Thirty More Thoughts about Aberystwyth (After a Year-and-a-Half!)


I’ve been in Aberystwyth for almost a year and a half now (!) and it continues to be a fantastic place to live and work. Also continues to be an endlessly fascinating experience so I have, as with last year, been collecting observations and reflections on my time here…

  • Bumble Bees Love Aber!
  • The overlook in Penglais Park offers arguably the best view of Aberystwyth. Even better than Consti.
  • On that note, I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to realise everyone called Constitution Hill “Consti”. But now I can’t stop!
  • Come spring, the bluebells transform the forest in Penglais Park into a kind of magical fantasy landscape. This is reinforced by the fact that you occasionally run into people wearing medieval garb there…
  • The Old College on the seafront is stunning. That this was true of the outside was apparent to me from my first few days in Aber, but by now I’ve had a chance to poke around the interior a bit and have found it to be one part romantic Victorian hotel, one part labyrinthine castle (think Doctor Who’s ‘Heaven Sent’), and one part Hogwarts. Indeed, as my colleague Beth Rodgers discovered, it used to be the haunt of one Professor Snape who taught Po… erm… Chemistry.
  • If there is one business to be in here in Aberystwyth it is doubtlessly scaffolding (looking at you, storms!).
  • That wasn’t a tornado or a hurricane that hit Aberystwyth back in November, I’m told it was a “straight line wind event”.
  • Abergustwyth
  • Abergeddon
  • Aberpreneurs
  • Abercadabra
  • Aber Daber Do
  • Walk the Prom early enough on an autumn morning and you’ll be treated to the starlings departing from their roosts beneath the pier. They look like spacecraft leaving a mothership and it’s spectacular.
  • This is my current favourite graffiti in Aberystwyth: 20160918_145728.jpg
  • Speaking of graffiti, who or what is “Pigfart”? Sometimes I ask people that and they look at me funny. But the word is scrawled on walls and footpaths (mostly but not exclusively on the south side of town). Is it a name? Is it a phrase? I’ll tell you what it is: it’s a mystery! Someone please stop me going full red-threads-across-a-board-covered-in-maps-and-photos about this (Update: I’ve been told that this is a reference to A Very Potter Musical).
  • Aberystwyth has an unexpected historical relationship with a Japanese town called Yosano. A local man named Frank Evans was a Japanese P.O.W. there during World War II (I recommend reading his 1985 volume Roll Call at Oeyama: A POW Remembers). In coming to terms with his experience, and in the hopes of promoting friendship between West and East, he eventually forged links between Wales and Japan. Young people from Yosano have been visiting Aberystwyth for many years but January 2016 was the first time Aberystwyth University sent student ambassadors to Japan. I had the opportunity to lead this group as the staff representative and it was an exceptional experience for all involved. Yosano is a beautiful place fully of friendly, generous people (and wow but the food is amazing!). The enthusiasm of our hosts for the relationship between the towns was undeniable and I am delighted that I will be leading a second group of students back there in a few weeks’ time (though this year I have sources my own indoor slippers to bring with me as, to the amusement of our hosts, none of the local slippers came anywhere close to fitting me!)
  • It took me a long time to get around to visiting the Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth but that was an oversight I recently corrected. Housed in a restored Edwardian Theatre, and full of (among other things) stunning paintings of old nautical scenes and landscapes, it ought to be an essential stop for anyone passing through the area.
  • When I lived in Galway I used to see big ships all the time. Less so in Aber (I hear the shallowness of Cardigan Bay is to blame). In the year and a half I’ve been here I’ve only seen two sizable craft on the horizon: the vehicle carrier California Highway back in September 2015 and the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Richmond in early December of this year. In the latter case I had just given a ‘Writing and Place’ class about the sea, including a segment on this-is-why-we-rarely-see-big-ships-near-Aberystwyth, and then I walked straight across the hall to my office to see the Richmond staring back at me.
  • Last summer my colleague Malte Urban took me out onto Cardigan Bay on his boat (a trip from Aberystwyth to Pwllheli). Felt like a proper adventure! I was struck by just how busy the Bay is with fishing boats and pleasure craft (it is one thing seeing the little arrows on the Marine Traffic app; quite another to see the variety of boats plying the waves in real life). A highlight was definitely seeing the ‘Patches’ buoy, a navigational marker the size of a bus turned on end, as well as gaining a whole new perspective on the coast and mountains of mid-Wales.
  • I have an amazing view over the Irish Sea from my office… but I’ve also got the campus’s Llandinam tower right in the middle of it! It’s sometimes fun to (digitally) imagine what it might look if the tower was a few floors lower: Skyline.jpg
  • Every winter the beach in Aberystwyth migrates onto the Promenade. And, because it’s such a Sisyphean task to clear it during storm season, the sand is… just left there, and paths are cleared through it for pedestrians. It lends a surreal atmosphere to walking the Prom. Almost as though one is strolling through the trenches.
  • Speaking of, Aberystwyth used to have a tank! The site is now a playground.
  • I never cease to be amused by the incredulity of the recorded voice on the Arriva train en route to Aber: “We will shortly be arriving at… Shrewsbury?”
  • A student writing a comicbook recently asked to base the character of a wizard on me. No word on if it’s a good wizard or a bad one…
  • Meanwhile, numerous final year Writing Project supervisions over the last term have gone as follows: Student voices concern that their dystopian Britain story will be clichéd; Tutor voices concern that it will actually be a non-fiction project (then notes that they’re at least paying attention to the world around them).
  • This:
  • The Promenade is lined with flags from countries and regions all around the world. It’s a nice nod to the spirit of Internationalisation that exists in this small Welsh town (Aberystwyth voted Remain in the Brexit referendum). Plus it really simplifies making arrangements to meet people: “See you by Norway at noon?”
  • You think you’re at the top of the hill but you’re not. Stop fooling yourself. There is always more uphill in Wales.
  • A sign that you live in a very small town: wandering around the new Tesco with a silly grin thinking, “Ooh, they have… stuff!”
  • Finally, I have been continuing the “Walk to Mordor” which I began last year (that is charting my distances walked – though only those walked in Wales – against the distances Fordo and Sam travel in The Lord of the Rings). In my first term in 2015 I had reached Rivendell (737 km). By the end of the first week of May 2016 I had travelled through Moria, to Lothlorien (an additional 743.5km) and by the start of October I was at Rauros Falls (another 626km). I am now well on my way to Mt. Doom having walked 489km of the remaining 756km. A little under 270km to go! That seems… manageable, right? (All distances via Nerd Fitness).

