Monday 23 October 2017

Legend gives his own take on the greats

Ulick O'Connor either knew, or knew someone who knew, the giants of Irish literature, writes Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Liam Collins

HE'S been a bit in the doldrums has Brendan Behan, then along comes Justin Timberlake singing The Auld Triangle for a new film about Behan's lost weekend in New York and a whole new generation begin talking about his wasted talent.

Whether he actually wrote the song, or whether it was the work of his song-writing brother Dominic, is a question that remains unanswered.

Another legend, only he's still living, and is called Ulick O'Connor has also brought Brendan Behan to life in his new CD box set.

O'Connor, who wrote a controversial biography of the raucous Dublin writer in 1971, speaks about Brendan as if it was only yesterday they walked past each other on Grafton Street and Behan bellowed "wanker" across the street at the young barrister.

"I only met him once," admits O'Connor who was talking to a rather grand barrister called 'Flurry' O'Donoghue in Davy Byrne's when Behan walked in and called him an "informer".

Renaissance man Ulick, then a fresh-faced 18-year-old boxing champion at University College Dublin, gave Behan a bloody nose in an alleyway beside the pub. After the row, he invited Behan to join him for a drink, but the writer's dignity may have been dented and they never spoke again.

But after the success of his biography of Oliver St John Gogarty, Ulick was persuaded by his publishers to write a very controversial biography of the author of Borstal Boy, The Hostage and The Quare Fellow (which included The Auld Triangle) which was extremely successful.

Ulick tells anecdotes like he's sitting beside you in the living room. "They used to say that Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood and Brendan Behan wrote Under Littlewood," he says, a reference to theatrical producer Joan Littlewood who made Behan internationally famous.

All this is by way of an introduction to a box set of three CDs released last Friday called Words Alone, in which Ulick O'Connor holds forth in conversation with Roger Green on a collection of great Irish writers.

I remember some of them as programmes for a radio show he did in the past, and he has added new material for the CDs.

Like old wine, they have aged well and sound better today than they did then.

They are all here – Patrick Kavanagh, Christy Browne, WB Yeats, JM Synge, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey, Oscar Wilde, Lady Gregory and Oliver St John Gogarty.

If Ulick didn't know them himself, and he had a passing acquaintanceship with many, he knew people who did.

He recalls walking through Dublin with Gogarty and tells how on his death bed, Joyce was reading a biography of St Patrick written by his one-time friend, Gogarty, who rented what is now known as 'the Joyce tower' where Joyce set the opening scene of Ulysses.

Joyce and Gogarty, who is immortalised in Ulysses as 'Buck' Mulligan, fell out, but never forgot each other or their roistering days in Dublin's red light district, the Monto.

Ulick talks with a mixture of erudition and anecdote about his subjects and brings a cutting edge of theatricality to the whole proceedings with his readings of their work.

Words Alone – a remarkable tour de force in three CDs – is another innovation from Ulick O'Connor who has been producing biography, prose, poetry, plays and journalism for more years than most of us care to remember.

As the blurb on Words Alone says, he "takes the listener on a journey through the vibrant and colourful lives of his subjects".

Words Alone is a wonderful piece of entertainment and a must for anybody interested in these towering figures of modern Irish literature, or the wonderful ways of its presenter Ulick O'Connor.

Sunday Independent

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