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'He's done things on his own terms': The fascinating world of poet Pat Ingoldsby
A new documentary looks at how he started his career in RTÉ, how he coped with fame, and where his life is now.

WHEN PAT INGOLDSBY turned up for an interview with RTÉ many decades ago, he had cabbages hanging from his hat. It was the first sign that he was the kind of artist who did things his own way.

He was hired to helm the show Pat’s Chats, which led on to Pat’s Pals and Pat’s Hat, and so kicked off his unique career in Irish TV. But the world of fame wasn’t one that was great for him, as being in the public eye didn’t mean that people always treated him well.

Now a new documentary, The Peculiar Sensation of Being Pat Ingoldsby, looks at the writer and playwright’s life and poetry, showing how he has been one of Ireland’s most empathetic and generous thinkers, while always remaining outside of the mainstream.

The film was directed by Seamus Murphy (maker of A Dog Called Money, a documentary on PJ Harvey), and produced by filmmaker Tom Burke (who made the documentary Losing Alaska). Speaking to The Journal, Murphy and Burke said that initially, Ingoldsby was a reluctant interviewee, which is understandable given his personal story. 

Both Murphy and Burke had approached him separately about doing documentary projects. “It was Pat’s idea actually that we collaborate, which was great,” says Burke. They both came to Ingoldsby’s poetry in different ways – Seamus Murphy had made a film for The New Yorker that featured two poems by him, which got him interested in his work. Murphy approached him about making a documentary on him.

Meanwhile, Burke had some shared family history with him. “He’s from the same part of Malahide that I’m from, and he would have known my parents from back then,” he says.

Ingoldsby was born in Malahide, but now lives in the Clontarf area. When he was young, he contracted polio, and he still lives with the after effects. He started his career in radio before going into TV, and in the early 1990s he moved out of the public eye to focus on his poetry.

“Like an awful lot of Dubliners, I had this loose friendly ‘street relationship’ with him whereby you’d see him on the street, you’d go and have a chat, and buy a book,” says Burke.

Indeed, that’s how most Dubliners have encountered Pat over the past few decades. Until 2015 he sat on Westmoreland St, selling his books of poetry as the crowds passed by him and the homemade signs that he’d taped to the wall.  

Poetic images

Given both its subject and the filmmakers behind it, the documentary is very poetic in tone. The lens is often trained on incidental moments in Dublin city: a person walking on a beach; schoolgirls trying to cross the road; the rain falling on an empty alleyway. Over the images, Ingoldsby reads his poetry. 

Murphy explains how he approached it: “What I did was I found little stories that had the right mood, that captured the same kind of idea, but not literal. You’re listening to poetry, you’re seeing a story play out on the screen, it’s from the place where he’s talking about and it’s a story in itself.”

There’s a parallel film in a way, or a parallel story being told by the pictures, but hopefully they also collaborate with each other and they speak to each other. 

“Seamus has got an incredible photographic eye. He is incredibly visually sophisticated,” says Burke. “Like a lot of documentary people who are photographers, I think there’s probably an anthropologist in there.” Because Ingoldsby’s poetry is about the Dublin streets he grew up on and lives near, the documentary becomes an exploration of the everyday life of Dublin too.  

“Seamus’s ability to observe the streets of Dublin, married with Pat’s poetry about the streets of Dublin, I just thought if these two things can be merged together, we have the chance to produce something really, really interesting,” says Burke. 

During the documentary, Ingoldsby talks about his experience of fame, and the impact that had on him. This, in turn affected his initial feelings about the documentary, says Burke. “Pat has been famous at different points in his life. He suspects it’s bad for him, he suspect it’s bad for his mental health – the film goes into that quite a bit, the mental health challenges that go along with that type of work and that type of fame,” says Burke .

When they first approached him with their idea, he was very firm: he didn’t want it to be a biography. “I was happy with that – I’ve done that with PJ Harvey,” says Murphy of those initial days.

“‘No biography, none of me talking about me, in fact, none of me talking at all’,” recalls Burke . So they tweaked the pitch to be focus on the poetry and how to visually represent it. “He was very sceptical of any kind of a biopic or slanty-headed ‘Jesus, whatever happened to Pat Ingoldsby?’ documentary. The title of one of his books is ‘I Thought You Died Years Ago’,” says Burke . “He’s heard it all. He’s a very smart, very self aware person, he’s been around the block.”

But that initial focus evolved over the years, as the filmmakers got to know Ingoldsby and he grew to trust them. He saw their other work, and how they approached things – neither take a tabloid approach to their work – and realised that they had a genuine approach to the film.

“As time went on, I think he realised we were putting all the time into this, he was getting more comfortable. And he was getting older and then he stopped going on the streets to sell poetry,” says Murphy. “So maybe he was thinking in terms of ‘to hell with it’. You know, this is the legacy, this is a documentary, it’s the only one that’s being made, I’ll be interviewed.” 

