death in 1966. The genesis of Myles is believed to be in retaliation to the stage Irishman Myles na Coppaleen who first appeared in Dion Boucicault’s 1860 play The Colleen Bawn. Whilst “Myles [na Coppaleen] was a stage-Irish buffoon, blundering his way through bulls and malapropisms in the foreignness of the English language, he was denied even the dignity of the sufferings of his flesh and blood cousin” (Kiberd 497), Myles na gCopaleen wrote initially in his native Irish and commanded the respect of his audience through his clever witticisms and esoteric satires on modern Ireland. In addition, “The eclipsing “g”, was now restored, so Myles na Coppaleen may resume the fuller status of Myles na gCopaleen” (ibid 498). The result of this small change, Kiberd argues, “is the difference between a vehicle and a target” (498). Na gCopaleen was allowed the charisma and refined cultural status na Coppaleen was denied. O’Brien later changed the name to Myles na Gopaleen when his now bilingual (Irish and English) column was attracting attention from overseas, “in deference to the Anglo-Saxon epiglottis […] O’Nolan wished to indicate a loss of authenticity, a regression to the botched identity of Boucicault’s clown.” (ibid 499). O’Brien only reverted to the eclipsed na gCopaleen once, to write An Béal Bocht, which will be addressed in the next chapter.
Cruiskeen Lawn seems to signify both a burden and support for O’Brien. It brought in a tidy subsidy to the wage he would have received as a civil servant, however the effects of concentrating his literary ability on the production of the column, it is argued, caused a hindrance on his novel writing. Perhaps, the constant production of the short columns created a habit in O’Brien’s literary style, which tended towards brevity (Costello). O’Brien’s longest novel At Swim Two Birds was published only a year after his alter-ego began to make appearances on the pages of The Irish Times, all other novels which followed could be described as quite short in normal literary standards.
Cruiskeen Lawn introduced the Irish audience to a line-up of characters such as “the Brother” and “the plain people of Ireland”. Through these characters O’Brien discussed a variety of issues relating to censorship, the Irish language and social propriety. O’Brien introduced what would have been considered controversial issues through a clever construction of absurdity and parody. Because the audience of Cruiskeen Lawn was more far reaching and accessible than the target audience of his novels, O’Brien enjoyed a certain amount of scope in what he could write about; the topics changed from day to day, moving with the current issues of the day. His novels, in comparison, represented a certain amount of stagnancy for O’Brien, producing very little literary success for the struggling writer.
Literary censorship, whilst having a huge impact on the novels of O’Brien, was also a topical issue for Myles. Cruiskeen Lawn ridiculed those who enforced the censorship, relegating them to the childlike watchful image of “Daddy Christmas” (O’Brien 1993, 255). An additional consequence of this imagery is the satirical resonance, which defined its appeal to the working class readership of Cruiskeen Lawn. Myles assumes the side of his readers by questioning the censor’s belief that “man is unable to choose and criticise for himself” (ibid 256), implicating his belief in his own readers’ agency. Myles campaigns for democracy and the doctrine of free will, whilst ridiculing the “litherary” who campaign against censorship in order to define himself as “advanced and well read” (ibid 255). The irony here is apparent when one learns that O’Brien himself strove to have his novel The Hard Life banned by the Censorship Board, in order to gain the notoriety of banned artists (Hopper 99). O’Brien yet again, proves himself to be a contradictory character. Myles/O’Brien’s campaign against literary censorship places him in opposition to the establishment of postcolonial Ireland, which was striving to stabilise the newfound Free State. No controversial or questionable opinions could be given a public voice, because it was thought that they would compromise or undermine the defensive ideologies of the Irish Free State. O’Brien/Myles rejects completely any restraints put on man’s democracy and appetite for literature and knowledge. Myles likens the censored state to an “infant in the nursery” (O’Brien 1993, 255). The plain people of Ireland are, he argues, denied their free will to make up their own minds (ibid 256).
Myles na gCopaleen gave a voice to the plain people of Ireland. He questioned the methods of the Irish Free State government, engendering a similar train of thought in his audience, encouraging them to question the establishment. In contrast with the Irish Free State’s tendency towards caution and conservatism, O’Brien strove for experimentalism and absurdity. Myles used Cruiskeen Lawn to break down the hegemonic ideologies of postcolonial Ireland and its over zealous approach to the reclamation of a pre-colonial, out-dated Irish identity.
