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Flann O'Brien (1911-1966), an Irish novelist and journalist, was a major figure in 20th-century Irish literature and post-modern fiction. Born Brian O'Nolan (Brian Ó Nualláin), he published four novels in English as Flann O'Brien: At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), The Hard Life (1962), The Dalkey Archive (1964) and The Third Policeman (posthumously 1968).

He used the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen ("Myles of the ponies" or "Myles of the little horses.") for his 1941 Irish-language novel An Béal Bocht (1973 in English as The Poor Mouth) and for his long-running Irish Times column "Cruiskeen Lawn" (from the Irish crúiscín lán meaning "full or brimming small-jug").1 In his column he sometimes wrote about "all that is nauseating in contemporary writing" including the use of cliches and trite phrases.

The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché

O'Nolan's column "Cruiskeen Lawn" in the Irish Times ran for twenty-six years (1939-1966). At first it was written in Irish; over time English was introduced and eventually it was mostly in English. Myles wrote about a broad range of subjects, including Irish language and literature, government censorship and its efforts to revive Irish language and culture -- often tongue-in-cheek:

It is therefore dangerous to discourage the use of Irish because the revival movement, even if completely ineffective, is a valuable preservative of certain native virtues and it is worth remembering that if Irish were to die completely, the standard of English here, both in the spoken and written word, would sink to a level probably as low as that obtaining in England and it would stop there only because it could go no lower. (283)2

His columns were usually satirical and humorous. Myles frequently used the dialog format with one side speaking colloquially. Sometimes "The Plain People of Ireland" comment on and ask questions about what he has written. In other dialogs we learn what "the brother" has seen and heard and done. His "Keats and Chapman" pieces were feghoots, shaggy-dog stories. (For more on feghoots see A Modest Defense of the Pun.)

Myles occasionally addressed the topic of bad writing in his column. In "The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché" he used the question-and-answer format to create

A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print. (202)

Cliches and trite phrases are those that have been used so often they have become commonplace. When first used they may have been fresh, striking and effective, but now they're simply banal. A distinction is sometimes made between the two. A cliche begins as a metaphor or simile: "tip of the iceberg." Phrases such as "the peace process," "fixed income," "point in time" and "have a nice day" are simply overused and worn-out.

Below are some examples from "The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché" (202-227). The graphics are taken from other works. Hold the mouse cursor over them to see which cliches they illustrate.

illustration of cliche
Is man ever hurt in a motor smash?
No. He sustains an injury.
Does such a man ever die from his injuries?
No. He succumbs to them.

illustration of cliche
How are the heights?
Great. (How's yourself?)
How are great heights reached?
Pardon me. ATTAINED, old man. By soaring, of course.
Whom may we expect (with proper coaching) to soar to great heights?
Certain promising youngsters.
In the world of sport.
Into what must all the facts be taken?

What is the only thing one can wax?

illustration of cliche
If a thing is fraught, with what is it fraught?
The gravest consequences.
What does one sometimes have it on?
The most unimpeachable authority.

illustration of cliche
In what opulent manner does one deserve a thrashing?
With whom is one prepared to take one's chance?
The next man.
Whom is one every bit as good as?
The next man.
To what does one think one will rise as well as the next man?
The occasion.

illustration of cliche
What are stocks of fuel doing when they are low?
How low are they running?

What does one do with a suggestion?
One throws it out.
For what does one throw a suggestion out?
For what it may be worth.
What else can be thrown out?
A hint.
In addition to hurling a hint on such lateral trajectory, what other not unviolent action can be taken with it?
It can be dropped.
What else is sometimes dropped?
The subject.

illustration of cliche
What is the only thing you have which you can plight?
Your troth.

What does pandemonium do?
It breaks loose.
Describe its subsequent dominion.
It reigns.

illustration of cliche
How are allegations dealt with?
They are denied.
Yes, but then you are weakening, Sir. Come now how are they denied?
What is the mean temperature of an altercation, therefore?
What is the behaviour of a heated altercation?
It follows.
What happens to order?
It is restored.

Alternatively, in what does the meeting break up?
What does the meeting do in disorder?
Breaks up.
In what direction does the meeting break in disorder?
In what direction should I shut?

Because trite phrases and cliches are overused and worn-out, writers and speakers often pay no attention to what the words really mean. For example, a CBS-TV reporter said, "It looks like we're going to go over the fiscal cliff, at least temporarily." Temporarily over a cliff?

