Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

James M. Cahalan, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

David Downing, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Christopher Orchard, D. Phil.


Humor and cultural critique have long been staples in the Irish literary tradition. Employing an Althusserian framework of Marxist thought, scholarship on the Irish comic tradition, and ideas centered on the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, I analyze the works of Flann O'Brien, the most consistently funny Irish writer since the sometimes-serious satirist Swift. Born Brian O'Nolan, coming of age in the tumult of the 1922 Irish Free State, and professionally active following the 1937 Constitution's ratification, O'Brien uses comedic strategies to expose the repressive practices of cultural institutions such as the family, the Church, and education that are privileged in that document. Ultimately, I contend that O'Brien's comic treatments of these ideological apparatuses should be seen as a serious critique of the idyllic Irish culture that the Constitution sought to impose. Celebrated as a comedic and early postmodernist author, O'Brien's cultural critiques have been scarcely considered by literary critics, an argument I consider in Chapter One. In Chapter Two, I place the humorous work of Flann O'Brien within a context of the 1937 Irish Constitution by outlining the historical, political, and economic realities in Ireland during O'Brien's lifetime. I also establish the interpretive method I use that focuses on gaps and contradictions in texts as revealing critiques of social institutions. In Chapters Three, Four, and Five I perform that critique by analyzing the family in O'Brien's writing, contrasting idealized, traditional Irish concepts of family with O'Brien's treatment of family as a largely uncertain institution, filled with absent fathers and silent women. I continue by critiquing the Church as an institution unresponsive to its people, one which uses punitive sanctions and the people's own miseries to justify their suffering. Further, I explore how education reproduces the dominant culture's ideologies. O'Brien critiques the Free State's role in inculcating the Irish language. Additionally, O'Brien satirizes education as the promoter of cultural capital whose serious discourse reveals what is important to the Free State. In Chapter Six I suggest that O'Brien's comical questioning of the imagined rural Irish idyllic world is actually a serious part of the creation of the modern Irish state.