Ironically O’Brien spoke Irish as his mother tongue and only came to learn and to speak English when he attended school, yet he became a primary opponent of insular opinions of Irish identity (Cronin 10). Cruiskeen Lawn was used to launch scathing parodies of the efforts of Irish language enthusiasts, scoffing at Mr deValera “spending half a million a year on reviving Irish [further stating that] the free expenditure of public money on a cultural pursuit is one of the few boasts this country can make” (O’Brien 1993, 282). While satirically praising the government’s efforts to revive the language, Myles was also drawing attention to the poverty that Ireland was stricken with by describing the expenditure as “one of the few boasts this country can make” (ibid). As the Irish population was forced to emigrate in droves to countries as far flung as Australia and the United States in an effort to secure a financially stable future, simultaneously the Irish government was spending the taxpayers’ money on reviving a language, because perhaps, it felt culturally obliged to do so. The preachings of the Irish language enthusiasts on the importance of maintaining heritage and a traditional language, did not address the current, more basic issues of the bulk of Myles’ audience – the plain people.
Myles adopts various personalities in order to offer a multi-faceted discussion of the Irish language. An old Oxford gentleman comments, “Irish educationalists, in reviving Irish, are therefore proceeding in a well-tried classical tradition” (ibid 285), and in juxtaposition, an advocate of the Irish language articulates his concerns that abandoning the Irish language would sink the Irish population’s standard of English “to a level probably as low as that obtaining in England and it would stop there only because it could go no lower” (ibid 283). The dialogism involved in Cruiskeen Lawn’s treatment of the Irish language allows each side of the argument to break its opposition down, however Myles’ clever use of absurdity and parody inevitably renders each argument preposterous, therefore leaving no right or wrong answer to the Irish question. Cruiskeen Lawn, encourages multiple voices on the language debate, rather than accepting the establishment’s opinion. He gives voice to the postcolonial debate on the future of Ireland, which offers the country the chance to develop but at the cost of their cultural heritage, or reclaim tradition but stay stuck in an economical time warp. The autarky of the early Irish Free State significantly stalled the progress of Irish development policies (Schwartz 514) and as a consequence, determined the ideology of an establishment, which hindered the development of a state that promoted artistic freedom. In typical postmodern fashion, Myles does not purport to offer the answer to the postcolonial problems.
The Irish language is not the only subject to come under the satirical eye of Myles na gCopaleen, the state of contemporary Irish writing is also examined. Myles criticises the array of Irish writers who he likens to “an eruption of literary scabies for which all the patience of scientists notwithstanding, no cure has been found” (ibid 256). He goes on to criticise those who “write bitter letters to the paper” about Kavanagh, complaining about his critique of a recent art exhibition in Dublin (ibid 257). Myles quotes a Miss Norah McGuinness, who quotes Kavanagh as saying: “I know nothing about painting but I do know that with the exception of four pictures the rest of the exhibits should be at the bottom of the Liffey” (ibid 256). Myles continues to argue that the image of a painting floating at the bottom of the Liffey could be construed to be art itself. The main crux of Myles’ argument is rooted in his belief in criticism of the arts. Subtly, Myles is attacking the literary censorship board, which purported to be an authority on what the Irish population should and should not read. In addition Myles is also criticising those who will not allow another to voice an opinion on an artistic piece. Myles’ style is grounded in a preference for dialogism, which favoured the presence of multiple voices represented within a text, such as the voices of Brother Barnabus and the plain people of Ireland. Cruiskeen Lawn constructed and deconstructed hegemonic ideology through the use of conflicting arguments on topical issues. However, as a critic of the arts himself, it seems that when the topic seems to come too close to home for Myles, he objects to the opposing argument.
