Upon approaching 80.

"I'm a moderate drinker, and I had my last cigarette when I was 18. I'm a farmer, I can still dig a grave for a cow, and I've kept in shape as a boxer - I always have to warn people that I'm far from infirm. "

- J.P. Donleavy from "Another side of a singular man"

Photo by Charles Ruppmann
Drawing room at Levington Park. Photo by Thomas E. Kennedy.
This article/interview first appeared The Post IE, January 29, 2006.

"Another Side of a Singular Man

by Ros Drinkwater

The sign on the gates reads: "Bulls at large - wolf hounds - high voltage electric fencing", and every window of the 1740 mansion is shuttered. Darcy Dancer's forlorn ancestral home springs to mind.

Inside, however, a welcome awaits in a vast drawing room, a space designed for entertaining with its well-worn squashy sofa, grand piano, piles of oversized floor cushions and roaring log fire. I just have time to cast an eye the eclectic record collection when JP Donleavy appears with a huge pile of wood. "The heating is on the blink," he says by way of opening gambit.

Literature is Donleavy's life, but it wasn't his first choice of career. The walls of the echoing corridors are hung with his art. Like his writing, the watercolours are vivid, lyrical and shot through with devilish black humour. Today, however, there are a number of gaps - 100, to be precise. The missing pictures will be shown in an exhibition opening at the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin next week.

A recent portrait by Robert Ballagh depicts him as the archetypal Irish gentleman, but Donleavy was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx, a biographical snippet that explains a recent "rags to riches" headline that offended him.

"I was born at 8 Willow Place, Brooklyn Heights, one of the most beautiful townhouses in New York," he says.

"When we moved to the Bronx, we lived in Woodlawn, a pleasant suburb adjoining a grand estate where our neighbors were families such as the Angellos, candlestick makers to the crowned heads of Europe."

At 16, Donleavy's mother had been plucked from Galway and taken to America by a rich uncle. His father, from Longford, he describes as "a spoiled priest, as the story goes."

"In America, he grew orchards on the roof of the Ritz Carlton Hotel and kept alligators and monkeys as pets. He finally became a building inspector and bought property so we were a bit better off than the average family. I once asked my brother: why does everyone sue Mother? 'Because she'd rumored to be the richest woman in the Bronx,' he replied."

Donleavy grew up hearing nothing of Ireland from his parents, and it was the experiences of a friend that sparked his interest in Dublin. "His descriptions intrigued me - he spoke of the wide boulevard of O'Connell Street and the little snugs in the pubs where you could go into a little compartment to drink."

After World War II, having served in the US Navy, Donleavy took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled to read natural science at Trinity College.

"I studied for three years, but didn't finish; my general interest in Trinity was that I could live right in the centre of Dublin. I was one of the few people who used to walk the slum streets, the first slums I'd encountered. At that time, Ireland had changed little in centuries.

"Because I was reading microbiology, I attended an autopsy of a child, the pathologist pointing out the tubercular lesions and so on. I found it so depressing. On the way back through the slums I saw two children's funerals. The contrast was immense - you had people in chamois having fabulous meals, and gangs of children, barefoot in the winter, crying 'Give us a penny mister!' No one in Ireland wants to hear these stories now."

During his Trinity years, Donleavy's haven was a four-acre holding in Wicklow, where he grew potatoes and cut hay.

It was there that he gravitated towards writing and painting, and lost interest in pursuing a professional career.

"Dublin had an incredible literary scene, a rough-house of people like Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, who was very blunt and slightly aggressive.

"Once, in a crowd of people, knowing he came from a farming background, I asked him about the best manure to use for growing potatoes.

"Realising I was an American who had never had anything in my hands but a tennis racket, Kavanagh shouted: 'Phoney, phoney, phoney!'

"Everyone laughed, including myself. I left then, and the group were delighted, but Kavanagh silenced them. 'That's no phoney,' he said. "If he were phoney he couldn't laugh at what I said.' Dublin was like that then, you were as good as your last sentence."

As Donleavy recalls, his drift into painting happened almost by accident. "The inspiration could have been Jack Yeats, his earliest exhibitions were coming on then and I was intrigued by the wonderful way he handled paint. More than that, my closest pal was John Ryan, an excellent academic painter who mixed with The White Stag Group. I fell into this world, started to paint and had my first exhibition in 1949.

"My pictures were admired by a gallery in London, but they pointed out that quality and originality meant nothing unless you were already known. That was what forcefully started me writing books."

In 1950, hoping to finding [sic] a publisher for The Ginger Man, Donleavy moved to New York.

When top publisher Scribner gave it high praise but turned it down on the grounds of "obscenity," he knew there was no hope of getting it out in America.

Back in Ireland, Behan suggested he try Olympia Press in Paris. It was finally published in 1955 and was critically hailed as a masterpiece.

Now rated one of the best 100 books of the 20th century, it has never been out of print.

But Donleavy's career hasn't consisted entirely of plaudits. "I had to stop reading The Irish Times because of the reviews of my books," he remembers.

"The Onion Eaters, probably my most widely read book, was damned. It's possibly the most badly reviewed book anywhere. In England, Auberon Waugh wrote a rave review but he was the only one, he was interviewed on television to explain himself."

The London stage versions of his novels (The Ginger Man, 1959; Fairy Tales of New York, 1960; A Singular Man, 1964), however, were smash hits, but the 1959 Dublin production of The Ginger Man, starring Richard Harris, was cancelled after three performances, due to objections by the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

As Donleavy recalls, it was the only instance of a play being stopped in the history of Irish theatre.

A decade later, the tide had begun to turn. "When I returned to Ireland in 1969, there were television aerials on all the houses, and I realised the outside world was beaming in and knocking on Ireland's door," he says.

Unusually for a writer, Donleavy has kept control of the film rights to all his books. Despite knowing his way around the film industry, he has rebuffed almost every Hollywood offer, including a cheque for $3 million when Universal Pictures wanted to make Fairy Tales of New York with Steve Martin.

I ask him if he has any regrets, at which point, with incredible timing, a Federal Express package arrives. Donleavy laughs as he shows me its contents: addendum to the contracts for the first ever film of The Ginger Man.

"It's come time now that The Ginger Man can be tackled," he says simply. The planned film will star Johnny Depp, and the two men met recently in New York. "Mr. Depp is fascinating, amusing and highly intelligent company.

"We weren't talking very long before we were on to molecules and oxygen and other complicated scientific matters," says Donleavy.

"Then, during a production meeting in my hotel room, he spotted a wooden board with a piece of paper clipped to it on the bed and he ran his fingers along its worn surface.

"My God, you use that do you?" Yes, I said, I write all my pages on it longhand, the page clipped to the board. It's fascinating, in 35 years he's the first person to notice and comment on it, Mr. Depp is something else."

Now approaching his 80th birthday, Donleavy attributes his longevity in part to his sensible upbringing, fresh garden produce, and absence of tinned foods, Coca-Cola and white bread.

"I'm a moderate drinker, and had my last cigarette when I was 18. Because I'm a farmer, I can still dig a grave for a cow, and I've kept in shape as a boxer - I always have to warn people that I'm far from infirm."

With this, Donleavy's fist locks and lands five times in the blink of an eye - twice the speed of a rattlesnake striking.

Call him elderly at your peril.

JP Donleavy: Painting, February 7-20, Molesworth Gallery, 16 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2, 01-6791548.[admin's note: show was a complete sellout, over 100 pieces sold].


Editor's note: J.P. Donleavy passed September 11, 2017 aat age 91

"Reclining Nude " - watercolor. Sold at the Molesworth Gallery exhibition, Dublin.

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