Flann O’Brien, Me, James Joyce and Forty Foot Men

Forums are amazing places where conversations can continue over years. You post a question and only three years later you get a response – amazing. The question I found (where? who can say?) was this: which of these two books by Flann O’Brien was funnier: The Dalkey Archive or The Third Policeman? Good question and one close to my heart – and coincidentally I had at some time acquired 2nd hand copies of both books in the belief that I would one day wish to revisit them – And, coincidences being what they are, it was St Patrick’s Day and what better day to sit down and review the question. And a very interesting question it turned out to be.

Now, here’s the thing. I happen to have spent a number of years living almost exactly half way between James Joyce’s Martello Tower and the town of Dalkey just south of what Flann O’Brien endearingly – and mockingly to those with gaelic pretensions – calls Dunleary but which is more commonly spelt Dun Laoghaire (but sounded out as Flann has it). Flann was a native speaker of Gaelic and no mean linguist so he could not be lightly taken to task on such a question. Any critic would soon be made ashamed of their own ignorance. Now the distance between Dalkey and Joyce’s Martello Tower (for those who don’t know these so called Martello Towers I can do no better than to direct you to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martello_tower) which stands at a pleasant spot called Forty-foot. Now why that place is called Forty-foot I can’t say but there is at Forty-foot a quite remarkable ‘thing’ (the sort of thing that Flann O’Brien might have termed a ‘conundrum’) – namely a cleft in a rock that leads to a small enclosed space with a further cleft that drops into the sea. And this is a place where elderly men free of pubic hair (as I noticed more than once) come to do what in America is known as skinny dipping. And there are some who come religiously everyday with their little wooden board, 365 days a year (and 366 days on a leap year) and strip off and plunge into the water in the cleft and swim around a bit hidden from the site of the ladies and children on the nearby beach (who would of course be shocked to the marrow to see anything of the sort) and then they clamber out and – you’ve been waiting for this – they stand on the wooden boards while they dry off and get dressed because the stone is so bloody cold. And outside this spot, so that no-one of the female gender (as O’Brien might have put it) might be shocked, there is a sign, completely unpunctuated, that says: “Forty Foot Men Only”. This is the truth.

And while we’re standing in our minds next to Joyce’s Martello Tower (only two miles or so from Dalkey) I think this might be the time to argue that Joyce didn’t quite get the opening sentence of Ulysses right.  For many years I was convinced that the opening sentence of this wonderful book was: “Up jumped Buck Mulligan.” Short and all those wonderful ‘Uh’ sounds thrown together. So it was a bit of a shock to discover that the first sentence is really: “STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” Now of course jumping up may not have been the sort of thing that Buck Mulligan would do, and certainly not if he is carrying a bowl of lather with a open razor ready to do his morning shave on the parapet of the tower overlooking the file of men going in and out of the cleft in the rock below him – could he see more? But nevertheless, I think that could have been incorporated like this. “Up jumped Buck Mulligan. Sure, what a great morning it was. A shave was in order. Nothing better than to look down on the old fellas from the parapet of the tower. So, now progressing in a stately way, carrying a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed he made his way up the stairs.” I imagine the argument as to which beginning is best will go on long into the night.

But we were talking about Flann rather than James and Dalkey rather than Forty-foot.

I spent three  solitary, but not unhappy, years walking this stretch of the coast and I grew very fond of it. These were the years when, aged 10-13,  I was a student at a place called Castle Park just a step back from the shore at Bulloch Harbour. So naturally I have a certain nostalgia for the name ‘Dalkey’, and so when I picked up the book to read first, I noted that it had been copyrighted in 1964 (this is the sort of nerdy thing people like me do). Now, I know the tricks of writers. They will not copyright a book in the year it was finally completed. No, they will wait till the year it is published so that it will seem fresh and excitingly current. So it is very possible that Flann O’Brien and I passed on the streets sometime between 1959 and 1962 when I was a schoolboy in those parts. Or he would have heard the shouts of unruly boys playing rugby – I was the big fat loud one – behind the high wall that he was passing. At least it was possible. So, as I said, I have fond memories of that time and place and sat down first to read The Dalkey Diary.

“Dalkey is a little town maybe twelve miles south of Dublin, on the shore. It is an unlikely town, huddled, quiet, pretending to be asleep. Its streets are narrow, not quite self-evident as streets and with meetings that seem accidental. Small shops look closed but are open. Dalkey looks like an humble settlement which must, a traveller feels, be next door to some place of the first importance and distinction. And it is…”

And what is this place of the first importance? It is the Vico Road. And here is a brief view of that place, and a note that will be of interest



And I will continue this disquisition next time…



About Jonathan Chamberlain

I am a novelist and creative writer attacking all genres indiscriminately - Dreams of Gold (humour) - Alphabet of Vietnam (literary suspense) - Whitebait & Tofu (noir suspense) - Wordjazz for Stevie (memoir) - King Hui (biography) - Chinese Gods (cultural analysis) - The Cancer Survivor's Bible (self-help) My literary blog is In Praise of Older Books see www.2ndhandbooklover.wordpress.com. My Fighting Cancer website is www.fightingcancer.com. My cancer information archive is at www.cancerfighter.wordpress.com
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