So here we go with 2017! I’ll let you know when it’s time to send the Eagles…


Other posts you may find of interest:


Retreat to move forward!

20161114_141526Fifty undergraduate students, two days, and (supposedly) one of the most haunted houses in Britain… but the only ghosts to be found on our recent Aberystwyth English Department reading week retreat were those of literary predecessors: writers and critics whose work serves to point our third year English and Creative Writing students in fruitful directions as they begin their final dissertations and long-form creative writing projects.

With students and staff bussed to Gregynog Hall, a stunning country mansion four miles outside Newtown, the retreat began with a trio of talks on process: Luke Thurston discussed how he had recently gone about assembling an edited collection, Beth Rodgers showed the students how she had researched an academic essay for the same volume, and finally I walked the students through the research I have been conducting for a story I’m currently working on.

That, I admit, was dangerous! But I think I side-stepped the major risk here (never tell anyone your story before you’ve written it because then you mightn’t want to write it!) by not discussing the plot or characters in any great detail. Instead I covered my approach to online research, best practice for interviews, the pros and cons of sourcing details and insights from photographs (mostly pros… but beware the cropped image), as well as the value of visiting the place that one is writing about (or visiting a similar place; for instance, I thought Gregynog’s magical Dell – let alone the estate’s Tolkienesque sculpture of a giant hand reaching out of the ground – offered ideal inspiration for any students writing about fantasy landscapes).


Later that afternoon, and again on the second day, students and staff alike became ghosts of a fashion in our own lives during a series of “Shut-Up-and-Write/Read” sessions (though, as Beth put it, “writing is permitted at all times”!). We switched off our smartphones (uhh, sure we did…) and sat quietly, haunting the rooms of Gregynog with the sounds of our keyboards and scribbles and our pages turning. It seemed appropriate to the wood-panelled surroundings and, by all accounts, these sessions were highly productive for the students (for some of us, of course, it was more like “Shut-Up-and-Mark-Papers”!).

20161115_102545On day two, as everyone grew more comfortable with Gregynog, it was interesting to watch how the students began to inhabit both the physical and imaginative spaces of the venue. Most clustered together in the library or the seminar rooms in a manner which reflected the core, recognisable interests of any English and Creative Writing cohort. Though naturally there were always a few students to be found wandering the grounds – probing the outer edges of discourse, if you will, or seeking inspiration from less mainstream writers – and one got the feeling that the contemplative atmosphere was having a real effect on them.

