• 'Bureaucratic Poetics: Brian O’Nolan and the Irish Civil Service' Online Workshop & Special Issue of The Parish Review

    Posted by Paul Fagan on 2020-09-01


Bureaucratic Poetics:

Brian O’Nolan & the Irish Civil Service

Online Workshop, November 26–27 2020


Keynote speakers

Dr Martin Maguire

author of
The Civil Service and the Revolution in Ireland, 1912–38:
‘Shaking the blood-stained hand of Mr Collins’
(Manchester University Press, 2008)


Dr Jonathan Patterson

author of
Villainy in France, 1463–1610:
A Transcultural Study of Law and Literature

(Oxford University Press, forthcoming, 2021)


Brian O’Nolan’s writing career was in many ways defined by his parallel career in the Irish Civil Service (1935–53). O’Nolan famously used pseudonyms (most notably, Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen) for his publications in part because his official role debarred him from commenting publicly on official matters; and yet, O’Nolan’s authorship was hardly a well-kept secret – on the one hand, readers of his outspoken newspaper column Cruiskeen Lawn may have known or sensed that its author was a government official, and, on the other hand, O’Nolan’s boss John Garvin helped edit O’Nolan’s first published novel, At Swim-Two-Birds.

State institutions figure prominently in O’Nolan’s work. Notably, The Third Policeman (1940) depicts a Kafkaesque parish run by red tapist policemen, An Béal Bocht (1941) portrays insidious mechanisms of British colonial administration, Cruiskeen Lawn frequently discusses official policies, and Faustus Kelly (1943), a play building on Goethe’s Faust story, sees the devil, having dabbled in Irish politics, fleeing back to hell, horrified by the workings of modern bureaucracy. Yet, despite the centrality of officialdom as a concern in O’Nolan’s oeuvre, no sustained interest has focused on the question of O’Nolan and the civil service. As Joseph Brooker writes, ‘A reading of O’Nolan’s creative work in the full light of his civil service career, pursuing shared themes and discursive contexts as has been done with Franz Kafka’s work in insurance, is one critical task that has yet to be extensively attempted’ (2019). This workshop will offer the space to begin the task of exploring these themes and contexts, investigating the linkage between O’Nolan’s writing and his role in the Irish Civil Service.

Part of the challenge will be to explore O’Nolan’s activities and writing as an official. In a recent edited collection of O’Nolan’s letters, Maebh Long calls for a complementary volume ‘focusing on O’Nolan’s work within the Custom House’ (2018 xxi); this workshop would hope to contribute to and potentially build toward such a challenging archival project. It has been suggested, by O’Nolan’s senior in his department, that O’Nolan had trouble learning ‘that official letters were not an appropriate medium for expressing his personality’ (Garvin, 1973). Indeed, archival documents such as the borderline vitriolic memorandum on the Superannuation Bill of 1944 suggest that O’Nolan could be as outspoken in his official role as in his journalism and fiction.

By providing a forum in which to discuss how this figure wrestled with the constraints of his professional position, this workshop hopes to catalyse deeper reflections on O’Nolan as an intriguing example of what Ceri Sullivan terms the “writer-civil servant.” Selected presentations from the workshop will form the basis for a special issue of The Parish Review: Journal of Flann O’Brien Studies dedicated to the topic of 'Brian O’Nolan and the Irish Civil Service.'

We invite short papers (10–20 minutes) and work-in-progress presentations that explore topics such as:

  • O’Nolan’s bureaucratic poetics
  • O’Nolan’s critique and representation of state administration
  • O’Nolan and “officialese”
  • O’Nolan’s style of writing as a state functionary
  • Civil Service work: limitation or inspiration for the writer?      
  • Mise le meas: questions of language in the Irish Civil Service   
  • Myles before/after Myles: comparisons with other Irish writer-civil servants
  • Connections between higher education, the ICS and the Dublin literary scene

Please send 250-word abstracts and a short bio by 25 October 2020 to jonathan.foster@english.su.se and elmills@tcd.ie


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