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Reading Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds: A Primer

See Greg’s post for the reading schedule (and I hope you’ll join us). This post collects some resources to assist with anyone reading Flann O’Brien’s great comic novel.

A pint of plain is your only man, but when reading ASTB, your second should be:

The Dalkey Casebook

This is available in its entirety online; I’d particularly refer everyone to the excellent introduction (PDF) by the casebook’s editor, Thomas C. Foster. You’ll find there historical information on both O’Brien and the novel, a summary of the action, and some suggestions regarding interpretation.

Foster mentions the three traditional Irish characters that appear in the text; at the risk of repeating him I’ll say a little about them here, as O’Brien naturally assumed that his readers would know who they are. (I’ll also say a bit about the book’s title and epigraph.)

Mad Sweeney (Suibne Geilt)

Sweeney (O’Brien spells it Sweeny) is the title character in the old Celtic poem Buile Shuibhne (Sweeney’s Madness). Seamus Heaney published a translation, Sweeney Astray (1985); you can also read the entire poem online in English and in Irish.

Sweeney is a pagan king who attacks the bishop Ronan Finn:

[O]n one occasion [Ronan Finn] was marking out a church named Cell Luinne in Dal Araidhe. (At that time Suibhne, son of Colman, of whom we have spoken, was king of Dal Araidhe.) […] Suibhne was greatly angered and enraged, and he set out with the utmost haste to drive the cleric from the church.

Sweeney is in such a hurry that he leaves his home naked. (His wife tries to stop him, but succeeds only in stripping off his cloak.) Sweeney then abuses the bishop, beating him and throwing his psalter in a nearby lake; he is about to kill him when both are summoned to a battle “at Magh Rath.”

There, Ronan Finn is asked to bless the troops. When he reaches Sweeney, the king responds by lancing the Bishop’s assistant. The bishop then curses Sweeney, condemning him to a lifetime of madness in which he thinks he’s a bird (so much so that he can actually fly), which will only be relieved when Sweeney himself is killed by a spear:

Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord, that even as he came stark-naked to expel me, may it be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying throughout the world; may it be death from a spear-point that will carry him off.

Sweeney flies off, and spends the rest of his life living in trees, naked, evading his men, and generally being miserable.

…Says the Catholic Church. Others since then have read the tale as that of a pagan guerilla, forced into the woods a la Robin Hood, waging a “mad” campaign against encroaching Catholicism.

I’ve never seen evidence that Mad Sweeney served as any inspiration for Sweeney Todd, that demon barber of Fleet Street, but it’s worth noting that “Sweeney Todd” is today rhyming slang for “Flying Squad,” the London Metropolitan Police’s armed robbery unit, formed in 1919, and which is often referred to as “The Sweeney.” And so Mad Sweeney continues to fly even today—or at least wait in ambush. (The Sweeney doesn’t actually fly.)

Finn Mac Cool (Fionn mac Cumhaill)

Finn is king in Irish mythology, the giant leader of a tribe of mighty hunters, the Fianna. Like Arthur, he is probably some mixture of fantasy and distant fact (Finn means “fair,” or “white-haired”). See the Fenian cycle (Fiannaidheacht) for Finn’s superhuman adventures (scroll down at that site).

Finn also served as inspiration for Finnegans Wake (although what didn’t?), which appeared in the same year as ASTB; Joyce heard in the popular 19th-century ballad “Finnegan’s Wake” an allusion to Finn Mac Cool, and that dead (“sleeping”) king’s eventual “again waking” to lead Ireland—once more, we see shades of the Arthur legend.

I’m not claiming that Finn and Arthur are related, but rather that their tales employ similar motifs—just as Sweeney’s tale employs devices similar to those found in tales of faeries and boggarts. Speaking of which:

The Pooka

“A member of the devil class,” as O’Brien introduces him, the Pooka MacPhellimey is based on any number of traditional Irish faerie tales. The word comes from the Old Irish word for “ghost,” “Pwca,” and has been spelled any number of ways over time, including Phooka and Púca. (It became Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) The Pooka is a shapeshifter and a source of general annoyance, like the brownies and faeries. (See also Katharine Briggs’s Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures for an entry on the pwca, p 337. This unfortunately isn’t online, but Briggs’s books all make for wonderful reading—and presents to thoughtful young adults.)

The Pooka later went on to become an enemy in Dig Dug:

…and a popular South Korean schoolgirl character, as seen on pencil cases throughout Eastern Asia, who lives in a noodle shop and is in love with a ninja:

See what O’Brien started?

The Book, and Beyond the Infinite

…is quite rare—at least, its first printing is. See this fine blog post for more on extant copies and their lofty prices, as well as some information on the relationship between The Third Policeman and Lost. There’s also a lovely photo of O’Brien (alongside the poet Anthony Cronin and the painter John Ryan) in the midst of Bloomsday revelries (and no doubt deep into their cups).

Regarding ASTB‘s odd title, the Wikipedia says it quite well:

[It] derives from Snámh dá Én (Middle Ir.: lit. “Swim-Two-Birds” but really means “The river current of the two birds”), a possibly apocryphal place on the River Shannon, reportedly visited by the legendary King Sweeney, a character in the novel.

Sweeny arrives at that location on page 95:

After another time he set forth in the air again till he reached the church at Snámh dá Én (or Swim-Two-Birds) by the side of the Shannon, arriving there on a Friday, to speak precisely; here the clerics were engaged in observation of their nones, flax was being beaten and here and there a woman was giving birth to a child; and Sweeny did not stop until he had recited the full length of a further lay.

See that Foster casebook info for more on the novel’s unusual name.

As for the epigraph, the Wikipedia helps here, too:

The Greek phrase found in the front-matter of the novel is from Euripides’s Heracles: ἐξίσταται γὰρ πάντ’ ἀπ’ ἀλλήλων δίχα (existatai gar pant’ ap’ allêlôn dikha), which means “for all things change, making way for each other”.

There’s s even a link to the line in the play, as spoken by Amphitryon. (Scroll down.)

2010 is a fine time to read ASTB, because it’s the year we finally make contact with a feature-film adaptation: Brendan Gleeson is directing one right this second (starring himself, Colin Farrell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Cillian Murphy, and Gabriel Byrne). (Although see this article for the fly in the ointment.)

To be fair, there was also an Austrian film adaptation in 1997. For shame that the Austrians beat the Irish to it! (This reminds me of Emeric Pressburger‘s claim that, having had to learn English as a second language, he spoke it better than any native Londoner.)

Finally, At Swim-Two-Birds has gone on to become the name of a band. Let’s let them provide our exit music, as well as some possible reading music:

Happy reading!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

6 thoughts on “Reading Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds: A Primer

  1. I would add in some sort of book on Irish mythology as well, such as the works of Lady Gregory.

    A copy of the Tain Bo Cuailnge (e.g. Thomas Kinsellas translation) would also be helpful to get O’Brien’s jokes about Irish mythology.

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