Flann O'Brien: The Third Policeman (1967; Penguin Edn. 1986)

This selection has been made in the course of teaching the novels of Flann O’Brien as part of modules in Irish Literature at the University of Ulster and as such it does not constitutes republication in any form. (Page references to Penguin Edn.)


Selected Passages
The [Nameless] Narrator
His “Friend” Divney
The Unfortunate Mathers
The Philosopher De Selby
The Three Policemen
Strange Lore & Inventions
All About Bicycles
Atomic Theory & Omnium
Religion & Theology
Nature & Landscapes

The (Nameless) Narrator
(Opening:‘[…] I was born a long time ago. My father was a strong farmer and my mother owned a public house. We all lived in the public house but it was not a strong house at all and was closed most of the day because my father was out at work on the farm and my mother was always in the kitchen and for some reason the customers never came until it was nearly bed-time; and well after it at Christmas-time and on other unusual days like that. I never saw my mother outside the kitchen in my life and never saw a customer during the day and even at night I never saw more than two or three together. But then I was in bed part of the time and it is possible that things happened differently with my mother and with the customers late at night. My father I do not remember well but he was a strong man and did not talk much except on Saturdays when he would mention Parnell with the customers and say that Ireland was a queer country. My mother I can recall perfectly. Her face was always red and sore-looking from bending at the fire; she spent her life making tea to pass the time and singing snatches of old songs to pass the meantime. I knew her well but my father and I were strangers and did not converse much; often indeed when I would be studying in the kitchen at night I could hear him through the thin door to the shop talking there from his seat under the oil-lamp for hours on end to Mick the sheepdog. Always it was only the drone of his voice I heard, never the separate bits of words. He was a man who understood all dogs thoroughly and treated them like human beings. My mother owned a cat but it was a foreign outdoor animal and, was rarely seen and my mother never took any notice of it. We were happy enough in a queer separate way. (p.2).

‘I still think that day is the most important in my life and can remember it more readily than I do my birthday. ... in keeping it I was stealing it [de Selby]’ (p.8.) ‘I knew that if my name was to be remembered, it would be remembered with de Selby’s’ (Penguin Edn., p.9.)

Nevertheless I packed it in my bag without a qualm and would probably do the same if I had my time again. ... it was for de Selby I committed my first serious sin. It was for him that I committed my greatest sin.’ (pp.8-9.)

[I]t was some change which came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable.’ (p.22.) ‘I did not know my name, did not remember who I was.’ (p.27.)

‘I felt I was standing within three yards of something unspeakably inhuman and diabolical which was using its trick of light to lure me on to something still more horrible.’ (p.154.)

‘I knew that I could never awaken again or hope to understand afresh the terrible way in which I was if I lost the chain of the bitter day I had had.’ (p.158.)

‘Sitting at home with my box of omnium I could do anything, see anything and know anything with no limit to my powers save that of my own imagination ... I could write the most unbelievable commentaries on de Selby every written ... ’ (p.163.)

‘I do not whether I was surprised at what he [Divney] said, or even whether I believed him. My mind became quite empty, light and felt as if it were very white in colour [...]’ (p.170.)

‘My mind was completely void. I did not recall who I was, where I was or what my business was upon earth. I was alone and desolate yet not concerned about myself at all. The eyes in my head were open but they saw nothing because my brain was void.’ (p.171.)

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His Friend Divney
‘The neighbours were not long noticing how inseparable we were. We had been in that condition of being always together for nearly three years and they said we were the best two Christians in Ireland. They said that human friendship was a beautiful thing and that Divney and I were the noblest example of it in the history of the world.’ (p.12.)

[Both of us had] ‘a large thing on the mind’ (12; viz., de Selby and Pegeen Meers.) ‘Once he said something about "social justice" but it was plain to me that he did not properly understand the term’ (p.14.)

‘I do not know exactly how or when it became clear to me that Divney, far from seeking charity, intended to rob Mathers; and I cannot recollect how long it took me to realise that he meant to kill him as well .... I only know that within six months I had come to accept this grim plan as a commonplace of our conversation.’ (p.14.)

‘He [Diviney] said that what he had put under the boards in the big house was not the black box but a mine, a bomb. [...] I was dead for sixteen years’ (p.170.)

