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The Poor Mouth
by Flann O'Brien

Field-Tested by James Finn Garner

in Ann Arbor, Michigan

The last few months of my college career were a mix of fatigue, cheer, and anxiety. My friends going on to grad school were sweating applications and financial matters, as well as worries about their choice of careers. Others were eager to get on with their lives, to swap deadlines for class for deadlines at work, to shake off the shabby gentility of campus life for the shabby style of city singlehood.

I was definitely ready for a change. I had studied hard enough that grad school held no appeal, though I still fancied myself an intellectual. For one last hurrah, I enrolled in an upper-level course in Irish history. The reading requirements were relatively light and the professor's enthusiasm infectious, so I was able to get a good grade for an average amount of work. I also developed, inevitably, a severe case of self-righteous, Irish-American indignation, taking on all the troubles of my dim ancestors as my own. I became a born-again bog-trotter, a mock Mick, even though I was as much an Irishman as I was an astronaut or a cowboy. At parties, for fun, I would recite details of the British abuse of the Emerald Isle, all the acts of Parliament that screwed the farmers, all the humanitarian efforts that hurt them further, the glorious battles of the Easter Rebellion. I'm sure I was a delight to listen to.

For the record I should state I didn't grow up in an overly ethnic household, though my mom liked to play her “Dennis Day's Greatest Hits” record on St. Paddy's Day. Her mother had, apparently, even less use for the Irish, despite her 100% Hibernian heritage, because when her husband died and left her with three young children, he bequeathed all his properties to his mother. My grandmother had two lessons in life: “Never wash walls,” and “Never marry an Irishman.”

Around this same time I picked up a thin, discounted paperback at Borders (the serpent's-egg original store in Ann Arbor) that looked interesting. What caught my eye was a picture on the cover of a shamrock snipped into pieces. The book was The Poor Mouth by Flann O'Brien, with illustrations by Ralph Steadman. The subtitle was “A Bad Story About the Hard Life,” and it was just what I needed.

The Poor Mouth tells the soggy story of Napoleon O'Coonnassa, a miserable wretch born in the west of Ireland, in the town of Corkadoragha, where it rains every blessed day and night. The book is a parody of the autobiographies of the champions of the Gaelic language, which had been resurrected and sanctified in the years following Irish independence. These pious, rags-to-riches tales were compulsory school reading, but O'Brien takes them one better. In his short tale, people and pigs share the cottages, no food is mentioned but potatoes and whiskey (and always in scant supply), and everyone lives in ridiculous poverty. Yet everyone in Corkadoragha consider themselves blessed because they speak the smoothest Gaelic dialect on the island. "Gentle-folk" and researchers often travel from Dublin to voice their support of the Gaelic speakers who fall dead from starvation during the folk revival festivals. In one story, a man comes equipped with a gramophone to record the most pure Gaelic tongue in the region. After many failed attempts, he is overjoyed when a figure bursts into a dark cottage spouting "rapid, complicated, stern speech" and runs over to record it, even though he can't comprehend it. "He understood that good Gaelic is difficult, but that the best Gaelic of all is well-nigh unintelligible." The man made his career in the academic world with his unintelligible recording, never realizing he had recorded a pig wearing a man's jacket.

To this day, I thank Flann O'Brien, and his unsparing satire, for showing me that poverty doesn't equal virtue, that ethnic pride is usually pernicious nostalgia, and that a life in academia was the last thing in the world for me.

James Finn Garner is the author of five books, including the international best-seller Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. His latest is Recut Madness: Favorite Movies Retold for Your Partisan Pleasure. He is also the founder and custodian of Bardball, a website dedicated to the revival of baseball doggerel. You can judge his sins as a word snob by reading his eponymous website.

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