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Four hard men of the apocalypse

Frank Mcnally

An Irishman’s Diary about a decade of literary anniversaries
That Brendan Behan stamp, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, may provoke an outburst of whataboutery among admirers of another Irish writer, Sean O’Casey, who will be just as long dead this coming September.
Sadly, An Post’s programme for the year has no mention of the O’Casey milestone. Maybe the philatelists thought they had him covered with the Irish Citizen Army centenary stamp, already released, although O’Casey’s founding membership of that army was short enough to support Behan’s quip about the first item on the agenda of any Irish republican group being the split.
I suppose O’Casey has a Liffey bridge named after him, the ultimate posthumous status symbol for an Irish writer. And the best of his plays and songs are still regularly performed 50 years after his demise, which is the best kind of memorial.
Indeed, many of them will get an airing in Dublin on Sunday week next, in honour of the other extreme of O’Casey’s life – his birth on March 30th, 1880.
To mark the 134th anniversary of that, as part of the half-centenary of the other, admirers, including his daughter Shivaun O’Casey, will present an evening of his music and writings entitled “A Song for the Green Crow”. The venue – where else? – is Liberty Hall. Tickets still available from the venue’s box office or at ctb.ie.
The 1960s must have been as hard on Irish writers as it was on international rock stars. Of the 12 featured on the famous pub posters, no fewer than four died in the middle of that decade, within about 3½ years of each other.
O’Casey (84) at least had a long life. But Behan (41), Brian O’Nolan (54), and Patrick Kavanagh (63) were each edited out of Irish literature early, in large part because of alcoholism. Aptly, all three martyrs to the drink are now commemorated with plaques in the footpath outside one of the Dublin pubs they frequented, the Palace, of which more shortly.
After O’Casey’s half-centenary (September 18th), the next will be O’Nolan’s in April 2016. And whatever form commemorations take then, there will hardly be a stamp, because he already got one of those during his centenary year, 2011.
The unveiling of that involved a rather pithy joke, unintended or otherwise, at his expense.
Back in 1959, in his Cruiskeen Lawn column, he had delivered an amusing rant about the “shocking incompetence of the Post Office branch in charge of stamp design and production”.
His ire, real or pretended, was over the designers’ failure to include the relevant dates (1759-1959) on a stamp marking the Guinness bicentenary. When it came to his own anniversary, therefore, An Post took no chances, including not only the dates but all three names by which the writer was known, his real one and the pseudonyms Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen.
No small achievement, on a stamp. But it so happened that, in his 1959 diatribe, Myles had also called for a better class of artist to be used henceforth by the postal authorities, and suggested mischievously that future stamps might depict more realistic scenes from Irish life, such as “a Feena Fayl big shot fixing a job for a relative”.
Thus, in what was either unthinking innocence or a counter-satirical masterstroke, An Post’s Myles stamp used a portrait painted by Micheál Ó Nualláin, a better class of artist, to be sure, but also O’Nolan’s brother. Touché.
Anyway, there are still two years to decide how the “Flann 50” should be marked. In the meantime, a byproduct of the centenary, the now-annual Mylesday commemoration on April 1st, is looming again.
Chief organiser John Clarke had a slight problem in planning this year’s instalment, namely that the date fell on a Tuesday – inconveniently for an event starting in mid-afternoon. There was a case for moving it towards a weekend. But being a purist, and to respect the fact that such a famous jester had seen fit to die on April Fool’s Day, Clarke decided it should stay where it was.
As usual, the venue will be the Palace Bar, starting at 3pm. Admission is free, but barstools – and space in general – will be anything but, so those hoping to sit are advised to come early.
The schedule of readings and performances is already fairly crammed.
But if you really want to, you might still be able to write yourself into the programme by contacting the organisers via 087-2414788 or at