For the rest of us there was Gregynog’s basement bar, site of giant Jenga (our students are really good at that!), an insanely difficult staff Vs students quiz courtesy of Mike Smith, as well as some end-of-night ghost-themed storytelling. Indeed, I think it was the combination of these casual activities with the formal benefit on student projects which helped make the retreat (brainchild of our brilliant Department Head Louise Marshall) such a great success. Taking the work of our undergraduates out of the four walls of the classroom setting and into the twisty-turny nooks of Gregynog hopefully helped them to see their projects from new and less rigid perspectives. For staff members too it offered a chance to indulge in our enthusiasms and, perhaps more importantly, the conversations we had there served as valuable reminders that all of us remain students at heart.


Other posts you may find of interest:

Thirty Thoughts on my First Term at Aberystwyth…

Aber SunsetWell, I’m pleased to report that I’ve survived my first term teaching at Aberystwyth University in Wales. It has been a big change from the many years I spent at NUI Galway, there’s no denying that, but it has been a positive and rewarding new set of opportunities and challenges which I have enjoyed immensely. And, because I’m me, I have of course been taking detailed, massively subjective notes! So, without further ado, here are thirty observations and reflections on the past few months in no particular order…

  • Aber sunsets don’t quit.
  • On a clear day, you can see the entire curve of Cardigan Bay. The effect of this is to give you what feels like an immediate sense of the size and shape of pretty much the whole country.
  • At low tide on a sunny day, the Aber seafront looks like another planet.
  • AU loves acronyms!
  • On occasion, it’s tempting to think that AU stands for “Alternate Universe”.
  • This is especially true when one considers how Aberystwyth is like the Galway of Wales: It’s a university town mid-way up the west coast of the country, has a promenade (at the end of which people kick the wall), and even a local Advertiser.
  • On the other hand, it’s a much smaller town. Think Galway shrunk to the size of Maynooth.
  • Even locals are syllable conscious here and don’t bother with the full names of places. More often than not they’ll use a nickname or an abbreviation. Thus Aberystwyth is usually just Aber, Machynlleth is Mach, and so on…
  • There is *always* a car coming at you. Look both ways. Look again. Look a third time. Because traffic in Aber operates on quantum mechanical principles: It is only when you step into the street that the wave function collapses and the car actually appears.
  • Steps and Hills. Inclined and uneven surfaces of every kind. These are the things Wales is made of.
  • I have found the collegiality in Aber to be striking.
  • Teaching rooms in the Psychology Building, where I have classes, are decked out (walls, desks, chairs, and so on) in different colours with the aim of creating different effects on those present: “Blue induces a calming effect” (so this is obviously where one of my most energetic classes takes place); “The Purple Room promotes good judgement” (um, because… Prince?); “Green promotes well-being and learning” (then why not have them all green?); “The Orange Room generates enthusiasm and creativity” (note: I have no creative writing groups here); and, finally, “Yellow enhances clarity and awareness in decision making” (which is how we all end up on Ryanair flights, yes?).
  • There is one blue desk in the Purple Room which A.) Shouldn’t be there, and B.) Moves around every week…
  • The Personal Tutor system here is excellent (and, I think, genuinely beneficial).
  • There’s bacon in pretty much everything in Wales. Even the chicken.
  • “Aberdashery”.
  • “Aberttoir”.
  • “Faberystwyth”
  • Technically spotted in Shrewsbury, rather than in Aber, but I also appreciate the punny names of PG Skips and Atlas Rugs.
  • Speaking of, it takes two hours to get from here to Shrewsbury. Which I guess makes it my new Limerick.
  • It takes three hours to get to Birmingham, which I suppose is my new Dublin.
  • Whereas in Galway you will always find people walking the Prom, in Aber I have found it is often empty outside of the summer/early-autumn days. This is because the wind and the waves can be quite intense.
  • A surprising number of you have Aberystwyth doppelgängers…
  • The Devil has evidently visited Wales many times.
  • North Wales (so, say, the drive from Aber to the ferry in Hollyhead) is stunning and I love it.
  • People speak of the “Aber Bubble” which affects new residents after a while. Once inside the bubble, one never wants to leave…
  • The Ceredigion Coast Path – which runs through the town – is an astonishing amenity to have on one’s doorstep.
  • In addition to being a Legal Deposit Library, the National Library of Wales next door to the university has very awesome features such as tunnels where Shakespearian manuscripts were hidden in case of a Nazi invasion, as well as a room made entirely out of copper (to block electric fields).
  • It’s really difficult to discuss Star Trek IV in Wales (“They have to go back in time to save *what*?”).
  • Since arriving last September I have been undertaking the “Walk to Mordor” (that is charting my distances walked against the distances Fordo and Sam travel in The Lord of the Rings). As of the winter break, I have completed 745 km in Wales which is a little more than my initial target of the distance between Hobbiton and Rivendell (737 km; distances via

Now, roll on Semester Two… Or, if you prefer, next stop Lothlórien!


