Friday 16 November 2018

JP Donleavy: Literary giant who made Ireland his home

Kim Bielenberg recalls the late Irish-American author

Irish-American author JP Donleavy at home in Levington Park, Co Westmeath. Photo: Marc O’Sullivan
Irish-American author JP Donleavy at home in Levington Park, Co Westmeath. Photo: Marc O’Sullivan
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

'When I'm dead, I hope it may be said: his sins were scarlet, but his books were read." So wrote the Irish-American author JP Donleavy, who has died at the age of 91 in hospital in Mullingar, near his home, Levington Park.

Whatever about his sins being scarlet, his books have certainly been read in vast quantities. 'The Ginger Man', first published by a pornographic imprint in Paris in 1955, has sold 45 million copies and has never gone out of print.

It has also been one of the biggest selling books in Ireland since the foundation of the State. Its hero, Sebastian Dangerfield, an American student at Trinity College in the late 1940s, is one of the great cads in Irish literature.

The renegade student spends much of his time rambling around Dublin, getting drunk, burning the furniture, cheating the landlord and carousing with women.

The novel won many admirers including the American writer Dorothy Parker, who described it as "a bawled-out comic song of sex". The actor Johnny Depp is so besotted with the book that he bought the film rights, and wrote the foreword to the 60th anniversary edition - but surprisingly it has not yet been turned into a feature film.

Less impressed were the Irish censors who banned the book for many years, and the Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, who complained to the Gaiety Theatre about a 1959 stage adaptation. The production was pulled after just three days following a review that described it as "an insult to religion and an outrage to normal feelings of decency".

Author JP Donleavy
Author JP Donleavy

Culture Minister Heather Humphreys yesterday paid tribute to the writer: "JP's body of work stands tall alongside contemporaries and friends such as Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan."

James Patrick Donleavy was born in Brooklyn on April 23, 1926, the son of Irish immigrants. After serving in World War II, he studied microbiology at Trinity College in Dublin, and it was his experiences there that inspired his most famous work.

His notoriety did not deter Donleavy, known to his friends as Mike, from moving to Ireland permanently in 1971 to a country estate, where he was able to avail of the generous Irish tax regime for writers.

I visited the author for an interview some years ago, and found him in robust good humour. At the gates of Levington Park, there was a sign warning visitors to beware of rampaging bulls and wolfhounds.

Two granite lions and a battered estate car stood sentinel outside the slightly crumbling Georgian mansion. Inside, a welcoming Donleavy poked logs of the fire in the grate as he told stories of Dublin in the 1950s - his friendship and fights with Brendan Behan, and struggles to be published.

His own paintings adorned the walls (an exhibition of his work recently opened at the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin); there were piles of books everywhere, a grand piano in the corner, and on the mantelpiece a photo of Winston Churchill holding a machine-gun.

His New York accent was softened with Anglo-Irish cadences, and he seemed to affect the mannerisms of a tweedy country gentleman farmer.

Donleavy based at least part of the main character in 'The Ginger Man' on his fellow American student Stephen Gainor Crist.

Gainor Crist was a well-known character around the so-called literary pubs of Dublin in the 1950s. The writer Anthony Cronin once recalled him as a charming, bowler-hatted gent with a cane.

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Donleavy seemed to be obsessed with the man who inspired his best-known character and told me his death was a mystery.

"He is supposed to have died on a boat on the way to America in the 1960s, but nobody actually saw him dead," he said.

Although frequently described as a recluse, Donleavy was an engaging host. He was keen to talk about making dry stone walls on his farm, and his prowess as a boxer.

"At one time I was one of the fastest punchers in the business," declared the author who boxed when he was in the American navy, and was once provoked to throw a punch in a Dublin pub when someone teased him about his beard.

All of a sudden during my visit, Donleavy rose from his seat and threw swift left hooks into the shadows before pulling out a picture of himself next to 'Smokin' Joe Frazier.

Donleavy recalled Behan with particular fondness. Behan was one of the first people to read the manuscript of 'The Ginger Man', marking it with his suggestions.

Behan famously said of the novel: "This book is going to go around the world and beat the bejaysus out of the 'Bible'."

When 'The Ginger Man' was first published by Olympia Press, Donleavy was shocked to discover it was part of a pornographic series.

He feared his literary career was finished but he went on to publish more novels including the bestselling 'Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B' (1968), and 'The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman' (1977).

Although he lived in Ireland for most of his life, he was not always flattering about his adopted homeland, describing the Irish as a "small inbred population of highly active begrudgers".

Nevertheless, the novelist was honoured with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards in 2015.

He is survived by his sister Mary, his son Philip and daughter Karen from his first marriage to Valerie Heron and several grandchildren. Learning of his passing, admirers of his work remembered Donleavy's parting shot in 'The Ginger Man': "God's mercy on the wild Ginger Man".

Irish Independent

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