The type of language used in Cruiskeen Lawn allows Myles to adopt a persona, which markets itself to a working class constituency. Myles uses the Hibernian form of English, speckling his language with colloquialisms and esoteric turns of phrase. Myles often recreates a piece of Dublin working class dialogue, basing it around a topic he wishes to address. For example, “Overheard” recounts a discussion between two characters who are both at a loss as to why a book has been banned. One character repeats the phrase “I could never see any harm in it”, while the other character comments on how he tried to “get it many a time meself” (ibid 100). The use of the lexical form of the word “meself” and the syntax of the phrase “many a time” are distinctly Hiberno-English. “Meself” could be argued to have derived from the Irish form “mé” referring to a derivative of the first person singular, whilst the syntax of the phrase “many a time” could be argued to have originated from the Hiberno-English tendency to blend propositions and pronouns (Lynch 19). Hiberno-English, it could be argued, is a subversion used by Myles as a means of retaliation against the Irish enthusiasts, whereby the plain people of Ireland write back to the Empire from the periphery. Hiberno-English, by its very nature, is a hybridisation of the language of the coloniser and the colonised; its use then by Myles, in Cruiskeen Lawn, promotes a type of hybrid, which accepts the residue of colonisation in a blend of postcolonial culture. In addition, Myles’ use of language could be seen to bridge the gap between the coloniser and the colonised, allowing postcolonial Ireland to flourish in a postmodern manner.
During his lifetime, Myles na gCopaleen was probably the most widely renowned of the personae of Brian O’Nolan. Cruiskeen Lawn was a highly popular column, however Flann O’Brien’s novels failed to garner similar success. Even though the personae offer disparities, there are also similar trends evident in the treatment of postcolonial Ireland. Cruiskeen Lawn, An Béal Bocht and At Swim Two Birds can be seen to offer similar arguments on the place of the Irish language and heritage in a modern day Ireland. O’Brien used his writing to go against the discourse of the establishment of Free State Ireland. He used Cruiskeen Lawn to articulate his unease with the Censorship of Publications Act and what he perceived to be the over zealous attitude towards the Irish language, in a time when the country was struggling to find its feet economically. Cruiskeen Lawn campaigns for a hybridisation of Irish culture, whereby Ireland accepts its colonial past and all its influences, and combines it with its traditional heritage. In a postmodern twist, both O’Brien and Myles reject any sense of reality in favour of a variety of truths.
3 An Béal Bocht
“I am no longer Irish, I am simply a person”
Brian O’Nolan, Arts Lives
As a text written “as gaeilge”, An Béal Bocht takes an innovative step at parodying the traditional and essentialised gaelgóir tradition. O’Brien rejects the postcolonial discourse which dominated the Irish Free-State, and instead works at turning the language of the colonised on itself. An Béal Bocht draws on Irish tradition and canonical texts written by Irish “gaels” such as Tomás Ó Crohan and Peig Sayers in order to give a postmodern take on the ideologies of the Celtic Revival. O’Brien takes turns with all the traditions of Irish storytelling, inevitably breaking them all down to absurdity, thereby rendering the Irish tradition inadequate to the needs of the modern Irish population. However, to describe O’Brien as a realist would be inaccurate, as realist authors such as Frank O’Connor found themselves often the target of O’Brien’s parody. The postmodern ethos comes into play when O’Brien uses An Béal Bocht to consider the emergence of postcolonialism in Irish literature following the declaration of the Free State. This chapter will address An Béal Bocht’s postmodern treatment of the postcolonial state, and also discuss the text in correlation with O’Brien’s other text – At Swim Two Birds.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon discusses the need “to put at the people’s disposal the intellectual and technical capital that it has snatched away when going through the colonial universities” (120). Ireland, an epitome of this ideology, created An Gúm, a government sponsored publishing house, whose aim it was to evaluate the suitability of books written in Irish for publication for the schools (Farnon 89). Ultimately, books written in the native Irish language came under even more scrutiny than books written by Irish people in the English language, as Irish was fast becoming a language for educational purposes only. Irish became the language in which Irish tradition and folklore was to be promoted. If the Irish state could not control artistic censorship through the English language, then they would at least do so in the Irish language.
