At 89, J.P. Donleavy celebrated 60 years of his best-selling cult-classic, The Ginger Man. At his countryside retreat near Mullingar, he spoke to Noel Shine about his extraordinary life and the novel that gave rise to his notoriety all those years ago.
This article originally appeared in the October/November issue of Irish America. Dunleavy passed away on September 11, 2017 at 91.
J.P. Donleavy first came to prominence at a time in the 20th century when to be a novelist had a certain cachet. An era when television, pop music, and the virtual world of the internet had yet to be subsumed into the culture. A more innocent time when the church-state axis held sway over the moral compass in much the same way the humanist brigade do now. It was a far-off land, where to utter the word “nipple” was considered taboo and “balloons,” positively inflammatory. It was against this backdrop that a loose affiliation of young, Irish writers converged on late 1940s Dublin to form what would later be regarded as the vanguard of modern Irish literature. Theirs was essentially a European aesthetic, at odds with the prevailing insularity which typified Ireland at that time. A motley crew which included the likes of Flann O’Brien, Paddy Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Mary Lavin, Samuel Beckett in absentia, and standing there among them, the Irish-American, James Patrick Donleavy.
In 1955 his seminal work, The Ginger Man, caused such a furore that it was banned outright in both the U.S. and Ireland. It even became the subject of a protracted litigation between Donleavy and its initial publisher, Olympia Press of Paris. Were it not for the obstinacy of its fledgling author, The Ginger Man may never have seen the light of day. He persisted and established a career for himself as a successful playwright, journalist, and author in the U.K., having relocated to London in 1955. The ensuing years would see J.P. Donleavy add even more novels and plays to his burgeoning canon of work, including The Fairy Tales of New York, whose title was famously appropriated by The Pogues for their Christmas classic. More latterly, Donleavy scripted and starred in a televisual paean to his Ireland, titled In All Her Sins and Graces.
For better or ill though, it is The Ginger Man for which he will best be remembered. From a remove of some sixty years it is difficult to comprehend the tumult caused by a book that is, by today’s standards, relatively tame. Regardless, the good people of Lilliput Press in Dublin have seen fit to issue a special anniversary hardback edition of The Ginger Man. Complete with a considered foreword by heartthrob Johnny Depp and a superb chronology of the events which have made up J.P.’s life thus far, it is a worthy bookend to a career that has been extraordinary to say the least.
The Ginger Man is a timeless evocation of a Dublin that has long ceased to be. Written in a stream of consciousness-like narrative, it draws heavily upon the real life exploits of Donleavy and his contemporaries at Trinity College Dublin for inspiration. Most notably seeing fellow Americans Gainor Crist and A.K. Donoghue cast in the roles of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield and Kenneth O’Keeffe, respectively. In the book, we see Dangerfield as he ducks and weaves his way through the streets and bars of late-1940s Dublin, running up credit and breaking hearts as he goes. It is a delusional tale of thwarted ambition, impending doom, and sexual degeneracy carried off with aplomb, often with comic consequences. It endures in the memory, not just because of the merits of its actual plot, but rather because it contains the finest prose this side of Joyce. It is a book where the rules of syntax are carefully put aside, in deference to the young Donleavy’s own god-like grasp of the English language and its many nuances. It is English as seen through the eyes of an artist, where both master brush strokes and a keen eye for detail come into sharp focus as poetry, bringing each and every episode to a pithy climax. All this makes the fact that this work of inherent genius was banned by reason of obscenity all the more lamentable. Thankfully, the craw-thumpers have had their day.
At the age of 89 now, J.P. continues to live out his life in splendid isolation (with his son, Philip) at Levington Park House, the 180-acre organic farm he has called home since 1972. Situated high above the shores of Lough Owel, near Mullingar, it stands in mute testimony to the life of a man who has come a long way since his childhood days in the Woodlawn district of the Bronx. Yet as his experience of life continues, time has compressed to the point where he is basically the Mike Donleavy who arrived on our shores in the wake of World War II to take Sciences at Trinity. His extracurricular activities soon put paid to any hopes he may have had of a career in medicine. But they have given us the tour de force that is The Ginger Man. The intervening years have seen J.P. reside in both the U.S. and England before returning to his spiritual home in Ireland in 1969. For a time in the early 70s he lived in Bective, near Navan, before settling on Levington Park.
Despite his reputation as a recluse, he has of late been granting more interview requests than usual, perhaps out of a sense of duty to his publisher, or maybe even as a sincere wish to engage with the disparate group of admirers he calls his friends. Wherever the truth lies, it is with some trepidation that I embark on my quest to establish his exact whereabouts. For even though J.P. lives less than thirty miles from my home, he inhabits an entirely different world. A world wherein media-types who dare to match wits with someone as erudite and sophisticated as he can expect to be met with a truculent silence. Or worse – flogged! There is also the occupational hazard of curbing one’s instincts as avid admirer in deference to the professional approach that is a prerequisite of such meets. I may be frogmarched to the gates by manservants as he recoils in horror upon the discovery that I am but another rabid fan, come in search of Dangerfield. By the time I arrive at the gates of his sprawling estate, I have already reasoned that one should never confuse an author with his texts. Further, I determine to recount this day to grandchildren with gusto, sometime in the distant future.