On 18 Nov 2013 CBS-TV reported that "the stock market hit a milestone today" and on 17 Jan 2014 WNEP-TV noted that "Michelle Obama hit the half-century milestone today." Colloquially, one may "hit" fifty. One may reach or pass a milestone. But one should never hit a milestone.

On 19 Nov 2013 ABC-TV titled a new segment "Hospital Bills Sticker Shock." A hospital bill does not resemble the adhesive label placed on a new automobile window or any other product. You don't read a hospital bill before you purchase its services.

When two or more cliches are used in a sentence, it almost always results in a nonsensical, mixed metaphor. For example, on 6 Jan 2012 on Fox News Sunday US Representative Chris Van Hollen, senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee said, "If [Republicans]...draw that line in the sand it's going to be a recipe for more gridlock."

What is a "wake-up call"? In a hotel, for example, before you go to sleep you ask that someone call you on the telephone at a specific time in order to wake you up. You make a specific request that something should happen in the future. You are aware that the wake-up call is coming; you anticipate it. And yet the phrase is almost always used to mean the opposite. You don't ask for it, you don't anticipate it and it comes after something happens: "the train derailment of cars carrying crude oil was a wake-up call about the dangers of ...." The only similarity between an actual wake-up call and its metaphorical use is the act of becoming conscious (of something). But a train derailment (or any other accident) doesn't necessarily mean that someone was "asleep at the switch."

In "Politics and the English Language" George Orwell says that you can shirk your duty as a writer "by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself." Thus, the ready-made phrase might write for you: "The bombing is a wake-up call that sends a message during this critical time in the peace process."

In conclusion, going forward it would behoove you to avoid like the plague any utilization of trite and cliched phrases whenever possible. The reason is because you want to put your best foot forward; in order to get your point across you want your writing to be as clear as crystal. But to express yourself clearly is not as easy as pie; clear writing is not a piece of cake. Sometimes you are between a rock and a hard place and you have to work like a dog to accomplish unclouded writing. Last but not least, keep in mind that, although great writers are few and far between, good writers are not uncommon.

The Novels

At Swim-Two-Birds

O'Brien's best and best-known work is At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), a metafiction -- that is a fiction about fiction.3 It's about an unnamed university student who is writing a book. The student-writer says that "a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham." Further, characters should not he forced to be "uniformly good or bad"; they "should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living." Finally, authors could draw their characters from existing literature and, thus, immediately acquaint readers with their natures and eliminate the need for tiresome explanations.4

The student-writer's book is also about an author, Dermot Trellis, who is writing a book. Trellis "borrows" characters from other authors' works. He creates a female character and is so taken with her that he fathers an illegitimate son, Orlick, by her. The characters in Trellis' book don't like what he forces them to do; they rebel by drugging him so he is unaware of their activities. Orlick and three others write a manuscript in which they punish Trellis. Later, Trellis is put on trial by his own characters with them acting as judges, jury and witnesses. Other characters include the legendary Finn MacCool (who tells a story about Mad King Sweeney), Irish cowboys, a Pooka and a fairy.

At the outermost level is the book written by O'Brien. Within that is the more-or-less realistic story of the student-writer -- his relationship to his uncle with whom he lives, his sharing of his manuscript with friends as he writes the book, his visits to the college and so on. Below that are various intertwining levels of the fantastical fiction of the student-writer's book. Remarkably, this isn't as confusing as it sounds. Changes in time, place and narrative level are clearly indicated and there are occasional synopses. It's much easier to follow than, for example, the Benjy section of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or even John Barth's story "Menelaiad" (in Lost in the Funhouse) where narrative levels are indicated by quotations marks (" ' " ' "I touched my blade...' " ' " ').

Although At Swim-Two-Birds sold only 244 copies before the publisher's warehouse was destroyed in the London Blitz, its republication in the 1950s and 1960s generated significant critical and popular interest. It has been called a Menippean satire, a postcolonial novel and a masterpiece of post-modernism. It's all these and more; it's a tour de force and very funny.

The Third Policeman

In the first line of The Third Policeman the unnamed, one-legged, thirty-something narrator confesses to a murder. He has inherited a money-losing pub and farm managed by John Divney, a shady character. He does not have sufficient money to publish his definitive index to scholarship about de Selby, an eccentric philosopher-scientist.5 Divney convinces him that they should rob and murder rich old Phillip Mathers. Three years later Diveny finally tells him that he hid the cashbox beneath the floor of Mathes' house. As the narrator is about to remove it "something happened."

