The flat countryside around Tullamore left a deep impression on the future writer’s mind. And when, 20 years later, he wrote an existentialist murder mystery called The Third Policemen, set mainly in a nether afterworld, he used Offaly as his model.
Flann O’Brien (1911-66) was the well-known Irish novelist and political commentator. He was born in County Tyrone as Brian O’Nolan and raised mostly in Dublin. The writer spent about four years in Tullamore where his father, Michael V. Nolan, worked with the Revenue keeping an eye to the duty or taxes to be collected on Tullamore whiskey when it was removed from the bonded warehouse. From 1940 until his death, Flann wrote a political column called ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ for The Irish Times under the pseudonym of Myles na Gopaleen; his biting, satiric commentaries made him the conscience of the nation. As Flann O’Brien, he published three novels, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), The Dalkey Archive (1964), and The Third Policeman (1967). He also published a play, Faustus Kelly (1943). The Third Policeman is now considered his best and it was possibly in Tullamore he got his poky and spooky ideas for this quirky book which after a struggle in the late 1930s was published in 1967 after his death.
Those enthusiastic about the novels of Flann O’Brien/ Brian O’Nolan will know that the writer spent about four years in Tullamore from November 1920 to Summer 1923 at the house known as ‘The Beeches’ about two miles out the Daingean Road and just east of the signpost for an exit road to the canal and Digby bridge. Anthony Cronin in his biography of O’Brien, No Laughing Matter (first published in 1989 and reprinted in 2019), states that the writer’s father, Michael O’Nolan, was transferred to Tullamore:
a town situated in the flat, rather featureless central plain of Ireland. Brian was to use this landscape many years later  as the background to The Third Policeman and to give its very emptiness and lack of individuality a curiously threatening and disturbing quality. It was Michael O’Nolan’s job to oversee the payment of excise duties by the distilleries in his area. The principal ones were D.E. Williams of Tullamore, who made a brand called Tullamore Dew, and Locke’s of Kilbeggan. Both of these were often mentioned later in Brian’s Irish Times column; and in later years he was to affect more than a drinker’s knowledge of the law governing the proof strength or otherwise of whiskey, sometimes to the annoyance of publicans.
The O’Nolan boys did not go the school in Tullamore even though there was a national school and a new secondary school near Daingean Road. Apparently the local schools were out of the question, but their sister Róisin did attend. However, did they use the library attached to the Mercy convent and called there to get books after mass each Sunday and to Gorry’s in Harbour Street to buy copies. Their father had purchased an Overland car to get himself to Kilbeggan, Tullamore and call on the farmers of the area who were growing tobacco. The growing of this product was then receiving official encouragement. Sometimes the inspector brought the children with him. It was the time of the Anglo-Irish war and the only near neighbours in Tullamore were a family by the name of Daly who were farmers in the area. Their leisure activities included visiting the local cinema which was either that in the Foresters’ hall or that near the convent in the former YMCA (St Mary’s) Hall. Sometimes their father would bring the children on his excise rounds. There were few cars on the roads but lots of bicycles and Ciarán Ó Nulláin could recall the ‘back step’ when mounting the bike. Ó Nualláin also recalled their house as being the only one on the Cappincur Road to Tullamore town at the time. When they moved to Dublin they were reminded of the midlands because a butcher in Kilbeggan by the name of Kelly sent up a joint of prime midland beef week in week out for twenty years. The boys appear to have been happy in Tullamore and perhaps the ‘nether world’ idea was undeserved.
In a piece in the Irish Times in 1961 ( a puff for Williams’ Tullamore Dew) Flann recalled his time in Tullmore, visits from the Black and Tans and Egan’s Bridge House where you could buy a pound of butter and a pound of nails.
Frank McNally picked up this theme in an article in the Irish Times of 20 April 2016 when he wrote:
It’s not every weekend you get the chance to go through hell, or at least a version of it. So finding myself in Tullamore on Saturday last, I took a slight detour to a place called Cappincur. And there I spent some time exploring the infernal regions, in one of their literary representations, which proved a surprisingly pleasant experience.
For those of you not au fait with Flann O’Brien, I should explain that Cappincur was one of the more important childhood homes of his real-life creator Brian O’Nolan, who spent formative years there from the age of nine.
They were formative years in the life of Ireland too, starting in 1920, when the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries patrolled the area, and ending in 1922 when O’Nolan’s father was transferred to the city, to become part of the new Free State’s excise operation.
But in the meantime, the flat countryside around Tullamore left a deep impression on the future writer’s mind. And when, 20 years later, he wrote an existentialist murder mystery called The Third Policemen, set mainly in a nether afterworld, he used Offaly as his model.
Or so at least says his biographer, Anthony Cronin, who suggests that the area’s very flatness and lack of relief gave the novel the “curiously threatening and disturbing quality” it needed.
That the scenery was also highly flammable (thanks to the many turf bogs) must have been a factor too. But then again, there is nothing as obvious as fire in The Third Policeman’s hell. On the contrary, the book’s events take place in a strange but handsome countryside where “everything seemed almost too pleasant, too perfect, too finely made”.
The narrator’s first journey, post-damnation, is along a road that he surmises must be one of the world’s oldest. His reasoning, like much of the book, is eccentric. But interestingly, it so happens that not far from Cappincur – near Edenderry – archaeologists once found a bog track dating from 2,000BC.
Even so, it would probably be a mistake to read much into such details, because the presiding genius in The Third Policeman is the lunatic scientist/philosopher De Selby, to the study of whose work the narrator is homicidally devoted.
Thus O’Brien uses the route’s supposed antiquity only as an excuse to digress into the savant’s theories about roads, which include his belief that a good one will always be essentially one-way – “with a certain air of destiny, an indefinable intimation that it is going somewhere, be it east or west, and not coming back from there.
Flann O’Brien/ Brian O’Nolan died of cancer at the young age of 56. By some his career is seen as a failure because he spent too much time on journalism. Perhaps his failure to have The Third Policeman published in 1939-40 upset him. Yet, we must remember by way of excusing him the stultifying effects of the war years and the 1950s.
Already published in the Offaly Literary Associations series:
A Parnellite, James Joyce and a Quid of Tullamore, Michael Byrne
Banagher and Arthur Bell Nicholls, James Scully
The most haunted castle in Ireland: the story of novelist Andrew Merry (aka Mrs Mildred Darby) of Leap Castle, Co. Offaly, Noel Guerin
Banagher and Anthony Trollope, Michael Byrne