50 years of The Third Policeman

Original artwork by Armando Veve

Flann O’Brien wrote The Third Policeman in 1939, straight after the publication and success of At Swim-Two Birds. However, O’Brien initially failed to find a publisher for the strange and dark comic tale and the manuscript wallowed in a drawer until it finally found a home at the Dalkey Archive Press in 1967. Here some of Ireland’s young, contemporary writers reveal what this morbid and hilarious book has meant to them.

Sarah Maria Griffin

When I was 16, I got a job at the bar in the local community centre. I’d stay late, get up for school in the morning, harvest tips, stay busy. Every night around the beginning of my shift, an older gent would come and sit at the very end of the bar and order a Smithwicks and Jameson, and sit with his book, and read in silence. I was too wide-eyed and curious a teenager to have a silent stand-off with him on my early shifts when nobody else was about, so I started to ask him questions. He ran a language school, and was quiet, and wore a wide-brimmed hat.  

I like books, a lot, and frankly way out in the Suburban Massive I don’t have a lot of people to talk to about how much I like books. He seems like an appropriate candidate, I reckon to myself. One evening, I ask him what he thinks I should read and he answers, The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien. Grumpily, he says it like a challenge – like of course the 4th year kid in a convent school had no idea who O’Brien is. Like, of course the barmaid isn’t going to read the book. I do read the book, and have little to say to him about what I think because it is the first thing I read that is utterly beyond me. Here, I am first introduced to playful existentialism. I am tiny and this book is huge. I revisit it in college, later, and I come a little closer to understanding the boldness of it. I will read it again. Maybe, if a woman stands before a book and sees in it her reflection, what she sees is not a true reproduction of herself, but a picture of herself when she was a young girl. Maybe she’ll figure it out this time. Maybe the next.



I read the book, and have little to say to him about what I think because it is the first thing I read that is utterly beyond me.

Oisín Fagan

We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Third Policeman, but we should be celebrating its 77th anniversary. It is a flat out literary tragedy that this beautiful invention couldn’t impact the writers of the 40s, 50s and 60s. We cannot know what novelistic avenues it would have inspired at that time, or how it would have changed the field when it would have been at its freshest and most shocking, and we never will get to know now.

Even more importantly, speaking as a Flann-fan, it is also possible that if it had been published in 1940 and sufficiently lauded, and perhaps even if he had been sufficiently compensated for it, O’Brien, confidence intact, would have continued writing daring long-form works for a few more years. There is the possibility that we could have had two or three more novels as audacious as At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman and An Béal Bocht (the latter being my personal favourite: no Irish person has ever written a better line than ‘their authenticity was too authentic, and their poverty was too poor’). He returned to novels 20 years later, and while his last novels are great reads, they do not have the same ceaseless and desperate originality of his early work.


Seamas O’Reilly

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a book that defies easy description. Or, for that matter, quite difficult description. Not only is its plot absurd and, at times, inconsequential, its entire tone and lilt are so singular as to render concise relation effectively pointless. In it, our author must navigate a strange woozy hinterland of the Irish countryside, encountering prescriptive policemen, one-legged bandits and the assertive voice of his own soul, a censorious inner critic he calls simply Joe.

It is a flat out literary tragedy that this beautiful invention couldn’t impact the writers of the 40s, 50s and 60s.

It is a sickly fever dream of celtic cliché, a ghostly parable that knits together both a deeply cosmic rumination on the universe, and the maddening “excrucia” of curtain-twitching, small town cranks. It’s about life, death, Ireland and tobacco; strong porter and weak atomic forces. It’s about a bicycle. If all that sounds heady and unappealing, it helps that The Third Policeman is also one of the funniest objects mankind ever ripped from a tree.

Everywhere in its breadth is displayed O’Brien’s bracing joy of language, of uncannily rendered dialogue that both echoes and skewers the playful bombast of Irish myth. O’Brien’s delirious flair for overspeech soaks the novel in wordy, intoxicating thrills, such as the moment one Martin Finucane, self-declared captain of all the one-legged men in Ireland, decries life on the grounds that “there is queer small utility in it. You cannot eat it or drink it or smoke it in your pipe, it does not keep the rain out and it is a poor armful in the dark if you strip it and take it to bed with you after a night of porter when you are shivering with the red passion. It is a great mistake and a thing better done without, like bed-jars and foreign bacon.”

In its smaller moments too, we find short aphorisms of such brilliance they stop the heart, yet are casually littered throughout the text like scattered gems: “Your talk is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand” being one that perfectly sums up the book’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it combination of staggering verbosity and mockery of the verbose.

Everywhere in its breadth is displayed O’Brien’s bracing joy of language, of uncannily rendered dialogue that both echoes and skewers the playful bombast of Irish myth.


Patrick Freyne

The Third Policeman blew my mind when I first read it as an impressionable teen because a) it managed to be experimental but still really funny and b) it was Irish. It was hard to believe that this anarchic lunatic Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen/Brian O’Nolan was able to carve out a literary and journalistic career in what appeared to me, at the time, to be a repressive, cultureless hell hole (I lived in Newbridge).

Flash-forward 20 something years and I’m in a pub with the writer Mark O’Connell discussing how O’Brien’s melding of man with bicycle in The Third Policeman is akin to the union of man and machine aspired to by certain Silicon Valley transhumanists. I was being very clever, if I do say so myself, referring to the bicycle as “a technology” and citing its revolutionary impact on rural Ireland. Yes, the Third Policeman has helped to make me the man I am today: a man who is often full of shit. Thank you Flann O’Brien. You will always be much funnier than your imitators.


Mark O’Connell

I think about Flann O’Brien a lot. Maybe not every day, but let’s say two or three times a week, some madness of modern life will strike me as being straight out of his work, or I will read about something and wonder what he would have made of it. I thought about The Third Policeman quite a lot while I was writing To Be a Machine, my non-fiction book about people––scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, hackers––who want to merge with technology, to become immortal computer-human hybrids. I kept thinking, specifically, of O’Brien’s bicycle obsessives, and of the surreal confusion of boundaries between bicycle and man.

Maybe my favourite moment in any novel is the scene where the narrator gets brought into the backroom of the police station, and MacCruiskeen shows him all these projects he’s been working on, insane experiments with the nature of infinity, like a carved chest containing an endless series of smaller identical carved chests, and a spear so sharp its tip can’t be seen. I thought of this scene all the time when I was writing my book. Part of the genius of the The Third Policeman is the way reason and logic are ruthlessly turned in on themselves and estranged to the point of absolute absurdity––something O’Brien has in common with Beckett and Swift. Who knows, maybe it’s an Irish thing.


Rob Doyle

Flann O’Brien’s original title was a strong one: Hell Goes Round and Round. His classic, posthumously published novel is indeed a vision of hell, albeit one disguised as a dark rural comedy, complete with whimsical footnotes and philosophical japery. The plot is circular, which is to say, infinite. The narrator is a dead man wandering through a surreal, menacing realm to which he has been banished for committing murder. Flann O’Brien is remembered as a comical writer, but The Third Policeman, a book as eerie as it is funny, shows the dark side of his talent.


Armando Veve’s The Third Policeman is on show at New Masters, an exhibition of limited edition prints at the Fumbally Exchange, Dame Lane, Dublin 2 until August 6 and is available to buy here. See more of Armando’s incredible illustrations here.

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