Trains, plains, and bicycle wheels – An Irishman’s Diary about the straight lines of Kilcock and the circles of Flann O’Brien

A sign at the rear of Rathmines Post Office in Dublin

A sign at the rear of Rathmines Post Office in Dublin

 

While writing about Kilcock and the Old Bog Road earlier this week, it seems I neglected to mention an even greater infrastructural wonder in that Kildare town.

I have only belatedly noticed it thanks to Seanán Ó Coistín, a former resident now exiled in Germany, where he is clearly still haunted by the smell of bubblegum that long pervaded his native Kilcock, courtesy of the late lamented Leaf factory.

Local children used to boast of this everywhere they went, he recalls.  

But bubblegum aside, he also points out that Kilcock “is the only place in Ireland where a river, a national road, a canal, a railway, and local road all run parallel to each other”. Then he adds: “It is a claim to fame that never ceases to underwhelm people.” Despite which, I myself was sufficiently whelmed to look it up on Google maps.  

And sure enough, not only do all five of those land and water routes run parallel for about half a kilometre on the east side of Kilcock, so does the Meath-Kildare county boundary, which mediates between the main road and the river until the latter swerves violently, taking the border with it, to avoid the town.

The confluence of routes reminded of Paul Simon’s song about the “Mississippi Delta, shining like a National guitar”.

And of Joni Mitchell, seeing six jet trails in the sky somewhere and thinking: “It was the hexagram of the heavens, it was the strings of my guitar”.

But the trails can hardly have been parallel in Mitchell’s case, or they could not also form a hexagram. And the strings of the Mississippi Delta would be too slack to play a tune on.  

Whereas, for this section at least, the map of Kilcock is as tightly strung as the neck of a Fender Stratocaster.

If anything, the area’s unique levels of harmony are increasing, because Seanán tells me that a bike lane has recently been added alongside the canal. So never mind the Old Bog Road, Kilcock might be considered the spiritual home of another famous tarmac ballad, Frank O’Donovan’s anthem to unity of purpose, We’re on the One Road.

Moving from straight lines to circular ones, meanwhile, also in my email this week was the above photograph. It’s of a sign at the rear of Rathmines Post Office in Dublin and its true significance might be lost on casual readers, but not on Flann O’Brien fans. It was certainly not lost on the eagle-eyed correspondent, a certified Flannorak, who sent it to me.

In O’Brien’s metaphysical murder mystery, The Third Policeman, most of the action takes place in a surreal underworld where humans and bicycles are subject to molecular interchange, with disturbing results.  

At the effect’s most harmless, humans with a high percentage of bike spend long periods leaning against walls or standing on roadsides with one foot propped up on the kerb.  

At its worst, the phenomenon results in such incidents as Michael Gilhaney’s bicycle, an estimated 48 per cent Gilhaney, scandalising the parish by parking itself outside the door of an attractive new female school teacher, in such a way that she will mistake it for her own and jump on.

Postal workers occupy an especially high-risk category, as Sergeant Pluck explains.  

He estimates the local postman’s bike quotient at 71 per cent and despairs: “There is very little hope of ever getting his number down below fifty again.” 

So the sergeant would be in no way surprised by the sign in Rathmines post office, which is clearly aimed at the bikes themselves, not their owners.  

“Did you never see a bicycle leaning against the dresser of a warm kitchen when it is pouring outside,” he asks the novel’s unnamed narrator. “I did.” “Not very far away from the fire?” “Yes”. “Near enough to the family to hear the conversation?” “Yes.” “Not a thousand miles from where they keep the eatables?”

The already astonished narrator becomes further amazed: “I did notice that. You do not mean to say that these bicycles eat food?” Sergeant Pluck replies: “They were never seen doing it [...] All I know is that the food disappears.”

This and other depravities condemns him to spend eternity asking: “Is is about a bicycle?” And everything is, of course, although the upcoming International Flann O’Brien Society Conference in Salzburg begs to differ. The event promises a full week of talks on a very wide range of themes.  

But of particular note is the opening address on July 17th, which carries the controversial even provocative – title: “This is not about a bicycle”.

On behalf of Sergeant Pluck, I strongly doubt the veracity of that statement.