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The wild man of Clones who is now attempting to tame the stage



I am early, but Patrick McCabe is even earlier for our lunch date in the Winding Stair restaurant. The twice Booker nominated author is already sipping orange juice through a straw when I arrive in the restaurant that was formerly a bookshop. He is also beardless, that most familiar facial foliage has been shorn, revealing him to be younger looking and unexpectedly approachable.

The Patrick I meet today is occasionally cautious, considering his thoughts, but he is also affable, genial, indeed almost chatty. It's as if his often remarked upon gruffness was contained in his whiskers.

"The wild man of Borneo look had outlived its usefulness. I suppose as you get older you don't want to look 80 when you're 60."

And, at 58, Patrick is approaching that landmark, though it doesn't seem to matter much to him. "No more than to anybody else. Nobody likes getting older, but the numbers don't mean that much now."

When I relate how I celebrated my own recent birthday with toasted sandwiches in Grogan's pub, Patrick remarks how you can't have those toasted sandwiches without 12 pints of Smithwicks first, "it'd be the only bit of food you'd have after one of those benders in the 1970s. No benders anymore, mind you". The wild man does indeed seem to be more domesticated.

Born in Clones, Co Monaghan, (pronounced Clone-es, as he informs), Pat's childhood was rarely quiet. His father Bernard and mother Dympna had often agitated relations and, from a very young age, Patrick would escape into his beloved Dandy comics and later into the Luxor cinema in the town. Bernard brought much music into the household and music has always remained a major part of Pat's life.

When Patrick had just qualified as a teacher from St Patrick's Teacher training College in Drumcondra and landed his first position in a school in Longford, he also landed a gig with the Oklahoma Showband, driving around the country with them after school was finished. "But I don't think you could call it going on 'tour'; we played in Recess in Connemara one night and Mulranny, Westport, the next."

When he was teaching in Longford, the 20-year-old Patrick met a young artist called Margot Quinn. They moved to Dublin three years later and married in 1981. They have two daughters now in their mid-20s, Ellen and Katie. Patrick speaks of them as any proud father would, careful about specific details, aware that daughters guard their privacy.

"One is a professor in digital media in Ireland; the other is a journalist in London. They'd be a bit shy to tell me if they write. The digital media one does for her job, but there's an air of secrecy about the other, which makes me think she probably does write something and is just not telling me."

Conversation with Patrick is continual and unpredictable, ranging from the Legion of Mary to upper class brothels to Ulysses in a single sentence. Over our starters of duck and fritters, we talk a lot about theatre, about Harold Pinter, though Patrick initially struggles to call up the last play he went to see, finally remembering The Night Joe Dolan's Car Broke Down at the Olympia.

"It was a fantastic night out. If you want to know what old-style vaudeville theatre was like, when people really enjoyed themselves and didn't care what they were getting, this is it. The audience were dancing in the aisles."

Pat's newest play The Big Yum Yum, which he describes as "a tragic-comedy about the anxieties of inferiority", is receiving its Irish premiere next Wednesday in the Half Moon Theatre, Cork.

'This is not my first time writing directly for stage, but it is my first time writing a major play for stage. I had a disaster of a play written a number of years ago called Loco County Lonesome, best forgotten. It was a chamber piece and should have been produced in a small space, but it was put on in the Olympia and that destroyed it. I learned the hard way.

"I've fiddled about with stage plays but am only now getting into them properly. I feel more confident about the mechanics. We developed this one with a lot of input from the cast, from Kate O'Toole and Brendan Conroy, and we realised we did have a play. It's now a kind of chamber opera, eruptions of the subconscious.

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"It's not about extraordinary people, but about how the ordinary person is extraordinary when you point a giant magnifying glass on them. There are no showbands in it, but there are melodies and there is still singing, but it's built into the show. I don't like when the action has to stop to make way for a song."

He does seem happy enough with his lot today, not weary of the world, accepting that not everyone will get his writing style, that not all reviews will be positive.

"Some people like you, some don't. The real interest for me is the interplay between music and language. And it has always been very important for me to create my own language telling a story. Mine is a very Irish language, it's not John B Keane and it's not Martin McDonagh either."

Readers will certainly attest Patrick has created his own distinct language to inhabit his defiantly fantastical Gothic worlds of disorder.

It is unsurprising to learn that Patrick is an avid reader with at least five books on the go at once. "I read a lot of political biographies, I don't read that much fiction. I have just finished a terrific biography about Daniel O'Connell by Patrick Geoghan. But I am never out of the cinema. The last film I saw? Yesterday, I saw Blue Jasmine, much over rated, a crass appropriation of A Streetcar Named Desire. The day before I went to see the director's cut of The Wickerman, that I would recommend."

And Patrick is all about the cinema; he references Luis Bunuel and other cinema revolutionaries in terms of his writing of this new play. He is also broad in taste, liking the blockbuster as much as the arthouse.

As a writer, is he very disciplined? "I always have been, ever since I was a kid. I always start at a certain time. I could write 10 words on a day or 10,000, what's right is right. I've always been very happy at a desk, never needed to force myself to sit there. I have an office now in the centre of town. At my age, I like the hum of voices in the building, the other people around. Writing can be too solitary, you can get cut off from life."

Patrick is certainly fond of being amongst people and not afraid of being in the public spotlight. Although he never did stand-up, he does like physically standing up and reading. "I used to do things with Jack L and Gavin Friday, whattacha call it, performance art, I suppose."

Patrick is also decidedly peripatetic by nature. When I mention I grew up in Sandymount in Dublin, he throws in "oh we lived there for a while too".

After Longford and several other pit stops, Patrick and Margot settled in London for 10 years when his daughters were small and there was a long stint in Sligo, the landscape of which features in his latest book. He lives now in Christchurch in the centre of Dublin and still has a house in Clones. But he does intend to one day return to London: "I move around a lot, never settled. But I think you have special associations with the place your children grew up, every corner has a different memory."

"I really only have a handful of friends that I've known from childhood and from teacher training in St Pat's. It doesn't really matter to me where we are, we're really a contained unit," says Patrick of his relationship with Margot.

Coffees finished, Patrick reveals a long association with our lunching destination, or to be more specific the bookshop that occupied it for many years. He brings me downstairs to show me a photograph of Patrick with his wife Margot and the writer Dermot Bolger attending what must have been a particularly liquid poetry launch: "Look at us, we're all obviously entirely drunk, you don't get social pictures in the paper like that any more."

Patrick McCabe's newest novel Hello and Goodbye is reviewed today on pages 24-25, The Big Yum Yum opens on Wednesday in the Half Moon Theatre, Cork.

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