Now's the time to set up the garden chairs on Cruiskeen Lawn with Myles na gCopaleen
DUBLIN – Recently, an Irish Times reader suggested on the letters page that given the COVID-19 crisis, it would be no bad thing – indeed, much delight might ensue – if the paper were to re-print some columns from a former Times writer whose like, as the saying goes, will never be replicated.
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Mr. Toby Joyce's correspondence – which arrived from one of the few palindromic localities in Ireland – struck a chord with me.
When I was in college at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, I had the good fortune of enrolling in a survey course on Irish literature as part of my elective work toward a degree in English. Over a semester I was introduced to a handful of seldom read Irish authors such as Maria Edgeworth, William Carleton, and Charles Kickham.
Sadly, my knowledge of these Representative Irish Tales – so-called by W.B. Yeats in his 1891 collection – has faded with age, retreating with a good few other lessons picked up in various classrooms over the years.
Since then, however, one Irish writer has stuck with me – and I with him. (Just as he has remained a fixture with Mr. Joyce, who – if you haven't copped it yet – resides in Navan, County Meath.)
Flann O'Brien – whose surreal 1939 novel The Third Policeman also featured as a required text – was unlike any writer I'd encountered before: a polyglot novelist, playwright, and newspaper columnist who made no excuses for writing in a style and on topics that regularly startled his readers. (Indeed, James Joyce commended O'Brien's “true comic spirit,” while Northern Irish author Michael Foley suggested in 2015 that The Third Policeman may have predicted particle physics.)
Of these multiple manifestations, O'Brien's Myles na gCopaleen persona – whose byline adorned the Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times for over 25 years – most intrigued me, as my own aspirations were in this direction.
During my time at Medford High School and then UMass-Boston, my literary heroes weren't Nobel Prize-winning novelists or award-winning short story writers. Instead, I admired syndicated columnists such as Art Buchwald and Russell Baker – both of whom I shamelessly mimicked in my columns for my respective school publications. I found the imagination and wit of their 750-word satirical columns intoxicating. The six-figure income they derived from their work also made me somewhat light-headed.
But Myles na gCopaleen was different animal altogether: daring and experimental and just plain daft, bringing to life a diverse range of comic creations and voices, as in his celebrated Keats and Chapman sketches, which display O'Brien's facility for twisting language into gorgeous knots and culminate always in a creaky pun.
So as a tribute to uninhibited (and undervalued) columnists everywhere, I present one of my own vignettes inspired by Myles na gCopaleen. In these testing times, I hope you'll allow such an indulgence.
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A civil engineer in northwest Ireland – Delaney by name – was tasked with restoring a dilapidated monastic settlement dating from the early days of Christian influence on the Emerald Isle. The plan was to upgrade the thousand-year-old site for use by the local tourism board, with an adjoining interpretative center as the project's crowning jewel.
Unfortunately, strict heritage laws forbade any out-of-sync alterations, so Delaney was stymied in his many attempts to factor in even the most rudimentary heating system. (The Irish climate, while not severe, is distinguished throughout the year by an insidious chill and roughhouse wind that can immobilize the hardiest soul.)
The distinctive collection of ruins – which would no doubt pull tourists and native travelers alike to this cash-strapped corner of the Land of Saints and Scholars – seemed destined to sink into further decay. But Delaney wouldn’t give up. After several weeks of ruminating on the problem – to the neglect of his other work, it must be said – he arrived at a solution acceptable to the heritage sector and conveyed his glad tidings in an e-mail to Malachy Boyle, director of public works for the region.
Upon receipt, an exultant Boyle rushed into a general meeting of the provincial tourism board – conveniently under way beside his own office – and announced:
“Success, gentlemen. We can have archaic and heat it, too!”
Boston native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of Designing Dev, a comic novel about an Irish-American lad from Boston who runs for the Irish presidency during the Celtic Tiger era. His latest column collection is entitled Entering Medford – And Other Destinations.
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