‘Genius of Genre’ Focuses on Flann O’Brien’s Original Manuscripts

Genius of Genre

On Feb. 11, the John J. Burns Library opened its spring exhibit showcasing the work of Flann O’Brien (1911-1966), an Irish author best known for his novel, The Third Policeman, and for his multiple literary aliases. The exhibit, titled Genius of Genre: The Pen Names and Personas of Flann O’Brien, presents an array of original manuscripts, books, artifacts, and letters from the library’s collection of O’Brien’s works.

Brian O’Nolan was born in northern Ireland in Strabane, County Tyrone in 1911, a time when Ireland was under the control of the British government. Around a decade later, in 1922, the Anglo-Irish Treaty liberated 26 northern countries into the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. This Ireland that O’Nolan grew up in—which was economically and socially depressed with media censorship and a dominating Catholic church—was quite different than the socially liberal country that Ireland is today.

O’Nolan remained in Ireland throughout his life, satirizing it as both a writer and a civil servant. In order to establish his own freedom of speech to criticize Irish politics, he routinely adopted literary pseudonyms, which include O’Brien, Brother Barnabas, and Myles na Gopaleen. Throughout his career, he published work in both English and Irish Gaelic in a wide variety of literary genres. What unites these works is their ability to disassemble cultural norms and literary genres by abolishing the authority of their forms.

In a section titled “Early Years,” the Genius of Genre exhibit features many of O’Brien’s personal items. These include a photo of his father tucked into an Irish Catholic Mass missal, numerous medals he won for English composition while studying at Blackrock College, a copy of a spoof monthly news magazine called Blather that O’Brien launched under the name O’Nolan, and a notebook belonging to his father containing plot ideas that made appearances in many of O’Brien’s novels.

Another section labeled “Novels” features a series of O’Brien’s works from when he worked as a novelist and columnist for the Irish Times. The works on display include An Béal Bocht, The Third Policeman, Der fritters Polizist, and many other pieces.

With it being one of his most well known works, the displays for The Third Policeman are a highlight of the exhibit. These feature original manuscripts of the novel, a letter he wrote upon its publication, multiple editions of the published novel with different cover designs, and a royalty check O’Brien’s estate received in 1990. There is also an artistic component complementing this novel, which consists of a haunting video by David O’Kane that depicts three policemen inspired by the absurd, sinister, and authoritarian themes of the novel. Also displayed are paintings by Edward O’Kane, that form a dialogue with the ideas and surreal world of The Third Policeman.

Most of the items in the exhibit are from Burns Library’s O’Brien Papers. A good portion was acquired from O’Brien’s youngest brother, Micheál Ó Nualláin, who was a visual artist. The charcoal and pencil sketches, along with the oil paintings shown throughout, account for some of O’Brien’s work. Other parts of the exhibit, including the video components of the installation, were contributed by David and Edward O’Kane, artists and residents of a town nearby O’Brien’s birthplace. The podcast and iBook projects within the showcase are actually creations of students from professor Joseph Nugent’s Fall 2018 course “From Page to Pod: Making Literature Public.”

Contributors and the staff of Burns Library did an excellent job of paying homage to O’Brien and his impact on Irish political and literary history through the multimedia Genius of Genre exhibit. During a period of political repression in Ireland, O’Brien used his talents to rebel against authoritarian forces. Today, although Ireland has gained more independence, O’Brien’s legacy continues to serve as an inspiration to other artists and writers disturbed by the modern-day political climate.

Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Graphics Editor