'Sinéad's voice is rapturous and Joe's writing is from the ether'
The engineer turned memoirist tells Maggie Armstrong about his childhood – and his own world-renowned children
It's almost disconcerting how few grudges Seán O'Connor holds. You expect more from a memoirist. All the misfortune is there, it just hasn't become misery. Dressed festively at 75, he's an old-school gent, most at ease telling a story, reciting a poem, or drifting into song. He won't use the word "poverty" in relation to his working-class roots and he doesn't harbour bitterness at the usual post-war miseries that go in memoirs – not at being "biffed" (hit) at school, or at being deprived of a secondary education.
It turned out he didn't need one. He left school at 13 but became an autodidact, teaching himself all he needed to know to be a structural engineer decorated with fellowships, a qualified barrister and, betimes, a leading spokesman for divorce – he led the campaign to have the status 'Separated' added to the Census form.
And, of course, he produced a few world-famous children. Naturally, they creep into the interview that is supposed to be about his new book, Growing Up So High: A Liberties Boyhood.
When we meet for lunch the book has just reached number one in Irish non-fiction paperbacks. He can't contain his delight, telling the Spanish waitress: "I wrote this book, and if you buy a copy, I'll sign it for you."
He likes that his name will be displayed in bookshops among great authors, "beside Joseph O'Connor's (his son's) name!"
Sean chooses Bewley's on Grafton Street for lunch, where we have a pot of tea and some plain food from their colossal menu.
As a boy he stood outside here watching coffee beans roasting, and he sat writing his memoir here after Hachette Ireland approached him. He had written a few stories for The Big Issue, and Hachette was amazed by his talent. He says writing came easily to him.
"I took time out in the great manner of a classicist," he says in his wordy Dublin brogue. "Down to Bewley's with me on a Friday after tea, sitting at a table on my own, remembering the songs, the parties, the places. And I jotted them down in a jumbled fashion. I went about it seriously and I didn't exaggerate or understate."
As you'll all learn when you buy the book (d'you hear?), Seán was born on 15 Francis Street in 1938 in the middle of 13 children. Growing Up So High is about this clamorous, Guinness-soaked part of Dublin, as he knew it from age 12 to 14. It's a charm, even if you've never been a boy and don't relate to apple-robbing and fence-scaling. "It's a story of hope and optimism; it reflects the character of the Liberties people. It's not saccharine, it isn't sweet," he says.
Seán remembers the area as a happy, not a poor, place to be a child, even if summer holidays were on Sandymount Beach. In his class there were 63 pupils and four had bare feet, but he says: "I never heard the word poverty mentioned, it's actually a state of mind." (Though on the Marian Finucane show, his voice faltered as he described a destitute urchin that came into his class one day.)
When he was 13 he was told he couldn't go to secondary school because he was two months too old for the scholarship class. "You slipped under the net," his teacher at Francis St CBS consoled him. Seán describes sitting in a rage in Patrick's Park by the cathedral, quoting Luke's bible to himself: "To beg I am ashamed, to dig I am not able."
He had been top of his class in English composition and had huge respect for the Christian Brothers (still does).
"I made up my mind that things were going to be different. I had no intention of going to work in a factory as my father had and my brother Tommy," he says. He did something very ambitious then. He changed his name to John.
"I said 'I shall be John V O'Connor'," he intones in an English accent. He went to work as an office boy in a consulting engineer's firm, "still in short trousers". He did miss the social aspects of schooling, but "wasn't trammelled by a formal education". "I would have become a solicitor or a stockbroker as far as I was concerned. I was just intent on advancing."
In the book, Seán's late mother describes her son as "a real troublemaker . . . He did very well at school. The Masters all said he was brilliant (that's what he says)". I wonder if much has changed, as he mentions his academic achievements since then.
He says he didn't have to leave behind his identity when he became middle class. Did his accent change? "I made it change, I lifted my vowels. I was better understood in the business I was doing. To me, language is only communication. I never went to elocution lessons, but you can't read through the House of Lords reports without the right vocabulary.
"There's no point in talking in an accent that people don't understand. When I went to work in Mallagh's (engineers) office I was surrounded by Trinity graduates who couldn't understand me. If I made any grammatical mistakes they'd correct them."
Unusually for a science practitioner, Seán hasn't ruled out the irrational world, the world of things that can't be explained. He says he felt his parents with him as he was writing the book. When I ask about the influence the Guinness family had in the Liberties, he explains a bit from his book about ghosts that I had dismissed as theatrics.
The 18th-Century house he was born in was once owned by Arthur Guinness's first wife, "Lady Jane", and she stuck around apparently. "When I was a kid I could see this woman on the staircase. She was a ghostly person but I didn't know she was a ghost. On the landing there was a wardrobe with an old cracked mirror and we used to see her combing her hair and smiling at me in the mirror."
He believes there could a "spirit world", of visions and hobgoblins that interact with the imagination. "I believe that there are poltergeists. I believe in the supernatural but I'm not superstitious."
He sounds more than ever like an engineer when he says this.
How does he explain the collectively unearthly talent of the O'Connor clan? Seán is vague and unboastful about where the lyrical strain comes from. His grandfather read him Victorian poetry and he had aunts that sang. Is this where his second daughter, Sinéad, got her voice? "Part of it is DNA," he says, "but Sinéad's – I mean God made the world. The way Sinéad sings is rapturous to me. I don't know where she got it from." Joseph's writing is "from the ether as well".
On having a happy childhood, he says "I was allowed be myself. I had plenty of overseers but nobody told me what kind of person I should be, they just encouraged. It was self-reliance. And I don't take any credit for it. I was very lucky to be born into a loving environment".
There is a tragic underside to this, and he won't go there. Seán ends the book with the day he met his first wife Marie in their teens.
Their marriage broke up in 1975, and he had to fight for custody of their four children. Marie was killed in a car accident in 1985.
What can he say about fatherhood, and about the childhoods of his own children?
'Oh no. That's an area that I don't want to go into. I loved Marie madly when I met her, as you can see. But as they say, hopes and dreams are things that life can shatter, and my hopes and dreams were shattered, but if a book is ever written about that end it'll be Joe who'll write it."
There is a photo in the book, taken in 1989 of Seán with his children, step-children and his second wife, Viola Suiter, which we pore over for a moment. "It was a happy day. Sinéad was coming into her own. I have to be careful . . . ," he says and pauses.
Does he have to be careful not to talk about Sinéad, whose diverse media appearances could only weary a father? No. He says ". . but . not to mention her only".
"There's Joe, Joe is well known. Jane – she's Doctor Jane. John's a psychotherapist. Eoin is the marketing manager at Sony. There's dear Viola. There's Doctor Emer O'Connor – she's Sean Keating's official biographer. That's my darling Lisa. In the front is Kate, she works for the Style section of the Sunday Times in London."
Is the O'Connor-Suiter home an exciting bohemia, a paper-strewn creative workshop with song piercing the air and temperaments broiling? "Not really no, I leave it to them".