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  • Flann O'Brien, James Joyce, and the Queer Art of Bare Concealment
  • Catherine Flynn (bio)

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Frontispiece, Envoy special issue, "James Joyce," volume 5, number 17, April 1951.

Image used by permission of the John Ryan Estate.

[End Page 8]

In 1951 Brian O'Nolan, better known as Flann O'Brien, wrote "A Bash in the Tunnel," the editorial and introductory essay for a special issue of the magazine Envoy, featuring Irish writers' perceptions of James Joyce ten years after his death (figure 1).1 I want to consider the essay in all of its strangeness to argue that its content and its stakes have been overlooked. It explores "the position of the artist in Ireland," and in doing so comically intervenes in the Ireland of Éamon de Valera, offering a radical challenge to the sexual mores and heteronormative ideals, as well as the economic norms, of the young republic. O'Nolan brings together the discourses of public transportation, Catholicism, literary criticism, and homosexual encounter in what I term an art of bare concealment—a technique through which he gestures toward hitherto unrepresented dimensions of Irish life and toward an Irish population that is massing in as-yet unrepresentable ways. "A Bash in the Tunnel" presents us with a lightly disguised representation of a homosexual scene, picturing an Ireland of not just erotic freedom but also material liberality.

The special issue of Envoy features essays by writers that range from the famous to the by-now obscure: the poet Patrick Kavanagh, who also contributes a poem; the playwright and literary critic Denis Johnston; the literary critic Andrew Cass, a pseudonym for John Garvin, who for a number of years was O'Nolan's superior in the civil service; O'Nolan's friend, the artist, poet, and literary critic Niall Montgomery; a mysterious Joseph Hore; W. B. Stanford, a classical scholar who went on to become a senator; and C. P. Curran, Kenneth Reddin, and Joyce's sisters Florence and Eva, whose memoirs of Joyce were originally published by the Irish Times after his death. For these [End Page 9]

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Figure 1.

Table of Contents, Envoy special issue, "James Joyce," volume 5, number 17, April 1951.

Image used by permission of the John Ryan Estate.

contributors, writing about Joyce means situating him in a familiar local context. Some of them, such as Reddin and Eva Joyce, see him benignly as a virtual resident of Dublin. The majority of the contributors, however, are critical, regarding Joyce as an estranged Dubliner, betraying his native social scene and accordingly, appropriated and misread by an American academic industry. Cass writes, "Like Iago, he had all those years been harboring a motiveless malignancy against various Dubliners, but the scarifying he gave them in Ulysses was also apparently a form of self-rehabilitation."2 Montgomery sees him as defined by his departure from Dublin, a betrayal that rendered him appealing to Americans: his exile "explains Joyce's attraction [End Page 10] for Americans, Europe's untergangsters."3 Kavanagh points to an inherent flaw in Joyce's literary means, exemplifying the tendency in the special issue toward simplifying, ad hominem attacks: "In the end this introvert formula which feeds on itself exhausts its material [. . . .] Joyce is an unmannerly child enjoying destruction. Hate and Pride."4 In a similarly reductive and critical vein, Cass writes of Joyce's "dull misanthropy . . . , [his] cold, introverted, antisocial intellect."5

At first glance, O'Nolan writes in the same vein. He, too, situates Joyce in a local social context: "A friend of mine found himself next door at dinner to a well-known savant who appears in Ulysses [. . . .]"6 He is critical, declaring at the very opening of his essay, "James Joyce was an artist. He has said so himself. His was a case of Ars gratia Artist." We might translate this phrase as "art by grace of the artist" and understand it to imply a supercilious, idiosyncratic, and even futile kind of art pour l'art. Anthony Cronin, O'Nolan's friend and biographer, writes that his subject's view of Joyce was colored by Montgomery...


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