Tuesday, January 19, 2016

`A Profusion Unexampled'

“Requiem-writing (if I may invent that phrase) is difficult, and could easily be presumptuous or even offensive, no matter much what the intention.”
So writes Myles na gCopaleen (aka Brian Ó Nualláin, aka Brian O’Nolan, aka Brother Barnabus, aka Flann O'Brien) of Oliver Joseph St John Gogarty (aka “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan”), in a rare somberly sincere entry in his Irish Times column “Cruiskeen Lawn” (aka “Little Jug”). The piece is collected in Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn (Dalkey Archive Press, 2000), and the first person I ever met who could recite Myles’ wit from memory, in English and Irish, was my friend Michael Carroll, who died on Sunday at age seventy-nine. (See my obituary here.) He was an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering and former dean of engineering at Rice University, whose academic specialty was continuum mechanics, with an emphasis on finite elasticity (a phrase that often made him smile). Rare for an engineer, Michael was equally gifted in matters of language. Another emeritus professor and former dean described him more aptly on Monday:
“Michael was truly a `Renaissance man,’ having many more dimensions than any other academic I have known. Mike was an academic, an Irishman, an engineer, a mathematician, a golfer, a poet, a playwright, a crossword puzzle creator, a jokester, an appreciator of fine single-malt Irish whiskey and a lover of his family.”
All true. At his retirement dinner last year I gave Michael a bottle of Jameson’s. He was born in Thurles, in County Tipperary, in 1936, bilingual from birth. He grew up reading Cruiskeen Lawn, first published in 1940. I always looked forward to visiting Michael in his office because we would get the pretext out of the way and talk about such important matters as Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, John McGahern and always Flann/Myles. Michael was partial to Myles’ Keats and Chapman and their shaggy-dog puns. I favored another of his regular features, Myles’ “Catechism of Cliché.” Here is a selection (The Best of Myles, 1968) from an appropriate column:
“Of what was any deceased citizen you like to mention typical?
Of all that is best in Irish life.
Correct. With what qualities did he endear himself to all who knew him?
His charm of manner and unfailing kindness.
Yes. But with what particularly did he impress all those he came in contact with?
His sterling qualities of mind, loftiness of intellect and unswerving devotion to the national cause.”
And the parade of platitudes goes on:
“At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
With what cause did he never disguise the fact that his sympathies lay?
The cause of national independence.
And at what time?
At a time when lesser men were content with the role of time-server and sycophant.
What was he in his declining years?
Though frail of health, indefatigable in his exertions on behalf of his less fortunate fellow men.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.” 

In his Gogarty tribute, written in 1957, Myles says: “Less glib or more honest man I personally never met. Wit, adjustment to an existing situation, improvisation, all those qualities he had, he had in a profusion unexampled.”

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