Tuesday 16 January 2018

Books: Ulick has the last word

Literature: Words Alone -- Ulick O'Connor in Conversation on Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats & Many More Celtic Dawn Productions, 3 CD set, €15

Literary history: Ulick O’Connor and, above, Ulick with Brendan Behan’s mother Kathleen. DAVID CONACHY
Literary history: Ulick O’Connor and, above, Ulick with Brendan Behan’s mother Kathleen. DAVID CONACHY
Ulick with Brendan Behan's mother Kathleen.

Neil Donnelly

Ulick O'Connor introduced himself to the nation in the early, black and white days of the Late Late Show, and in 2006 this Peter Pan of Irish letters introduced himself to a whole new generation on Newstalk radio on Sunday nights when profiling some of the great writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance in conversation with Roger Greene. This set of three CDs is culled mainly from those conversations.

Ulick is a fine performer and entertainer as well as a great biographer. Of his biography of Oliver St John Gogarty, John Ford claimed that it was "the only book I've stayed up all night to read".

On these CDs, Ulick is a superb mimic and is full of anecdote, insight and mischief. We meet Patrick Kavanagh's lung in a glass case in the College of Surgeons. The vocal impersonation is spot on and very funny, as is his description of meeting Maud Gonne, Yeats's great muse and mother of his good friend, Seán MacBride.

He tells of a punch-up with Brendan Behan where Brendan's nose came off worst. No contest. Ulick was a trained boxer.

His descriptions paint memorable pictures. Oliver St John Gogarty kicking a box to release a pair of swans who took off up the Liffey like a pair of torpedoes.

He is good on outsiders, like O'Casey and Synge, who became insiders somewhere else. His favourite Christy Mahon was Cyril Cusack.

He recounts a mysterious phone call he once had from someone claiming to be Molly Allgood's son. Was it genuine or was it a wind-up? Someone setting a hare, knowing Ulick would jump at a chance to reveal some distant offspring of Synge's?

His reading of Synge's The Curse is full of fire, and the reading of Gogarty's lovely Golden Stockings is moving. Though on other occasions something strange happens when he reads a poem; he becomes too reverential and the poem sometimes slips away. But only occasionally.

The sound quality on the radio pieces is fine but the item on Yeats, recorded at the Dundrum theatre, suffers from a booming echo; however, this one slight fault doesn't mar the enjoyment of the overall package.

As well as being pristine snapshots into the past, these CDs will prompt listeners to ferret out Ulick's great biographies, which are still in print.

Also, theatre companies may wish to have a look at some of Ulick's unperformed plays. His play on the great Japanese writer, Mishima, and his version of Alexandre Bisson's Madame X are worth considering. Maybe some of the younger generation may be more open to experiment. Ulick still is.

Neil Donnelly is a poet, playwright and a member of Aosdána.

Irish Independent

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