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Ross O'Carroll Kelly

'I spend my working life sitting behind a desk thinking in the voice of a south Dublin idiot'

Author Paul Howard turned a Dublin stereotype into a phenomenon. / YouTube

IT’S ALMOST 20 years since journalist Paul Howard started to write about a certain type of South Dublin rugby jock.

The character, Ross O’Carroll Kelly, was – not to put too fine a point on it – a little bit dim. He was rugby-obsessed, displayed an intensely posh accent, and was extremely un-self-aware.

He drank Miller and, says his creator “dreamt – this embarrasses me now – he dreamt one day of driving a Peugeot 205″. The Ross O’Carroll Kelly that we know and love in 2017 is, yes, a little bit different these days (he swapped that Miller for Heineken – or Heino – a long time ago), but the core of the man remains the same.

He’s still a great, big, posh eejit. Yeah, no, loike seriously.

“I didn’t think Ross was going to be in my life for more than 10 weeks,” says Howard on a visit to to talk about his latest book, Operation Trumpsformation (many of Howard’s ROCK books have pun-heavy titles: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress; Between Foxrock and a Hard Place; The Shelbourne Ultimatum).

The column was only due to run in the Sunday Tribune from January to St Patrick’s Day of 1998 – it didn’t even have Howard’s byline. “It was about five paragraphs long in the sports section,” recalls Howard. “And I used fictional names for the schools – now I use real names for everything, but back in those days Blackrock College was Blackstones College and Mount Anville was Anville Hill or something like that.”

But the main thing was that Howard hadn’t yet found Ross’s distinctive voice, goys.

“I think probably if I thought it was going to last a bit longer I might have put more care and attention into those early columns,” says Howard. “But I read them about a week ago and my toes curled in embarrassment reading them back. The big surprise for me reading the first one in particular was that there was ever a second one.”

Ross O’Carroll Kelly emerged mainly through Howard’s fascination with, and bafflement over, a certain type of South Dublin set: moneyed, young, clad in chinos and dubes (Dubarry shoes) and fond of rounding their vowels.

“[In the beginning] I had a chip on my shoulder, certainly, that was related to class,” says Howard. “And I was sending up rugby culture, and sending up that privileged, especially south Dublin, thing.”

Howard grew up working class, initially in the UK before his Irish parents moved the family home to Dublin. “Certainly the early columns and the early books were very driven by my class consciousness,” says Howard.

I grew up in Ireland in the 1980s, and class was a far bigger factor I think than it is today. And I was working class and definitely had an enormous chip on my shoulder about things like that – about private schools and money and children who went on skiing holidays.

When he started covering schools rugby for the Tribune, he started to see “these kids, they were so privileged”. He recounts a tale about getting the Dart in 1997, “and a kid put his hand on my chest as the doors opened and he said ‘sorry dude, this is a Rock carriage’”.

90184248_90184248 Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

It was a conversation in the office about the idea of a fly-on-the-wall documentary on a school’s rugby team which led to the first Ross column.

“We both chuckled at the idea that you could write about the sons and daughters of Ireland’s middle classes in a newspaper in such a way. And in a fit of pique I created Ross out of that. I thought ‘there has to be a way to do this in a satiric way’,” says Howard.

As time went on, he realised that it “wasn’t good enough just to have that sledgehammer satire, that it was a bit too light on comedy”.

“So I invented characters like Charles O’Carroll Kelly and Fionnuala [Ross's parents] and eventually Ronan, Ross’s son entered his life and then Honor, who is the daughter from hell.”

When did he realise he had a gift for comedy and satire? “I don’t think I have a gift,” scoffs Howard. “And that’s the thing about writing – that’s why you get up early in the morning and you sit down in front of the computer and you face that blinking cursor with a blank screen, because you don’t know – you never do.”

Does he ‘become Ross’ while writing? (Noightmare)

“I used to. Now the challenge is to stop being Ross,” he admits. “I’m worried how easily the voice comes to me sometimes – I come home from work and my wife says to me, you know, leave that behind, you’re not Ross.”

So it is a strange existence for me in that I spend my working life sitting behind a desk thinking in the voice of an idiot. A south Dublin idiot, I spend 10 hours a day with this really loud, privileged, bombastic voice in my head and switching that off is often the most difficult thing.

Even though he is satirising a specific type of Dubliner, Howard says he hasn’t heard of people taking offence.

“Oddly with Ross, people tended to recognise their friends rather than themselves,” he says. Friends in bookshops would tell him about sailing jacket-wearing teens reading the book and exclaiming “that is SO loike Tiernan”.

“But I think generally it’s an affectionate portrait, it’s not really taking people out by the roots.”

Boom and bust

LandmarkIreland / YouTube

Through Ross, Howard has been able to explore the hot-tubbed highs of the Celtic Tiger and the lows of the subsequent recession.

So he’s a great person to ask about where he sees Ireland going in the future (especially since, on stage, he imagines an Ireland of the future – his next Ross play, Postcards From The Ledge, is set in 2029).

“I think the Ireland of the future is going to be amazingly like the Ireland of the past,” he says. “I think we’re just very attached to boom and bust capitalism, we don’t know anything else, it’s what we do.”

Just driving in today, seeing all the cranes and the building work, it’s beginning to feel like maybe 1999, 2000 again, and the same thing, the pressure for houses, for young people, nowhere to rent, pushing prices up, it just seems like we’re going back there again.

But this new turnaround is no great surprise to Howard. “I think when the Celtic Tiger happened, originally I was quite surprised because it didn’t feel like the country I grew up in,” he says. “The Ireland I grew up in, it was so difficult to borrow money, if you borrowed money it was a life-changing decision.”

Howard recalls “getting letters from the bank offering me €10,000 that I’d never even asked for”.

“So there was a whole change in attitudes towards indebtedness, it suddenly wasn’t considered a bad thing, to go into the red to buy something other than a house or a car – you could actually borrow money, as the ad used to say to go on holidays and to pretend you were buying it for braces it for your teeth or schoolbooks.”

20 years in, does Howard ever think about Ross’s literary demise? Loike, when will it be time for him to go?

“I used to think about it a lot more, and I used to put a number on it,” he says.

The books started off with a trilogy, grew to five books, and then when the crash happened, things took off again. “Suddenly it was a new challenge to put Ross in this suddenly changed world, the whole topography of his life had altered,” says Howard.

Then came Ross’s kids “and there’s all the challenges of raising them as good people – which he’s failing at miserably – so now I take it from book to book”.

I don’t put a number on it anymore, I think as long as I’m enjoying it, as long as I think it’s funny, as long as people are finding the books funny and as long as I can stay relevant, I’ll continue doing it.

Operation Trumpsformation by Paul Howard, published by Penguin, is out now. Postcards from the Ledge opens at the Gaiety on 25 October, running until 11 November.

Read: A short story before bedtime: Dublin Streets>

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