'a lacuna in the palimpsest'

A Reading of Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 Independent scholar eibhlinevans@hotmail.com
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The publication of Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (1995) was widely praised and embraced enthusiastically by critics, teachers and students and its impact has already been recognised as influencing recent criticism where scholars have been quick to apply Kiberd’s approach to often fruitful ends. This essay is one of many indebted to his pioneering work, employing Kiberd’s thesis on the centrality of issues of identity in Irish writing. Kiberd claims that the enterprise of inventing Ireland’s and Irish identity has historically been varied, depending on the source of the project and the proclivities of the proponents. Inventing or inverting established, colonial or romanticised ideas of Ireland and the Irish are central concerns of many Irish writers whose work has not hitherto been considered in relation to this engagement nor recognised to contain this agenda. Acknowledging that Irish writing is not confined to this preoccupation alone, Kiberd claims that much of Ireland’s classic modern literature can be read as being engaged in this endeavour, an approach which leads to innovative and sometimes revelatory interpretations. In this essay I will apply Kiberd’s contemporary analysis to a long established classic of Irish writing, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, in a reading which outlines O’Brien’s insightful engagement with issues of identity and which also accounts for the book’s hitherto puzzling aspects.