This week I discovered a copy of the Brian O’Nolan script The Dead Spit of Kelly amongst many others which were considered for production at the Lyric Theatre. The play, which is about a Dublin taxidermist who murders his employer and assumes his identity, was originally broadcast on RTE for whom O’Nolan wrote sporadically. He is of course more well-known for his fiction, written under the nom de plume Flann O’Brien, and for his bilingual column in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen.
O’Nolan was born in Strabane, county Tyrone in 1911. He studied at UCD, during which time he wrote widely. However, after graduating and moving into the civil service, he found himself constrained by the rules against civil servants publicly expressing political views. This prompted his use of pseudonyms which, while obeying official rules, meant little as his identity was an open secret amongst his colleagues. They found his writing sufficiently entertaining to merit their turning a blind eye.
As Flann O’Brien he wrote two novels famous now despite lukewarm receptions during O’Nolan’s lifetime. At Swim-Two Birds is considered his masterpiece, a complex metafictional work which incorporates existing characters from legend and fiction. The Third Policeman was withdrawn from circulation by the author after failing to find a publisher, only being made available posthumously. It has however found a new audience in recent years due to its inclusion in an episode of the American television drama Lost. Broadcast in February 2006, the episode sparked revived interest in O’Nolan’s work, with the novel selling 15,000 copies in the two days following the show. While O’Nolan has always had a cult following, it is gratifying that this unexpected limelight for The Third Policeman might bring new readers to his work.
For those interested in learning more on Brian O'Nolan's background, there is a three part radio interview with his brother (the artist Michéal O'Nolan) available here.