Other posts you may find of interest:

Thoughts on 2015’s Extended Essay Topics…

Every year the English Department at NUI Galway offers final year undergraduates the opportunity to complete a five thousand word Extended Essay in lieu of taking an additional seminar course. Acceptance onto this independent research module is competitive. Students have to propose and design their own project, the idea being to apply the skills they have honed over the prior two-and-a-half years to a topic which interests and excites them. These Extended Essays naturally attract the best of our undergraduates, those who wish to challenge themselves and who typically go forward to undertake MA or PhD level work (I’ve also noticed, not for the first time, a significant crossover with those undergraduates who have previously gravitated towards Creative Practice options; it’s something echoed in the number of MA in Writing students here who go on to do both traditional Lit. Crit. and Creative Practice PhDs).

Yet one thing is clear to me as I look over this year’s list of projects: the next generation of scholars and critics have no interest in Literary Fiction.

You’ll pardon that blanket statement, but it is a generalization which is impossible not to make while looking over the authors which this year’s cohort are focusing on: Ray Bradbury, Margret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, George R.R. Martin, Angela Carter, Philip Pullman, Flann O’Brien, Mark Z. Danielewski, Elmore Leonard, John Green, and Kurt Vonnegut. This year’s students want to engage critically with fan fiction, with films and TV shows and adaptations of all kinds. They want to study Dystopias, Utopias, Fantasies, and, yes, vampires and werewolves. It’s true that there’s a case to be made about how some of the texts the students wish to look at are indeed Literary Fiction (A Clockwork Orange, say, or Brave New World and The Road) and that a certain number of their chosen authors have also been claimed by the Lit. Fic. genre, but in almost all cases it is impossible to separate the speculative element from the work in question without removing what makes it distinctive and attractive (consider again A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and The Road).

Obviously these choices reflect what the students themselves are reading. But then that is the point. They’re not reading literary fiction. None of these students are doing projects on the kind of funerals-in-the-rain misery novels which too often seem to dominate the review pages and awards lists in this country (though, with the exception of a few looking at drama, this year’s Extended Essay cohort have shown very little interest in Irish writing full stop, which is a shame as there are some tremendous and innovative contemporary Irish writers out there like Mike McCormack, Maura McHugh, or Kevin Barry). As one of my undergrads said during the week – in the context of discussing Irish fiction – ‘Could we, just once at university, study a book with a happy ending, no sexual harassment, wars, or people dying, please?’

That comment reminded me of a recent Stephen Marche article on the decline of Literary Fiction. It is a piece filled with observations not dissimilar to those I hear from students all the time: ‘Literary Fiction has become much more boring’ […] ‘Perfectly constructed, and quite frankly dull’ […] ‘Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a masterpiece, but did anyone read the whole thing?’ […] ‘There are no Chewbaccas in Alice Munro stories; there are no smartphones either’.

Thus though the word ‘crisis’ is overused in academic discourse these days (sometimes it feels like everything is in crisis!), in this case there does indeed seem to be, from the perspective of the Literary Fiction genre, a brewing crisis in the disconnect between the kinds of book which academic elders, mainstream reviewers, and prize committees are telling us are worthy vis-à-vis those books which the next generation are actually reading. Arguably this has been the case for a long time however increased access to education has resulted in a situation where the generation about to confidently move onto MA programmes and/or begin doctoral research in this country is finally in a position to articulate their resistance to the kind of writing which privileges aesthetic beauty over ideas and imagination. Or course, thirty-something Extended Essay students in no way constitute a comprehensive survey, yet their intentions do at least suggests a trend. One cannot help but feel that, in the next few years, the narrow, jealously guarded definition of what constitutes legitimate literature in this country is about to be blown wide open by a much more inclusive and unbiased generation of readers and scholars.

And this is no bad thing.


Other posts you may find of interest:

Whatever happened to Seán O’Faoláin?

Seán O’Faoláin: Literature, Inheritance, and the 1930s
Paul Delaney
Irish Academic Press; €25
Review: Val Nolan

In his lifetime, Seán O’Faoláin published eight volumes of short stories, four novels, three travel books, six biographies, a play, a memoir, as well as critical studies of long and short form fiction. At various times his work was both banned and a set text on school curricula. Scholars speak of him in revered tones. He was editor of, as Roy Foster puts it, “that essential journal” The Bell while, for Diarmaid Ferriter, he is one of Ireland’s “most influential writers”. He is also, nowadays, almost entirely out of print.