A thickening of the right-hand night told me that we were approaching the mass of a large house by the road. When we were abreast of it; and nearly past it, I recognised it. It was the house of old Mathers, not more than three miles from where my own house was. My heart bounded joyfully. Soon I would see my old friend Divney.’ (p.150.)

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The Unfortunate Mathers
‘As he collapsed ... he did not cry out. Instead I heard him say something softly in a conversational tone - something like "I do not care for celery" or "I left my glasses in the scullery". ... ‘I went forward mechanically, swung the spade over my shoulder and smashed the blade of it with all my strength against the protruding chin. I felt and almost heard the fabric of his skull crumple up crisply like an eggshell. I do not know how often I struck him but after that I did not stop until I was tired.’ (p.15.)

‘“Mathers was found in the crotch of a ditch up the road two hours ago with his belly opened up with a knife or sharp instrument.”’ (p.83.)

‘The great fat body in the uniform did not remind me of anybody that I knew but the face at the top of it belonged to old Mathers’ (p.158.)

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The Three Policemen
‘There is Sergeant Pluck and another man called MacCruiskeen and there is a third man called Fox that disappeared twenty-five years ago and was never heard of after.’ (p.31.)

‘I would go to the barracks and report the theft of my American gold watch. Perhaps it was this lie which was responsible for the bad things that happened to me afterwards. I had no American gold watch.’ (p.32.)

‘“Policeman Fox is the third of us ... but we never see him or hear tell of him at all because he is always on his beat and never off it and he signs the book in the middle of the night when even a badger is asleep. He is as mad as a hare, he never interrogates the public and he is always taking notes. If rat-trap pedals were universal it would be the end of bicycles, the people would die like flies.”’ (p.67.)

[Sergeant:] ‘... that is a fascinating pancake and a conundrum of great incontinence, a phenomenon of the first rarity.’ (p.107.)

"Sir Walter Raleigh that invented the pedal bicycle and Sir George Stephenson with his steam-engine and Napoleon Bonapart and George Sand and Walter Scott - great men all." (Sargeant Pluck; p.112.)

‘If I could believe him [Fox] he had been sitting in this room ... calmly making ribbons of the natural order, inventing intricate and unheard of machinery to delude the other policemen ... bewildering, horrifying and enchanting the whole countryside. (p.125.)

‘[H]e [Policeman Fox] had been sitting in this room presiding at four ounces of this inutterable substance, calmly making ribbons of natural order, inventing intricate and unheard of machinery to delude the other policemen, interfering drastically with time to make them think they had been leading their magical lives for years’, bewildering, horrifying, enchanting the whole countryside’ (p.163.)

‘His [Fox’s] oafish underground invention was the product of a mind which fed upon adventure books of small boys, books in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal, solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable. I was lucky to have escaped ...’ (p.164.)

[Policeman Fox:] ‘It would probably be possible for me to save time and trouble by adapting the underground machinery to give both of them enough trouble, danger, trepidation, work and inconvenience to make them rue the day they first threatened me. Each of the cabinets could be altered to contain, not bicycles and whiskey and matches, but putrescent offals, insupportable smells, unbeholdable corruptions containing tangles of gleaming slimy vipers each of them deadly and foul of breath, millions of diseased and decayed monsters clawing the inside latches of ovens to open them and [164] escape, rats with horns walking upside down along the ceiling pipes trailing their leprous tails on the policemen’s heads [...]’ (p.164-65.)

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Atomic Theory & Omnium: ‘[T]he Atomic Theory is at work in this parish ... the half of the people are suffering from it, it is worse than the smallpox ... Would it be advisable ... that it should be taken in hand by the Dispensary Doctory or by the National Teachers or do you think it is a matter for the head of the family?’ (p.72.)

‘“Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometric figures too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms. Do you follow me intelligently?”’ (Sergeant Pluck; p.73.)

‘What is a sheep but millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around and doing intricate convolutions inside the sheep? What else is it but that?’ (p.73.)

‘“Some people ... call it energy but the right name is omnium because there is far more energy in the inside of it, whatever it is. Omnium is the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything and it is always the same. ... It never changes. But it shows itself in a million ways and it always comes in waves.”’ (p.95.)

‘“Everything is on a wave and omnium is at the back of the whole shooting-match unless I [Sargeant Pluck] am a Dutchman from the Netherlands. Some people call it God and there are other names for something that is identically resembling it and that thing is omnium also into the bargain.”’ (p.96.)

