A life wonderfully lived
Shooting the neighbours, crazed nights with Brendan Behan, discovering the children he’d raised as his own actually belonged to two Guinness heirs – JP Donleavy’s life was almost as colourful as his acclaimed novels. As his death is announced, we look bac
AS THE creator of The Ginger Man, one of the most acclaimed — and at times controversial — novels of the 20th century, JP Donleavy was an incredibly colourful character, who enchanted people with his engaging personality. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, the novelist and playwright made his home at Levington Park in Co Westmeath for most of his life. As news of his death aged 91 was announced this week, tributes were paid from across the world. In the past decade, JP did several interviews with the Irish Daily Mail that were rumbustious, insightful and incredibly fun. Here, we’ve extracted the best of them to pay homage to a truly great author, a fun-loving raconteur and, above all, a gentleman.
ANOTICE advising not to enter ‘without prior notice’ hangs on the corroded wroughtiron gates at the entrance to JP Donleavy’s 180-acre estate. It warns ominously of ‘roaming bulls, wolfhounds and high voltage electric fencing’ awaiting unwelcome visitors.
However, trespassers face an even more daunting welcome — from the 83-year-old author brandishing a shotgun that he’s not averse to using if needed.
‘I remember once someone breaking into the house. I noticed some cold air blowing through a doorway somewhere. He ran to the window of the dining room and jumped out the window. So, I let off a couple of shells; one on either side close to his ears — enough not to come here again,’ JP recalls.
Needless to say, Westmeath locals haven’t stepped on to the property without prior permission since discovering how JP dealt with that particular intruder.
I’m led into a room and as he enters, I’m instantly struck by how healthy and fit he appears. JP tells me how he spends his mornings attending to upkeep of his cattle. A portion of the herd is at Lough Owel and just getting there, climbing the hills and going over fences, and back, is almost two miles. To demonstrate his remarkable robustness, JP starts shadowboxing in front of me.
‘How many punches was that?’ he asks rhetorically, as all the imaginary punches land only a short distance from my ribcage.
‘You can’t even count them. Six punches there. Each one a knock out. I’m busy all the time and I physically work out every day.’
JP says he had ‘a terrible reputation for getting into fights’ when he moved here to study at Trinity because others would pick on him because of his ‘beard’.
‘But people couldn’t fight. Nobody ever lasted more than, I think, 30 seconds; that would be a long fight for me. In those days I could throw five punches in a second, all landing with my body behind it, so my fights were over so fast.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, JP became acquainted with Brendan Behan after challenging each other to a fight. ‘He was calling me a narrowback in Davy Byrne’s and I was very sensitive to any kind of antiAmerican statements. It took no time at all for me to tell him to step outside the pub and we’d see who was a narrowback.
‘I looked upon it as a derogatory description so we squared off outside. The traffic stopped either side of us. But no one bothered to come out of the pub to watch us fight. And Behan said, “Here we are out here going to have a fight and not a single one of them has come out to watch. So, why the hell should we put on a fight?” We became great pals after that.’
JP says the perception of himself being a heavy drinker is inaccurate as he was ‘careful and very conscious of the damage to the body and stuff’.
However, he does nostalgically recall many a boozy night out with Behan. ‘One occasion he fell, just like that. Crashed. There was a newly married couple in the flat below and the ceiling came off with the impact of falling. There they were lying in bed with the ceiling half covering the newlyweds.
‘I was then giving the job of taking him away. I had to pick him up and put him over my shoulder — and Behan was no lightweight.
‘I thought that Behan was unconscious. And, as I went around the landing, the couple were standing there with plaster and watching us come down, and Behan’s head was facing them directly and I heard Behan come alive and say, “Would you ever f**k off you pair of eejits!” Jesus! Behan could be a real devil.
‘I got down to my car, which used to belong to the Bishop of Meath, and I opened the back door and I threw Behan off my shoulder into the car and closed the door. I forgot he was there and I drove all the way back to Wicklow.
‘I went into my place and I woke up at about eight o’clock the next morning and I heard this voice and it was Behan.
‘He’d crawled out of the car and he was going up to a bull to feed him some grass. I luckily saw this and ran out of the house and said, “Behan, get out of the way. That’s a bull preparing to attack”.
‘Behan was the first one to read the manuscript for The Ginger Man and he said, “That’s a great book. That will go around the world”. I thought, “God! Behan, you are such a bloody exaggerator!”’ says JP.
But that prediction in 1955 came true. Donleavy’s controversial debut novel, which was ranked 99 on the list of 100 best novels of the 20th century, has sold over 45million copies.
The salacious book was banned upon its release in Ireland, as were several of his subsequent works. The book is also famous for its decades-long legal battle with Olympia Press over copyright infringement.
JP tells me how he was required to write to the Department of Justice and An Post to request permission to have copies of his own books posted to him from the US or Britain.
‘I was allowed 24 copies or something like that. Banning anything means you’d increase your sales, so I wouldn’t complain,’ he says, with a laugh.
However, JP admits to being upset when the stage adaptation at the Gate was cancelled after just three performances because the Archbishop of Dublin, John McQuaid, ordered it to be stopped. The play’s leading actor Richard Harris told the press he wanted to fly over to Rome with the script to show the Pope.
‘It was unpleasant business. It didn’t go down well with me. On the first night, someone shouted up from the audience, “This has got to stop!” But they were frightened of Harris, who is such a big guy. They were terrified Harris might come off the stage.
