The Third Columnist – An Irishman’s Diary about the unseen collaborators behind Myles na gCopaleen and Flann O’Brien
David O’Kane’s poster, inspired by the ‘The Third Policeman’, at the International Flann O’Brien conference in Salzburg
On a rare outing from his Irish Times column, in 1954, Myles na Gopaleen (he had by then dropped the eclipsis) wrote a short story for The Bell magazine, called Two in One.
It was a gothic horror tale in which an oppressed taxidermist’s assistant first murders his hated employer and then, using all his professional skills, dons the dead man’s skin as a disguise.
This should be the perfect crime, except of course that people now start wondering where the assistant has gone, until the suspicion hardens that his employer has killed him. In the meantime, the skin has fused and the murderer is ultimately condemned to hang for a crime he hasn’t committed – taking his own life.
Comically absurd as this might be, it had uncanny parallels in the real-life relationship between Brian O’Nolan (aka Myles and Flann O’Brien) and his long-time friend and collaborator Niall Montgomery.
Montgomery was not a taxidermist, but he was a man of many other skills, additional to those required by his day job of architecture. One of his sidelines was to act as occasional stand-in on O’Nolan’s column, writing as Myles and affecting the same literary style, as nearly as possible.
In a riveting keynote address to the International Flann O’Brien Conference in Salzburg this week, Dr Maeb Long explained how complicated this arrangement could get, sometimes to the point of causing the friends to fall out badly.
Once, in 1956, Montgomery noticed material in Cruiskeen Lawn that was a word-for-word repeat of something he himself had published months earlier in an architectural journal.
He accused O’Nolan of plagiarism only for O’Nolan to claim, plausibly enough, that he had found the text among a pile of old papers and assumed it to be one of Montgomery’s offerings for Myles. If that’s what it was, Montgomery had since forgotten and taken it elsewhere.
But a few years later, the relationship became even more entangled when Montgomery was given his own column in The Irish Times, under the pseudonym “Rosemary Lane”.
While majoring on the theme of Dublin architecture, it was of a style not dissimilar to Cruiskeen Lawn.
And as Dr Long told a rapt audience, the cohabitation reached an uncomfortable climax when one day in 1964, through chance or sub-editorial design, the columns appeared side by side.
By then a sick man, insecure, and sorely reliant on his earnings from Cruiskeen Lawn, O’Nolan took very badly this appearance of a “ghost at my elbow”. An intemperate letter to Montgomery followed and so, in short order, did Montgomery’s enforced resignation as “Rosemary Lane”. Having been almost supplanted, the main Myles reigned alone for the short remainder of his life.
The most startling revelation of Long’s talk – “The Politics of Friendship – This is not about a bicycle” – however, went back to the start of O’Nolan’s literary career and involved another Niall, Sheridan.
He too would become a Myles stand-in and, and under a different Irish Times pseudonym, “Birdcatcher”, would also achieve the distinction of once winning the Sporting Life Tipster of the Year competition.
His friendship with O’Nolan had been immortalised by his inclusion as a character in Flann O’Brien’s debut novel At Swim-Two-Birds.
But the same year that appeared, 1939, Sheridan published a short story of his own called A Matter of Life and Death, later developed into a radio play.
By then, O’Nolan/Flann was working on his second novel: The Third Policeman, now considered a classic but not published until 1967, after his death.
As Flannoraks will know, it centres on an unnamed narrator who is (rightly) presumed guilty of a murder but whose hanging is delayed by the antics of surreal policemen who, among other obsessions, believe all crimes to be bicycle-related.
So it was fascinating to learn, via Dr Long, that Sheridan’s forgotten story has striking similarities with O’Nolan’s novel. Striking is one of the similarities, in fact: as in the Third Policeman, the victim in Sheridan’s story has his head bashed in. There are coincidences of name too, including “a stranger” in Sheridan’s story, like the unnamed narrator of The Third Policeman.
But Sheridan’s policemen will have particular resonance for Flann O’Brien fans. “Someone is after stealing your bicycle, I suppose”, his sergeant first asks the stranger, when the latter tries to report a murder.
Several more such interruptions follow, until the stranger grows exasperated. “This is not about a bicycle,” he shouts; “It’s a much more serious matter than any bicycle could be.” At this, the policemen glance at each other in puzzlement. Then the sergeant resumes speaking. “I see,” he says gravely: “It’s about a motorcycle.”