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Up in the park



You can't just live inside the Phoenix Park. You have to be invited, or get elected. President Mary McAleese has called áras an Uachtaráin 'home sweet home' for a decade and Taoiseach Brian Cowen is due to move into the splendidly refurbished Steward's House at Farmleigh in the Phoenix Park shortly, a mid-week refuge when he can't get home to Tullamore.

Apart from the peace and quiet, Brian Cowen should also enjoy something else about Farmleigh. He will have an interesting neighbour immediately next door when he moves in.

Dermot Bolger, Finglas native, true Dub and one of Ireland's most successful authors, joined the exclusive club of Phoenix Park VIP residents after he was recently appointed Writer in Residence at Farmleigh for 2008. He moved into the Clocktower Lodge at Farmleigh a few weeks ago and since then has been writing away and enjoying the magnificent grounds of the grand estate.

Farmleigh is the former Guinness home in the Phoenix Park, owned by the State. Now used as a residence for visiting dignitaries, the adjoining Steward's House has been restored by the OPW.

In the evenings, the gates of the estate are locked and, apart from the deer and foxes, the magnificent gardens and parkland surrounding Farmleigh House are undisturbed. Time stands still then, says Bolger, and you could be in Connemara instead of the capital. The great trees rustle and the summer breezes make waves across the meadow grasses. It truly is an oasis in the middle of the city.

"I grew up in Finglas but I've lived in Drumcondra for a good while now, and over the past decade I was always bumping into Bertie. Now that I'm up in the Park I will soon have the present Taoiseach as my nearest neighbour. It's comforting to know that if I need a half cup of sugar at midnight I can call on him... and if he's not at home I can go a bit further and call on the President, or the US Ambassador or the Papal Nuncio. I'm spoiled for choice," Bolger says.

Desert island solitude

Since he arrived a few weeks ago, Bolger has settled into the small Clocktower Lodge, spending some nights there and some at home with his wife Bernie and the family in Drumcondra.

"Waking up in the Phoenix Park is magical," Bolger says. "I love company, but to really inhabit the parallel universe that is a novel in progress, you need to be in solitary confinement. I have always dreamt of spending some time on a deserted island and now it feels as if my wish has come true -- except that my deserted island has a few hundred deer and quite a few night watchmen!"

It may seem a long way from his native northside, working-class background to living in the palatial former Guinness home, but to Bolger it's all part of the odd nature of a writer's life.

"As long as I have somewhere to write I am happy. Being in Farmleigh is a source of pleasure, but being from Finglas is a source of pride. Anyway, a writer often finds himself in strange situations. Some years ago I gave a morning reading at a state event in Dublin Castle and while the other guests were sitting down to a lunchtime banquet, I was hopping onto my bike to lash across town and read in Mountjoy Prison, where crisps and coke were on the menu. I was back on stage in Dublin Castle in the afternoon and trying to convince the other writers that I had spent the previous two hours in jail!

"I was in a coffee shop last year and I met one of the prisoners who had attended my reading in Mountjoy. He's now doing a degree course and writing himself. That meant a lot to me."

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So, although he appreciates the glories of the historical mansion, Bolger keeps it all in perspective. He does some writing in the Lodge but he also has the use of the stately Benjamin Guinness Library in the main house, with its galleried walls of books, run by librarian Julia Cummins.

"I have always written my novels in unusual places," he says, "including the Watch Room of the Baily Lighthouse out in Howth. Airline passengers coming into Dublin used to think that the light flashing on and off on the Baily was to warn shipping, but it was generally me trying to find the right light switch on my way out.

"I also write in All Hallows College in Drumcondra, where I haunt the corridors at odd hours like a modern day Sheridan le Fanu. But Farmleigh is special and I am delighted to have this unique chance to experience the atmosphere here. If O'Connell Bridge is the beating heart of Dublin, then the Phoenix Park is its quiet soul and it is a rare privilege to get to live in it."

This is the second year of the Farmleigh Writer in Residence programme. The chosen author, who lives in the Clocktower Lodge from July to October, is in Farmleigh to write, but is also expected to do some public events such as workshops or readings. And Bolger has interesting ideas on that score.

