“The Ever Widening Spiral”

Flann O’Brien’s “Third Policeman” and “The Legend of Stumpy’s Brae”

An exhibition of Painting, Drawing, Sculpture and Video Animation by Eddie O’Kane, Joanna O’Kane and David O’Kane

The Grand Jury Room, The Courthouse, Lifford , County Donegal

Flann O’Brien (Brian O ’Nolan) was born in a house on the Bowling Green, Strabane in 1911. He is regarded as one of Ireland’s most important writers along with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

“The Third Policeman” is recognised as his most important novel. It can be argued that many of the roots of Flann O’Brien’s inspiration are to be found in his childhood and youth in Strabane and neighbouring Lifford, even though for many years the Irish midlands have been thought of as the back drop for this novel.

As a young boy, he and his brothers spent their time cycling around the area. They also listened to the local tales told in the homes of their mother’s family, the Gormleys, who owned a local newsagent and fancy goods shop in Strabane’s Main Street.  Highlights of their time would have been visits to the Cinemas in Strabane and Lifford where the programme changed every two nights. Comics featuring cowboys, detectives and science fiction fired their imagination.

The exhibition looks at a particular Donegal connection near Lifford, which is further enhanced by the writing of the famous nineteenth century author Cecil Frances Alexander in her poem “The Legend of Stumpy’s Brae”.

Cecil Frances Alexander’s husband was Minister of Christ Church, which is situated directly opposite Flann O’Brien’s birth place in the Bowling Green.  He will have been aware of her writing from an early age.

His mother’s family, the Gormleys were involved in writing and theatrical productions and ‘the tale of Stumpy’s Brae’ would have been one of the stories of his childhood.

In “Stumpy’s Brae” a couple , a man and wife, murder a pedlar on his way home in order to steal  his money, and after cutting off his legs they put his body into a chest and bury him.

In “The Third Policeman” two men murder a cattle dealer on his way home and steal his cash box. They bury his body and much of the later story surrounds the quest to find the cash box which has gone missing.

Both of these stories are tales of greed, murder, guilt and retribution.

It is possible that Flann O’Brien found some of his inspiration for “The Third Policeman” in “The Legend of Stumpy’s Brae”

In “Stumpy’s Brae” their victim returns to haunt them at their home and follows them when they flee over the ocean. The ghost promises to haunt them to the nineteenth generation.

 In “The Third Policeman” the main protagonist encounters his dead victim and talks to him in an afterlife. He questions him to find his cash box. After numerous experiences, he eventually realises that he is dead and in hell, doomed to re-enact each encounter for eternity. 

In both stories the murderers inhabit a nightmare world without escape.

The art works on display in this exhibition are part of an on-going series of national and international exhibitions inspired by the work of Flann O’Brien by Edward, Joanna and David O’Kane.

Venues have included Salzburg University, Austria, The Irish Embassy, Berlin, Germany, Burns Library, Boston College U.S.A. and Boston College Headquarters Dublin.

The artists wish to acknowledge the sponsorship of the main funders Creative Ireland, Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Donegal County Council. We also thank Gillian Graham and her staff at Lifford Courthouse for facilitating the project. Thanks also to Joseph Gallagher, Heritage Officer, County Donegal and Christian Dupont, Burns Library, Boston College, and Arts Council Ireland