Flann O’Brien, Myles na Gopaleen, John James Doe, Brother Barnabas: behind these anonyms lurked a small, insecure and disappointed Dubliner whose name people kept getting wrong: Brian O’Nolan, or Nolan or O Nualláin. No one is quite sure who he was or exactly what he did; what is certain, however, is that this Mr X, this nobody, now enjoys a reputation, as the poet Anthony Cronin puts it, of being ‘one of the funniest writers to use the English language in this century.’ This long-awaited biography by Cronin, an old drinking buddy of O’Nolan, is the first full-length study of the man behind the masks.
O’Nolan was born in Strabane, Co Tyrone in 1911, the third of twelve children. His upbringing was unorthodox. His father, a successful civil servant, made Irish the language of the house and did not send Brian to school until he was 12. Brian happily educated himself in his father’s library. Then, when the family moved to Dublin, the youngster was sent to the brutish Christian Brothers. O’Nolan recalled their ‘diabolical academy’:
‘No matter how assiduous and even intelligent a student was he was bound to get a hiding every day of his school life … If your sums were wrong you would get a thorough bashing with “the leather”, but if the answers were correct and you could not explain why,