First published in 1941 (in Gaelic) as An Béal Bocht, The Poor Mouth is Flann O’Brien’s classic spoof of Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s autobiography An t-Oileánach (The Islandman), a tale of hardship on the Arran Islands (think Craggy Island / Father Ted opening sequence). Actually published under the name Myles na gCopaleen (Myles of the little horses), this is a tour-de-force of irishness, in this case translated splendidly by Patrick C Power, and illustrated magnificently by Ralph Steadman.
The book is the autobiographical tale of the life of Bonaparte O’Coonassa, from his earliest memories to his final “demise”. Bonaparte’s story is convoluted and tortured, with weird narrative tics, twists and turns as befits a gaelic narrative.
I cannot truly remember either the day I was born or the first six months I spent here in the world. Doubtless, however, I was alive at that time although I have no memory of it , because I should not exist now if I were not there then and to the human being, as well as to every other living creature, sense comes gradually.
O’Coonassa’s birth itself is something of a mystery his father apparently was not expecting his birth.
The people said that my mother was not expecting me either and it is a fact that a whisper went round that I was not born of my mother at all but of another woman.
His early recollections of his mother must stir a few memories in us all!
She spent her life cleaning out the house, sweeping cow-dung and pig-dung from in front of the door, churning butter and milking cows, weaving and carding wool and working the spinning wheel, praying, cursing and setting big fires to boil a houseful of potatoes to stave off the day of famine.
The domestic situation is not improved when the family bring a small piglet into the house. Growing rapidly into a monster, the beast, named Ambrose causes problems.
Passers-by neither stopped nor even walked when in the vicinity of our house but raced past the door and never ceased until they were half a mile from the bad smell. There was another house two hundred yards down the road from us and one day when our smell was extremely bad the folks there cleared out and went to America and never returned.
Ambrose and the Old-Fellow (grandfather) can be seen in the magnificent cover illustration as an a doomed attempt is made to expel the pig from the house – but unfortunately he is too fat. Ultimately the pig dies of his own stench and the family are saved.
At school Bonaparte fares little better at the hands of the brutal schoolmaster, who beats all the children with an oar, renaming them all Jams O’Donnell.
The whole tragi-comic narrative unfolds through a veil of constant rain and the loss of individuals of whom Bonaparte repeatedly in a comic trope says,
I do not think that his like will be there again.
One particular highlight is a Gaelic college held in the village, and in a sequence lasting a couple of pages, O’Brien uses the word Gaelic more times than any other author before or since. So Gaelic is the assemblage that it even causes fatalities,
from the strain of listening
He was generous and open-handed and he never possessed the smallest object which he did not share with the neighbours: nevertheless, I can never remember him during my time possessing the least thing, even the quantity of little potatoes needful to keep body and soul joined together. In Corkadoragha, where every human being was sunk in poverty, we always regarded him as a recipient of alms and compassion. The gentlemen from Dublin who came in motors to inspect the paupers praised him for his Gaelic poverty and stated that they never saw anyone who appeared so truly Gaelic. One of the gentlemen broke a little bottle of water which Sitric had because, said he, it spoiled the effect.
The narrative unfolds with a grimly comic certainty, until the final absurd denouement.
Hard to single this out as O’Brien’s comic masterpiece as he wrote so many books, and both The Third Policeman and At Swim Two Birds are both comic genius, but it certainly deserves a place as one of the finest pastiches ever written. Oh, and the Picador edition is the one to seek out second-hand (Paul Sample is a fine illustrator, but Ralph Steadman’s savage penstrokes are perfect here).
It’s also worth observing that this book has inspired music, notably the great Jams O’donnell Jig by Dave Peggy on Fairport Convention’ Bonny Bunch of Roses album, and the song Poor Mouth (!) by Bert Jansch!