Chronicles of a friendship between two men of letters
Letter writing is a lost art, but not for Ulick O'Connor and Tony O'Reilly. Donal Lynch visited the former at his Dublin home
Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30
To enter Ulick O'Connor's rambling, book-strewn homestead in Victorian Rathgar is to travel back in time to an era when he was the nearest thing we had to a literary oracle - a sort of Celtic Gore Vidal - and a seemingly-permanent fixture on the national airwaves.
He is at a loss to describe how this happy time ended - he says there is now an unofficial ban on his appearing on RTE - but the wit and wisdom of his Late Late Show heyday lives on within the Havisham gloom of these four walls.
In a voice like tarnished silver he describes the artefacts and sundry mementoes that line the walls - pictures of himself winning national pole-vaulting titles in his youth, the Japanese masks of the mythical figure of Deirdre (in her youthful and aged incarnations) that glower blankly from the walls of his study - remnants from his Noh plays - and in the living room, the poster from his one-man Brendan Behan play at the Abbey in 1971, ("it ran longer than any one-man show there").
Amid the bookcases, lined with his own books, there is a portrait of him in his younger years, a giant bust of himself - constant reminders that even if the world has largely forgotten him, he is still immortal in prose and monumental in bronze.
O'Connor himself seems rather like another priceless antique. He has been writing, talking and entertaining on and off (but chiefly on) for the best part of seven decades - "The great talker doesn't bore. He talks when he gets a chance and if he doesn't he won't say anything. That use of language to pluck things out of the air definitely is an Irish gift."
His father Matthew was the Dean of the Royal College of Surgeons and O'Connor grew up as a child of privilege - he attended and played rugby for St Mary's College - into a renaissance man.
He studied law and philosophy at UCD and won several national athletics titles, including one in pole vaulting. A distinguished debater, he later qualified as a barrister - he became state prosecutor for the west - and also, as early as 1951, worked as a critic and columnist with the Sunday Independent and later, with the Mirror. These were to be a platform for greater renown. He would go on to become drama critic for the London Times and would spend three months a year in New York, where he mixed with the likes of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Warhol, and appeared twice on The Johnny Carson Show.
In those years, O'Connor was often described as a "man of letters" and in a literal sense this was true. He wrote often to friends and regarded letter writing as an outgrowth of his natural facility for conversation. Perhaps his most voluminous correspondence came with Tony O'Reilly, formerly Ireland's richest man, with whom O'Connor had forged a lasting friendship on the rugby pitches.
As O'Reilly ascended through the business world, O'Connor was his eyes and ears on Dublin's social scene, and sometimes the source of O'Reilly's generosity (several of the letters contain thanks for gifts). The letters are documents of an era, and a testament of a mutually useful if nevertheless warm kinship.
"To survive in Ireland you have to watch your back 24-hours a day", O'Connor reasoned in one of the letters, "but to actually survive when you live away part of the year [as O'Reilly did] requires the sort of hide which helped Dante and Virgil to voyage unscathed through the eternal regions."
"I wanted to write him letters as a friend that were good to read," he adds, "but also I wanted to let him know what was going on in Ireland. I never really bothered to go back and read them."
O'Connor's correspondence dealt with issues ranging from social tittle-tattle to national questions. The North was a particular source of cordial disagreement between himself and O'Reilly.
"We argued about it, we expressed our views," O'Connor recalls. "I felt he hadn't reached a stage where he could recognise [some of the issues around it]. John Hume and Adams both, in their own ways, did a job that nobody down here could do. They almost had a Protestant streak to them and doing the plan not getting hijacked halfway. Sands is hardly a Catholic name. Nor is Adams. The Catholics in the North don't go in too much for rhetoric."
O'Reilly did not reply to many of the letters but in one example, seasoned (to choking point) with literary and artistic allusions, he was effusive about O'Connor's writing: "Your letters have a splendid way of carrying themselves and, while I concur with your criticism of Toibin's attempted demolition of a world figure, your recollection of [republican activist] Peadar O'Donnell is quite magical and as I read it, my mind went back to my memory of him as a 10 year old."
The social and political upheavals that serve as the backdrop to the letters' narrative - from the peace process to the fall of the apartheid regime - are present in illuminating observations. The coming tolerance in Irish society is also hinted at.
In one, dated 1968, O'Connor writes of the man on the street's attitude to his gay friend, Micheal MacLiammoir: "The taxi driver said, 'Mr MacLiammoir is a very nice man but he's one of them - 'maphrodites but he can't help it, God makes him that way, it's glandular'. There you have it: from a Dublin taxi man, it's all there: the classical allusion - hermaphrodite coming from the names of the Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite, the Christian compassion - "God makes them that way" - and the scientific basis for the argument - "glandular" - followed by an expression of native Celtic caution."
O'Connor says he hasn't been in touch with his friend since his financial troubles became widely known. "I have no concept at all of financial matters," says O'Connor.
"[O'Reilly] went into a world, the great world of international trade, that Irish Catholics, except for perhaps the Guinnesses, did not enter. We just didn't do it. He took it on. He was in amongst the masons, so to speak. He won, won, won and now I can't believe that he lost, lost, lost. It wasn't due to laziness - his capacity for work was prodigious."
The first glimmer that O'Reilly's ship may not have been as steady as it appeared from the outside came for O'Connor after the breakdown of his friend's first marriage.
"When he left his wife, Susan, he left on good terms" he tells me. "She was a really great person and they were terrifically at ease with one another so when he left her that was a bit of a sign that everything wasn't perfect. And that's all right, of course. But maybe that was a sign that he didn't have complete control over what he ought to do."
In recent years, the voluminous correspondence has trailed off and O'Connor has not heard from O'Reilly in years. Nevertheless the sheer amount of the letters - now neatly bound in a folder - is both a pleasing throwback to a lost art, letter writing having almost been driven to extinction by email, and a testament to a friendship that spanned the decades.
"Tony was certainly one of the great conversationalists, he had an incredible gift for it," says O'Connor sinking into his armchair. "And the letters were part of that conversation."