Declan Lynch on his childhood and why 'alcoholic' is more of a stigma than words like 'depression'
Writer Declan Lynch talks to Barry Egan about a childhood paradise of amusement arcades and juke boxes, and why 'alcoholic' is more of a stigma than words like 'depression'
I can just about imagine his little nose poking out of the pram to observe the world for the first time as a baby at home on the One Mile Road in Athlone. That watchfulness, that observing of the world, hasn't stopped since - which most of us will agree is a good thing because very few people have the wit and the brilliance to observe the world the way Declan Lynch does, as evidenced in his new book - with Arthur Mathews - Notes From A Lost Tribe: The Poor Ould Fellas.
While some journalists are serial murderers of the English language, Lynch's columns often contain writing of the kind which some of our best authors - like John McGahern - would have appreciated, and would maybe even have found a kindred spirit in Lynch, rural Ireland's unofficial laureate. He isn't remotely ponderous or the slightest bit dark in person, in the way that those who write interesting stuff about existence can be.
He is mercilessly funny - about himself, about Ireland, about us. He has that rare ability to be very funny on just about every subject, which is a valuable and unique skill set and which is useful for us, too; because when we run up against the forces of humourlessness in modern Irish life, it is important to have people like Declan Lynch to turn to. That said, to call Declan Lynch funny doesn't take away from or impugn the seriousness of what he has to say.
I meet him in a pub in Dublin's inner city on a dull Monday afternoon. He drinks Coke and I feel like a dosser drinking a glass of Guinness at 4pm with a man who has written so many great columns in the Sunday Independent's LIFE magazine about alcoholism.
His two earliest childhood memories are a good memory and a bad memory, says Declan who was born on July 22, 1961. In the kitchen at home in Athlone, the radio would be on all the time, and one day Scotland the Brave was playing on the radio when young Declan, not yet three years of age, started singing along with it.
"This delighted everyone," he says, referring to his father Frank, his mother Frances and eldest sister Kathy, who were present at this first flowering of Lynch's creativity, "which is presumably why I remember it with this weird clarity. No idea what it means though."
"The bad one," he continues, was when he nearly drowned in the children's pool in Blackrock swimming pool in Dundalk.
He was only three years of age. Yet Declan "clearly" remembers sitting on the steps, unable to swim, seeing all the older kids jumping around in this great pool, thinking, "I could do that too, and so eventually I gave it a try.
"My cousin Mary saw me while I was drowning," Declan says, "and saved me."
Declan's Aunt Kitty ran the post office in Blackrock. He spent much of his childhood "in this paradise" in County Louth. The Lynch family went up there from Athlone as often "as was humanly possible".
This was, rationalises Declan, because this was a "seaside place of amusement arcades with T Rex and Slade and Mud blasting out of the jukebox, and swinging boats on the strand, and ice-cream vans and chip-shops and a dance-hall that Horslips came to once, and a famous swimming pool that drew crowds from everywhere".
Sounding like Patrick McCabe on LSD, Declan adds that: "Northern Catholics would come down during the marching season, and every Sunday, a busload of them would come from the war zones of Belfast or wherever, to drink and go crazy for a few hours in the pubs."
Declan can remember also how in Blackrock and in Dundalk, it seemed that every pub had a loud three-piece band playing covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Bad Moon Rising. "Where the hell has that all gone?" he asks now, before returning to what he describes as his Arcadia.
"That area was so prosperous during the 1970s. There was a football team, a dog track, and a racecourse in the town... a brewery and a cigarette factory. The kids seemed to always have money to buy clothes and records and cigarettes. I don't think I'm romanticising it - you couldn't have invented a better place for a kid to be spending the summers.
"And maybe the most important thing of all for me is that they had BBC and ITV up there." During what he rightly describes as the Golden Age of television, Declan could accidentally stumble across an ITV production of Long Day's Journey Into Night starring Laurence Olivier, or Top Of The Pops or Grandstand, or "just soak up those great Saturday nights on the BBC".
The spy thriller writer Len Deighton, who wrote The Ipcress File, which made Michael Caine a star, lived in Blackrock for a while. Declan would see him the odd time in the village, "wearing Bermuda shorts. I don't think I'd ever seen anyone wearing Bermuda shorts before". Declan believes that he "probably got the idea that he wanted to write from Len Deighton because he was the first real writer he ever encountered - "the kind who had loads of books in shops all around the world and made a living out of it and so forth".
"Thanks for that, Lenny," says Denny.
When I ask him does he believe in God, he refers me instead to a rock god. "Put it like this," he says, "as long as I can be in the transcendental presence of Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece or Astral Weeks, I see no reason to be looking for any other Higher Power."
Writing Notes From A Lost Tribe: The Poor Ould Fellas, Declan was possibly accessing a different higher power with his friend (and legendary Father Ted co-writer) Arthur Mathews, who provided the beautiful illustrations. When they did the original Book of Poor Ould Fellas 10 years ago, it was based on the understanding that these poor ould fellas were the one minority in our culture that nobody cared about - nobody except Declan and Arthur anyway...
"I had been writing about them in this paper for some time, again because nobody else in the country was doing it. There was a great reaction to it. People started sending me in stories of various outrages that had been perpetrated against poor ould fellas, even just stuff about one of them arriving at a roundabout in Roscommon and being so traumatised, he couldn't get off it, ending up in Dublin city centre. So I was building up this picture of them being a kind of a lost tribe (where the title of the latest book comes from), an ethnic minority of sorts with their own distinctive way of life, their unique customs, even their own traditional costume, the black suit and the cap."
