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Irish book awards

His book was banned and burned, but JP Donleavy has had the last laugh

The author lives in a mansion in Mullingar, and paid him a visit.

IMG_7486 Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

WITH ITS RIBALD descriptions of sex, extramarital affairs, terrible husbands, heavy drinkers and bar fights, author JP Donleavy’s 1955 debut novel The Ginger Man was perhaps always going to fall foul of Ireland’s then notoriously strict censorship laws.

And fall foul it did – the book was banned by reason of obscenity, and burned. The tale of student Sebastian Dangerfield (based on a real-life person, American student Gainor Crist) and his brazen ramblings and fumblings throughout the Dublin of 1947 was deemed unsuitable for the delicate eyes of the Irish – and for Americans, too.

The book is set in a very particular time in late 1940s Ireland. It depicts the Irish capital in a way that people of later generations won’t recognise. ”It dawned on me that this particular period was a very curious and strange time in Dublin, and probably my own life as well,” Donleavy said in an interview a number of years ago.

Today, it has been announced that Donleavy is to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards on 25 November. It comes as The Ginger Man celebrates its 60th anniversary (two new editions were printed for the occasion), and as Donleavy continues to reap the success of his not-so-cult novel.

The Ginger Man still makes him money; it continues to gather fans. Some of them are better known than others – the foreword of the 60th anniversary edition was written by one Johnny Depp.

(Depp was mooted to play Dangerfield in a The Ginger Man film back in 2005. Since then, there hasn’t been any concrete news on the film, but work on bringing it to the big screen doesn’t appear to have stopped.)

A tale of litigation

jp donleavy YouTube YouTube

The Ginger Man survived its banning, but it had a difficult birth, with its publishing the subject of a protracted legal battle. After being rejected by numerous publishers, including Random House, Scribners, and Little, Brown, it was picked up by Olympia Press, which was recommended to Donleavy by one Brendan Behan, in 1954.

What Donleavy didn’t know was that Olympia Press intended on publishing The Ginger Man as part of its pornographic Travellers’ Companion series.

Donleavy was appalled at the thought of his book being labelled pornography, and set about suing Olympia Press in order for the book to be published by a London publishing house. The book was published that December in the UK by Neville Spearman Ltd, but the litigation lasted years. It ended, somewhat absurdly, with Donleavy owning Olympia Press.

The inspiration for The Ginger Man’s bawdy and feckless protagonist, Crist, lived a mysterious life, and Donleavy doesn’t know what happened to him. “His life was very sort of private,” he says now. The story goes that Donleavy once thought he spotted Crist on a Dublin street, but he disappeared before he could approach him.

Donleavy went on to write nearly 30 novels, plays, and works of non-fiction. One of them, Fairy Tales of New York, inspired the Pogues’ Christmas song, and the band’s vocalist Shane Macgowan is one of the celebrities who’ve spent time in Donleavy’s home.

IMG_7493 Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

A fire blazing

I visit Donleavy at his home, Levington Park, in Mullingar to find out more about the octogenarian. In person he is curious, asking me about where I am from, where I live, and my impressions of Dublin. He encourages me to take at least three weeks to visit New York so as to make the most of the city where he grew up.

At 89, he is understandably not the verbose younger man who gave in-depth interviews to the likes of the Paris Review.

Bundled up in a red check coat, under which lurk a number of layers, and with a wine-coloured beanie hat perched on his head, he takes up his usual spot in the kitchen, at the dining table by the fire. A radio in the background sends out bursts of classical music.

Turf logs keep the fire blazing as we chat; when I get home, I can still smell the wintry warm smoke on my clothes. On the crowded mantelpiece behind Donleavy are photos of him with people like Cillian Murphy and Depp (he took them both to a local bar, Weirs, a few years ago).

On the wall opposite is a black-and-white photograph of the author with Olympic gold medal boxer Joe Frazier (who famously was one of the few to beat Muhammad Ali), who died in 2011. Donleavy refers to it a number of times during our conversation.

