The dead man was not known to gardaí – An Irishman’s Diary on the 50th anniversary of Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’

It is sometimes said by those who claim to know such things that Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman reads like the work of a man who has been dropping LSD.

This being so, it seems apt that the book was first published 50 years ago, in September 1967, at the end of the summer of mind-altering substances. But of course it had been written a generation earlier, in 1939, when the only drugs Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann, was known to have experimented with were the ones sold over the counters of Dublin pubs.

Turned down by publishers in 1940, the manuscript was buried by its author and never resurrected in his lifetime. A novel about a dead man, it was published only when O’Nolan had himself departed this world. Which added an unintended layer of poignancy to the first of two quotations prefacing the text.

The words are those of his idiot-genius De Selby, an entirely fictional character to whose study the book’s unnamed narrator has sacrificed his life. They combine the savant’s scientific and philosophical speculations – also suggestive of LSD use – into the nearest he ever gets to apparent wisdom, thus:


“Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.”

Mirroring his narrator’s reverence for De Selby, Flann O’Brien had juxtaposed that quotation with one from an actual genius, Shakespeare, who grappled with the same question, but less cheerfully: “Since the affairs of men rest still uncertain,/Let’s reason with the worst that may befall.”

The book is located somewhere between these two parameters, in a disturbingly comic version of hell, the outdoor scenery of which was probably inspired by O’Nolan’s childhood years in Offaly, circa 1920.

As to when the action is set – not that such things matter in eternity – my suspicion is that it's a slightly earlier period: during the short-lived twilight Ireland that existed between the author's birth in 1911 (when his family lived beside an RIC station in pre-Border Strabane) and Easter 1916.

Parnell is a fading memory – the narrator recalls his name from childhood, when his publican father would mention it to customers and remark that “Ireland was a queer country”. But Redmondism still lives. Hence Sergeant Pluck’s sarcastic judgement on something as “a beautiful commentary on Home Rule.”

Anyway, in 1967, this comic science-fiction novel set in a dystopian past was immediately recognised as a thing of brilliance. A "masterpiece" wrote this paper's reviewer, Ben Kiely, who like other readers had been surprised to recognise parts of it from O'Brien's last novel, The Dalkey Archive.

While it seemingly never occurred to the author to revive The Third Policeman as a whole, he had used a sample of its DNA to create that 1964 work: a book version of Dolly the Sheep (but less successful in structural terms). Unimpressed by The Dalkey Archive, O'Nolan's friend and biographer Anthony Cronin was appalled a few years later to realise that Flann had been "mining a masterpiece to produce the dull dross of a tired and inferior [novel]".

Still, posthumous as it was, The Third Policeman's belated appearance crowned a 1960s comeback by the author, after two decades of exile from book form. It was also a deserved triumph for Timothy O'Keeffe, the publisher who had championed him since the late 1950s, starting with a relaunch of his 1939 debut, At Swim-Two-Birds, which had fallen into near-equal obscurity.

O'Keeffe was a literary philanthropist. If his discovery of The Third Policeman came too late for its author, his good works in September 1967 also included lobbying the Arts Council to give the (just about) living Patrick Kavanagh financial assistance.

Kavanagh had enjoyed a golden summer, finding himself a surprise hit with the flower-power generation. But he was as hard up as ever, and in dire health. He was also lost for company, O’Nolan having been a career-long friend: one of the few writers with whom he remained on good terms.

After the latter’s death, Kavanagh lamented that there was “no-one left to talk to in Dublin”.

So the autumn of 1967 was a sombre one and, even with the arrival of a new Flann O’Brien classic, the ending of an era. Kavanagh was nearing his own supreme hallucination, in November. I don’t know if he ever read the book.

Photograph from the David and Edward O’Kane exhibition at the Flann O’Brien conference in Salzburg last July