Declan felt that they should be recognised as such by the UN, except, of course, they weren't because the UN ignored them - "like everyone else", he says. "Unlike every other endangered species, they had nobody to speak for them. So we had to be their voice, because they were so unrecognised, and everyone felt free to ignore their needs, even though these needs were so simple - this was the cruel twist, the fact that the poor ould fellas are asking for so little, yet it is denied to them.
"All they want are things like a smoke and a drink in a cosy bar, the odd song from Johnny McEvoy on the telly, maybe a few westerns like The Virginian, but we will not give them these things."
Instead, Declan believes, the powers that be on TV give the poor ould fellas things they don't want, like celebrity chefs in the afternoon instead of Ironside. Worse, the poor ould fellas can't even go to the betting office without being "forced outside into the cold for a smoke".
"You even hear RTE presenters wondering, 'Why can't they socialise in the pub with coffee rather than alcohol?' Funny, I don't hear anyone wondering why they need all that wine at the dinner parties of South Dublin, and could they not just drink water instead?" Declan laughs.
"So the poor ould fellas have such modest requirements, and all they get is a world full of 'no'. There was this tremendously dark comedy there, which helped readers to connect with the greater issues. This kind of helpless, relentless rage which can be very funny, but only if it's real, and true. And the more true something is, the funnier it gets. And vice versa."
Declan and Arthur were having lunch one day with writer and musician Barry Devlin, "who is also deeply engaged with these issues, and as they were shooting the breeze about the poor ould fellas, they started to realise that 10 years on, if anything, things have actually gotten worse for them. Incredible as it seemed, they were now actually more ignored and victimised by the modern world than they had been before".
Declan believes that the Great Crash had ensured that whatever few quid they had was stolen, and people were encouraging them to use the internet, though most of them don't have broadband, and they don't want the internet anyway, unless Johnny McEvoy is on it, or Ironside, or The Virginian, or it can provide them with a couple of pints and a smoke in a cosy bar.
"So," says Declan, "society has found new things to dangle in front of them, things they should want, but that they don't want - and the things they want, still they can't have. Social changes too have made their lives more complicated, These days, they might be invited to her wedding by the grand-niece, only to find that she is getting married to a woman. Though I hasten to add that the poor ould fellas couldn't give a monkey's about the 'morality' of this, they just can't work out what the hell is going on there.
"They just know that all change is bad, for the simple reason that it is usually bad for them - now if you were to change the things that have been changed back to what they were like before they changed - that's the kind of change the poor ould fellas could live with. But again, they won't be getting that. And I suppose the reason that people have related to their problems is not just the tragic humour of it, but the fact that maybe there's a bit of the poor ould fella in all of us. Many people feel estranged from the modern world, but obviously not to the same extent."
Apart from Declan Lynch, who have the poor ould fellas got to represent them?
"The only people who speak for them are the Healy-Raes; Michael even clothes himself in the classic garb of the tribe. And yet there is one crucial distinction which must be made here. Michael Healy-Rae is not a poor ould fella, he is a rich ould fella. There is a difference," says Declan, who as an ould fella, has passed on something to his daughter Roseanne, an actor and writer, who has written Anchor, a kind of a radio play, which will be performed at Dun Laoghaire Lexicon Library on October 6.
"It is done in the voice of the Anchor of the RMS Leinster which sank in 1918," says Declan, adding that the actual anchor is out there in Dun Laoghaire. "The thing is, it's really brilliant and I'm enormously proud of her, and it's probably better than anything I could do," says Declan of Roseanne, the daughter he had with Jane McNicholas. "Katie is the daughter my wife Caroline (Caroline Hughes, a psychotherapist) and I have together; Adam is the son that Caroline has from a previous marriage."
I ask Declan, who has written authoritatively and definitively at times about alcoholism in his '50 Ways' column in LIFE magazine, about the stigma of the word alcoholic now in 2018. He answers that the word ''alcoholic'' still has this powerful stigma that other words like ''depression'' don't.
"I might be on some radio programme and I haven't had a drink in over 20 years, and probably don't even think about it much, yet some guy who probably has far more ongoing issues than me with the drink, is happy to be labelling me.
"And it's really dangerous too," Declan adds, "this stigma, because it means that people will go to ridiculous lengths not to describe themselves as alcoholics. I'm seeing this everywhere, stories about people who say they're suffering from depression of various kinds, and anxiety, people who also seem to drink quite a lot. As if that's just some kind of a casual accompaniment to the other stuff."
Would Declan have liked the poor ould fellas in his book to be able to drive home after a few pints?
"I wouldn't for a moment want anyone to be drinking and driving, but that's so obvious it's not even worth saying - not that that stops people saying it, when they're giving out about the poor ould fellas, who, let's face it, are not the first people we should be thinking about when we think about dangerous driving.
"In fact, they're probably the last, way behind those who are texting or making phone calls while driving, way behind the daredevil types who might best be called Rich Young Fellas.
"Next to these serious public menaces, some poor ould fella in his poor ould car which can't get above 30 miles an hour anyway on a road that hasn't had much traffic on it since 1952, should not even be in the conversation."
'Notes From A Lost Tribe: The Poor Ould Fellas', by Declan Lynch with Arthur Mathews is out now, priced £10.99, published by Hachette