At this point the book become a surreal fantasy about "the world of the dead -- and the damned -- where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good" (504). The narrator can no longer remember his name or who he is. A number of amazing things happen in the following few days. He has a conversation with dead Mathers. The narrator's soul, which he calls Joe, speaks directly to him. He is befriended by a one-legged highwayman. He enters a police barracks and meets two policemen who are obsessed with bicycles. Sergeant Pluck propounds a theory that men and their bicycles exchange atoms and become more like each other. Policeman MacCrusikeen is a maker of marvelous devices such as a mangle that stretches light and converts it into sound. They travel by elevator to an complex, underground chamber called "Eternity" where time stands still.

The narrator is arrested for the murder of Mathers and sentenced to hang but he escapes on a bicycle. He meets the third policeman, Fox, who looks like Mathers and who has built a private police station located within the walls of Mathers' house. When he arrives home, he learns that 16 years have passed. Upon seeing him Divney is frightened and dies of a heart attack; he thought the narrator had been killed by the bomb he substituted for the cashbox beneath the floor. The narrator leaves and as he is walking down the road he is joined by Divney. They enter the same police barracks he entered before. Sergeant Pluck greets them with the same words he used to greet the narrator earlier. The narrator was killed by the bomb and "all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing [of Mathers]" (405).

O'Brien was unable to find a publisher for The Third Policeman. In later years he claimed to have lost the manuscript. He recycled some of he material in The Dalkey Archive (1964). The book has been praised six ways to Sunday since its publication in 1968, but, unless you really like fantasy, you'll find it a boring story that lacks humor or wit.

An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth)

An Béal Bocht (1941) is considered to be one of the best Irish-language novels of the 20th century. It was published in English as The Poor Mouth in 1973. The title refers to the Irish expression "put on the poor mouth" -- attempt to elicit sympathy or charity by exaggerating your impoverishment, especially to those to whom you are indebted.

The Poor Mouth is, in part, a parody of the kind of (Irish) autobiography in which the author emphasizes the many difficulties he or she had to overcome (poverty, accidents, illnesses and so on). Bonaparte O'Coonassa tells the story of his life of "distress, need, ill-treatment, adversity, calamity, foul play, misery, famine and ill-luck" (489). He lives in Corkadoragha where everyone is poor and it rains every night and often in the day. He, his mother and his grandfather share their house with their horse and pigs. His father is away "in the jug" (415). Boneparte attends school for only one day because every student who doesn't understand English is told his name is "Jams O'Donnell" and is given a beating. Eventually, he marries a woman "skilled in potato boiling," but she and their son soon die.

Boneparte has a great adventure when he climbs a steep mountain called Hunger-stack in search of the lost treasure of Maeldoon O'Poenassa. He finds O'Poenessa still alive in a cave nourished by a stream of whiskey and warmed by a burning whiskey fountain. Boneparte grabs some gold coins from the cave floor, flees and is nearly killed during the descent. With his new wealth he is able to buy his first pair of boots and in order to learn how to walk in them he wanders about one rainy night. "They pleased me greatly in spite of the foot-squeezing, tormenting and foot-hurt I received from them" (484). The next morning everyone is frightened because they believe his tracks in the mud belong to the evil thing, the Sea-cat.

The Poor Mouth is also a satire on the excesses of the Irish-heritage and Irish-language revivalists.6 A gentleman collecting Gaelic folk tales in the area records a piglet grunting inside a dark house; "he understood that good Gaelic is difficult but that the best Gaelic of all is well-nigh unintelligible." Scholars who listen to the recording say that "they had never heard any fragment of Gaelic which was so good, so poetic and so obscure" (433). They bestow an academic degree on the gentleman.

The "Gaeligores," Irish-language enthusiasts, come to the Corkadoragha area because, it was said, "the accuracy of Gaelic (as well as holiness of spirit) grew in proportion to one's lack of worldly goods and ... we had the choicest poverty and calamity." They bring "happiness and money and high revelry with them" (436). At a big Gaelic celebration a dignitary says "If we're truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. ... There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language" (440). After ten years the Gaeligores stop coming because the tempests of the countryside were too tempestuous, the putridity too putrid, the poverty too poor, the Gaelicism too Gaelic and the tradition too traditional (437).

At the end Bonaparte is arrested for a murder he did not commit. All proceedings are conducted in English so even though he is "greatly interested" he "never understood a single item of all that happened" (486). He is sentenced to 29 years in prison. On the way to the prison he meets his father for the first time; he has just been released from prison after 29 years.

