Brendan Behan, Paddy Kavanagh and Brian O' Nolan.
A Review of Anthony Cronin’s As Dead As Doornails
By Paddy Hackett
As Dead As Doornails is an interesting book on the subject of literary life in Dublin during the 40s and 50s particularly in relation to Anthony’s experience of Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Brian 0’Nolan. It is a gray work from which springs the comic and the absurd. For, in a way, the trio of writers above are inherently comic and absurd. Cronin’s book, in many ways, ought perhaps be presented as a model for works from this genre.
In his chronology Cronin displays a unique literary style. He seems to make it an aim of the book the use of language in a way that has a certain originality. Consequently his vocabulary has an unusual character unique to Anthony. Individual words frequently shine out like jewels from the pages of this book of his. But you see this too when he has contributed to discussion on radio broadcasts. Indeed Tom McGurk’s interview with him displayed these same qualities. It is a pleasure to listen to Anthony Cronin even if you don’t agree with his underlying philosophy or politics.
In his book Anthony Cronin outlines the individual character of three figures that have loomed large in modern Irish literature. His outline is realistic and unsentimental. He refused to glamorise them. Yet the comic character of their lives shines through rendering the chronology more colourful. In the book they come across as damaged and deeply troubled individuals with many limitations. Each one of them has a problem with the drink and in their ability to relate to other people. Their personalities are riddled through with contradiction. They do not even get along with each other and even end up physically attacking each other. Yet it was these very limited and damaged individuals that have been the source of Irish artistic beauty. It is sad... But in a sense this is just where art has its source –in pain, damage and turmoil. If Ireland were a happy place then art could not exist there ( the passion of Christ). Art can only exist under conditions of pain. Nor is art meant to make us happy. True artists cannot be happy people.
The conditions under which these artists emerged are aptly described by Cronin as bleak and oppressive. This was the economically backward Ireland of the forties and fifties. There was much turmoil and poverty among the masses. Pain and suffering were endemic in this oppressive Church ridden society. Yet these again were the very conditions that made possible the blossoming of Irish literature, of beauty, in the form of the work of these tragi-comic trio. Like Behan, Kavanagh and Myles the society from which they popped up was also damaged and limited. And that damage and limitation never really went away. Contemporary condition in the aftermath of the economic bubble in Ireland are evidence of this.
In a sense then limitation is what makes Irish art possible. Now many of the so-called Irish artists seek to present themselves as well balanced rounded people that constitute the successes of Irish society –part of the Irish glitterati. But are they artists?