How did this situation come to be? Well, by his own admission O’Faolain wrote too much while, by the judgment of critics, he wrote too unevenly. Paul Delaney, a Trinity lecturer in Irish literature, addresses both concerns in this monograph as he attempts to demystify the “uncertain subject” of an author “whose work is often not read or deliberately misread despite his apparent canonicity”.

Delaney takes a particular interest in O’Faoláin’s writing during the 1930s, “a decade of international volatility and fear” which saw the rise “of one of O’Faoláin’s greatest but most ambivalent influences, Eamon de Valera”. It is a fruitful focus for the volume which allows great scope in showing O’Faoláin as a “deliberately interventionist” penman concerned with “exposing expedient myths” as well as “recording uncomfortable truths”. And certainly there were enough of both of those going around in 1930s Ireland.

While Delaney believes O’Faoláin’s “true métier as a creative artist was the short story” he does acknowledge that this was not the author’s only narrative vehicle. Thus this volume is split between interrogations of O’Faoláin’s work as a biographer and discussion of his earliest fiction. The texts examined range from the Corkman’s two biographies of de Valera (1933 and 1939) as well as books on Constance Markievicz (1934), and the still well regarded King of the Beggars about Daniel O’Connell (1938), all the way to his controversial novel Bird Alone (1936) and A Purse of Coppers (1936), a volume of stories intensely focused on the “repressive and power-driven” Catholic Church.

This bipartite division proves an interesting approach. Scholars might ordinarily have chosen to examine either the biographies or the fiction but Delaney, in acknowledging both but prioritising neither, draws the reader’s attention to the intriguing stylistic similarities between O’Faoláin’s dual modes. What becomes clear on the one hand is the degree to which the stories are an effort to construct “a narrative of the history of modern Ireland” while, on the other, the ostensibly objective biographies function as non-literary fictions, stories all told rather than shown.

Consider for instance the use of a genealogy in the 1933 historical novel A Nest of Simple Folk compared to the absence of “the many elementary features of good scholarship (such as footnotes, page references for quotations, and bibliographies)” in almost all O’Faoláin’s biographies. Both modes meanwhile foreground the importance of “inherited memories” and both declare their status as published texts with “references to questions of structure, genre, and writing,” or with “explanatory subtitles”.

Accordingly, the great achievement of Delaney’s volume is to place his subject’s work within an appropriate historical and historiographical context. O’Faoláin, he says, had a tendency to view Irish history as an exercise of “pronounced theatricality”. The independence years for him were a “struggle for personal as well as national and generational autonomy”. A veteran of the War of Independence, he took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War but his activities were limited to propaganda and some light bomb-making, experiences he would draw upon for his first collection of stories Midsummer Night Madness (1932).

Delaney’s investigation of the unease and sense of transience found these linked stories is a highlight of the volume, the point at which his drive to contextualise meshes best with his textual analysis. Characters in the collection, he points out, “are often depicted as on the run, as they flee from enemy soldiers and a law which is alien and unjust, but also from a part of themselves which has been sacrificed or put to one side”. The reader can immediately see connections with the “stress on transitional periods” throughout O’Faoláin’s many biographies.

Never hagiographic, the volume repeatedly draws our attention to the way O’Faoláin slyly used his re-writing of the past – just another story to the author – as a means of commenting on his present in terms of both events and ideologies. O’Faoláin’s fictions therefore emerge here less as slices of life and more as reflections of his thinking in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This is especially true in his reproaches to naturalism and his wariness of modernism, as well as the manner by which he demanded realism include a powerful sense of social commitment

Of course Delaney himself is primarily writing for a scholarly readership and so the general reader may at times find his style a little dry. That being said, he largely avoids off-putting, jargon-heavy academese, and many will find his discussion of the biographies – particularly O’Faoláin’s shifting opinion of de Valera – to be of interest. By contrast, however, the chapters of literary criticism unpacking the novels and short stories, insightful though they are, will likely appeal to a narrower audience.

