Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds is a multifarious work of purpose, at once an experimental narrative that directly responds to James Joyce's modernist work (acting as a forerunner of post-modernist thought), and a study on the tortuous challenges facing the dichotomies of Irish culture. At Swim is at its most understated, a text of parodies. O'Brien expertly strings together the many layers of his novel's world to express a slew of critical observations about modernist ideology and realism, as well as exposing a necessary dialogue on the formation and perception of Irish culture.
A third major aspect of At Swim-Two-Birds lies closer to O'Brien's own life experience: this is a novel of Irish identity. The Irish identity that O'Brien illustrates, however, is not easily explained. The entire novel is deliberately isolated within the arena of Ireland and nearly every aspect of At Swim reflects upon the complexity of “Irishness”.
Since the late nineteenth century up to the 1930s in which At Swim takes place, various strands of Irish Revivalism had been rebelling against the anglicization of the country with a heavy cultural impact. The Revivalist Movement, attempting to reclaim a pre-colonial Gaelic identity, energized the celebration of Irish myth and legend and became enormously popular. Running parallel to the Revivalist Movement was a similar Irish Language Movement, which publicized texts and narratives focused on professedly Gaelic subjects. Groups focused on the task propped up Irish warriors and heroes as role models, figures of manhood and moral virtue, which added further to the re-evaluation of contemporary Irish identity around this time.
Opposing the Cultural Protectionists who would preserve an “Irish” Ireland, are modernists that would choose to break with tradition and examine inherited concepts. Joyce's Stephen of Portrait of an Artist may embody such an ideology, having called Ireland “the old sow that eats her farrow (Portrait, 268).” Rather than succumbing to a backward, past-driven existence, such an ideology wishes to move forward instead, reaching for improvement over reminiscence.
O'Brien investigates the clash of ideologies carefully, having found himself in a unique position which assisted in the observation of both sides. It is significant, McKullen writes, that “Flann O'Brien who was born into that first, critical and cosmopolitan, post-independence generation was also paradoxically more familiar with Irish traditions than many of the Revivalists who embraced them or the Modernists that rejected them (McKullen, 76).” O'Brien, born “Brian O'Nuallain,” was the son of ardent Irish nationalists; he spoke the Irish language at home, vacationed in the Gaeltacht (that is, the fringe of Western Ireland where Irish is predominantly spoken), and studied old and middle Irish in college.
As for his own feelings on the subject, while At Swim-Two-Birds includes a myriad of old Irish folktale and mythology, it also points to...