Kevin Gildea on ‘for­got­ten’ Ir­ish au­thor Ei­mar O’Duffy

Ei­mar Ul­tan O’Duffy wrote a va­ri­ety of books and plays, but the ‘Cuan­duine’ tril­ogy, with its mix of Ir­ish mythol­ogy, so­cial cri­tique and science fic­tion, is his great achieve­ment

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As Cuchu­lain wears Aloy­sius O’Kennedy’s body, Aloy­sius’s spirit soars into outer space and ends up on the planet of Rathe

It can some­times seem that Ei­mar O’Duffy (1893-1935) is most re­mem­bered for be­ing a for­got­ten writer. John Ho­gan be­gins his slim 1972 bi­og­ra­phy of O’Duffy with the line “Ei­mar Ul­tan O’Duffy is vir­tu­ally a for­got­ten writer”, then quotes Vi­vian Mercier’s 1946 es­say on O’Duffy: “The late Ei­mar O’Duffy . . . was sim­ply ig­nored.”

O’Duffy, of An­glo-Ir­ish stock, be­came a cap­tain in the Ir­ish Vol­un­teers and was sent by Eoin MacNeill, along with Bul­mer Hob­son, to stop the 1916 in­sur­rec­tion in Belfast. He wrote a wide va­ri­ety of books and plays, but the Cuan­duine tril­ogy is his great achieve­ment.

King Goshawk and the Birds is the first part of the tril­ogy and is an im­por­tant land­mark in the Ir­ish comic novel tra­di­tion.

King Goshawk can be seen as part of a fab­u­list tra­di­tion – James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold, Mervyn Wall’s The Un­for­tu­nate Fursey, Flann O’Brien’s work – where re­al­i­ties are ad­dressed through fan­tas­tic sce­nar­ios draw­ing on myth and leg­end. This ob­tuse strat­egy can be seen as a re­sult of colo­nial­ism: peo­ple evicted from the ma­te­ri­al­ity of their own coun­try seek to re­claim “power” by declar­ing an imag­ined repub­lic ruled by the tongue. But O’Duffy has a some­times dark, vit­ri­olic, satiric edge solely his own.

King Goshawk and the Birds is set in Ire­land and Eng­land in an imag­i­nary fu­ture some 30 to 40 years from the time of writ­ing (1923) and is a sav­age satire on cap­i­tal­ism and the blood hero cult of Cuchu­lain as used in the Re­vival­ist writ­ings of Yeats and Lady Gre­gory and em­bod­ied by Pearse. King Goshawk is the King of In­dus­tri­al­ists and he gives his wife the present of all the song­birds in the world; hav­ing col­lected them all, he later he charges the pub­lic in to see them – the ul­ti­mate in pri­vati­sa­tion.

A char­ac­ter called The Philoso­pher (a nod and a wink to James Stephens’s The Crock of

Gold) heads to the heav­ens and en­gages the ser­vices of Cuchu­lain by telling the story of an im­pov­er­ished mother whose son is sent to war, “where, af­ter he had slain sev­eral other women’s sons, he was killed in his turn.” Mean­while, the rich man whose mo­tor­car was used to drive the dy­ing boy from the field was com­pen­sated for his car.

Back on earth, the Philoso­pher ob­tains for Cuchu­lain the use of the body of gro­cery clerk Robert Em­mett Aloy­sius O’Kennedy to wear as his own – mytho­log­i­cal hero con­trasted with the small con­cerns of the then Ir­ish ci­ti­zen. Cuchu­lain is ini­tially filled with ter­ror at his host’s feel­ings for the crea­ture known as The Boss, and he is as­sailed by wor­ries that are strange to him: whether his clothes are fash­ion­able or if peo­ple are gos­sip­ing about him. Cuchu­lain’s bod­ily con­tor­tions of car­toon­ish na­ture as he con­fronts Aloy­sius’s Boss are wor­thy of Flann O’Brien. Cuchu­lain is shown to be no great fit for the hu­man world, but use­ful as a mir­ror to show the faults of that same world. He has a son – Cuan­duine – who con­tin­ues his quest.

Par­o­dies of news­pa­pers

King Goshawk was writ­ten from 1923 to 1926. In 1925, O’Duffy left Ire­land dis­il­lu­sioned and moved to Eng­land, where the last sec­tion of the book is based. This move rein­vig­o­rates this fi­nal sec­tion with a new en­ergy as Cuan­duine be­comes a celebrity.

Par­o­dies of news­pa­pers – re­ports in dif­fer­ing styles, very funny small ads for ac­com­mo­da­tion and sen­sa­tion­al­ist sto­ries – per­vade this sec­tion and may be seen as in­flu­enced by Ulysses. (One set of small ads for rental ac­com­mo­da­tion has a run­ning joke about chil­dren not be­ing al­lowed. One can sur­mise that this was based on O’Duffy’s per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.)