‘The moment he [MacCruiskeen] turned the wheel, the unusual light began to change its appearance and situation in an extremely difficult fashion. With every turn it got brighter and harder and shook with such a fine delicate shaking that it achieved a steadiness unprecedented in the world by defining with its outer shakes the two lateral boundaries of the place where it was incontrovertibly situated. It grew steelier and so intense in its livid pallor that it stained the inner screen of my eyes so that it still confronted me in all quarters when I took my stare far away from the mangle in an effort to preserve my sight. MacCruiskeen kept turning slowly at the handle till suddenly to my sick utter horror, the light seemed to burst and disappear and simultaneously there was a loud shout in the room, a shout which could not have come from a human throat. ... They bore an eerie resemblance to commonplace shouts I had often heard such as Change for Tinahely and Shillelagh! Two to one the field?! Mind the step! Finish him off! I knew, however, that the shout could not be so foolish and trivial because it disturbed me in a way that could only be done by something momentous and diabolical.’ (pp.92-93.)

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All About Bicycles
‘“The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half-bicycles”’ (p.74.)

‘“[...] When a man lets things go so far that he is half or more than half a bicycle, you will not see so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with on elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones. Of course there are other things connected with ladies and ladies’ bicycles that I will mention to you separately some time. But the man-charged bicycle is a phenomenon of great charm and intensity and a very dangerous article.”’ (p.75.)

‘It was a gentle saddle yet calm and courageous, unembittered by its confinement and bearing no mark upon it save that of honourable suffering and honest duty.’ (p.147.)

‘How can I convey the perfection of my comfort on the bicycle, the completeness of my union with her, the sweet responses she gave me at every particle of her frame? I felt that I had known her for many years and that she had known me and that we understood each other utterly. She moved beneath me with agile sympathy in a swift, airy stride, finding smooth ways among the stony tracks, swaying and bending skilfully to match my changing attitudes, even accommodating her left pedal patiently to the awkward working of my wooden leg.’ (p.150.)

‘I sighed and settled forward on her [the bicycle’s] handlebars, counting with a happy heart the trees which stood remotely on the dark roadside, each telling me that I was further and further from the Sergeant. I seemed to cut an unerring course between two sharp shafts of wind which whistled coldly past each ear, fanning my short side hairs. Other winds were moving about in the stillness of the evening, loitering in the trees and moving leaves and grasses to show that the green world was still present in the dark. Water by the roadside, always over shouted in the roistering day, now performed audibly in its hidings. Flying beetles came against me in their broad loops and circles, whirling blindly against my chest; overhead geese and heavy birds were calling in the midst of a journey. Aloft in the sky I could see the dim tracery of the stars struggling out here and there between the clouds. And all the time she was under me in a flawless racing onwards, touching the road with the lightest touches, surefooted, straight and faultless, each of her metal bars like spear-shafts superbly cast by angels.’ (p.150.)

‘She [the bicycle] was resting where I had left her, leaning demurely against the stone pier ... my accomplice in the plot of reaching home unharmed’ (p.154.)

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Theology & Religion
‘Never before had I believed or suspected that I had a soul but just then I knew I had. I knew also that my soul was friendly, was my senior in years and was solely concerned for my own welfare.’ (viz., "Joe"; p.22.)

‘I felt, for no reason, that his [Joe’s] diminutive body would be horrible to the human touch - scaly or slimy like an eel or with a repelling roughness like a cat’s tongue.’ (p.101.)

[Joe:] ‘Listen. Before I go I will tell you this. 1 am your soul and all your souls. When I am gone you are dead. Past humanity is not only implicit in each new man born but is contained in him. Humanity is an ever-widening spiral and life is the beam that plays briefly on each succeeding ring. All humanity from its beginning to its end is already present but the beam has not yet played beyond you. Your earthly successors await dumbly and trust to your guidance and mine and all my people inside me to preserve them and lead the light further. You are not now the top of your people’s line any more than your mother was when she had you inside her. When I leave you I take with me all that has made you what you are - I take all your significance and importance and all the accumulations of human instinct and appetite and wisdom and dignity. You will be left with nothing behind you and nothing to give the waiting ones. Woe to you when they find you! Goodbye! / Although I thought this speech was rather far-fetched and ridiculous, he was gone and I was dead.’ (p.104.)

‘It was a map of the parish, complete, reliable an astonishing [...] it showed the way to eternity’ (p.107.)

