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'Rock and roll had come to town': The fascinating tale of JP Donleavy and his final posthumous novel

The legendary JP Donleavy’s publisher writes about how the author brought a ‘sprinkle of stardust’ with him when he arrived in Ireland.

Antony Farrell

FROM LEVINGTON PARK by the shores of Lough Owel, to the imaginary splendours of Blueberry Hill in upstate New York, JP Donleavy makes a final journey to his literary rest two years on from his passing – in his posthumously published novel A Letter Marked Personal.

As an aspirant publisher in the early 1970s I first met Mike, as he was known, when he became a neighbour in Westmeath. His son Philip and I were at Trinity College Dublin where Mike had first arrived as a mature student fresh out of New York City.

He came to Ireland on the GI Bill after the Second World War in the late 1940s.

In New York Mike had forged his masterpiece The Ginger Man, in which he found his métier as both artist and writer.

He was quintessentially North American, yet quintessentially Irish, with all the energy, focus, dedication and brilliance that made him one of Ireland’s foremost writers. He was ferociously disciplined in his work methods, and around his sun in Levington Park, Mullingar, orbited a small galaxy of labourers on the slopes of Parnassus, like myself, along with friends such as his archivist Bill Dunn, the farming community among whom he lived, and his tolerant children and put-upon wives.

Twenty-four books later, he came to lay his bones among his forebears from the Irish midlands in September 2017.

Stardust and celebrities

Mike’s arrival as an international writer in rural County Westmeath sprinkled stardust on us all as the good and the great came a-calling to his home at Levington Park. Celebrities from screen and stage, among them Malcolm McDowell (of If and A Clockwork Orange), Billy Connolly and, of course Johnny Depp, made visits to Mike over the years.

From the world of music, there came Mick Jagger and Shane MacGowan – who would borrow the title of Donleavy’s 1973 novel, Fairytale of New York, for the most famous Christmas song on the planet.

JP’s literary presence fired all our imaginations and Mullingar would never be the same again. Rock and roll had come to town.

During my early Lilliput Press days in the 1980s I asked Mike to write a foreword to Remembering How We Stood, a wonderful memoir of the sixties by his friend John Ryan, proprietor of The Bailey and editor of the literary quarterly Envoy, where Donleavy’s earlier writing had first appeared.

Several drafts were negotiated – the wordsmith in full control of every syllable. By the end, he was happy to be paid with of a large truckle of Gigginstown farmhouse cheese made by my then wife Sue.

My next literary encounter with the master was in the context of the 2015 Sixtieth Anniversary Edition of The Ginger Man. The original typescript marked by Brendan Behan’s blue pencil was in Levington Park, and, as we noted, ‘the raw idiosyncrasies of this modern classic have been broadly respected’, with some place name corrections and consistency of capitalisation and punctuation observed. Launched by Donal Ryan in the Pavilion overlooking Trinity College’s cricket grounds, this publication was indeed an event.

On his desk the day he died

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Finally, this year, comes A Letter Marked Personal, a novel published two years on from Donleavy’s death in September 2017. “No one creates … the artist assembles memories,” as Jack B Yeats avers, and in this, his final work of fiction, the writer returns to New York’s streetscape and its people in tribute to his native city.

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This is Donleavy’s final finished novel and has been in the works since 2007. It forms the third instalment of his New York trilogy, following on from Wrong Information Is Being given out at Princeton and The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms. Donleavy concludes his triptych with characteristic aplomb and quiet savagery, skewing the social mores and divisions of his native city as seen through the rise and fall of Nathan, his protagonist, a lingerie mogul brought low by a susceptible heart.

Trinity conferred an honourary degree upon Mike in 2016 and Donleavy’s archive is now housed in the National Library of Ireland.

We now celebrate his work with the publication of the novel that lay on his desk before he died, completed but still being revised and augmented. Excess is the enemy of effective narrative, and so the editorial task that fell to myself and Bill Dunn was to sharpen Donleavy’s manuscript.

We pared back a story that had been masked by layers of digressionary description to release the bones of a poignant and dramatic tale. The central character of Iowa, model and film starlet, steps off the page like a vivid Maura Higgins and will prove to be one of Mike’s most lasting creations. The figure of Nathan is Everyman, a study of an individual alone but unbowed until his fatal end.

A Letter Marked Personal crowns Lilliput’s association with Mike. It has been a long journey since those beginnings fifty years ago, with glittering Westmeath parties where denizens of Hollywood came a-knocking, where foxhounds gathered for the lawn meet at Levington Hall, and where frock-coated revellers shook the dancefloor at hunt balls in The Greville Arms of Mullingar. There was J.P. Donleavy – ever the detached observer, scrupulous and courteous, enquiring and observant, a recording angel of his day, a captain of our Ship of Fools, telling it slant, telling it straight. We salute his memory, and his enduring writings.

Antony Farrell founded Lilliput Press in 1984 in Co Westmeath. Today, it is based in Stoneybatter in Dublin. A Letter Marked Personal is out now.

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Antony Farrell

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