The book I want to deal with, The Poor Mouth (An Béal Bocht), is a masterpiece, for many reasons. The first reason is that its author, Flann O’Brien, has a mastery of the Irish language. (He has an equal mastery of English, but that’s another story.) Secondly, he writes with a wide and deep knowledge of the Irish tradition. Thirdly, his satirical genius is equal to that of Swift, and, like Swift, Flann O’Brien is a savage moralist with a hatred of hypocrisy and a fiercely articulate awareness of evil.
It is only fair that I should admit that my own Irish is nothing to write home about; yet, as I re-read this book, I was able to appreciate the skill, the comic agility, the lacerating fury with which Flann O’Brien could invest the Irish language.
Why is The Poor Mouth such an angry book? What is it hitting at?
The book’s plot, if it can be called such, is straight-forward. The hero, Bónapart Ó Cúnasa, is born into the Gaeltacht area of Corca Dorcha. Also in the house are Bórnapart’s mother, an old man called An Seanduine Liath, and many pigs, sheep and cattle. Bónapart’s father is in prison, or, as the Old Man says, 'Tá sé sa chrúiscín’ (He is in the jug). Bonapart grows up, has a number of adventures which seem more like nightmares, and at the end of the book, he is imprisoned for twenty-nine years, having been found guilty of murdering a man in Galway, and stealing his gold. Bonapart understands nothing of his trial. just before he enters prison he meets his father, or somebody whom he takes to be his father, for the first time. The encounter is over almost as soon as it began. And that is the end of the book.
The plot may be skeletal, but the satire is merciless. The title gives us a clue. An Béal Bocht is, of course, the poor mouth, the assumption and emphasis of poverty in order to gain a more advantageous position. The poor mouth is the slave’s weapon, the instrument of the whining opportunist. There are at least two great pieces of Irish writing concerning poverty - Patrick Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger and The Poor Mouth. Kavanagh’s long poem is tragic; Flann O’Brien’s novel is at once funny and bitter. Here, he describes the bad smell (of pigs and humans together) in Bónapart’s house:
This is Bonapart’s stinking home. He lives literally with the pigs and is almost indistinguishable from them. (Later in the novel, when he becomes a father, he thinks his own son is a little pig.) Inside the house, all is stinking congestion. Outside, is the endless downpour of hostile heaven. It never stops raining in Corca Dorcha, as though heaven had nothing but complete contempt for those with the béal bocht. There are times in this book when the reader himself feels absolutely drenched through to the skin, and indeed beneath the skin.
This drenched, battered, foul, stinking place is the home of the fíor Gaels. This is the well of purest Gaelic, somewhat defiled. Yet Flann O’Brien is not attacking the language. (His own Irish shows how long and hard and lovingly he must have worked to achieve such precision.) No, he is attacking certain uses of the language, and certain attitudes which seem almost synonymous with those uses. In doing this, he employs, with a great deal of effective repetition, certain phrases picked from other writers. For example, many of us will remember the phrase 'Ni bheidh ár leithéidí arís ann’ (Our likes won’t be there again). This phrase is used by Tomás O Crohan in his book An tOileánach (The Islandman, 1929, English translation 1937). Heroic Fenian literature is full of this kind of epic self-commemoration and self-assertion. Oisin and Fionn would speak like that. But Flann O’Brien uses the phrase when he speaks of the death of a pig - a particularly foul-smelling and ever-swelling and swilling pig, Ambrós. This is Bonapart praying for the dead pig, God rest his grunt:
The poison of the béal bocht penetrates everything. It even pollutes the language itself At one stage in the book, a gentleman from Dublin is collecting Gaelic phrases on a recorder from the people of Corca Dorcha. In doing this, he spends a lot of money on whiskey to get the people talking. One night, he gives drink to a gathering of locals in a house (the typical condescending bribe of the insensitive [ outsider) but the whiskey fails to loosen the tongues of the sons of Corca Dorcha. Suddenly, somebody stumbles into the house, falls on the floor drunk, and unleashes a flood of what seems like talk, which, however, is quite unintelligible. According to the gentleman from Dublin, good Irish should be difficult, but the best Irish should be unintelligible. Perfection is another name for the incomprehensible. Well, in this case, the gentleman has perfection well recorded because what he manages to collect is the squealing of a rambling pig. Delighted with his treasure, the gentleman leaves Corca Dorcha to seek proper academic recognition for his labours. Flann O’Brien is here hitting at everything from self-delusion to acquisitive condescension to academic pretentiousness. It is as if he were saying - there is nothing wrong with language, Irish or otherwise; but there is something very wrong with those who use it, or rather abuse it, who change it from an instrument of possible illumination to something which can inspire loathing and disgust. Language can help us to tell what we know of the truth; it can also be the weapon of liars, frauds and opportunists.
One senses in Flann O’Brien a great reverence for language, and a great hatred for those who abuse it, those who tell the profitable lie.
This love of verbal precision is the expression of an essentially moral imagination. Cliché is not only the truth worn dull by repetition; it can also be a form of immoral evasion, a refusal to exercise the mind at a moment when it should be exercised, even to one’s own discomfort or distress. Cliché is also a form of imaginative fatigue, the unthinking use of listless formula to fill a blank space.
