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The passing of Micheál Ó Nualláin, the brother of the legendary Irish writer, Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien or Myles na gCopaleen) shows the surprisingly differing timelines in life. Whereas Micheál Ó Nualláin lived to the ripe old age of 88 and died last Monday, his more famous brother, Brian, died way back in 1966, a full fifty years ago, on April Fool’s Day, to be precise, and an apt departure date for a black humourist.

But, of course, there were twelve siblings in the O’Brien family which originally hailed from Strabane in County Tyrone. The father moved the family to Dublin after which he died suddenly leaving Brian, a hard drinker but with a safe job in the Civil service, to pay for the raising of his many siblings, including Micheál, who was 17 years his younger. Micheál also joined the civil service and was appointed art inspector in the Department of Education, utilising his first love, which was drawing and painting.

At the early age of nine, Ó Nualláin had won a scholarship to the National College of Art, and for most of his life, he worked as a freelance artist and designer, and then as an art teacher. He retired in 1993. Meanwhile, he published illustrations and caricatures under the pseudonym ‘Kilroy’ and his work can be seen in the National Gallery of Ireland and in galleries abroad.

Despite being famous as the brother of Myles na gCopaleen, he was categorially not the famous ‘Brother’, as depicted in Flann’s stories and in the one act play, made famous by actor Eamon Morrissey – or so we were told. In his two-hour solo performance, Morrissey portrays a ‘porter-swilling, nose-picking pub philosopher with ingenious solutions to the world’s problems.’

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Nevertheless, Micheál was regularly associated with his celebrated brother and a fine oil painting portrait of his famous sibling (above), with a shiny smiling head, adorned the commemorative stamp released by An Post in 2011 on the centenary of Flann O’Brien’s birth. Micheál also did a series of illustrations to accompany a set of his brother’s imagined encounters between Keats and Chapman.

In other respects, Micheál was often consulted about his brother’s works but he could be an irascible source and would as quickly wave away the curious, especially those of the more cult-like followers of Flann’s surrealistic writings, especially from Germany and the US. In this respect, he resembled Peter Kavanagh who acted as custodian to the legacy of his brother Patrick, the poet, and who was said to have had all of Patrick’s anger but not enough of his talent.

In the late 1950’s, Micheál shared a house with my father, the sculptor Edward Delaney, in Belgrave Square in Monkstown, south Dublin, and indeed remained on the same square until his death. However, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Monkstown and neighbouring Dun Laoghaire played host to a creative and often bohemian demi-monde for emerging artists and writers, tales about which Micheál was quick to tell.

When the actress Joan O’Hara, departed this milieu to seek fortune as an actress in London, Michael and a gang saw her off to the Dun Laoghaire mailboat and threw a can of tinned fruit up the gangplank after her in case she got hungry!

In later years and even decades, Micheál would greet me in mock shock, and confuse me with my late father,  by saying, ‘holy God, for a moment there I was going to ask you to pay up for that bloody forty year old gas bill!’

He was an impish, mischievous and eccentric character, and even a fantasist at times. When I was editor of Magill magazine I published images of some of his paintings and it was an often demanding experience; with the precise descriptions and colouring being very important. One image was a copy he had made of a famous portrait of Mozart for which Ó Nualláin was looking for a huge price as he believed it caught the (almost physic) essence of the great composer!

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Coincidentally, the paths of my father and Ó Nualláin crossed again in late years when they both made public their proposals for a structure to replace the demolished Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street.  The proposals were extraordinarily similar.

My father’s envisaged a stainless steel column like a slender oil rig, with a spot-lit viewing platform at the top while Ó Nualláin’s design was for a ‘skypod’ mounted on a hexagonal column rising from a three-storey glazed box at street level. This, he argued, would give Dublin a ‘sculpted flying saucer’, as recognisable a symbol for the city as the equally dramatic Eiffel Tower in Paris, he argued.

Neither were successful and, in the design competition for the space, the authorities settled for the safer option of the Spire. However, not content with rejection, Ó Nualláin took a High Court action against Dublin City Council for not producing an Environmental Impact Statement. He was successful in that challenge, though not in preventing the actual Spire.

Micheál Ó Nualláin’s energy, creativity and eccentricity will be sorely missed on the Dublin street and in Irish life and, on his passing, the President Michael D Higgins led the deserved tributes.  “His contribution and commitment to education, art and design lasted throughout his whole life. He had a sustained commitment to the public world and, within it, the role of art,” he said.

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