c. 1940 | Ireland

Flann O’Brien Splits the Atom

Atomic theory is beyond the reach of the third policeman.

“Did you ever discover or hear tell of the atomic theory?” the sergeant inquired.

“No,” I answered.

He leaned his mouth confidentially over to my ear. “Would it surprise you to be told,” he said darkly, “that the atomic theory is at work in this parish?”

“It would indeed.”

“It is doing untold destruction,” he continued, “the half of the people are suffering from it; it is worse than the smallpox.”

He walked on, looking worried and preoccupied, as if what he was examining in his head was unpleasant in a very intricate way.

“The atomic theory,” I sallied, “is a thing that is not clear to me at all.”

“Michael Gilhaney,” said the sergeant, “is an example of a man that is nearly banjaxed from the principle of the atomic theory.

Would it astonish you to hear that he is nearly half a bicycle?”

“It would surprise me unconditionally,” I said.

“Michael Gilhaney,” said the sergeant, “is nearly sixty years of age by plain computation and if he is itself, he has spent no less than thirty-five years riding his bicycle over the rocky roadsteads and up and down the hills and into the deep ditches when the road goes astray in the strain of the winter. He is always going to a particular destination or other on his bicycle at every hour of the day or coming back from there at every other hour. If it wasn’t that his bicycle was stolen every Monday he would be sure to be more than halfway now.”

“Halfway to where?”

“Halfway to being a bicycle himself,” said the sergeant.

“Your talk,” I said, “is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand.”

“Did you never study atomics when you were a lad?” asked the sergeant, giving me a look of great inquiry and surprise.

“No,” I answered.

“That is a very serious defalcation,” he said, “but all the same I will tell you the size of it. Everything is composed of small particles of itself, and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical 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?”

Wit enables us to act rudely with impunity.

—La Rochefoucauld, 1678


“They are lively as twenty leprechauns doing a jig on top of a tombstone.”

“Now take a sheep,” the sergeant said. “What is a sheep, only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around and doing intricate convolutions inside the sheep? What else is it but that?”

“That would be bound to make the beast dizzy,” I observed, “especially if the whirling was going on inside the head as well.”

The sergeant gave me a look which I am sure he himself would describe as one of non-possum [I can’t] and noli-me-tangere [don’t touch me].

“That remark is what may well be called buncombe,” he said sharply, “because the nerve strings and the sheep’s head itself are whirling into the same bargain, and you can cancel out one whirl against the other, and there you are—like simplifying a division sum when you have fives above and below the bar.”

“To say the truth, I did not think of that,” I said.

“Atomics is a very intricate theorem and can be worked out with algebra, but you would want to take it by degrees, because you might spend the whole night proving a bit of it with rulers and cosines and similar other instruments and then at the windup not believe what you had proved at all. If that happened, you would have to go back over it till you got a place where you could believe your own facts and figures and then go on again from that particular place till you had the whole thing properly believed and not have bits of it half-believed or a doubt in your head hurting you like when you lose the stud of your shirt in bed.”

“Very true,” I said.

“Consecutively and consequentially,” he continued, “you can safely infer that you are made of atoms yourself and so is your fob pocket and the tail of your shirt and the instrument you use for taking the leavings out of the crook of your hollow tooth. Do you happen to know what takes place when you strike a bar of iron with a good coal hammer or with a blunt instrument?”


“When the wallop falls, the atoms are bashed away down to the bottom of the bar and compressed and crowded there like eggs under a good clucker. After a while in the course of time they swim around and get back at last to where they were. But if you keep hitting the bar long enough and hard enough they do not get a chance to do this, and what happens then?”

“That is a hard question.”

“Ask a blacksmith for the true answer and he will tell you that the bar will dissipate itself away by degrees if you persevere with the hard wallops. Some of the atoms of the bar will go into the hammer, and the other half into the table or the stone or the particular article that is underneath the bottom of the bar.” “That is well-known,” I agreed.

“The gross and net result of it is that people who spend 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.

I let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture.

“And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half human, almost half man, half partaking of humanity.’

Teasing a Sleeping Girl, by Gaspare Traversi, c. 1760

Teasing a Sleeping Girl, by Gaspare Traversi, c. 1760. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Harry G. Sperling.

“Are you certain about the humanity of the bicycle?” I inquired of him. “Is the atomic theory as dangerous as you say?”

“It is between twice and three times as dangerous as it might be,” he replied gloomily. “Early in the morning I often think it is four times, and what is more, if you lived here for a few days and gave full play to your observation and inspection, you would know how certain the sureness of certainty is.”

“Gilhaney did not look like a bicycle,” I said. “He had no back wheel on him, and I did not think he had a front wheel either, although I did not give much attention to his front.”

The sergeant looked at me with some commiseration. “You cannot expect him to grow handlebars out of his neck, but I have seen him do more indescribable things than that. Did you ever notice the queer behavior of bicycles in these parts?”

“I am not long in this district.”

“Then watch the bicycles if you think it is pleasant to be surprised continuously,” he said. “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 one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at curbstones. 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.”