Jane Farnon discusses the ironic fact that although “early Irish tales were full of explicit references to sex, twentieth century Irish language and heritage enthusiasts would not tolerate any references to this “base” subject” (93). O’Brien parodies this selective amnesia on the part of the Gaels through his portrait of the protagonist Bonapart’s ignorance of sexual reproduction: “what do you think I noticed but that we had acquired a new piglet in the end of the house […] when I realised what I had […] I had a baby-child” (86). The result of O’Brien’s parody is a rejection of the notion that sex should not be addressed in an Irish text, Bonapart’s character comes to life in this instance as a product of the asexual culture. O’Brien suggests that a text is not complete without addressing all aspects of life, including those of a sexual nature, and therefore will not encourage complete characters but instead an “archetypal ignoramus” (Farnon 95) devoid of the knowledge of the facts of life.
An Béal Bocht is a stark parody of Tomás Ó Crohan’s An tOiléanach, a canonical text of the emerging Irish tradition of the twentieth century which was fed by the Celtic Revivalists in an effort to secure a smooth transition of the Free State from being an English colony to an Irish Free State. Ó’Crohan’s autobiography lacks any particular literary merits, but defines a tradition the Irish establishment was wont to encourage. It celebrated a unique Irish experience of a way of life that was quickly evaporating in modern Ireland. This utopia of Irish tradition was located and exploited to promote an idealised and romanticised notion of Irish identity. Tómas Ó’Crohan’s publication led to many others such as Peig Sayers and Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha’s Jimeen in 1921, which was aimed primarily at young people. The island tradition of the Blasket Island and O’Brien’s fictitious Corcha Dorcha (a play on “Corcha Dhuibhe” of Ó’Crohan’s text) adopt the role of the simulacrum, which is defined by Baudrillard as the line between art and reality, which has become blurred and the over-zealous Irish culture enthusiast is blind to the uncomfortable, poverty stricken lives of the islanders in favour of the illusion of an untouched, pure Irish tradition, devoid of the coloniser’s influence. It is here in the simulacrum of Ó’Crohan’s and Sayers’ Blasket Island that postcolonial Ireland can embrace its lost tradition.
The traditional Gaels come under an incredible amount of scrutiny from O’Brien in An Béal Bocht, particularly the “new age” Gaels who saw the Irish tradition through romanticized Syngean eyes. The parody of the Gaels comes to a climax with the speech of the President of the Feis held in Corcha Dorcha. O’Brien satirises An Gúm’s aim that the Irish language should only be used to promote Irish tradition “There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics” (54). The constant repetition of the word “Gael” and a number of its derivatives only further parodies An Gúm, through its absurd manner. O’Brien works to reject an over concentration on Irish heritage which was rife in Irish identity. He opposes any concreteness in the definition of Irish identity, ultimately rejecting the label of Irish in the statement quoted in the epigraph to this chapter “I am no longer Irish, I am simply a person”. The label of Irish perhaps became too restrictive for a playful and enigmatic O’Brien. It further inhibited the development of the Irish language, O’Brien’s mother-tongue, as it limited the language to a platform of backwards Irish tradition which was far-removed from early twentieth century Dublin.
O’Brien attempts to import a modern essence into the Irish tradition through his treatment of the Irish language. He introduces random English words into the text amongst the established Irish words. Words, which bear a resemblance to the English form pop up at random in the text such as – divarsions, advintures, oxter, abomnabuil (sic) (Farnon 100). Farnon discusses the use of these words by stating, “in most tongues the introduction of loan words is seen as corruption and something which should be avoided. But here, in the anarchic, topsy-turvy world of Corcha Dorcha, the utterance of an English word gives the speaker an elevated status, as it becomes a symbol of intelligence” (100). In a postmodern sense, O’Brien’s integration of two opposing cultures creates a sense of absurdity in their apparent disparity. Irish and English in a twentieth century culture will, in a linguistic sense attribute affinities with one another, in the sense that Irish culture cannot deny history. British influence is not something which Ireland can deny, perhaps this is what O’Brien is alluding to in his hybridisation of the Irish and English languages. While Irish culture enthusiasts will balk at the notion of this hybrid language, O’Brien sees an integration of the coloniser and the colonised languages as a natural progression for Free State Ireland.