Very much in keeping with mainstream critical discourse, Delaney does well to, if not slice, then at least untangle the Gordian Knot of his subject’s reputation. O’Faoláin, we are reminded, was all things to all readers: “a liberal pluralist, an opinionated chauvinist, a proto-revisionist, and a nascent postcolonial critic”. Today, however, he is mostly an object lesson in how a highly regarded author can simply vanish from public consciousness. Delaney’s book may not fully explain the latter, and occasionally it leaves the reader to connect the dots themselves, but it is exactly the kind of spark required to reignite scholarly interest in this neglected writer’s work.


Other posts you may find of interest:

‘Swallowing stout and feeling vaguely blasphemous…’

Flann O'Brien: Contesting LegaciesFlann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies
Eds. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan, and Werner Huber
Cork University Press; £39.99
Review: Val Nolan

‘Flanneurs’ and ‘Mylesians’ rejoice! A hefty volume of essays originating in 100 Myles: The International Flann O’Brien Centenary Conference (Vienna, 2011) has recently been published and is an intelligent, rigorous collection whose contributors rise to the occasion of tackling one of the most scattershot bodies of work in Irish literature. As the editors put it in their introduction, Brian O’Nolan AKA Myles na gCopaleen AKA Flann O’Brien was an author who ‘combines the tags of “incomparable comic genius” and “avant-garde innovator” with that of “wasted talent”.’ A ‘polymorphic legacy’ if ever there was one, however it is from just these disputed spaces that Borg, Fagan, and Huber’s volume draws both its title and its critical focus.

The aim of the project is to rescue O’Nolan’s anarchic and absurdist commentaries on the strangeness of mid-twentieth century life from ‘the margins of Irish literary studies’. While the author’s best known work receives appropriate attention here, the real strength of Contesting Legacies comes from the attention payed to things that aren’t The Third Policeman (1967). This engagement with the breadth of O’Nolan’s stories, plays, journalism, and miscellaneous writings gives Contesting Legacies the kind of scope and authority which a study of an author as multi-faceted as O’Nolan demands. Moreover, and with only one or two exceptions, the individual essays of the book happily confound the stereotype of dry, unengaging scholarly prose and so the volume largely avoids the unevenness which is liable to tarnish any edited collection.

Keith Hopper begins the book by looking at the ‘submerged intertextual elements’ of O’Nolan’s story ‘John Duffy’s Brother’ (1940) as well as the author’s anxiety of Joycean influence (specifically how ‘John Duffy’s Brother’ mirrors Joyce’s ‘A Painful Case’). Anyone familiar with Hopper’s Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist (revised edition 2009) will recognise the no-nonsense delivery of shrewd, insightful readings which he again supplies in this essay. Though the bicycle is the vehicle most frequently associated with O’Nolan’s work as O’Brien, Hopper here draws our attention to the frequent appearance of trains as “symbols of frustrated modernity and thwarted desire” (in the case of ‘John Duffy’s Brother’, the protagonist is overtaken by the belief that he actually is a train). It is, in many ways, the ideal opening for Contesting Legacies in that it distils from the too-easily dismissed nonsensical aspects of O’Nolan’s writing a tendency towards tales of ‘power and danger’, of the imagination, of language and literature, of de Valera’s Ireland, and of sexual uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts stronger than facts or reason. After reading it, one is certainly primed for the multitudes which O’Nolan’s work contains and which the rest of this volume explores.

Co-editor Paul Fagan also looks at the before, during, and after of the ‘psychotic episode’ which is ‘John Duffy’s Brother’. Taking his cue from houses leaning ‘outward as if to study themselves in the water’ in The Dalkey Archive (1964), Fagan examines O’Nolan’s use of metafictional strategies associated with Ovid’s Narcissus myth in the story, as well as the author’s ‘project of testing the Narcissus scene and the literary event as interchangeable sites for thinking through “an evanescent identity which is lost even as it is grasped”.’ It is effectively done, particularly with regard to the instances of failed recognition and misreading on the part of O’Nolan’s characters. What’s more, by tracing the evolution of these strategies in the macabre comedy of the story ‘Two in One’ (wherein the protagonist murders his boss and then wears the victim’s skin in order to hide the crime) Fagan convincingly identifies a different kind of ‘encounter with the self’ in O’Nolan’s work, one which develops into the more radical and unsettling portrayal of narcissism recognisable in the later writing.