Upon my arrival at the Doric porch entrance, I am greeted by his personal assistant, the lovely Deborah Goss. She ushers me into his presence via a reception hall and a meandering corridor. When we meet, it soon becomes apparent that, in the style of a practiced showman, he is not only fixing me with an enigmatic countenance, but is also looking far beyond his immediate realm to America, the land of his youth. “Both of my parents were born in Ireland and came to America. But they never wanted to make an issue of it at all. We lived in a place called Woodlawn [in the Bronx],” he says before stating plainly “they were not impressed by Ireland,” amplifying it thusly, “they would say things about the way people did behave in Ireland.” A reference, perhaps, to the parochial nature of Irish society at the dawn of the 20th century.
Born on April 23, 1926 in Brooklyn, J.P’s family moved to the Bronx when he was three. The remembers his youth in Woodlawn as being “a pretty good life.” His father Patrick Donleavy, from Longford, had gardens “away from the house where we lived.” He grew orchids there for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park, and later becoming an inspector at the FDNY. Prior to her marriage, his mother Margaret, from Galway, had worked as a private secretary to a much-traveled American heiress. He cites his mother as his chief influence in that she encouraged him to strive to achieve the American dream as if it were his birthright. “My mother took the attitude that a person could do anything they wanted to do. I was given a good life. If I wanted to travel or do something, it was absolutely allowed immediately.”
It was this same attitude which prompted her to enroll J.P. at a prestigious school run by the Jesuit Order called Fordham Preparatory School. “They chucked me out after a short spell. It had to do with getting into a fight or something.” Fighting, specifically boxing, would be a recurring theme throughout the rest of J.P.’s life. It provided him with both the mental and physical agility he would require in later life to cope with the many vipers which lurk at the business-end of showbusiness. But as a teenager it exposed him to a whole other strata of society when he and his friend Thomas Gill joined the New York Athletic Club. Here he honed his skills as boxer and learned to play tennis and golf. Membership implied a certain social standing, as captains of industry, politicians, and professional types mixed freely with some of America’s finest Olympians. At that time, the club was populated almost exclusively by unapologetic WASPs. Donleavy joined as a junior member in 1941 and remains one of the club’s longest-serving members. The conversation momentarily turns to boxing once more, as he points out a photo of himself with Smokin’ Joe Frazier taken in 1971. It was taken sometime prior to Frazier’s successful bout with Ali, in what was then hyped as “The Fight of the Century.” I regale him with my tale of how I came to meet Ali in Ennis, County Clare, when he came there to acknowledge his Irish roots.
It was as a child that J.P. first learned the power of writing. “Where we lived in Woodlawn was all big private houses,” he said. “I was delivering newspapers. They paid me every three weeks and some of them would refuse to pay me. I remember I would write on their newspaper, ‘How does it feel to cheat a child?’” He laughs at the recollection of it now, adding, “That would really get people! I would walk along and I was really surprised that it shook them up.”
Later, he became confirmed in the belief that he was an atheist, “I was just thinking with a few pals of mine, exchanging a few ideas of how we lived and what we wanted to do and what we thought of being a Catholic. I think we all joined together and broke away from these things when we were quite young. You just disregarded it.”
In 1944 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was released without ever seeing enemy action. Yet World War II informed his world view and led to his decision to come to Ireland in 1946. “I heard stories from naval people. Some would talk about Dublin as a very strange place, a place worthy of being seen and of being in.”
He enrolled at Trinity on the G.I. Bill, ostensibly to study Zoology and Microbiology. Through Tony McInerney, a proud Dubliner, he gained an entrée into the city’s bohemian set, “but I didn’t get into that circle of people who were authors.” That would come later.
For a while, J.P. entertained the notion of becoming a serious artist, staging his first art exhibition in December 1948. A month later, he married Valerie Heron, a speech therapist from Yorkshire, England. Together they set up home in the rustic idyll of Kilcoole, County Wicklow (Glenroe, the TV series, was later filmed there). Here, he indulged his passion for painting and country pursuits before dropping out of Trinity altogether. More exhibitions would follow, but it soon became evident that his future lay not in the world of painting but the written word.
By 1951, this was a pressing matter with the birth of his first-born, baby Philip. His college pals had gone their separate ways by the time he sat down to type in some desperation what would become The Ginger Man. “I suddenly found myself just writing it. I didn’t stop myself. I just went and carried on.” The plot echoes that of his own circumstances, but he is unequivocal in citing fellow American student, the charismatic Gainor Crist as being the inspiration for the book’s chief protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield. “Certainly insofar as his survival of his own life, and my survival and so on. That would have been the point that made me take up and focus on The Ginger Man. I found him inspirational.”