Chapter Two discussed O’Brien’s development of his other pseudonym – Myles na gCopaleen or its variant Myles na Gopaleen. It is worth noting that O’Brien reverted back to the original spelling of Myles’ surname – “na Gopaleen” for the publication of An Béal Bocht. This was the Anglicised spelling of the surname and rejected Irish grammatical rules of the “urú”, letters placed in front of nouns when preceded by a preposition, in this instance – “of” or in the Irish language “na”. Instead, the surname has taken the urú – “g” and put it in capitalised form and dropped the C off the word “Copaleen” (meaning “Little Horse”). The name then lacks its direct Irish translation of Myles of the Little Horse and simply becomes an enigmatic surname, devoid of any concrete translation. Perhaps this was another strategic move by O’Brien, in order to distance the authorship from a definite connection with the Irish tradition, yet to retain some kind of Irish essence. O’Brien shirks any pigeonholes which threaten to encapsulate him; this could be one of the many reasons for his number of pseudonyms. An idealised concrete image of the writer himself restricted O’Brien from his literary experiments.
Although O’Brien adopts the pseudonym of na Gopaleen to publish An Béal Bocht, he never claims to be na Gopaleen himself. Barthes’ comments on the death of the author gain a renewed relevance when Myles na Gopaleen comes into consideration. O’Brien was never Myles, Myles was simply another character O’Brien created to set against himself or perhaps Brother Barnabus, in fact O’Brien never existed either. The enigmatic O’Nolan is difficult to trace in An Béal Bocht, perhaps he is to be found in some zero degree of writing, hiding behind the absurd rants of Myles na Gopaleen. Writing perhaps became an arena in which the real O’Nolan could disguise himself and morph between different characters expressing current discourses in such an absurd and comical manner, to inevitably break each of them down into any existence devoid of any reality. As Barthes writes “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (142), the existence of O’Nolan, O’Brien or na Gopaleen becomes unnecessary, so too does the debate over which fictional personality created the text.
The absence of a father figure in the text echoes a sentiment, which is a common denominator for a number of Irish texts, most notably Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. However, the paternal absence is a trend also in O’Brien’s own work with At Swim Two Birds’ narrator apparently fatherless and Noman in The Third Policeman devoid of any paternal shadow to watch over him. In a postcolonial sense, perhaps the paternal figure has come metaphorically to take the place of the coloniser, with the colonised eager to reject any sense of a predecessor or their subsequent influence. Bonapart’s only trace of his paternal connection is stripped from him on his first day at school, when the teacher “re-baptises” him “Jams O’Donnell” (O’Brien An Béal Bocht 30). Worth noting is the common baptism of all of Bonapart’s fellow Irish classmates, who are all “relieved” of their Irish heritage and subsequent paternal connection through their assumption of the name “Jams O’Donnell”. In a farcical manner, the young gaels can be seen to become victims of a manner of ethnic cleansing, encouraged to reject any true Irish lineage. In this sense, the colonised rejects their heritage in favour of one approved by the coloniser. The fact that Bonaparte comes to meet his father at the conclusion of the text only reinforces the idea of a colonial influence, as both father and son have met the same fateful end at the hands of their coloniser.
O’Brien’s treatment of the Irish tradition went against the hegemonic ideology of the Free State. His satirical portrait of the Celtic Revivalists was unlikely to do him any favours with the Free State government of the time. The emerging postcolonial attitudes were antithetical to the liberal notions of postmodernism. O’Brien attitudes leaned to the latter, therefore the question of Ireland and its identity was not to be solved by O’Brien by an adoption of staunch nationalism. The concrete image of a conservative, pure Ireland irritated O’Brien’s own experimental attitudes and his creation of An Béal Bocht voices his own attitudes towards this purity of the quintessential Irish tradition. Compartmentalising the Irish language, as simply a tool to promote cultural awareness and nationalism was a fault O’Brien identified, and An Béal Bocht was a hugely effective parody of this attitude. Denying Irish literature access to the popular culture market was perhaps a mistake made by An Gúm. O’Brien attempts to break free from the mould of the Irish tradition and reduces the over-zealous approach of some towards the tradition to absurdity. He does not attempt to offer a definite viewpoint on the place of the Irish language in a postcolonial Ireland, but instead offers a strong critique of the current establishment’s insular treatment of the language, where they have it contained only within the limited boundaries of traditional Irish culture. For O’Brien, the language should be free to penetrate all aspects of modern Irish culture.