‘A body with another body in it in turn, thousands of such bodies within each other like the skins of an onion, receding to some unimaginable ultimum. Was I in turn merely a link in a vast sequence of imponderable beings, the world I knew merely the interior of the being whose inner voice I myself was? Who or what was the ore and what monster in the world was the final uncontained colossus? God? Nothing?’ (p.123.)

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Strange Lore & Inventions
‘winds have colours’ (p.28.)

‘He mentions in passing a trick the Celts had in ancient times - that of "throwing a calculation" upon a road. In those days wise men could tell to a nicety the dimension of a host which had passed by in the night by looking at their tracks with a certain eye and judging them by their perfection and imperfection, the way each footfall was interfered with by each that came after. In this way they could tell the number of men who had passed, whether they were with horse or heavy with shields and iron weapons, and how many chariots; thus they could say the number of men who should be sent after them to kill them.’ (p.33.)

‘“The first beginnings of wisdom, he [MacCruiskeen] said, "is to ask questions but never to answer any. You get wisdom from asking and I from not answering.”’ (p.52.)

‘“The point is seven inches long and it is so sharp and thin that you cannot see it with the old eye. The first half of the sharpness is thick and strong but you cannot see it either because the real sharpness runs into it and if you saw the one you could see the other or maybe you would notice the joint.”’ [...] ‘“what gave you the prick and brought the blood was not the point at all; it was the place I am talking about that is a good inch from the reputed point of the article under discussion”’ (pp.59-60.)

‘Hundreds of miles of coarse were visible running everywhere except about the floor and there were thousands of doors like the strong-doors of ovens and arrangements of knobs and keys that reminded me of American cash registers.’ (p.114.)

‘“The beard does not grown and if you are fed you do not get hungry and if you are hungry you don’t get hungrier. Your pipe will smoke all day and will still be full and a glass of whiskey will still be there no matter how much of it you drink and it does not matter in any case because it will not make you drunker than your own sobriety.”’ (p.115.)

‘He [Policeman Fox] pressed two red articles like typewriter keys and turned a large knob away from him. At once there was a rumbling noise as if thousands of full biscuit-boxes were falling down a stairs. I felt that these falling things would come out of the chute at any moment. And so they did, appearing for a few seconds in the air and then disappearing down the black hole below. But what can I say about them? In colour they were not white or black and certainly bore no intermediate colour; they were far from dark and anything but bright. But strange to say it was not their unprecedented hue that took most of my attention. They had another quality that made me watch them wild-eyed, dry-throated and with no breathing I can make no attempt to describe this quality. It took me hours of thought long afterwards to realise why these articles were astonishing. They lacked an essential property of all known objects. I cannot call it shape or configuration since shapelessness is not what I refer to at all I can only say that these objects, not one of which resembled the other, were of no known dimensions. They were not square or rectangular or circular or simply irregularly shaped nor could it be said that their endless variety was due to dimensional dissimilarities. Simply their appearance, if even that word is not inadmissible, was not understood by the eye and was in any event indescribable.’ (pp.116-17.)

‘It was light of a kind rarely seen in this country and was possibly manufactured with raw materials from abroad. It was a gloomy light and looked exactly as if there was a small area somewhere on the mangle that was merely devoid of darkness. (p.92.)