Someone else whom he would find inspirational was his old friend Brendan Behan. Behan broke into Donleavy’s cottage at Kilcoole while he and Valerie were attending the funeral of her father in the Isle of Man. Obviously somewhat the worse for wear, Behan made himself at home blackening all Valerie’s cooking pots and utensils before chancing upon the unfinished manuscripts of The Ginger Man. He took it upon himself to edit the pages, adding notes before making good his escape to a nearby pub in Donleavy’s prized shoes. Initially dismayed, Donleavy forgave the intrusion on the grounds that Behan’s unsolicited intervention proved more beneficial than harmful to his work-in-progress.
At a later stage, a more contrite Behan returned and “read the book and put it down and said, ‘This book is going to shake the world!’ – he was the first person who did read it actually,” Dunleavy laughs. It is telling, that this dapper gent before me cannot bring himself to repeat Behan’s oft-quoted, slightly blasphemous, Eureka! moment, wherein he actually said The Ginger Man is going to “go ’round the world and beat the bejaysus out of the Bible!” It never did. But, from auspicious beginnings it did go on to sell millions of copies world-wide, presumably leaving its author in some wealth.
Today, J.P. remembers Behan as being “a delight – his company, everything about him. He would do anything and say anything. I never questioned anything he had to say or what he would do or what he thought.”
These days, J.P.’s artistic pursuits are limited to “doing some drawings for pleasure.” Upon the subject of doing some more writing he is more circumspect, suggesting, “There will be one or two books that I’ve already written a good bit of. I have it in mind always without it overtaking me.”
Having lived in Ireland consistently since 1969, he still regards himself “as an Irish-American.” On the subject of a film version of The Ginger Man, he says he’s not particularly bothered by the prospect. He proffers that it’s “absolutely impossible to say – Johnny Depp came here. He was in this room and Cillian Murphy.”
He becomes considerably more animated on the subject of James Joyce, who as a young man stayed at Levington Park House, long before it acquired the dilapidated grandeur it enjoys now. “There’s another room here and a door opens up out to the garden out there and I would remind myself, ‘My God, James Joyce was standing here.’ I read it in a book.” That book being Joyce’s posthumous publication, Stephen Hero.
The way J.P. tells the story it is clear that he was smitten by Joyce and his association with his house, while claiming that it didn’t actually influence his decision to purchase it, “but it is a coincidence. It shook me up a little bit.”
He attributes his longevity to “training like a boxer all the time.” At this point J.P. stands up from the table and gives me a brief demonstration of his shadow-boxing, throwing five quick jabs in a second! While I may be his junior by some forty years, I was genuinely relieved that he chose not to spar with me. I conclude our convivial chat by asking if he has any plans for his 90th birthday. He replies with mock humility, “Goodness I don’t know, except to say, I’m sorry I’ve done what I did!” Not for the first time that afternoon, he has both myself and the ever-attendant Deborah Goss in mild hysterics.
With that, he gives me a grand tour of the house, highlighting a bust of James Joyce which rests atop a piano. Through a doorway at the spot where Joyce actually stood, I decide to take J.P.’s photograph. He shows me his study where archivist Bill Dunn has been hard at work compartmentalizing a life-time’s work of plays, novels, and promotional ephemera. I take another photograph of him before a giant hallway mirror. He strikes a pose on cue and waits patiently for the camera shutter to release. As I survey him through the viewfinder, I think to myself that there is something wonderfully gentle and serene about him. He might have been a pistol in his early years, particularly in terms of his secular philosophy, but at this stage in his life he looks quite sage, almost saint-like. Deborah Goss points out a blank canvas that J.P. has had mounted and framed, with the title “What it used to look like before,” stating that it is “pure J.P.”
Suddenly, I am struck with the realization that this great writer of books and plays, artist, gentleman farmer, and erstwhile boxer is, in fact, the sum of his own imaginings; he is his own greatest creation. He walks me to the door. As we part he grips me with a firm handshake and looks me in the eye as if to say, “This is it, kid, there won’t be an encore. Go, do me proud.” I trouble him for one last photograph under the porch in the daylight. I ask him to break the habit of a lifetime and smile. He does so, but it barely registers from beneath his trademark beard. Inside he’s ecstatic, outside enigmatic. He bids me fond farewell and I drive through the gates, back into the real world once more. Only happier.
As I make my way down the winding roads towards Mullingar, I am transported to a scene on a parallel universe, where a court is in session with J.P. in the dock for crimes unknown. The court is presided over by an unseen Judge – the same one who in the final analysis judges us all. I call him m’Lord, while J.P. persists in calling him “The Mad Molecule.” I am but a witness, however, as it is Sebastian Dangerfield, newly released from the bar and bedecked in a jet-black, silk gown who has deigned to take J.P.’s case. Without warning, the judge intones, “That man Donleavy hath committed no crime. He’s done no wrong, so he’ll do no time.”
Dangerfield turns to his nonplussed client, giving a knowing wink, while the judge concludes. “Case dismissed!” ♦
Noel Shine is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Kells, County Meath. He has worked extensively as a press photographer snapping some of his heroes including Mother Theresa, President Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Pelé, U2, Pierce Brosnan, and Maureen O’Hara along the way. As a writer, he has contributed to Irish-based weekly newspapers, trade magazines and GAA periodicals. Today, he specializes in interviews with people from the world of Irish business and the arts. More at: www.noelshine.com.