4 At Swim Two Birds
“Truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions”.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lying in a Non Moral Sense
As the most critically renowned of O’Brien’s texts, At Swim Two Birds can be seen as a high point of O’Brien’s literary achievement. It is a collection of metalepsis, parody and pastiche, all conflating to depict a tri-levelled story based in a postmodern Dublin city. At every level of O’Brien’s tour de force, issues facing the postmodern Irish era are addressed. Ireland’s relationship with its heritage is examined, along with its translation into a contemporary context. The narrator’s omniscient presence creates the character of Trellis, who himself is producing a realist novel using characters who can be described as inhabiting a surreal world, in which the author controls all the activities of the characters. The complexities of the novel work against each other to ultimately break down an imagined reality present within the novel. O’Brien uses metafiction to allow the text to reflect on its dependability. The novel is structured into three levels, whereby three stories run in parallel throughout the novel. The text uses these levels to reflect on the validity of the structure of the novel, breaking down the reality of the text through metalepsis, which Genette defines as “the transition from one narrative level to another [that] can in principle be achieved only by narrating, the act that consists precisely of introducing into one situation, by means of a discourse, the knowledge of another situation” (234). The characters use metalepsis to rebel against the definite and concrete structure of the novel.
The novel’s discussion of the creation of fiction encourages the reader to actively participate in an interrogation of the text’s validity. O’Brien, first introduces this notion in what could be described as a “disclaimer” printed in the first few pages of the book itself, which precedes the beginning of the text: “All characters represented in this book, including the first person singular, are entirely fictitious and bear no relation to any person living or dead.” Although this type of “disclaimer” can be seen as a legal formality, and appears in the fine print of many film credits, it is very rarely found in the opening pages of a book. The “disclaimer” sets the scene for the reader by introducing a playful tone to the text, poking fun at the legal formalities set upon the arts. However, it also warns the reader of the lack of any reality within the novel, alluding towards a hyper-reality, which could be compared to the Disneyland described by Baudrillard in Simulations, in which he declared the dawn of the “generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (219). He continued to draw an analogy between Disneyland, which he describes as the Simulacrum, defined as a “deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real” and the outside world, which, he argues, is an imagined reality (220). Indeed, the level three characters of At Swim, such as Furriskey, Shanahan and Finn Mac Cool, seem to exude an illusionary mythological style of existence, making them almost fairy-like. However, their transcendence into the upper level only works to break down any form of reality, which the reader had been tricked into assuming.
In The Hard Life, O’Brien uses the “disclaimer” device again, where the hyper-legal notice states “all the persons in this book are real and none is fictitious even in part”. The tone is successfully ironic yet at this stage – trite, and inevitably does not live up to the relevance that At Swim’s disclaimer possessed towards the overall text. Both of these disclaimers do allude to a recurring trend in O’Brien’s writing, marking his novels as pieces of art which aim to question reality and authority.
At Swim’s disclaimer is accompanied by an epigraph, which is taken from Euripides’ “Hercules Furens” and means “For all things go out and give place to one another” (Cronin 85). However, in his discussion of the epigraph Cronin states that O’Brien himself did not attach the quote to the novel, instead a fellow worker in the Civil Service – John Garvin chose the quote (85). This is no doubt a disappointment in terms of a critical discussion of authorial intention, however it does draw attention to external influences affecting O’Brien’s creation of the novel, which it is worth noting was drastically edited by Niall Sheridan before it was published (ibid). So perhaps it could be said that O’Brien did not ultimately create At Swim, but was greatly influenced by a team of scholars, who hold sway on O’Brien’s literary creations. However, what matters now, according to Barthes, are the readers who inevitably enable their own agency, in various interpretations of a text. In accordance with O’Brien’s own tendency to create slips in the reality of his own texts, one true author should be something that O’Brien does not agree with either. Taking Nietzsche’s polemic on truth and illusion, perhaps the individual author is an illusion also and multiple meanings may be derived from the text in accordance with influences affecting the reader.