The last line of Bonaparte's autobiography (presumably written from prison) is: "I do not think that my like will ever be [seen] there again!" (289).7

The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor

The Hard Life is O'Brien's most realistic novel. Among other things, education and Catholicism are satirized. Set in turn-of-the-century Dublin this comic Bildungsroman deals with the growth and development of Finbarr, the narrator, and Manus, his older brother. Following their mother's death, they are taken in by their half-uncle Mr. Collopy who lives with his daughter Annie and Mrs. Crotty who may be his wife. They are enrolled in different Christian Brothers schools where the "instrument known as 'the leather'" was used freely (512).

Collopy and his friend Father Fahrt, S.J., drink whiskey in the kitchen and engage in contentious discussions about religion. Collopy is involved in a project to improve the lives of women, but the two men talk about it using only euphemisms and vague phrases. Because Collopy says husbands force women to have too many children, it seems that he may be advocating birth control or abortion. Eventually we learn that he is seeking the establishment of public toilets for women (men can go into pubs).

Manus is a hard-working huckster who begins his publishing career by selling a pamphlet about tight-rope walking. Still in school he sells booklets on various subjects which are "composed of material looted from books in the National Library" (535) and written in an inflated style designed to impress the readers. He buys and resells sets of Cervantes' writings by giving away volume two with every purchase of volume one. He is so successful that he quits school, moves to London and he opens the London University Academy through which he will "teach everything by correspondence, solve all problems, answer all questions" (556).

When Collopy is disabled by rheumatism, Manus sends Finbarr a patent medicine ("Gravid Water") which he sells through his London Academy Laboratories. Collopy is given the wrong dose which makes him very much heavier without making him larger. Manus arranges for Collopy and Father Fahrt to travel to Rome for a Papal audience which may result in a (miraculous) reversal of Collopy's increased mass. The meeting doesn't go well; the Pope thinks Collopy, who tries to get his support for the women's toilets project, is crazy.

Collopy dies while in Rome when his weight causes him to fall through a stair landing. To his daughter Annie he bequeaths his house, one thousand pounds in cash and a yearly income of three hundred pounds from the Collopy Trust. Each brother receives five hundred pounds but Manus gets nothing because the recipients must be living in Collopy's house at the time of his death. The Trust will also "erect and maintain three establishments which the testator calls rest rooms. ... Each will bear the word PEACE very prominently on the door and each will be under the patronage of a saint -- Saint Patrick, Saint Jerome and Saint Ignatius" (604).

Manus suggests that Finbarr join him at his university in London but he declines because he has "a terrible feeling that sooner or later the police will take a hand in that foundation" (605). Manus also points out that Annie now has a house, cash and an annual income -- implying that Finbarr should marry her. Manus's shameless opportunism disgusts Finbarr: "everything inside me came up in a tidal surge of vomit" (607).

The boys grow up in a "household where the atmosphere could be described as a dead one" (509). None of the men in their lives -- Mr. Collopy, Father Fahrt, the Christian Brothers -- are worthy of emulation. His years as a dutiful student have not prepared Finbarr for any position: "For all the good those damned Brothers have been to me, I know nothing about anything" (605). Ironically, self-confident, deceitful Manus becomes a successful "educator," but Manus rejects his cynical view of the world.

The symbolic act of vomiting leaves Finbarr empty. He has no plans except to leave school and Collopy's bequest will give him "at least two years to think about it [the future]" (605).

The Dalkey Archive

O'Brien recycled some of the material from his unpublished novel The Third Policeman in The Dalkey Archive. He satirizes religion and the Catholic Church and has some fun re-writing James Joyce's literary career.

In the seaside village of Dalkey Mick Shaugnessy and his friend Hackett meet De Selby, an eccentric if not insane "theologist and physicist." De Selby claims that he "can suspend time, negative its apparent course" (617); as proof he serves them recently-made whiskey which he has aged in just days.

De Selby has concocted "a chemical compound which totally eliminates oxygen from any given atmosphere" and he intends to use it to destroy all life on earth because "[r]ottenness is universally endemic, disease is paramount. The human race is finally debauched and aborted" (621). He has discovered that "a deoxygenated atmosphere cancels the apparently serial nature of time" and thus gives access to all things "which time has ever contained or will contain" (624). He reveals that he has had "a long talk with John the Baptist" (625).

The next morning the three men don breathing devices invented by De Selby and swim into an underwater cave where it's safe to use the compound. De Selby calls up Saint Augustine of Hippo and has a long conversation with him while Mick and Hackett look on. Later, unable to account for what they have seen, Hackett suggests that they were drugged or hypnotized.