By taking the clichés of other writers, and by repeatedly inserting them into his own vivid, animated narrative, Flann O’Brien achieves unfailing satiric and comic effects. He mocks evasion; he parodies inertia. And in showing the verbal tiredness of others, he proves his own tremendous exuberance. The language of The Poor Mouth is remarkable for its substained energy. There is nothing flabby or soft about it. It has an intellectual cut and keenness, a constant hitting of the satirical bull’s-eye, a stabbing accuracy, that simply cannot fail to delight any mind which recognises that a respect for language is a respect for life itself. Unless we try, with all our hearts and minds, to say what we mean, we do not mean what we say. That is what I mean by 'respect’.
Flann O’Brien shows no mercy whatever to those who lack this respect. In one of the most memorable chapters of his book, there is a Grand Feis in Corca Dorcha, and it is opened by an t-Uactarán  himself, who gives an 'oráid’ - a big speech. This is a fine example of inflated pomposity and self-importance, a windy exercise in self-delusion, a substitution of chauvinism for intelligence, an outburst of rhetorical drivel. It is also wickedly funny:
It is at this feis too that our hero Bonapart gets drunk for the first time. Flann O’Brien’s account of Bónapart’s hangover must be one of the funniest and most accurate descriptions of that unpromising state ever written. There is simply no questioning the authority of this description:
There is of course a note of exaggeration in that, and exaggeration is one of Flann O’Brien’s most effective satiric devices. It might be more accurate of me to use the word 'distortion’ rather than the word 'exaggeration’. The passage dealing with those whom Flann  O’Brien calls the fiorGaels is, quite obviously, distorted; nobody would ever speak like that. Yet, in the language of certain people whose commitment borders on fanaticism, there is an element, a seed, of precisely this bloated verbal absurdity. What the accomplished satirist does is to take that element, that seed, which is of course only part of a total picture, and, by sheer style, make the part appear as though it were the complete thing. By the deft use of this kind of emphasis, the satirist draws our contemptuous attention to the element which he himself abhors. This, if you like, is the morality of his mockery, the ethical point of his distortion. The satirist is the enemy of the phoney element which probably, to some degree at least, exists in all of us. His target is the pretentious and the ridiculous, his weapon is mockery, his aim is the spotlighting, and if possible, the eradication of the pompous and the hypocritical.
Exaggeration and distortion are probably the most characteristic features of the writing from beginning to end of this book. The very setting of the novel is a distortion, although a delightful one. From his house, reeking of pigs, the baby Bónapart can see Donegal, Galway and Kerry - a spectacle hardly available to any other house in Ireland. The food is dreadful. The weather is worse. It’s hard to tell which of the two is dirtier - the people or the pigs. It is a world of unrelieved stupidity, filth, superstition and congestion. Fate is totally malignant and every circumstance is moronically accepted as part of God’s will. And at the back of it all lies the origin and product of an béal bocht - poverty. At bottom Flann O’Brien is showing us the sad, ravaging mental attitudes that result from severe physical poverty - materialism, opportunism, suspicion, the closed mind, incestuous stupidity, the lack of definite identity (everybody in the area is called Jams O’Donnell), the prevalence of brutality and thievery, and the strange, predominant sense of evil and oppression. Listening to that list, you might think this is a gloomy book, a modern anatomy of melancholy and malaise. It is, on the contrary, packed with laughter, full of its own special gaiety, even when it describes one of those figures of total poverty that lie scattered not only through Irish history, but are buried in the consciousness of the race:
I am not happy, however, to call this book a satirical fantasy, and leave it at that. There is, in fact, in the work a strong tragic awareness of those powerful forces which can victimise man. Throughout the book, the elements lash down on the heads of everybody, man and beast alike. What strikes the reader is the relentless nature of this oppression, the fierce tireless energy of its tyranny. Flann O’Brien sees man as a sort of target for the fury of nature. Now I realise that this, like the picture of poverty, is a necessary part of his satirical picture, but I can’t help feeling that this black vision sometimes transcends the satirical purpose it so brilliantly serves, and achieves at certain moments a real tragic intensity. And Flann O’Brien’s language reflects this occasional strange hovering between the satirical and the tragic.
Nevertheless, the novel, as a whole, stays in the mind for its comic vigour, for its devastation of various Holy Cows, for its mocking onslaught on attitudes that are usually either mindless or slavish, or both. It is the work of a highly civilised mind, angered and appalled by certain aspects of the life and literature it is most deeply involved with. It is also the work of that most driven kind of moralist - the writer for whom the precise use of language is evidence of the mind’s capacity for intellectual passion, the heart’s capacity for sincerity. Behind it all is love of lucidity and candour, as well as this constant recognition of the mystery of life. The irreverence that abounds in  the novel springs from the deepest possible respect for both life and language. This is one reason for its enormous emotional range: it is funny, sad, bitter, outrageous, bleak, insulting - and totally unforgettable. It is searingly honest, and it should be read, if possible by everybody. The Poor Mouth may be about various kinds of poverty, but for the reader it is an immensely rich experience.