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Literature / The Poor Mouth

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I do not think their like will be seen again.
The Poor Mouth is the English-language title of a darkly comic 1941 Irish-language novel, An Béal Bocht, by the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan, writing under his pseudonym "Myles na gCopaleen". The title (pronounced something like On bail bukh’d) refers to the expression "putting on the poor mouth", meaning "affecting to be worse off than you actually are".

It's an Affectionate Parody of a particular genre in Irish-language literature, the Peasant Autobiography, and is notable today for being one of the few works originally written in Irish which has achieved a wide readership, both amongst Irish speakers and in translation. It tells the story of the life of an Irish peasant, Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa (Bonaparte O'Coonasa) who grows up in a small town, Corkadoragha, in the west of Ireland.

Brian O’Nolan was born into an Irish-speaking household, and Irish was his first language growing up. He became moderately famous with the publication in 1939 of his debut novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which earned him a side gig writing a famous newspaper column, "Cruiskeen Lawn", in Ireland’s most prestigious newspaper The Irish Times. "Cruiskeen Lawn" was originally in Irish, before O’Nolan began writing the column in English, whereupon it took off.

O’Nolan had a deep love of Irish literature, and it’s been noted that the way he tended to express his love for something was to send it up. In the 1920s and 30s, the peasant communities in the west of Ireland were dwindling, along with the culture that they had supported for centuries. A number of the storytellers of these communities were encouraged by folklorists to tell their stories. The first to do was Tomás Ó Criomhthain (1856-1937, often anglicised as "Tomás O’Crohan"), first in a collection of anecdotes called Allagar na h-Inise ("Island Cross-Talk") and then in his autobiography An tOileánach ("The Islandman"), which he wrote in his 60s and which was published in 1928. After him came Peig Sayers (1873-1958), who dictated her memoir Peig, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (anglicised as "Maurice O’Sullivan", 1904-1950), whose book Fiche Bliain ag Fás ("Twenty Years A-Growing") came out in 1933. These books were on the Irish-language syllabus in Irish schools for decades, being eventually replaced in the 1990s by something slightly more relatable for teenagers.

Among the characteristics of the peasant autobiographies was a sense of stoicism in the face of poverty and hardship: almost all of Ó Criomhthain’s ten children died in childhood, and his wife also died at a young age, while Peig Sayers’ book was notorious for its opening line I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge. (Ó Súilleabháin’s book, by contrast, is a bit more chipper.)

The darkness of these books, but also the perception of them as being darker than they perhaps were, is what O’Nolan took aim it in An Béal Bocht. It’s a brilliant parody of the stereotypical portrayal of the Irish peasant as being dirt poor, unable to speak English, constantly in danger, and at the mercy of forces beyond their control, including the law itself but also the predations of folklorists coming to record their language. As an Irish speaker himself, O’Nolan was wary of being patronised by people who thought that there was something strange and magical about Irish speakers, and who praised the piety and linguistic purity of Irish-speaking communities while doing little to actually help them survive or grow economically. An Béal Bocht is an antidote to that.

It remains one of the best-loved and most-read novels in Irish. It wasn’t translated into English until 1973, by Patrick C. Power, whose work has been justly praised as superb.

The Poor Mouth contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Affectionate Parody: Of the Irish peasant autobiography.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Subverted. A pig is dressed in a suit of clothes, and a Gaelgeoir mistakes it for an actual Irish speaker whose Irish must be unusually pure because it's so unintelligible.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Bonaparte meets his father for the first time on the day he himself is going to prison for 29 years.
  • Catchphrase: "I do not think our/their/his/her/my like will be seen again". See Shout-Out.
  • Comically Missing the Point: The Old-Grey-Fellow tells Bonaparte that his father Michelangelo is "in the jug", meaning prison. Bonaparte fails to understand and looks for him in the milk jug, but doesn't find him.
  • Condescending Compassion: What the Gaeligores note  feel for the people of Corkadoragha.
  • Crapsack World: It’s always raining, the potatoes are running out, the house smells terrible and it’s true to say that hardship is the life of the Gael.
  • Disappeared Dad: Bonaparte grows up with only his mother and grandfather.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: Bonaparte talks in fluent sentences at the age of ten months and nobody thinks that this is unusual.
  • Genius Bonus: When Bonaparte enters the cave of the mysterious Maeldoon O'Poenassa, Maeldoon addresses him in Middle Irish. This is represented in the translation by archaic English.
  • Ghetto Name: Bonaparte O’Coonassa. His father’s first name is Michelangelo.
  • Gluttonous Pig: The O’Coonassas’ pig Ambrose grows to such a size that once he’s inside the house, he can’t be pushed out through the doorway.
  • Here Be Dragons: The book contains a map of the world as seen by the people of Chorca Dorcha. Dublin and Cork are vague blobs on the east coast marked na daoine uaisle (the respectable people). Sligo Jail features prominently. America (simply referred to as thar lear, "abroad") is a blob to the west, marked with Niú Iarcnote , Boston and Springfield, Massachusettsnote . China lies to the north and the rest of the world to the south. To the east, there is a largely irrelevant island called de odar saighd whose only point of interest is George Bernard Shaw. Scotland, on the other hand, curves all the way round to Connacht, with the routes of seasonal labourers marked. All points on the compass mark "West".
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: The English-speaking characters do this, with their dialogue being printed in English in the original book, with Bonaparte failing to understand them. The effect is slightly lost in translation.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Bonaparte’s home town Corkadoragha, in Irish Chorcha Dorcha: it means "Dark Cork".
  • Messy Pig: The stench of Ambrose the pig is so bad that Bonaparte’s mother actually lies down to die, although Bonaparte’s grandfather the Old-Grey-Fellow drags her outside to safety. The family sleeps outside in the rain, just to get away from the smell. Eventually their neighbour Martin O’Bannassa seals off the house, and Ambrose dies from his own smell.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: At the end, Bonaparte is accused of murder and theft and sentenced to 29 years in prison. He didn’t actually commit the crime, although he did arguably steal the money from someone else.
  • Oireland: Brutally parodied.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Every English-speaking authority figure in the book ignores Bonaparte’s actual name and tells him "Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell". Bonaparte’s mother tells him that this happens to every Gaelic person.
  • Purple Prose: Of an Irish flavour, owing to O’Nolan using and exaggerating every figure of speech he could think of in the original Irish dialect.
  • Sadist Teacher: The teacher in Bonaparte’s school talks to him in English ("Phwat is yer nam?"), which he doesn’t understand, and hits him on the head with an oar when he replies in Irish. Then again, he does this to everyone. He also tells every child in the school that their name from now on is "Jams O’Donnell", whether it is or not.
  • Shout-Out: Bonaparte’s repeated use of variations on "I do not think my like will be seen again" (Ní dóigh liom go mbeidh mo leithéid arís ann) is this to Tomás Ó Criomhthain, who famously used it as the last line of An tOileánach.