Notes on The III International Flann O’Brien Conference

Last week I spent four days in the company of Flanneurs, Mylesians, academics, authors, onlookers and whiskey-drinkers. All drawn together by a fascination with the works of… well, it depends. For some he’s Brother Barnabas of Comhthrom Féinne fame; to the Cruiskeen Lawn aficionados he’s Myles na gCopaleen; a few refer to him as George Knowall or John Doe; the strictly accurate call him by his real name, Brian O’Nolan (or even more accurately, Brian Ó Nualláin); but to me, he is and will always be, Flann O’Brien, the author of a perfect novel.

James Ellis

The plausible impossible

We had gathered together in Prague, at Charles University, for ‘Metamorphoses: The III International Flann O’Brien Conference’. I was there to present my paper titled: Parallel Explorations of the Boundaries between Fiction and Real-Life.

I felt on the boundary myself. At least two of the authors I was citing were also at the conference and the range of papers being presented was so wide it genuinely made my head spin (although there is some speculation that the Kozel beer was a greater cause of my giddiness). There were over 40 papers to be read, and the panels within which they were framed had themes as diverse as modernist poetics, politics, philosophy, humour, sport, metafiction, translation, transliteration, alcohol and alchemy.

What would the great man have made of it all? Why, he would have loved it, of course: the debates, the detailed academic analysis, the occasional tenuous leaps of interpretation, the frankly wild flights of fancy, the social side – oh yes, especially the social side. This was a conference that looked after its attendees. Take a look at this programme of social events:

James Ellis

Meeting Charles Sheehan

  • a reception hosted by Charles Sheehan, Ambassador of Ireland to the Czech republic;

    Val O'Donnell

    Val O’Donnell

  • a lunchtime performance by Val O’Donnell from his Flann’s Yer Only Man & Other Mylesiana;
  • Kevin Barry, author of City of Bohane in conversation with Maebh Long;
  • a walking tour of literary Prague;
  • a theatre performance of Will the Real Flann O’Brien…? A Life in Five Scenes by Gerry Smyth & Co.;
  • a whiskey tasting with Fionnan O’Connor, author of A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey; and of course
  • a final, farewell dinner.

It was no coincidence that the theme of the conference was metamorphosis and the venue was Prague – Kafka’s neck of the woods. Nor was it a coincidence that so many of the speakers felt that through books such as An Béal Bocht, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman they could point to their own process of transformation. Certainly my attitude to bicycle saddles underwent a profound change after reading The Third Policeman.

Next year, on April the 1st, it will be fifty years to the day since Flann O’Brien died. He was only 54. It doesn’t matter how you know him – Myles, Flann, Brian – it’s his work that matters. It matters to me and it matters to all the people at the conference who made it such an enjoyable, informative and inclusive experience.

And it should matter to you because he was a genuinely great writer, and such creatures are few and far between.

Thanks to the conference organisers: Ondřej Pilný, Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan; to the Centre for Irish Studies at Charles University; and to the International Flann O’Brien Society. Also to Val O’Donnell, John Wyse Jackson and Rachel Darling – hope to see you all again soon. 

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