Jack Fennell discusses Brian O’Nolan’s ‘familiarity with, and creative exploration of, the motifs and clichés of science fiction’, a topic of considerable interest to this reader. His focus is on two comic stories as Gaeilge from 1932, ‘Díoghaltais Ar Ghallaibh ’sa Bhliain 2032!’ (‘Revenge on the English in the year 2032!’) and ‘Teacht agus Imtheacht Sheáin Bhuidhe’ (‘The Arrival and Departure of John Bull’), as well as on The Dalkey Archive. The biggest surprise here comes from the stories, which were published in the Fianna Fáil organ The Irish Press and so in about as unexpected a venue for parodies of pulp science fiction tales as ever there was. Both depict a future nation where Irish is the spoken language of the citizenry (and in the case of ‘Teacht agus Imtheacht Sheáin Bhuidhe’, the language of the western world) and both hinge on the search for anyone who still speaks English. Fennell draws on theorists and theories well established within the science fiction field, such as Marc Angenot’s ‘Absent Paradigm’ and Darko Suvin’s ‘cognitive estrangement’, and his application of these to some of the most Irish literature imaginable makes me excited to start his recently published Irish Science Fiction (2014), a book which is currently on my desk.

The conflict that Fennell mentions between religion and science is but one aspect of the tension between tradition and modernity which recurs throughout O’Nolan’s work. Indeed, it is at the heart of another very strong offering here, Alana Gillespie’s examination of how O’Nolan depicted ‘the role of science in shaping a modernising, independent Ireland’. Gillespie looks specifically at the Cruiskeen Lawn columns from the Irish Times which address the intersection of ‘religion, science, education, tradition, and anxieties about Ireland’s international reputation’. Beginning with a consideration of O’Nolan’s infamous mockery of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS issued a writ for libel against the Irish Times), Gillespie’s essay expands into a wide, intriguing discussion of how science was regarded by the government and by the people of Ireland at the time (‘What has St. Patrick got against theoretical physics?’ she asks). It’s a fair and balanced essay too, bringing in key players from both the scientific and theological sides of the divide.

Your only man...

Your only man…

A different approach to plausibility and possibility is provided by Ondřej Pilný, who looks at the similarity of O’Nolan’s writing to the ‘anti-discourse’ of ‘pataphysics’ (the ‘science of imaginary solutions’) as put forward by Alfred Jarry. In essence it is another way of looking at Flann O’Brien as a link between fantasy and science fiction in an Irish context, however Pilný argues that what makes The Third Policeman pataphysical in nature is the wedding of ‘frightening inventions’ and enigmatic machinery’ to ‘unique linguistic creativity’. He builds his essay around an intriguing version of O’Nolan’s imagination whereby real-life scientists like Erwin Schrödinger (with whom O’Nolan was familiar during the physicist’s time at DIAS) inspire fictional counterparts such as de Selby and Policeman MacCruiskeen, and, in turn, the fantastic developments in science by all parties become indistinguishable from one another. Pilný’s essay forms a loose trilogy with the Fennell and Gillespie contributions (with all in turn building on previous work by Hopper, Neil Murphy, and so on) which, more than providing a strong backbone to Contesting Legacies, suggests the continuing fruitfulness of O’Nolan and science as a field of study within the larger Flannian discourse.

That said, two of the most engrossing and interesting essays here are focused on O’Nolan’s relationship with very identifiable aspects of Irish literature and, regrettably, life. The first, by John McCourt, considers O’Nolan (in his na gCopaleen guise) as a ‘Joyce scholar’ (something he says would have made O’Nolan ‘brindle’) and serves nicely to knit the author more closely into those aspects of Irish writing regarded as more conventional and which are more widely studied, especially aboard. The second, by Tom Walker, is a standout in Contesting Legacies. It details The Third Policeman’s fascinating debt to the true story of a Garda officer killed in Clare in 1929 and so to ‘a further Irish historical context: terror’. Walker’s essay is this lapsed historian’s favourite of the volume and is no doubt going to be quite popular with those teaching the novel in that, like McCourt’s contribution, it underlines how O’Nolan was perhaps not such an outlier in Irish writing after all.

Of course there is far too much in this book to cover in a short review (wait, this is a short review?!). Maebh Long analyses ‘the ontological implications of “Jams O’Donnell” and the position of the name and the Irish language’ in An Béal Bocht (1941). Thomas Jackson Rice questions why ‘marriage, sexual life, and women’ are frequently presented as sources of ‘high anxiety’ in O’Nolan’s work. Marion Quirici looks at the way O’Nolan ‘calls attention so freely and so frequently’ to the framing aspects of his narratives as well as to the ‘role of the narrator as both listener and teller of stories’. Jennika Baines smartly examines the ways ‘O’Nolan uses murder to convey notions of justice’. Thierry Robin – informed very much by the work of Linda Hutcheon – takes an interesting look at the ‘proto-postmodern philosophy of history throughout O’Nolan’s typically ironic representation’ of actual Irish history in ‘The Martyr’s Crown’ and the playlet Thirst. Ute Anna Mittermaier contributes a hugely entertaining look at O’Nolan’s pseudonymous letters to the Irish Times (particularly concerning The Spanish Civil War) and the question of whether or not he was the enigmatic figure ‘Oscar Love’. Meanwhile, Neil Murphy covers a lot of ground in intelligent fashion by examining the degree to which An Béal Bocht parodies canonical Irish language texts in a manner which combines a satirical impulse and genuine admiration.