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Nature & landscapes
‘I walked quietly for a good distance on this road, thinking my own thoughts with the front part of my brain and at the same time taking pleasure with the back part in the great and widespread finery of the morning. The air was keen, clear, abundant and intoxicating. Its powerful presence could be discerned everywhere, shaking up die green things jauntily, conferring greater dignity and definition on the stones and boulders, forever arranging and re-arranging the clouds and breathing life into the world. The sun had climbed steeply out of his hiding and was now standing benignly in the lower sky pouring down floods of enchanting light and preliminary tinglings of heat. I came upon a stone stile beside a gate leading into a field and sat down to rest upon the top of it. I was not sitting there long until I became surprised; surprising ideas were coming into my head from nowhere. First of all I remembered who I was - not my name but where I had come from and who my friends were. I recalled John Divney, my life with him and how we came to wait under the dripping trees on the winter's evening. This led- me to reflect in wonder that there was nothing wintry about the morning in which I was now sitting. Furthermore, there was nothing familiar about the good-looking countryside which stretched away from me at every view. I was now but two days from home - not more than three hours walking and yet I seemed to have reached regions which I had never seen before and of which I had never even heard. I could not understand this because although my life had been spent mostly among my books and papers, I had thought that there was no road in the district I had not travelled, no road whose destination was not well-known to me. [34] There was another thing. My surroundings had a strangeness of a peculiar kind, entirely separate from the mere strangeness of a country where one has never been before. Everything seemed almost too pleasant, too perfect, too finely made. Each thing the eye could see was unmistakable and unambiguous, incapable of merging with any other thing or of being confused with it. The colour of the bogs was beautiful and the greenness of the green fields supernal. Trees were arranged here and there with far-from-usual consideration for the fastidious eye. The senses took keen pleasure from merely breathing the air and discharged their functions with delight. I was clearly in a strange country but all the doubts and perplexities which strewed my mind could not stop me from feeling happy and heart-light and full of an appetite for going about my business and finding the hiding-place of the black box. The valuable contents of it, I felt, would secure me for life in my own house and afterwards I could revisit this mysterious townland upon my bicycle and probe at my leisure the reasons for all its strangenesses. I got down from the stile and continued my walk along the road. It was pleasant easeful walking. I felt sure I was not going against the road. It was, so to speak, accompanying me. Before going to sleep the previous night I had spent a long time in puzzled thought and also in carrying on inward conversations with my newly-found soul. Strangely enough, I was not thinking about the baffling fact that I was enjoying the hospitality of the man I had murdered (or whom I was sure I had murdered) with my spade. I was reflecting about my name and how tantalising it was to have forgotten it All people have names of one kind or another. Some are arbitrary labels related to the appearance of the person, some represent purely genealogical associations but most of them afford some clue as to the parents of the person named and confer a certain advantage in the execution of legal documents.[ftn.] Even a dog has a name .’ [35] (pp.34-35.)

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‘The day was brand-new and the ditch was feathery. I lay back unstintingly, stunned with the sun. I felt a million little influences in my nostril, hay-smells, grass-smells, odours from distant flowers, the reassuring unmistakability of the abiding earth beneath my head. It was a new and a bright day, the day of the world. [... &c.]’ (p.37.)

‘It was a queer country we were in. There was a number of blue mountains around us at what you might call a respectful distance with a glint of white water coming down the shoulders of one or two of them and they kept hemming us in and meddling oppressively with our minds. Halfway to these mountains the view got clearer and was full of humps and hollows and long parks of fine bogland with civil people here and there in the middle of it working with long instruments, you could hear their voices calling across the wind and the crack of the dull carts on the roadways. White buildings could be seen in several places and cows shambling lazily from here to there in search of pasture. A company of crows came out of a tree when I was watching [67] and flew sadly down to a field where there was a quantity of sheep attired in fine overcoats.’ (p.68.)

‘[...] Men who were noticeable for the whiteness of their shirts worked diminutively in the distant bog, toiling in the brown turf and heather’ ... ‘When the keen wind struck me in the face it snatched away the murk of doubt and fear and wonder that was anchored on my brain like a raincloud on a hill. All my senses, relieved from the agony of dealing with the existence of the Sergeant, became supernaturally alert at the work of interpreting the genial day for my benefit. The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemists were evident on every side. The earth was agog with invisible industry. Trees were active where they stood and gave uncompromising evidence of their strength Incomparable grasses were forever at hand, lending their distinction to the universe. Patterns very difficult to imagine were made together by everything the eye could see, merging into a supernal harmony their unexceptional varieties. Men who were notable for the whiteness of their shirts worked diminutively in the distant bog, toiling in the brown turf and heather. Patient horses stood near their useful carts and littered among the boulders on a hill beyond were tiny sheep at pasture. Birds were audible in the secrecy of the bigger trees, changing branches and conversing not tumultuously. In a field by the road a donkey stood quietly as if he were examining the morning, bit by bit unhurryingly. He did not move, his head was high and his mouth chewed nothing. He looked [108] as if he understood completely these unexplainable enjoyments of the world.’ (pp.108-09.)

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‘The world rang in my ears like a great workshop. sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side. the earth was agog with invisible industry. [...] Patterns very difficult to imagine were made together by everything the eye could see merging into a supernal harmony their unexceptionable varieties.’ (p.129.)

‘Black clouds were piling in the west, bulging and glutted, ready to vomit down their corruption and drown the dreary world in it. I felt sad, empty, and [170] without thought’ (p.170-71.)

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