There are also pops at po­lit­i­cal posters, a chap­ter in play form and, in the fi­nal sec­tion, a dis­sec­tion of Larky Gig­glesworth’s pop­u­lar song Blue Ba­nanas that is worth the price of ad­mis­sion alone. There are also Ra­belaisian lists in­clud­ing a list of pho­tos taken of Cuan­duine. Ul­ti­mately this is sav­agely funny, raged-filled satire that has a sur­pris­ing con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance. As he says of war, “no­body ever knows the real cause or mean­ing of these wars, and that if any­one asks he is im­me­di­ately put to si­lence”.

As Cuchu­lain wears Aloy­sius O’Kennedy’s body, Aloy­sius’s spirit soars into outer space and ends up on the planet of Rathe in the sec­ond book of the tril­ogy, The Spa­cious Ad­ven­tures of The Man in the Street. Here O’Duffy cri­tiques so­ci­ety through an imag­ined one that is an of­ten an in­ver­sion of his con­tem­po­rary one, for in­stance the very funny con­ceit that eat­ing is treated like sex so the in­hab­i­tants are monoph­a­gus – they must choose a food and then stick with that for the rest of their lives. Com­mon sense Aloy­sius ar­gues the ben­e­fits of cap­i­tal­ism against the utopian Rathean ar­gu­ment: “And what, he asked, was the good of in­duc­ing those who al­ready con­sumed as much as they wanted, to con­sume more, when there were other peo­ple who did not get enough for their or­di­nary needs?”

There is an im­pres­sive cre­ation of an­other world, though be­times the de­tail can be a lit­tle too much.

Ar­gu­ments are im­pres­sively set out and not sim­ply one-sided, ad­ven­tures are had and there are some very, very funny set pieces.

Mys­ter­ies of eco­nom­ics

Asses in Clover is even more an­gry and vit­ri­olic than the pre­vi­ous books. O’Duffy had come un­der the in­flu­ence of the ideas of So­cial Credit (he ac­tu­ally wrote a book based on this the­ory called Life and Money). Like all of his work,

Asses could have done with a lit­tle edit­ing, but it is sur­pris­ing how rel­e­vant it is to to­day’s world and specif­i­cally what this coun­try has gone through in the last 10 years. King Goshawk is back but be­hind the scenes is the real power, Slawmy Calder, who “cared not two pins what the world did so long as he had the man­age­ment of it”. He founds the Sa­cred Con­gre­ga­tion “to in­cul­cate in the pub­lic the spirit of faith in the mys­ter­ies of eco­nom­ics, and of rev­er­ence for eco­nomic laws, so nec­es­sary for the proper work­ing of the fi­nan­cial sys­tem”.

Above the Tem­ple of Broad­way door is the fol­low­ing il­lu­mi­nated text: “THE SKY IS THE LIMIT. ANY­ONE OF YOU CAN BE­COME THE PRES­I­DENT OR A MIL­LION­AIRE GET GO­ING AND GO GET­TING.”

Cuan­duine meets Mac Uí Ru­daí (Son of Things) whose ini­tial mod­est am­bi­tion – to own a cottage and have a wife and kids and a lit­tle left over – failed while his hugely am­bi­tious broth­ers achieved their get-rich am­bi­tions, thus in­dict­ing the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem of ex­tremes.

The book ex­am­ines this sys­tem through the ma­trix of re­li­gion, news­pa­pers, economists, war­mon­gers and lead­ers as truth is twisted into sub­mis­sion by ex­pe­di­ency: “‘Gas, in fact, is far too ef­fi­cient a weapon to be re­sisited. Chem­i­cal war­fare has come to stay.’ In ef­fect, Chem­i­cal War­fare has a will of its own, and man is its hum­ble ser­vant . . . On all counts then the In­ter­na­tional fleet is to be ex­on­er­ated from blame in this mat­ter; for they can­not truly be said to have em­ployed Chem­i­cal War­fare: it was Chem­i­cal War­fare that em­ployed them.”

O’Duffy died in 1935 from an ul­cer. There is the feel­ing of a con­stant out­sider – es­tranged from his fa­ther, at odds with the new Ir­ish State, an Ir­ish man in Eng­land, of­ten in pain, ever-shad­owed by money wor­ries. Yet he sus­tained an ide­al­ism for a bet­ter world that, fu­elled by anger and rage, lights up this of­ten hi­lar­i­ous tril­ogy.

The Spa­cious Ad­ven­tures of the Man in the Stree­tand King Goshawk and the Birds have been re­pub­lished­byDalkeyArchivePress.The­lat­est edi­tion of Asses in Clover was pub­lished by Jon Car­pen­terin2003

Ei­mar O’Duffy: sus­tained an ide­al­ism for a bet­ter world

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