Mick decides that it's his duty to save the world: "Clearly enough this task had been assigned to him by Almighty God" (733). He conspires with Sergeant Fottrell to steal the compound. According to Fottrell's "Mollycule Theory," the jolting of a bicycle causes "an exchange or interfusion of bicycle atoms and human atoms" (768). The postman, for example, is 72% bicycle. Hackett later tells Mick that De Selby has decided not to use the compound. Not trusting De Selby Mick places the stolen compound in the Bank of Ireland.

Hearing that James Joyce is still alive Mick decides to interview him. He finds Joyce working in a pub in nearby Skerries. Joyce seems totally unaware of a book called Finnegans Wake. He denies writing Ulysses, claiming that Sylvia Beach paid some "[m]uck-rakers, obscene poets, carnal pimps, sodomous sycophants, pedlars of the coloured lusts of fallen humanity" to write it and then put his name on it (762). Joyce says he has only written Dubliners (as co-author), an article about Saint Cyril and booklets for the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland. Joyce expresses a desire to join the Jesuits and Mick arranges for him to meet Father Cobble. Thinking that Joyce wants a job, not to join, Cobble suggests that Joyce could work repairing the Jesuits' underclothes.

Mick decides that the life he lives is futile: he will withdraw from the crazy world and become a Trappist monk. However, at the end Mick and his girlfriend Mary are engaged and she tells him that she is pregnant.

Myles' Race

game board

In Myles' Race you race from your start square on the left to your stop square on the right by forming a line of connected words.

game board

In 1-Player mode your goal is to reach your stop square using the fewest number of letters.

game board

In 2-Player mode you try to reach your stop square before your opponent does. At some time during almost every 2-Player game the two player's paths will cross as they move diagonally across the board and there are two modes for doing so: Easy Cross and Hard Cross.

There are three board sizes: 15 x 15, 21 x 15 and 21 x 21.

You receive no bonus of any sort for using all seven tiles in your tray to form a word (sometimes called a bingo).

See also

Quick Intro to Myles' Race

A discussion of the origin and development of Myles' Race

Dumpty Drop and Redefining Words


1O'Nolan took the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen from a character in Dion Boucicault's 1860 play The Colleen Bawn; or, The Brides of Garryowen (Myles na Coppaleen) which was based on Gerald Griffin's 1829 novel The Collegians or the Colleen Bawn which was based on a trial Griffin had reported on: John Scanlan, a Protestant Anglo-Irish man, murdered Ellen Hanley, a young Catholic Irish girl.

In Griffin's novel Miles Murphy (Miles na-coppoleen) captures and sells wild ponies. He has a silver tongue and uses flattery to retrieve his ponies which were impounded because they were grazing on the wealthy Chutes' property. He loves Eily O'Connor but she rejects his marriage proposal. Eily is killed and the murderer hung.

In Boucicault's melodrama Myles was a horse-dealer before Eily O'Connor rejected his marriage proposal. Now he lives "like a wild beast in some cave." He rescues Eily from an attempt on her life. At the end she says she will marry Myles, but he gives her to Hardress Cregan whom she loves.

In Boucicault's play Eily and Myles sing a song "Cruiskeen Lawn"; Myles sings:

And when grim Death appears,
In long and happy years,
To tell me that my glass is run,
I'll say, begone you slave.
For great Bacchus gave me lave
To have another Cruiskeen Lawn -- Lawn -- Lawn.

2All quotations are from The Best of Myles, ed. Kevin O Nolan (1968; Penguin Books, 1983).

3Swim-Two-Birds is a ford on the River Shannon which the legendary (Mad) King Sweeney (a character in the novel) is said to have visited.

4Flann O'Brien: The Complete Novels (New York: Alfred a. Knopf, 2007), 21. All quotations from his novels are from this volume.

5The book's pseudo-scholarly footnotes inform us that, among other things, de Selby, who was unable to distinguish between men and women, believed that night is simply the accumulation of "'black air' produced by certain volcanic activities," that the earth is shaped like a sausage and that time (and thus motion) does not flow but is made up of an infinite number of static events.

6O'Nolan grew up in an Irish-speaking home and studied Irish culture and language, but he did not believe that all things old and Irish were necessarily good. Further, given Ireland's widespread poverty, he felt that government funds could be put to better use.

7Parodic variations of the line, from Tomás Ó Criomhthainn's autobiography An t-Oileánach, are repeated in the novel: mar ná beidh ár leithéidí arís ann (because our likes will not be there again). (Translator's Notes)