Over the weekend I finished the first of my Reading Ireland books, The Poor Mouth by Flann O’Brien. Reading Ireland is an incentive for the month of March hosted by 746 Books and The Fluff is Raging to raise the profile of Irish books and culture.
The Poor Mouth, originally published in Irish under the title An Beal Bocht and the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen, it is considered one of the great works of modern Irish literature. It is a satirical fictional autobiography of 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.
It is a parody of autobiographies of life in the Gaeltact and on the islands off the west coast which were popular at the time and generally showed how miserable life had been, and then were used to inflict misery on generations of Irish school children (mention Peig Sayer’s to anyone in Ireland over the age of about 30 and watch the look of fear and dread spread over them). The title “The Poor Mouth” comes from a well known phrase, “putting on the poor mouth“, and means to play up ones misfortunes in order to elicit sympathy and charity from others. The characters spend much of the time discussing how unfortunate they are, and generally putting on the poor mouth.
I enjoyed it but didn’t love it. While I found it amusing, the scene where pigs are dressed up in clothes in order to get a larger grant from the school inspector was particularly funny, I felt some of the satire is now somewhat dated. I was spared that instrument of torture that is Peig Sayers and her like, and so had no point of reference for the form of work is parodied, though I am aware of them. Equally the world it portrays is now so far removed from modern Ireland, that I though I know of it from history lessons, I cannot relate to it. Satire generally requires an ability to relate and identify with the events portrayed.
The encapsulation of the language and mode of speech, even in translation, was excellent. It thoroughly encapsulated the rhythms and phrases common to the Irish language, be it in Irish or Hiberno English.
Overall, I’m glad I read it and I will read more of Flann O’Brien (I’ve heard very good things about The Third Policeman). However I would be wary of who I would recommend this to. I suspect that those with no experience of Ireland would find it difficult to understand.