In my blog header I explain that the title of this blog comes from a Gaelic expression "putting on the poor mouth" (An Beal Bocht) which means to exaggerate the direness of one's situation in order to gain time or favour from creditors. It can also simply mean grumbling. I I love the expression but the blog title is intended as a tribute to one of my favourite authors the late, great Irish novelist/humorist/civil servant, Flann O Brien. (Aka Brian O Nolan, aka Myles na gCopaleen).
The Poor Mouth was originally published in Gaelic as An Beal Bocht in 1941 and only appeared in English translation for the first time in 1973 – seven years after his death. (I would have called the blog An Beal Bocht but someone had beaten me to that name). The |Poor Mouth is set in the fictional village of Corkadoragha, a place which knows suffering an poverty in spades, It is a place were the torrential rains are more torrential, the squalor more squalid, the hopelessness more utterly hopeless than they are anywhere else in Ireland. It is the story of Bonaparte O'Coonassa who, like the other characters spends the bulk of his time lamenting the fate of the Gaels whose lot it is to live a hard, miserable life. But it is certainly not a miserable book. It is very readable and very, very funny!
The Poor Mouth is a wonderful tale in which you learn about being a child of the ashes, Ambrose a pig the size of a house, Sitric O Sanassa (the excellence of his poverty was without comparison in all of Ireland) and the awful Sea Cat a harbinger of misfortune that looks uncannily like the island of Ireland. You also discover that when an Irish person says calls you sir they could be insulting you ( “sor” is the Gaelic for louse)
O’Brien actually wrote the Poor Mouth as a parody of Irish literature such as Tomás O’Criomhthainn, whose work dwelt very much on the hardship of Gaelic life. In addition it was intended as a swipe at the patronising attitude of “Irish Irelanders” towards rural Gaelic speakers –as evidenced in one glorious scene where Gaelic enthusiasts mistake the grunting of a pig for melodious Irish simply because they cannot understand it! Needless to say it caused a storm when it was published. It does not matter if you have never heard of Tomas O Criomhtnainn and couldn’t care less about the attitude urban Gaelic enthusiasts towards the residents of the Gaeltacht, the Poor Mouth is a wonderful read. I would strongly recommend you find a copy of the book as its likes will certainly never be there again!
So why Jams O’Donnell? The name comes from an episode in The Poor Mouth when Bonaparte O’ Coonassa’s attends school for the first time:
“We all gathered in the schoolhouse. We all sat on benches, without a word or a sound for fear of the master. He cast his venomous eyes ever the room and they alighted on me where they stopped. By jove! I did not find his look pleasant while these two eyes were sifting me. After a while he directed a long yellow finger at me and said: “Phwat is yer nam?”
“I did not understand what he said nor any other type of speech which is practised in foreign parts because I had only Gaelic as a mode of expression and as a protection against the difficulties of life. I could only stare at him, dumb with fear. I then saw a great fit of rage come over him and gradually increase exactly like a rain-cloud. I looked around timidly at the other boys. I heard a whisper at my back: Your name he wants!
“My heart leaped with joy at this assistance and I was grateful to him who prompted me. I looked politely at the master and replied to him: Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas's Sarah, grand-daughter of John's Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot…
“Before I had uttered or half-uttered my name, a rabid bark issued from the master and he beckoned to me with his finger. By the time I had reached him, he had an oar in his grasp. Anger had come over him in a flood-tide at this stage and he had a businesslike grip of the oar in his two hands. He drew it over his shoulder and brought it down hard upon me with a swish of air, dealing me a destructive blow on the skull. I fainted from that blow but before I became totally unconscious I heard him scream:
Yer nam, said he, is Jams O'Donnell!
So there you have it. I hope you sleep easier with this knowledge in your head. It’s like will never be there again….
While I’m at it my avatar is of course not me. It is a photo of the late, great Robert Newton Calvert. The image is from around 1976 when he was lead singer in Hawkwind. Robert recorded several albums with Hawkwind, first appearing as a poet on the Space Ritual. He appeared on an off until the late seventies when his increasingly eccentric behaviour became a liability. He also recorded several solo albums, the most famous being his concept album about the Lockheed F-104G Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters, several plays and poetry collections and a novel called Hype. He died of a heart attack in 1988 aged 43. I never saw him with Hawkwind but I was fortunate enough to see him perform live a couple of times not long before his death.
Further Reading on Flann O’Brien
Gaelically Gaelic by Eric Mader-Lin (From Necessary Prose)
Flann O’Brien: A Postmodernist When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular by Robert Looby (At the Scriptorium website)
The No Bicycle Page
Further information on Robert Calvert
Spirit of the Page, an extensive site devoted to all things Calvert.
If you would like to hear Calvert live the Steve Pond’s Inner City Unit website has his 1986 Carlisle concert available as a free download. It is well worth checking out