An Béal Bocht

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The Poor Mouth
Cover of the first edition
AuthorBrian O'Nolan
Original titleAn Béal Bocht
TranslatorPatrick C. Power
GenreSatire, Parody
PublisherAn Preas Náisiúnta
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint ()
Preceded byThe Third Policeman 
Followed byThe Hard Life 

An Béal Bocht (Irish: The Poor Mouth) is a 1941 novel in Irish by Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien), published under the pseudonym "Myles na gCopaleen". It is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish-language novels of the 20th century. An English translation by Patrick C. Power appeared in 1973. Stan Gebler Davies wrote: "The Poor Mouth is wildly funny, but there is at the same time always a sense of black evil. Only O'Brien's genius, of all the writers I can think of, was capable of that mixture of qualities."[1]


The book is a kindly parody of the genre of Gaeltacht autobiographies, such as Tomás Ó Criomhthain's autobiography An t-Oileánach (The Islandman), or Peig Sayers' autobiography Peig, which recounts her life, especially the latter half, as a series of misfortunes in which much of her family die by disease, drowning or other mishap. Books of this genre were part of the Irish language syllabus in the Irish school system and so were mandatory reading for generations of children from independence in 1921. O'Nolan was in fact a great admirer of An t-Oileánach, which is widely regarded as being the greatest work of the genre, but critic Declan Kiberd has noted how O'Nolan's admiration for a writer tended to express itself as parody of the writer's work.

The Irish expression "to put on the poor mouth" ("an béal bocht a chur ort" in Irish) is mildly pejorative and refers to the practice, often associated with peasant farmers, of exaggerating the direness of one's situation, particularly financially, to evoke sympathy, charity and perhaps the forbearance of creditors and landlords or generosity of customers. The title may also be a parody[citation needed] of that of the Irish language reader An Saol Mór (The Great Life)[2] (in Irish, béal and saol are near-rhymes). The title is, perhaps, more likely to be a parody on 'An Béal Beo' (The Living Tongue) by Tomas Ó Máille, published by An Gúm 1936.

One of the recurring figures of speech in the book is the line from Ó Criomhthain's An t-Oileánach, ...mar ná beidh ár leithéidí arís ann, "...for our likes will not be (seen) again"; variations of it appear throughout An Béal Bocht.[3]

All of O'Nolan's other novels were published under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien; it is the only one for which he used the "Myles na gCopaleen" pseudonym that he was then using for his celebrated Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn. (Subsequently O'Nolan altered the newspaper byline slightly to the more anglicised "Myles na Gopaleen".) Neither is a real Irish surname, however. Both derive from a character named Myles-na-Coppaleen in Dion Boucicault's 1860 play The Colleen Bawn, which, in turn, comes from the Irish na gcapaillín, "of the little horses". As if to confuse matters, the English translation of An Béal Bocht is published as the work of "Flann O'Brien".[4]


An Béal Bocht is set in Corca Dhorcha, (Corkadoragha, Corkadorkey), a remote region of Ireland where it never stops raining and everyone lives in desperate poverty (and always will) while talking in "the learned smooth Gaelic". It is a memoir of one Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa (Bonaparte O'Coonassa), a resident of this region, beginning at his very birth. At one point the area is visited by hordes of Dublin Gaeilgeoirí (Irish language lovers), who explain that not only should one always speak Irish, but also every sentence one utters should be about the language question. However, they eventually abandon the area because the poverty is too poor, the authenticity too authentic and the Gaelicism too Gaelic. The narrator, after a series of bloodcurdling adventures, is eventually sent to prison on a false murder charge, and there, "safe in jail and free from the miseries of life",[5] has the chance to write this most affecting memoir of our times.


The book was adapted for stage by Paul Lee and first presented in the pub "An Béal Bocht", Charlemont Street, Dublin, for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1989, directed by Ronan Smith.[6]


Irish film director Tom Collins has adapted the classic tale as an animation featuring Bob Quinn, Owen McDonnell and Tommy Tiernan.


  1. ^ Flann O'Brien (1941/1974), The Poor Mouth, trans., Patrick C. Power, illus., Ralph Steadman, New York: Viking, back of dust cover, quoting Stan Gebler Davies, Evening Standard.
  2. ^ Mac Síthigh, T., An Saol Mór: Láimhleabhar Ghnátheolais ar Shaol an Lae Inniu: M.H. Mac an Ghoill agus a Mhac Teo.
  3. ^ na gCopaleen 1992, p. 9 & passim
  4. ^ O'Brien 1988, p. 3
  5. ^ O'Brien 1996, p. 7
  6. ^ An Béal Bocht


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