That decision was a pivotal one, says Murphy, as it “completely broadened the film because then you could really get into his life”, and it meant that having interviews with people like his siblings and friends made more sense when Ingoldsby got to talk too. 

“The more the trust built up, the conversations between him and Seamus got a little a deeper, got a little more personal, got a little bit more biographical,” says Burke . “And so in the end, where we got to was a film that is about the poetry about Dublin, but also about Pat, but all mediated by the poetry.”

Mental health

In the 1960s, Pat spent some time in psychiatric care, which is something discussed in the documentary. Often Pat’s poetry reflects his mental health and experiences with psychiatric care and electroshock treatment, and his feelings about this. 

Sometimes, those conversations would happen when the camera wasn’t rolling, and Murphy would have to coax him into telling them again on screen. “I think he’s desperately trying to maintain his integrity. I think with his mental health, with this gestalt therapy [which he mentions in the documentary], he has really learned that honesty is the only thing that’s going to help him survive and that’s why he can be blunt,” says Murphy. “He can actually be very direct.” 

“I really respect him as an artist, as somebody who’s able to use his work to deal with his own thing, to deal with his own issues in a way that might be helpful for other people,” says Burke.

“So he puts the difficult experiences that he has had into the poetry and then puts them out into the world. He doesn’t really do self pity.”

Adds Murphy: “He’s a brilliant mind. He’s got the most imaginative mind I’ve ever come across.” 

“In addressing the mental health elements of his story, you’re led by the poetry,” says Burke. “There are poems that are conceived of or written while he was in institutions. So you start with that and say to Pat, this poem is  interesting – how might we visualise that, where is that coming from? And then you’ll get the story of the place he was in both literally and mentally when he wrote that.”

I think the stories from him just flowed then naturally from that, along with the trust that had been built up.

The documentary explores the impact of religion on Ingoldsby and how it affected him as a young child. Says Murphy: “I think what’s really interesting is the Catholic Church really did a number on him. He was a very earnest, sensitive young boy. And they were telling him all this stuff about the trinity and masturbation [being a sin] and everything, and it just did his head in. He was trying to be a good boy and he probably felt very guilty.”

After this period, Ingoldsby went into radio and entertainment, which led to his TV work. “I think he went down a path that he since discovered, I suppose through therapy, that was not really him,” says Murphy. “He was playing to the crowd.” 

It’s been a long time since Pat Ingoldsby was in the glare of the public eye, but those who are fans of his work know how special it is. “My ambition was to make sure the film got finished while he could still see it,” says Burke. ”He’s 79 this year, and I’m very, very conscious of that.”

Is there a message from the documentary? ”I think that the takeaway is his honesty has actually allowed him to survive – honesty and his art,” says Murphy, adding that the poetry is where Ingoldsby poured his heart, his observations, his love and his frustration. “How can I properly characterise it… Integrity: he’s such an authentic person that if he feels somebody is being pompous or being contentious, he really can’t stand it.”

Burke wants people to know that Ingoldsby’s body of work “is really, really valuable”. “I think the poetry is excellent, I think it’s honest. I think he’s a great artist,” he says. “I also think it’s a very important record, almost like a folk record or an ethnography of the streets of Dublin in that period.”

There are poems in some of those books, where you read them and it immediately conjures up the vibe of Talbot street or Westmoreland Street, in that period. And in a city that is constantly evolving, and changing, those snapshots become all the more important.

He adds: “I would like people to look at this, look past the TV persona, which only some of us remember anyway – the poetry is the stuff that’s going to last, I hope for hundreds of years.”

What stands out most to Burke is how Ingoldsby is an individual and has always done things his way. “As an artist, he has done things on his own terms, which I massively respect.”

For Murphy, the documentary shows too how Pat Ingoldsby was ahead of his time when it came to the topics he has written about. “He talked about homosexuality, talked about people with disabilities. It’s all stuff that now is so modish and yet he was diving right in and causing controversy. He was just honest, and funny.”

And above all, Pat is supremely talented. If this was somebody that wasn’t talented, then, you know, it might be a bit preachy. And he’s not preachy. He presents you with a little story about a snail and a cabbage leaf and it changes your world. It’s amazing.

By playing by his own rules, he might have found himself outside of the mainstream, but that only adds to the value of Pat Ingoldsby’s work.

“His books were all self-funded and self-published. And frequently people might look down their nose at that, because it means he didn’t get the stamp of approval of a publisher or some other body,” says Burke.

“And that’s a position you can take, but the fact is he did things on his own terms as he wanted to do them, and the result is a large volume of work that he put out into the world under his own steam with his own energy. That I think is very valuable.”

The Peculiar Sensation of Being Pat Ingoldsby is to be screened at a sold-out show at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival – more details on a theatrical release are expected soon.

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