The absence of truth, in place of illusions places At Swim within the realms of metafiction. Metafiction is described as fiction, which self-consciously reflects upon its own nature, its modes of production, and its intended effect upon the reader (Engler 1). The probing of truths is engendered by the zero degree of writing, which seems to haunt At Swim. Cohen in particular describes, “Reason’s […] hide and seek presence in the novel” (60), with the flux of the novel alternating between absurdity and realism. The text is imbued with an enigmatic unattainability, whereby any true sense of the events of the novel will never be revealed in favour of the ludicrous events retold by the narrator. Cohen identifies the unexpected form as the major facet of At Swim, which aims towards defamiliarisation (57). The form of the novel, i.e. a story within a story within a story, allows the text to discuss its own existence. The opening of the novel discusses how to begin a book: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings” (O’Brien 2001, 9). The text continues to introduce three openings, which in turn introduce three of the major players in Level Three of the novel itself – The Pooka MacPhellimey, Mr John Furriskey and Finn Mac Cool.
The levels in the story line are inhabited by three distinct “sets” of characters; with the narrator and his uncle along with fellow student Brinsley taking control of the apparent reality of Level One, the fictional Trellis hoarded up in The Red Swan writing his realist novel in Level Two, and a submerged population of fantastical characters who are employed by Trellis to “perform” in his novel occupying the lowest Level Three. The levels originally are separated by distinct boundaries of varying realism, however ultimately these boundaries are broken down, and in turn the degrees of realism are smashed in favour of a compete dissipation of any form of reality. The fantastical cast of characters in Level Three create anarchy in an effort to achieve retribution for the maltreatment they experience under the control of Trellis, who once thought he was safe on Level Two but now finds himself invaded and put on trial by his own characters. The metalepsis of the various levels is achieved through the narratorial voice, which results in a tone of ambiguity throughout the text.
The most notable change in narratorial voice is Orlick’s assumption of the authorial role. Orlick is the illegimate son of Trellis himself; he is the product of a rape in which Trellis could not control his desire for his newest creation – Sheila Lamont, and ravages the young woman before she has the chance to carry out the task she was created by Trellis for, which was to play the love interest of John Furriskey in an effort to break up a relationship he is having with Peggy, one of the maids. Sheila consequently gives birth to a child – Orlick, who is somehow in limbo between Levels Two and Three, but chooses to occupy Level Three because of his troubled relationship with his father. The characters’ attempts to punish Trellis result in Orlick’s assumption of the narratorial voice, a simple heading signifies the shift: “Extract from Manuscript by O. Trellis. Part One. Chapter One” (164). Orlick’s first instalment is announced, however his fellow characters, in which instance Noman the narrator from Level One resumes narration, interrupt Orlick. From this point on, the role of the narratorial voice is swapped between Noman and Orlick in swift movements. Orlick’s repetition of his openings lines of his manuscript with each new adjustment to the scene further removes the scene from any form of reality. The character’s self-appointed autonomy has allowed a shift in the tone of the text. Orlick’s language is eloquent and descriptive, however when Shanahan assumes the narratorial role the style lacks his predecessor’s mature articulation and is instead imbued with a strong Dublin social class sensationalism, words such as “snot […] chiseller […] whore” creep into the vocabulary. The dialogism of this section of the novel allows for an eclectic approach to the variety of characters occupying Level Three.
The characters in At Swim employ metalepsis as a way in which to transcend their level. The characters assume control of the novel and punish Trellis for the manner in which he treated them. The character’s assumption of the authorial role reflects on the postcolonial rejection of a national fate, which commits itself to cultural heritage. The characters in the Red Swan are colonised by Trellis, but taking into account the characters’ fate following their persecution of Trellis, the characters are still restrained, no better off in terms of personal freedom than they were in colonial times. Metalepsis allows the characters to rebel against established structures at play in their own environment, just as the O’Brien works to subvert established ideologies through the creation of literature. If At Swim’s structure is to represent any polemic on the author’s behalf, it is to say that the artist is capable of transcendence.