It was taken at the height of both men’s careers: Frazier is cloaked in a dark, white-trimmed satin robe, with the hood up; Donleavy, in a smart suit, stands behind him.

There I am talking to the world champion. I’m standing, he’s just before one of his fights. Joe Frazier.

IMG_7507 Artwork by JP Donleavy's daughter Karen Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

Scattered throughout the house are beautiful photographs, artwork by his daughter Karen, and lots of art – colourful watercolours and oils – by Donleavy himself.

A huge portrait – one of a number of portraits of him in the house – of a younger Donleavy hangs on the wall along the flight of stone steps to Levington’s first floor. In it, he’s wearing the tight salt-and-pepper beard and impeccable tweeds that he was famous for.

After our chat, we look in the guest bedrooms, with their patterned floor-to-ceiling wallpaper and four-poster beds. In one of them is a wardrobe in which hang a number of Donleavy’s old tweed suits and coats.

“Look, my boots,” he says, pointing to a pair of brown leather riding boots tucked in the corner. On a shelf above them sit a bowler hat and a top hat. He doesn’t have much occasion to wear them now. They stand like relics to his former life.

A life story

James Patrick Donleavy was born in 1926 in Brooklyn, New York to Irish immigrant parents: a dad, Patrick, from Longford, and a mother, Margaret, from Galway. (The hugely comprehensive JP Donleavy Compendium has a detailed chronology of the author’s life.)

The family were comfortable, and Donleavy didn’t want for money. He grew up in Woodlawn, delivered papers for a spell as a young boy, and joined the New York Athletics Club in 1941, at the invitation of a friend (he’s still a member to this day).

IMG_7504 Donleavy's desk, in the room which contains his archives. Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

In 1944, he enlisted in the US Navy, and it was after he was honourably discharged, in 1946, that he journeyed to Ireland. His mother encouraged him to enter Trinity College Dublin (TCD), and this move turned out to be hugely important in the course of the young Donleavy’s life.

(He says that he didn’t mind attending autopsies while studying bacteriology at TCD from 1946 to 1949, as “I was in the US Navy so I’ve seen all the bad things”.)

It was at the New York Athletics Club that Donleavy learned his famed boxing skills. They gave him a rather fierce reputation, even in Ireland. He tells me about stopping a man from attacking two young girls at a New York stoplight:

[I] pulled him back and he said: ‘Hey what do you want, you want to be hit?’, or something like that. And I just looked at him and said ‘Try it’, just like that. And my God did he turn around and move away. Because there was no evidence of fear or anything else, which I would be very good at.

Donleavy’s ability to throw a punch gave him a sense of internalised protection. He would walk unafraid along the New York streets, something he would also do after he moved to Dublin.

“I used to go out and walk on the streets in the scary parts and somehow, I don’t know how they had the idea, but I was feared.” he says. “I walked any place in the slums, no other people dared to do this but I did.”

And I’d walk through these terrible parts of Dublin and look in the [homes]. You could see rats running through the hallways, the entrance hall and things like that. So it wasn’t anything particularly pleasant.

IMG_7495 One of the reception rooms in Levington. Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

He says at one point that “people were actually afraid to go out into Dublin”, but Donleavy spent quite a bit of time in the pub, mainly Davy Byrne’s off Grafton St. There, it was a bit safer.

“That was alright because the pubs would be pubs where all the people would know them and people were always there, so it could be safe and so on, you wouldn’t get into any difficulties. So I’d go to these places to have a glass of beer,” he says.

He began the process of writing The Ginger Man while in Dublin, but also worked on it overseas, on the Isle of Man and the United States. “Being out of Ireland provided a very helpful distance,” he told the Paris Review.

Life at Levington

The twice-married Donleavy moved to his current abode of Levington Park in 1972. The house is over 260 years old, and it wears its age in the wrinkles across its walls. It is a remarkable mansion, but one that requires much love.

