Reading the Orton letters I was reminded that Brian O’Nolan debuted his pseudonym “Flann O’Brien” in a 1939 letter to the Irish Times. Over the course of a year, and with help from friends, O’Nolan carried on several debates on the letters page of the paper, which proved so popular with readers that the editor invited him to write a column.
(Not a bad note to end a Friday on. Next week I plan to shake my late tendency to long quotation.)
I was interested in “H.P.’s” saucy letter yesterday commenting on the poor attendances at the Gate Theatre’s presentation of The Three Sisters. He is right when he suggests that overmuch Gaelic and Christianity, inextricably and inexplicably mixed up with an overweening fondness for exotic picture palaces, effectively prevent the majority of our people from penetrating further north than the Parnell monument. Heigho for the golden days I spent as a youth in Manchester! In that civilized city we had Chekhov twice nightly in the music-halls; the welkin rang all day long from non-stop open-air Hamlets in city parks, and the suicide rate reached an all-time high from the amount of Ibsen and Strindberg that was going on night and day in a thousand back-street repertory dives. One politely mentioned one’s view on Dick Wagner when borrowing a light from a stranger, and barmaids accepted a chuck under the chin only when it was accompanied by a soft phrase by Pirandello. Nowhere in the world outside Sheffield could the mind glut itself on so much buckshee literary truck.
Hard as “H.P.” may be pressed, I think I can claim to endure more agony than he from having to live in Ireland. Looking back over a lifetime spent in the world of books, I think I have reason to be despondent. I was one of the first readers of John O’London’s Weekly, and can claim that I have never seen an American moving picture. As a lad I knew Ibsen. He was a morose man, bovine of head at all times, and formidable in stature when he was not sitting down. He was objectionable in many ways, and only his great genius and heart of gold saved him from being excluded from decent society. Once I noticed at table that there was dandruff in his tea. Swinburne and Joseph Conrad were also frequent visitors at my grandfather’s place, and their long discussions on George Moore were a fair treat to listen to. The recollection of these evenings around the rustic tea-table in the back garden is still almost acutely pleasurable, and is like a fur on the walls of my memory . . .
I feel compelled to attract attention to certain inaccuracies in a letter addressed to you on the 3 inst, by Mr. F. O’Brien, in which the writer assumes an easy familiarity with Ibsen and his contemporaries. Mr. O’Brien may well be an old man, as he says himself, and judging from the pedestrian quality of his style, I see no reason to doubt his probity on this score; but this is one occasion when mere senility cannot be accepted as an excuse for ignorance. He has painted a word-picture of the great man that reflects very little credit either on Ibsen or on himself, and it is partly to clear the name of my favorite playwright, and partly, let it be added, to test Mr. O’Brien’s honesty, that I charge my pen to reply . . .
From Myles Before Myles, ed. John Wyse Jackson.