Tuesday 22 October 2019

Whatever happened to Jamie O'Neill?

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

A rumoured six-figure advance and comparisons to James Joyce ensured instant fame for Jamie O'Neill when he exploded onto the world of books with At Swim, Two Boys. That the young Irishman had had a relationship with TV presenter Russell Harty only added to the fascination. With a new French lover in tow he disappeared to a cottage in Galway. Donal Lynch tracked him down to find out what happened next

The "mess" in his isolated 200-year-old cottage is such that Jamie O'Neill doesn't particularly want me snooping around it. I try to explain that squalor is the perfect setting for an interview -- I'm much more interested in the storied dirt than the polished surface -- but he's having none of it. And, so, on an apocalyptically wild day in Galway we instead meet for coffee in Eyre Square. I am relieved to spot him so easily since he doesn't have a mobile phone, but, still, I have some trouble connecting the 10-year-old author photo with the wan, gap-toothed personage before me. I had wanted him to be as dashing as the book jacket and his achingly romantic prose somehow suggested he might be.

Still, it is a relief to have physical proof that he is, at least, still alive. Like many people I have been impatiently scanning the horizon for the Second Coming of Jamie O'Neill for almost a decade now. It's been that long since At Swim, Two Boys, was published -- a book that made him a literary sensation and earned him well-deserved comparisons with Flann O'Brien -- to whom the title nodded -- and James Joyce. The richly textured, massively ambitious love story between two Dublin teenagers set against the backdrop of the build-up to the 1916 Rising left literary critics gasping for superlatives and became a worldwide bestseller. The author's talent was so dazzlingly pronounced, so assured and yet he had seemed to rise without trace. Who was he really?

As interest in the book grew and the film rights were sold, fragments of his personal narrative made their way into the public domain: the relationship with television presenter Russell Harty, the long periods of poverty and homelessness, the 10-year gestation period of his epic meisterwerk. The man seemed endlessly fascinating. We wanted more.

And then? O'Neill retreated to a life of almost Salingeresque isolation. Using the rumoured £1m advance and rights sale of the book (he scoffs at this figure when I mention it) he bought the Galway cottage and moved there with his partner, Julien Joly, a French dancer and massage therapist. There have been extremely occasional forays into journalism (although none, it would seem, in quite some time) but no more books. The prediction of David Marcus, the well-respected literary editor who "discovered" O'Neill, that the author might very well stop writing, "because he may feel it will never be good enough" seemed sadly prescient.

So what has he been doing? "Um, just pottering around," he murmurs quietly, taking a quick puff of his substitute cigarette contraption ("it's not for giving up, it's for getting through"). "I don't want to be that sort of person who writes because he's a writer, who thinks that he must have a new book coming out or he'll lose his following or whatever. That would be like having a child for the child benefit. Writing is so important that it's a good thing not to do it."

He appears to feel the same way about speaking because for great stretches of our conversation he says very little or dreamily trails off with a sort of question-begging ellipsis. He dismisses some of my questions as overly "psychoanalytical" and describes himself as "cagey". Little jokes, attempts to lubricate the conversation can be met with blank stares. When he does decide to really speak about a subject, however, he is disarmingly open and his wonderful turn of phrase makes the long silences worth the wait.

He was born 47 years ago in London to Irish parents. He grew up the youngest of four children in the Dublin suburb of Cabinteely and went to school at Presentation Brothers in Glasthule (the same school described in At Swim, Two Boys). His father was a civil servant and "we were on the very lip of being middle class. Consequently outside appearances were very important." He was an unhappy teenager. "I didn't get on with my father. Unlike virtually every other adolescent boy," he wryly adds. "Not just over being gay but also things like staying in school. We disagreed on politics and religion. It was the bull calf coming up. It did seem to go to unusual lengths though. My mother would serve us dinner separately."

He once claimed to have grown up in a house without books and to have only been a moderately good student. But he seems so incredibly well read -- his conversation is seasoned with Latin tags and biblical and literary references -- that he must be a phenomenal autodidact. "When I was a teenager," he explains, "I went to Australia and stayed at a boathouse on the edge of a petrified forest. I had an uncle there who was a publisher of educational books. He had the franchise for Open University tapes. I just started listening to those tapes."

He left home a few times but finally, for good, at 17. He went to London and worked in a paracetamol factory -- the smell haunts him still -- but soon returned to Ireland and lived in Dalkey. He remembers it as being a happy time. "I lived in one of those Martello Towers before you get to Dun Laoghaire. There were five or six of us renting. We would leave a line out overnight and in the morning we would have caught something for breakfast."

In some ways the Dublin of that era was a good place to be young. "There was no money in the country at all," he remembers, "and consequently no one was expected to have any money. And everyone was on the cadge. Anyone who had anything at all had to buy rounds for everyone."

He was bisexual then and was out to his circle of friends but this was Eighties Dublin and gay life had not yet been invented. "It was a part-time community because you'd only meet there (in the bars) -- never anywhere else. There was Saturday lunchtime in the Bailey -- that was a big thing. In the South William you had sort of gangsters and their molls and really hardened effeminate gay people."

Against this somewhat bleak backdrop it seemed unlikely that his overriding desire to fall in love would be fulfilled and he began visiting London more frequently. "I never went back to London, but my visits became longer and longer and eventually I just stayed." It was around this time he met the television star Russell Harty at a party. On their first night together Harty played Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony and read a passage from A Midsummer Night's Dream to the then 21-year-old O'Neill. "He was the 52nd most famous person in England," Jamie smiles. "Just after the two Ronnies. He was much older so it wasn't what I was thinking of. I rarely watched television unless I was with him."