It has stone floors, and no central heating, windows that require fixing, and its hot water pipes were being coaxed back to life the day I visited. And yet for its trickiness the house -which is situated on a large tract of land, and borders part of Lough Owel – is a curiously fascinating place.

IMG_7508 A hallway upstairs in Levington. Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

Donleavy notes, as he nods towards the window and Lough Owel beyond, that “you go 16 or 17 miles that direction before you come across any human beings”.

He lives at the house with his son, Phillip, and has an assistant, Deborah Goss, who helps him with many day-to-day tasks. She gently feeds him with memories when he stumbles on recalling his younger years.

James Joyce once spent the night in Levington, and the description of Mr Fulham’s house in Stephen Hero is said to be of the home. Today, a large bust of Joyce sits on a piano at Donleavy’s house, surrounded by family photographs.

“Enthralled” by Trinity College 

Donleavy was enamoured by Trinity College. “I was very much enthralled by it, the kind of beautiful place set there in the middle of the city,” he says. “So I took to it very well, and met people who were very pleasant and also interested in how everything was going on in Dublin.”

Was it what he expected when he arrived? “Yes, a little bit. It was well looked after. I remember my mother was very interested in Dublin and Trinity, I think she was giving them money and things like that,” he laughs.

His time there was certainly unlike student experiences of today. It wasn’t unknown for Donleavy to enjoy a glass of champagne or two at the Shelbourne hotel, and he recalls having “a sort of servant on guard all the time” at the college.

IMG_7499 Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

As a young boy, Donleavy was interested in writing. “I can remember I took over the attic of the house, to be able to go there and keep my books and things [and] sit and maybe write some things,” he says. “My parents were very helpful in every way.”

The reaction from the Irish censors to The Ginger Man was one of horror, but his peers welcomed the book. Was the reaction what he expected?

“There was a lot of reaction on the other hand, it was always appropriate and you know everything was looked upon very well. So I was very lucky in that regard. And some of the friends I had were also like that, they were very much behind what you were doing and what you wrote and so on. I’ve forgotten so much of it, I can’t remember, but just in general terms it was pretty pleasant.”

“You didn’t know what to make of him”

800px-Brendan_Behan_NYWTS Brendan Behan Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons

One of Donleavy’s literary peers and Dublin friends was Brendan Behan, who once broke into his house and found a draft of the Ginger Man. He left his thoughts (mainly about leaving things in, rather than deleting lines) scribbled on the draft.

“Brendan Behan was something else, you didn’t know what to make of him,” says Donleavy now. “And I found him very pleasant and so on. He was to be seen anywhere and everywhere. He spent time in prison and a lot of other things, so Behan was a difficult gentleman.”

Donelavy was “highly irritated” by Behan’s break-in, but brought him to the local pub. “He was always happy if he was in a pub.”

donleavy 2

Donleavy has lived in the public eye for over 60 years, and has seen some difficult parts of his private life being scrutinised by the media.

He was once even forced to flee Dublin, after his first theatre production of The Ginger Man was stopped during its third performance.

His fans are fervent in their dedication to his work, and his reputation has meant that the bulk of his work continues to be published.

How does he find the strange world of fame? He is quite pragmatic – and understated – about it.

“Well it certainly is pleasant, and it could be the other way, so I managed to enjoy the fact you could go somewhere and be looked upon with pleasure and so on,” he says.

I don’t want to become big minded about it but… I enjoy the act that everybody would read books and they would respond to them and so on. I wasn’t the only one… [there were] other writers. So that worked out well.

That worked out well indeed. Despite the bannings, the burnings, the litigation and the private-stories-made-public, JP Donleavy has emerged from the literary storm of his early life relatively unscathed.

After we say our goodbyes, and as his son Philip negotiates his car down the puddle-soaked driveway, I look back at the figure waving from the doorway. A smaller and quieter man than the one who terrorised Irish censors six decades ago, but one who still retains a unique spark.

JP Donleavy will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards on 25 November. For more information, and to cast your votes for your favourites on the shortlist, visit the official website. Tomorrow is the final day for readers to vote.

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