It is true that there is a lot going on in this volume, but that is inevitable (one might even say responsible on the part of the editors) given the still astonishing multiplicity of modes and genres – let alone authorial identities and publication contexts – which characterize O’Nolan’s writings (The O’Nolan O’Euvre, anyone? No? Okay.). By re-evaluating O’Nolan’s ‘lesser-known works and personae’, investigating his debts and influences on an international level, and probing his canon with such a varied range of critical perspectives, Contesting Legacies is very much the volume which the author’s work deserves. It is furthermore a model of an edited collection of essays, not just in the quality of its contents or its enjoyability as a reading experience (how often does one get to hail a volume of academic essays for that?) but for its wide appeal. Flann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies is to be praised for its avoidance of the distancing and alienating academese which turns so many of, if I may borrow a Mylesism, ‘the Plain People of Ireland’ off contemporary literary scholarship. It is, in the end, a book which will be of interest (even delight!) to those Flanneurs beyond the academy as much as to those within.


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The Multiple Worlds of Fringe: Essays on the J.J. Abrams Science Fiction Series

Multible Worlds of FringeTerm got so busy so fast that I totally forgot to mention this at the end of the summer. I’m pleased to say that I have contributed a chapter to the recently released McFarland volume The Multiple Worlds of Fringe: Essays on the J.J. Abrams Science Fiction Series which has been edited by Tanya R. Cochran, Sherry Ginn and Paul Zinder. This was a particularly exciting project to be part of for, as my friends are sick of me saying, Fringe is my favorite TV show of the post-Lost/Battlestar Galactica era (a comment which usually draws reactions of “That’s an era now?!”).

My chapter, ‘The Scientist as Villain, the Scientist as Hero’, looks at one the central questions of Fringe: is science an intrinsically nefarious undertaking or, alternatively, a deeply noble enterprise? I argue for the latter, offering a defense of the Walter Bishop character as a ‘mad’ scientist. Yes it is true that in the show’s backstory he may once have been a villainous figure but, realizing that, Walter took steps to have such inclinations quite literally removed from his mind. Such an invasive, surgical response can easily strike the viewer as ‘mad’ yet, in taking this option, Walter Bishop reaffirms his belief (and, for that matter, ours) in the transformative, heroic ability of science to save and change lives.

The chapter draws on the literature surrounding the image of scientists in popular culture (science-fiction in particular) to consider Fringe’s conception of science as a heroic endeavor and, consequently, demonstrate its depiction of the scientist figure as one which is fundamentally heroic. As viewers, we have an inclination to see the cases handled by Fringe Division as a series of crimes perpetrated via extraordinary scientific means when in fact, as with many elements of the show, the opposite is just as true: each week, the transgressions of Fringe’s antagonists are foiled by extraordinary scientific means. Key to this (and to this chapter) is the character of Walter Bishop. Though his methods are unorthodox and his ethics occasionally questionable, Walter – by voluntarily reducing himself to a childlike state – is a truly heroic embodiment of science. Visitors to his lab may deem him ‘childish’ and ‘crazy’ but, as Douglas Adams once put it, ‘a scientist must be absolutely like a child […] You can’t possibly be a scientist if you mind people thinking that you’re a fool’ (So Long and Thanks for all the Fish). Indeed, Walter’s eccentricities, renewed benevolence, and astounding success at saving the day in the aftermath of William Bell removing part of his brain cause the viewer to question the distance between sanity and madness when it comes to expanding the boundaries of scientific knowledge in a world ‘where one breath of the wrong air can incinerate you from the inside out’ (Fringe, ‘Pilot’).

A book that ought to be of interest to any fan of the show, The Multiple Worlds of Fringe has diverse contributions from scholars in literature, psychology, and film/TV studies. The editors have sought to bring together material as multifaceted as the series itself, with specific focus on issues of humanity, duality, genre, and viewership. It is a volume which offers readers a contextualization of the series as a postmodern investigation into what makes us human as well as one which provides a sustained examination of the ways in which technology increasingly modifies and transforms that humanity.


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