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'It was fun, everyone was drunk all of the time' – artist paints a colourful picture of 1940s Dublin

"JP Donleavy submitted The Ginger Man manuscript to 40 publishers before it was accepted," snorts Joan de Frenay. "I didn't have that patience."

Joan, a writer and painter, took a more circuitous route to becoming a published author. Only now, in her 90s, has she finally got an ISBN number – for her recent memoir Love in the Fast Lane.

As highlighted recently on RTE's Nationwide, Joan has quite a remarkable story to tell.

The daughter of a Shakespearean actress who had worked with Sir Henry Irving, she moved to Ireland as a young child to live with her grandparents. Before the war, Joan came up to Dublin to study at Trinity College. Her father withdrew support but, fascinated by the city's artistic bohemian demi-monde, Joan stayed on. "It was fun," she says. "Everyone was drunk all the time."


Her memoir recounts her adventures as an attractive young woman pursued by older men, many of whom proposed to her, despite most of them being married.

Joan insists she was "a bit green" but her rebellious lifestyle makes Shane MacGowan and Pete Doherty seem like characters from Mary Poppins.

When a party, planned for Dublin's infamous late night basement shebeen the Catacombs, relocated to Joan's flat, she met the man she would later marry, Count Peter de Frenay.

"I had a room over The Catacombs," recalls Joan of the house in Fitzwilliam Square. Brendan Behan described the basement as a place where "men had women, men had men and women had women."

"Dickie Wyman, who ran the place, took lodgers," she continues. "He had Gainor Crist, the prototype for The Ginger Man, staying in the Pink Parlour. And David (a friend of Joan's) had the East Wing while Brendan sometimes slept in the Snug. It was JP Donleavy who christened it the Catacombs. There was a party every night. You would have loved it." When Joan moved to a new flat in Donnybrook, the party followed.

"That's how I met Peter," she recalls. "Brendan was there. And Dominic Behan. All of the bohemian people of Dublin. It was a large garden flat. It had a room with no windows which we called the gas chamber. Dickie Wyman was there. He was a terrific character.

"He went on with his gay life but we got on very well. We were like brother and sister. If he was drunk I would take his shoes off and put him to bed, in the gas chamber."

Dickie eventually went to America but kept in touch with Joan. Having fallen for Joan, Peter and his girlfriend, an heiress, moved in with her. "We were all miserable," says Joan. "She had a terrible crush on me. Peter had a crush on me. It was a menage a trois."

The Second World War was a period when, despite the conservatism of Irish society, Dublin bohemian night-life was buzzing with draft dodgers from Britain as well as artists, writers, actors and occultists.

Joan felt comfortable walking on the wild side. Mention a name from the era and she'll regale you with stories.

Did she ever meet Patrick Kavanagh? Of course she did.

The poet once loaned his flat to Joan and a boyfriend for a tryst. "There was nothing in it except newspapers," she recalls.

"He had a heart of gold," she adds, remembering Kavanagh. "I knew him quite well. He was very sensitive and wrote beautiful poetry.

"But the trouble was he was very ugly and, you know, women go for looks. I got on alright with him. I never had a row with him but it seemed almost everybody else did."

Gainor Crist? "Oh, Gainor had married a girl during the war and later had a new girlfriend, Pamela," she says.


"But her parents didn't approve and gave him money to give her up. But they took the money and went off to Spain together."

It was when watching an aunt get ready for a major society event in London that a very young Joan resolved to reject convention.

Lamenting that she'd had so little time with her husband Peter who died in the mid-1980s, she shrugs impishly and wonders if perhaps she shouldn't have been so headstrong.

"I could have married a number of wealthy men when I was young," she declares. "But Peter was a very fair person. Very kind. Very chivalrous."

Don't be surprised if her book, which reads like Maeve Binchy crossed with Fifty Shades of Grey, becomes a hit movie. This pioneering woman's astonishing life is sure to hold a few more surprises.

Love in the Fast Lane by Joan de Frenay is published by Trafford Publishing