"I will be opening the House up to new Dublin voices by hosting an evening of emerging writers from Tallaght and Clondalkin and an afternoon performance by young Ballymun rappers. So many new Dublin voices will be heard in Farmleigh over this summer," he says.

Bolger was chosen from a number of applicants for the post on the basis of his extensive body of work. Born in Dublin in 1959, he worked in a welding rod factory after school and then as a library assistant, before becoming a full-time writer and a publisher. He was still in his teens when he started Raven Arts Press and he later co-founded New Island Books, which became one of the most important publishing houses in Ireland.

Several decades later, Bolger is now one of our most successful writers and his critically-acclaimed work has been published in more than a dozen languages. He has written nine novels, including last year's bestseller The Family on Paradise Pier, from which he is giving a free reading tomorrow in Farmleigh.

A fistful of Bolgers

Hugely enthusiastic about writing, Dermot has always been helpful to new writers, something that has made him one of the most popular literary figures in the country. His enthusiasm for literature is infectious and he's always accessible and entertaining. He now often brings his sons Donnacha, 18, and Diarmuid, 16 - both Belvedere boys - when he is on the road with poetry readings. He reads the poems, they play guitars and provide the music. "We call ourselves A Fistful of Bolgers -- two generations united by talent, divided by hair."

Bolger is working on a new novel while he's in Farmleigh but he won't say too much about it, except that "being a novelist is like having a succession of clandestine affairs. Not that I would know, because thrill-seeking for me is having two digestive biscuits with my Ovaltine in the evenings, but when you are writing a novel you do occupy two worlds at once -- the ordinary one where you are never far from a dish cloth and this other, secret world, populated only by phantoms from your imagination.

"All I can say about my present novel is that -- unlike a lot of the other ones -- it is not written in a woman's voice, which is just as well, because at my age the high heels were killing me."

As well as his nine novels, Bolger is the author of seven books of poetry and numerous plays and has quite a high profile abroad, something that is not generally recognised here. His 1990 novel The Journey Home was recently republished in the US by the University of Texas and was the cover story in the New York Times Book Review magazine a few weeks ago. "This is the literary equivalent of getting the cover of Rolling Stone, though people who get the cover of Rolling Stone generally have more hair and less dandruff," Dermot laughs.

"University Press editions are very rarely reviewed in the New York Times and never make the cover, so it was a bit of a first in all kinds of ways. It shows that basically all you need to do is publish a book and hold your breath for 18 years," he says, his self-deprecating humour peppering the conversation.

The first secret of Finglas

His writing has a lighter side as well. He devised the best-selling collaborative novels, Finbar's Hotel and Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel, and he persuaded writers such as Roddy Doyle, Colm Toibin, Anne Enright and Maeve Binchy to each contribute a chapter, with nobody except Bolger knowing precisely who wrote what.

"I call it the First Secret of Finglas," he says, "I'm willing to exchange it with the Pope for the Third Secret of Fatima, if he would meet me half way."

Dermot's fame has spread to Europe as well. The May issue of the French language edition of Elle magazine, for example, had an eight-page section on books for summer reading and it was fronted by a full page on Bolger's Paradise Pier (recently published in France under the title Toute la Famille sur la jetée du Paradis).

Fellow writer Joe O'Connor says: "I'm glad Ireland doesn't give out knighthoods but if it did, Dermot Bolger should get the first one. A brilliant playwright, novelist, poet and publisher, nobody has done more to encourage young writers."

Bolger's work rate is impressive and his list of published work fills several pages. He has edited several anthologies, including The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction. He has been Playwright in Association with the Abbey Theatre and Writer Fellow in Trinity College. Many years ago, his debut play, The Lament for Arthur Cleary, received The Samuel Beckett Award. In 2007, his latest play, Walking the Road, based on the life of Francis Ledwidge, played in Ireland, England, Belgium and the USA. There will be a free performance of it in Farmleigh on August 27.

He's enjoying life in the Park but has no plans to run for President. However, if the Taoiseach needs a cup of tea or a chat or even a sing-song in the evening, Bolger says he is available.

Dermot Bolger will read from his book, The Family on Paradise Pier, tomorrow in Farmleigh at 2pm.

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