The same small island (behind a bigger island) that gave the world Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Dunlop pneumatic tyre*, also gave us Flann O’Brien, the Patron Saint of Bicycles.
As Dublin undergoes extensive reconstruction and discombobulation in the run-up to next week’s Flann O’Brien 50th Anniversary Celebrations (he died on April Fool’s Day, 1 April 1966, and that’s no joke), perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves of the Irish nation’s intrinsic – nay, intense – nay, intimate – relationship with the humble bike.
Perhaps this reached a zenith with The Third Policeman, O’Brien’s “lost” novel, published a year after his death. In one dazzling passage a character muses upon the latest advances (at the time) in Atomic Theory and Relativity, and the mysterious goings on of particles in the subatomic world. And bicycles.
The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.
Flann concludes that:
…you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost half-man, half-partaking of humanity.
When I first read that passage, I… er, um, ahem… I “let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture”.
Many of Flann O’Brien’s yarns feature a good long bike ride or a drive out of Dublin “to establish the bona fides”, in order to get a late-night drink or “tincture” in the foothills of the surrounding mountains during the “closed hours”. But that’s another story.
The Easter Rising and the Flying Columns
On a more serious note, this year happens to mark another anniversary: the centenary of the Easter Rising, in which bicycles played a vital military role in ferrying messages / medical supplies / arms / combatants.
Two legendary “runners” for the Irish forces during the Rising were in fact not running but cycling. Brothers Michael and John Walker were champion racing cyclists, and spent much of the Rising conveying messages on their bikes to the rebel outposts around the city.
During the subsequent War of Independence, IRA leader Michael Collins famously used a High Nelly to cycle around unmolested, despite a £10,000 bounty on his head. In town and country, his Flying Columns based their guerrilla tactics not on flying machines but on (flying) bicycles.
To mark the role of the humble bicycle in the struggle for Irish Independence, vintage bikes from the time will be on display in Smithfield Square this Easter Monday from 11am. Possibly including a High Nelly or two.
But one cannot conclude this reflection on the Irish bicycle without mentioning the “BicyKILLS” photographic series by leading artist Sean Hillen.
While working on his brilliant “Untitled Broken Umbrella” project (about abandoned umbrellas), Sean also trained his camera on, as he put it, “the wounded and dead (well, vandalised is the word I think)” bicycles around Dublin’s city centre.
He began the bike project in 1998 because “nobody else was doing it and I believe they represented some kind of a message.” Incidentally, Sean’s dad was a bicycle mechanic and Sean spent his own youth fixing the machines.
Sean is probably most famous for his semi-surreal Irelantis collages. Check them out – they are very Flann O’Brieny, if you know what I mean, though Sean’s work has spawned a more modern adjective: “Hillenesque”.
(* OK, before our Celtic cousins start piping up, the Dunlop tyre was indeed invented by the veterinary surgeon John Dunlop, who was from Scotland. But this was while he was living in Ireland, where he spent most of his career. He later sold his rights to the pneumatic tyres to a company he formed with the president of the Irish Cyclists’ Association, Harvey Du Cros, for a small sum and a modest shareholding in the tyre business.)
See also: Is it about a bicycle?’ Happy MylesDay