This rejection of postcolonial ideals is portrayed by O’Brien is his treatment of mythical Irish legend Finn Mac Cool. The tradition of Irish storytelling comes under intense scrutiny by O’Brien and is given a parodic twist. Originally hired by Trellis to play the role of Peggy’s father, he instead assaults Peggy, who in turn falls in love with her otherwise intended assailant – Furriskey (O’Brien 2001, 61). O’Brien’s hyperbolic description of Finn Mac Cool parodies the legendary hero and ridicules the exaggeration traditional storytellers attached to such heroes: “Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain pass” (O’Brien 2001, 9). Through his apparent intellectual underdevelopment and womanising habits, Finn Mac Cool is brought down to the level of humanity and is imbued with human faults, of which he was devoid in traditional Irish legends. However to ridicule the Irish tradition further O’Brien retains Mac Cool’s abnormal enormity and absurd strength. At the time of At Swim’s publication, the Irish State was encouraging a resurgence in the popularity of such legendary Irish tales. However, perhaps O’Brien felt this was taking a step backward rather than forward, and that a parody of ancient traditions was a better step towards a more developed Irish Free State, rather than developing a Free State that constantly looks to its past for inspiration.
At Swim Two Birds is O’Brien’s first publication, but noticeably it is his most successful. No doubt the failure of subsequent creations damaged the writer’s confidence, and it has been remarked by some, including the historian Peter Costello, that At Swim became a bete-noire for O’Brien with all consequent publications failing to live up to the little success that his first publication attracted. In terms of critical analysis At Swim provides interesting material for an analysis of O’Brien’s relationship with the Free State Ireland. While the government of the Irish Free State, promoted the conservative preoccupation with Irish tradition and language, At Swim can be seen to actively subvert this idealism. The text does not suggest an alternative such as realism; instead it breaks down an imagined reality perhaps in an effort to engender a similar breakdown of authority in favour of anarchy, where the artist thrives.
Undoubtedly Ireland had a significant influence on O’Brien’s work, and the country’s adaptation to Free State independence proved a troublesome journey. Ireland was similar to any other state, which gained independence following a period of colonisation, countries such as Algeria, India and Argentina all experienced colonisation and subsequently gained their independence. A unstable period of adjustment occurred in all countries following the declaration of independence, during which the establishment which was comprised of previous freedom fighters now promoted conservatism and defensiveness.
In Ireland, this instability caused the establishment to impose radical restrictions on the subversive nature of the artist. In 1929, this resulted in the establishment of the Censorship of Publications Act, which hindered the public’s access to extreme and subversive works of art. However, this has resulted in the production of mysterious and artistically ambiguous texts, which strove to “dodge around” the censor’s eye. O’Brien was consistently under threat of having his novels banned, but this encouraged the artist to employ literary tools to inject his texts with ambiguity which allowed him to address current affairs without falling victim to the Censorship of Publications Act.
Therefore, the playfulness of the postmodern aspects of O’Brien’s texts seems to come about as a natural progression for the artist. Postcolonial Ireland encouraged an insular self-sufficiency with which O’Brien disagreed. He employs the postmodern parody and satire in an effort to compromise the conservatism, which had replaced the radical attitudes of an Ireland that had previously fought for its freedom, but was now fighting to attain self-sufficiency and calm.
As the project has discussed, O’Brien worked against the grain of the ideology of the Irish Free State. He drew on postmodern technique in an effort to expose what he felt damaging in terms of the treatment of the Irish language and heritage and the insular approach of the State towards the artist. The three texts drawn on in the project typify O’Brien’s attitudes towards literature and the postcolonial state.
At Swim Two Birds, the author’s earliest novel subverts the established Victorian structure of the novel, introducing anarchy and chaos to a rigid postcolonial state. On the other hand An Béal Bocht, a later novel plays with the content of the traditional Irish novel injecting it with postmodern satire and parody. This criticises the over-zealous attitude of the state towards the Irish language and tradition in its attempts to recover a pre-colonial tradition, which to O’Brien does not cater for the cultural needs of modern Irish society. The Cruiskeen Lawn column was an everyday parody of the broad range of Irish current affairs, varying each day; flowing with the political debates of the time. It provided an important voice for modern Ireland, as it challenged the establishment’s views and provided opposing arguments, which encouraged discourse within all factions of Irish society.
O’Brien has remained out of the major debates of twentieth century Irish literature, however perhaps as the country enters a new age of enormous economic prosperity and artistic achievement and experimentation, enough time has passed and cultural change has occurred for the author to be considered alongside the variety of literary voices which emerged in Ireland during the twentieth century.
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