I've stumbled upon it in Flann O`Brien's book "Third Policeman" and cannot figure out the meaning of the chip packet phrase. The context:

I had never seen the old man but knew all about him. He had spent a long life of fifty years in the cattle trade and now lived in retirement in a big house three miles away. He still did large business through agents and the people said that he carried no less than three thousand pounds with him every time he hobbled to the village to lodge his money. Little as I knew of social proprieties at the time, I would not dream of asking him for assistance.

‘He is worth a packet of potato-meal,’ Divney said.

‘I do not think we should look for charity,’ I answered.

  • 2
    According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Third_Policeman, "a packet of potato meal" in this case seems to suggest that the old man -- Mathers -- is super rich. As to why a potato packet --something that's most definitely not expensive -- became a comparison for wealth, bear mind the fact that this is a comedy. Comedy doesn't need to make sense. Furthermore, the lack of any logic greatly contributes to the humor factor by subverting the readers expectations and keeping them engaged -- which is what I surmise to be the author's intention in this particular quote.
    – VTH
    Aug 17, 2018 at 12:49
  • 2
    It's an ironic understatement -- meiosis Aug 17, 2018 at 13:40
  • 1
    @vth The expression "worth a packet" meaning "worth a great deal of money", first appeared in books about 1900 and continues to be used, the Third Policeman was written when the expression was well established. It seems to me that the whole expression including the "potato-meal" extension should be taken as meaning "a lot" and not as referring to a literal packet of starchy food. The question is did O'Brien add the "potato-meal" as a comic embellishment or was "worth a packet of potato-meal" an Irish idiom which was the origin of the shorter phrase? Probably we'll never know.
    – BoldBen
    Aug 17, 2018 at 14:48
  • Ah, a bit of an obscure English expression I see. It doesn't even appear on TheFreeDictionary nor any other dictionaries that I can get my hands on, so mistakes are to be expected. Nevertheless, I do agree with what you said. This seems to me to be the case of a rare Irish idiom being intentionally used to leave the reader both confused and chuckling at the same time.
    – VTH
    Aug 17, 2018 at 16:50
  • 1
    @SvenYargs I should add: if you mean the capacity to stand someone potato-meal as a(n ironically-understated) proxy for wealth, the phrasing used isn't some Irish idiom that carries the meaning you tentatively suggested, alas.
    – tmgr
    Aug 30, 2018 at 20:13

1 Answer 1


It is difficult to overestimate just how deliberately and gleefully parochial the writing of Brian O'Nolan can be, whether he was writing as Flann O'Brien or Myles na gCopaleen. Without detracting from his universal appeal, much of its satire cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the historical Ireland of his time and before. A working knowledge of the Irish language, French and Latin is often just as necessary. (And yet all without any of the weighty pretension of the joyless obfuscatory chore that is Finnegan's Wake - but I digress.)

Flicking through a few pages of The Third Policeman, here are some of the many things that no Irish person has ever said (which any Irish reader - and many others - would, of course, know):

"by the Holy hokey"

"Holy suffering senators"

"an arm that's as strong as an article of powerful steam machinery"

Note here both the malapropism and the entirely original turn of phrase at the end:

"...a man can have more disease and germination in his gob than you'll find in a rat's coat"

That's all by way of context, to show that much of the phrasing and speech patterns in The Third Policeman has been cut from whole cloth by Brian O'Nolan and is often both confused and confusing.

To the matter at hand:

"He is worth a packet of potato-meal."

In this instance, I would agree with previous commentators that it is a take on "worth a packet" with added ironic understatement (i.e. Mathers is, indeed, rich) and a touch of some faux Irish flavour. It isn't any real Irish idiom I've ever heard but, rather, par for the odd, convoluted and invented course that is Flann O'Brien.

Whether you wish to attribute it to style, humour for its own sake, or to an effort to skew the reader's sense of reality is a different question - and one you'll be in a better position to judge by the end of the book.

(I do hope you enjoy it - and any incidental study of de Selby or atomics. And, incidentally, the "potato-meal" has nothing to do with chips: potato flour is what is meant.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.