History: Published in 1941, this novel in Irish by Brian O'Nolan, published under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish-language novels of the 20th century.
Books of this genre were part of the Irish language syllabus in the Irish school system and thus mandatory reading for generations of children from independence in 1921. O'Nolan was in fact a great admirer of An t-Oileánach, which is widely regarded as being the greatest work of the genre, but critic Declan Kiberd has noted how O'Nolan's admiration for a writer tended to express itself as parody of the writer's work.
The Irish expression "to put on the poor mouth," ("an béal bocht a chur ort" in Irish) is mildly pejorative and refers to the practice, often associated with peasant farmers, of exaggerating the direness of one's situation, particularly financially, to evoke sympathy, charity and perhaps the forbearance of creditors and landlords or generosity of customers.
All of O'Nolan's other novels were published under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien; this is the only one for which he employed the "Myles" pseudonym that he normally reserved for his journalism. In the case of An Béal Bocht, O'Nolan altered the name slightly; the novel was published under the name Myles na gCopaleen, whereas his celebrated Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn was published under the more anglicised byline of Myles na Gopaleen. The suffix "na Gopaleen" is not a real Irish surname, but derives from a character named Myles-na-Coppaleen in Dion Boucicault's 1860 play The Colleen Bawn; it is ultimately derived from the Irish na gcapaillín, "of the little horses". As if to confuse matters, the English translation of An Béal Bocht is published as the work of "Flann O'Brien".
Plot: An Béal Bocht is set in Corca Dhorcha, (Corkadorkey), a remote region of Ireland where it never stops raining and everyone lives in desperate poverty (and always will) while talking in "the learned smooth Gaelic". It is a memoir of one Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa, a resident of this region, beginning at his very birth. At one point the area is visited by hordes of Dublin Gaeilgeoirí (Irish language lovers), who explain that not only should one always speak Irish, but also every sentence one utters should be about the language question. However, they eventually abandon the area because the poverty is too poor, the authenticity too authentic and the Gaelicism too Gaelic. The narrator, after a series of bloodcurdling adventures, is eventually sent to prison on a false murder charge, and there, "safe in jail and free from the miseries of life", has the chance to write this most affecting memoir of our times.
Review: The Poor Mouth relates the story of one Bonaparte O'Coonassa, born in a cabin in a fictitious village called Corkadoragha in western Ireland equally renowned for its beauty and the abject poverty of its residents. Potatoes constitute the basis of his family's daily fare, and they share both bed and board with the sheep and pigs. A scathing satire on the Irish, this work brought down on the author's head the full wrath of those who saw themselves as the custodians of Irish language and tradition when it was first published in Gaelic in 1941.
This book is an inside joke, and a classic at that. It is a grand send up of professional Irish (both at home and abroad). As example, consider a book written in Gaelic making sport of the Gaelic movement by means of a Gaelic festival. ( In ourland of the professional ethnic festival, this might serve as an effective antidote to "Irish" nights and "Scots weekends.") If you are inclined to romanticize villages of the old sod dominated by pigs, mud, rain and potatos, avoid this work.
Opening Line: “I am noting down the matters which are in this document because the next life is approaching me swiftly – far from us be the evil thing and may the bad spirit not regard me as a brother! – and also because our likes will never be there again.”
Closing Line: “I do not think that my like will ever be there again!
Quotes: “In my youth we always had a bad smell in our house. Sometimes it was so bad that I asked my mother to send me to school, even though I could not walk correctly. 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, went to America and never returned. It was stated that they told people in that place that Ireland was a fine country but that the air was too strong there. Alas! there was never any air in our house.”