At this point a man with long coattails spread behind him approached quickly on a bicycle, coasting benignly down the road past us from the hill ahead. I watched him with the eye of six eagles, trying to find out which was carrying the other and whether it was really a man with a bicycle on his shoulders. I did not seem to see anything, however, that was memorable or remarkable.

The sergeant was looking into his black notebook.

“That was O’Feersa,” he said at last. “His figure is only twenty-three percent.”

“He is twenty-three percent bicycle?”


“Does that mean that his bicycle is also twenty-three percent O’Feersa?”

“It does.”

“How much is Gilhaney?”


“Then O’Feersa is much lower.”

“That is due to the lucky fact that there are three similar brothers in the house and that they are too poor to have a separate bicycle apiece. Some people never know how fortunate they are when they are poorer than each other. Six years ago one of the three O’Feersas won a prize of ten pounds in John Bull. When I got the wind of this tiding, I knew I would have to take steps unless there was to be two new bicycles in the family. Luckily I knew the postman very well. The postman! Great holy suffering indiarubber bowls of brown stirabout!” The recollection of the postman seemed to give the sergeant a pretext for unlimited amusement and cause for intricate gesturing with his red hands.

“The postman?” I said.

“Seventy-one percent,” he said quietly.

“Great Scot!”

“A round of thirty-eight miles on the bicycle every single day for forty years, hail, rain or snowballs. There is very little hope of ever getting his number down below fifty again.”

“You bribed him?”

“Certainly. With two of the little straps you put around the hubs of bicycles to keep them spick.”

“And what way do these people’s bicycles behave?”

“These people’s bicycles?”

“I mean these bicycles’ people or whatever is the proper name for them—the ones that have two wheels under them and a handlebars.”

“The behavior of a bicycle that has a high content of humanity,” he said, “is very cunning and entirely remarkable. You never see them moving by themselves, but you meet them in the least accountable places unexpectedly. Did you never see a bicycle leaning against the dresser of a warm kitchen when it is pouring outside?”

Thirty-five Expressive Heads

Thirty-five Expressive Heads, by Louis-Léopold Boilly, c. 1825. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tourcoing, France.

“I did.”

“Not very far away from the fire?”


“Near enough to the family to hear the conversation?”


“Not a thousand miles from where they keep the eatables?”

“I did not notice that. You do not mean to say that these bicycles eat food?”

“They were never seen doing it—nobody ever caught them with a mouthful of steak. All I know is that the food disappears.”


“It is not the first time I have noticed crumbs at the front wheels of some of these gentlemen.”

“All this is a great blow to me,” I said.

“Nobody takes any notice,” replied the sergeant. “Mick thinks that Pat brought it in, and Pat thinks that Mick was instrumental. Very few of the people guess what is going on in this parish. There are other things I would rather not say too much about. A new lady teacher was here one time with a new bicycle. She was not very long here till Gilhaney went away into the lonely country on her female bicycle. Can you appreciate the immorality of that?”

“I can.”

“But worse happened. Whatever way Gilhaney’s bicycle managed it, it left itself leaning at a place where the young teacher would rush out to go away somewhere on her bicycle in a hurry. Her bicycle was gone, but here was Gilhaney’s, leaning there conveniently and trying to look very small and comfortable and attractive.

Need I inform you what the result was or what happened?”

“You need not,” I said.

“Well, there you are. Gilhaney has a day out with the lady’s bicycle and vice versa contrarily, and it is quite clear that the lady in the case had a high number—thirty-five or forty, I would say, in spite of the newness of the bicycle. Many a gray hair it has put into my head, trying to regulate the people of this parish. If you let it go too far, it would be the end of everything. You would have bicycles wanting votes, and they would get seats on the county council and make the roads far worse than they are for their own ulterior motivation. But against that and on the other hand, a good bicycle is a great companion, there is a great charm about it.”

“How would you know a man has a lot of bicycle in his veins?”

“If his number is over fifty, you can tell it unmistakable from his walk. He will walk smartly always and never sit down, and he will lean against the wall with his elbow out and stay like that all night in his kitchen instead of going to bed. If he walks too slowly or stops in the middle of the road, he will fall down in a heap and will have to be lifted and set in motion again by some extraneous party. This is the unfortunate state that the postman has cycled himself into, and I do not think he will ever cycle himself out of it.”

“I do not think I will ever ride a bicycle,” I said.

© Flann O’Brien, 1967. Used with permission of A.M. Heath and Co., Ltd. and the Estate of Flann O’Brien


Flann O’Brien

From The Third Policeman. Born Brian Ó Nualláin in Ireland in 1911, the author published his novels—among them At Swim-Two-Birds and The Hard Life—using the pseudonym Flann O’Brien and his newspaper column for the Irish Times, which ran for twenty-six years, using the pseudonym Myles nag Copaleen. He also served in the Irish civil service from 1935 to 1953. O’Brien died of a heart attack in 1966. The Third Policeman, the novel he had completed in 1940 but could not get published, appeared posthumously.