He is perhaps harsh on Harty's level of fame. With his mordant turn of phrase, the presenter was the Jonathan Ross of his day, for a time the main rival of Parkinson, and his show produced many uproarious moments -- including the memorable time he was slapped in the face by Grace Jones (she claimed he had ignored her while speaking to another guest).

O'Neill remembers of him: "He was much bigger in person. His best friend (the playwright) Alan Bennett pointed out that television usually exaggerates people and makes them bigger, but with Russell it made him smaller. He was extraordinarily cultured and well read. He was the sort of person who could be very funny at the dinner table and make you feel funnier. He brought out the wit in other people."

O'Neill kept himself separate from Harty's London retinue and eventually spent most of his time at the presenter's house in Giggleswick, a village in North Yorkshire. Harty encouraged him to write and with his lover's support O'Neill published two novels -- Disturbance and Kilbrack, although neither met with much critical fanfare.

Six months before Harty's death, O'Neill became aware that he was seriously ill. "He had a book coming out. There was a big party and Lord Snowdon was going to be there. When I arrived in London he was in bed and I said, 'You can't be in bed, Lord Snowdon is going be be here!'"

I ask him if he knows how Harty contracted Hepatitis B and he glares at me. "I suppose I do!"

He says he had no idea, however, that the illness was going to be fatal. "I should imagine that he had a greater insight than I did. I was 27 or 28 then. It wasn't the sort of thing I expected. He had to go to hospital. Because the press were all over him. The tabloid press declared war on gay people at that point. Not just Aids -- anything gay at all. Aids was the icing on the cake."

After Harty's death, journalists hounded O'Neill and he was offered money to sell his story. On the day the presenter died, letters arrived saying things such as: "At this difficult time your thoughts will be towards the future and financial security is important ... " O'Neill refused all offers but the press went ahead anyway and the Sunday Mirror published a nude photo of the author that had been taken when he had worked as a model in London years before.

He says the most difficult thing however was the attitude of Harty's family, who took control of the presenter's estate.

"I had no standing in the house. I wasn't in charge -- the door was open. The legal standing would have been handy -- but it wouldn't have been the answer. I wanted some kind of social acknowledgement. I had to deal with a lot of stuff like 'what are you still doing here?' from his family. At his funeral, for instance, I wasn't given a seat at the front -- that was terrible. I was the dirty queer. I wasn't the bereaved or something -- I was the person who had caused all of this. Back then a lot of people were dying of Aids and the cause of death was given as something else so a lot of people probably thought he had that. In fact I sometimes wondered even if it was being hidden from me. But I don't think so."

Harty had not changed his will when he became ill and no provision had been made for Jamie. After his death the writer was left homeless. Homeless as in park benches or staying with friends?

"Both actually. You have to understand I wouldn't have been the easiest person to be with then." Did he have a breakdown? "It was more of a slowdown -- consequently it took a long time to get out of. I needed some kind of grievance counselling. There is a feeling of treachery as you start to come together again," he says of the slow movement out of his depression. "It feels like a betrayal."

The only thing that Harty's family allowed O'Neill was ownership of the couple's dog, Paddy. Years later Paddy would bring more happiness to Jamie as he escaped one night from his leash in a pub. He was found on the street by Julien Joly, and Jamie began a relationship with him (they have since split).

It took about two years of "drifting" before he found a job as a night porter as a residential home for the mentally ill and At Swim began to gestate. In that quiet, low-stress environment he had the time and space to explore the development of the book on his laptop. He earned £220 a week -- just enough to pay the bills -- and it did not seem as though this would ever change.

But then fortune intervened. David Marcus, the editor of the Phoenix anthologies of Irish literature found one of O'Neill's short stories while browsing in Rathmines public library in Dublin. He was hugely impressed and sent a postcard to O'Neill which said that he would be interested in publishing more of the author's work. At that point the manuscript for At Swim had been sold for "about £600" before it had been finished but O'Neill later borrowed money to buy it back from them.

"I told David that I had half a novel ready and I sent it to him. And he came over to England and we met."

More than a year and a half passed and O'Neill eventually posted the finished manuscript to Marcus. He went to Ireland and when he came back there was a letter explaining that it had been sent to Giles Gordon at Curtis Brown. (Gordon, who is not given to wild praise, called the book "the first major novel I've encountered in typescript since A Suitable Boy in 1992".) The author was phoned at work and told that the book had been sold, reportedly for the largest amount ever paid to an Irish writer.

"I hated the talk of money around it because I put my heart and soul into it and all it was famous for was the money and I can tell you if you divided it by 10, which was the amount of years it took to write, it didn't add up to a very high standard of living."

He doesn't speak of it as a very euphoric moment -- but then he seems so quietly implacable I can't see him getting wildly excited about anything. There was a celebratory dinner at the Ivy in London.

"I did feel slightly incidental to the whole thing." There followed a lavish launch at Somerset House in London, in which the water in the fountains had been dyed to match the artwork in the book. The timing was spectacularly bad however. In the hours before people arrived the planes struck the Twin Towers in New York and the author was left standing under the arch, turning people away.

The book made its way into the world and O'Neill suddenly found himself able to "afford the joke" of Celtic Tiger-era property prices and the artist tax exemption sealed the deal. He moved to Galway with Julien and lived happily there with him for some years until that relationship broke down -- he still sounds very upset about it. "I'm still in love. With Julien. I don't think I should say that but I don't think he'll read an English-language newspaper. When I think about what I want I just want things to be the way they were, but then I realise the stupidity of that hope."

As we speak I notice my voice getting quieter to match his low murmur. By the time we part we are almost whispering to one another, very gravely, with occasional raised eyebrows for shimmers of humour. He remains vague to the end about whether we will see him published again. "What you need to understand," he says as I finish my now cold coffee and we go outside so he can smoke, "is that that book was my heart. And you can't just grow a new heart."

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