‘The Church sent an emissary to the theatre and threatened the owner that if he didn’t close this play something would happen. I was talking to Harris and one of the theatre doors opened and one of the priests came and as he passed, Harris said, “There goes a battleship!”’
Despite having a reputation of something of a ladies’ man, JP insists that he was not promiscuous in his formative years. Prostitution, he says, might have been ‘rife on the quays in Dublin, but I was pretty cautious about one’s life in that regard’ because he feared contracting STDs.
Nor, JP insists, did he have an endless string of brief love affairs. ‘It wouldn’t be in the dozens. Anyone who did come around, it was always a rather longer-term business, I would never have any brief situations. I never indulged in that at all! I was very careful of my behaviour.’
JP married twice, the first time to an Englishwoman named Valerie Heron in 1948 with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1968. So where did it all go wrong?
‘Oh, it didn’t particularly go wrong. I suppose, everyone who met her would fall in love with her and some people never gave up chasing her. Finally, she decided to marry someone else and we got a divorce. Unfortunately, all my wives were such great beauties that they were besieged by men all the time,’ he sighs.
But it must have been an upsetting experience?
‘Yes, it would have been. But, of course, one had a fairly tough background. I came out of the US Navy. I coped with it pretty well. I had lot of girlfriends over the years and, as I say, it was after the war
‘Jesus! Behan could be a real devil’
and you saw a lot of life already, so it wasn’t that upsetting.’
The second marriage to Mary Wilson Price in 1970 lasted until 1989 but ended on a more bitter note when Mary dropped the bombshell that two children born during their marriage were fathered by two brothers from the Guinness brewing dynasty.
But true to character, JP reveals he never felt any animosity towards his ex-wife or the scions of the Guinness dynasty when he discovered the shocking truth — even when DNA tests showed he wasn’t the biological father of Rebecca, now 38, and Rory, now 36.
‘My principal concern was always just the children and their everyday welfare,’ he says
When they first moved to Levington Park, Mary set about establishing herself on the social scene by throwing lavish parties.
With the estate’s breathtaking views of the lake as a backdrop, she would organise now-legendary soirées with roaring bonfires, live music and a pig roasting on a spit.
However, JP was a reluctant attendee of these infamous gatherings at his sprawling estate — even though he was picking up the tab.
‘I would just make an appearance for five minutes and walk around and then just come back to the house. I was never really around any of the parties when they were going on.’
I mention that I heard that Mick Jagger and his then-wife Bianca attended one of Mary’s parties.
‘Yes, that’s right, he popped in here. We spent some time chatting in the house, where you were able to hear yourself talk.’
Who else would have attended these parties? ‘Practically all the people who seemed to have some sort of status. They would have been all the conspicuous names around at the time. The Guinness clan ...’ his voice trails off.
Ah, the Guinness scions — the elephant in the room following Mary’s bombshell revelation that her first-born child Rebecca was fathered by Kieran Guinness and her son Rory was fathered by Kieran’s brother Finn. Mary eventually married Finn.
Was it a case of JP being set in his ways and Mary feeling her biological clock was ticking and she desperately wanted children?
‘Yes, that probably did come up and, you see, I already had children. I think that was probably the situation. It would be unrealistic not to expect a woman to have fulfilled her life and have children and so on.’
However, JP admits that he had no idea that he wasn’t the children’s biological father until a DNA test in 1988 revealed the astonishing news. He must have had his suspicions? ‘I’m not sure if I considered [it]... I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to make sure the children were safe and happy, which they were.’
He insists that the DNA results didn’t change his love for Rebecca and Rory. ‘I realised they were vulnerable, innocent people who would grow up and be concerned. My concern was always to look after the people.’
But did he sit the children down for a big conversation about it all? ‘No, no. They weren’t like that. They never brought it up. It found its own way in terms of importance and communication of matters.’
But it must have been emotionally difficult to explain to the children that they would be leaving the estate? ‘Well, it would all be gradual things that would grow on everybody. Nothing was done out of the blue.
‘Somehow it would just grow on people and the plans would finally get known, and they would just go off. I can remember them going down to the front gates. The children really did find it tough; they’d break down. They were driven away sobbing, I guess. So, there were some unhappy moments.’
It was, according to dispatches at the time, a messy divorce and there were rumours that JP’s exwife was looking for his beloved estate as part of her settlement.
‘I’m not sure what that was all about simply because she was marrying into the Guinness folk, who weren’t short of land anywhere,’ he laughs.
‘When the court hearings had stopped and all the things were finally settled and worked out and so on, I remember my lawyer said: “Do you know what you are Mr Donleavy? You are a gentleman.”’
How did JP feel about such revelations coming out into the public domain now, all these years later? ‘I don’t encourage it. Well, I preferred to be discreet because other people’s lives — like young children — get involved and it affects them differently with their friends and contemporaries.’
JP insists that he was never jealous when he discovered that his wife was having affairs. ‘No, I didn’t have any kind of jealousy at all. My attitude was I wouldn’t want anyone around me who didn’t want to be there. So, the fact that they would go off with somebody else would mean that I wasn’t,’ he pauses to laugh, ‘particularly interested that they come back! My policy was always let people do what they want to do. You just absolutely don’t make any attempts to interfere with anybody or change their intentions. I never did that.’ Even now JP remains a true gentleman and won’t utter a negative word about Kieran, who started an affair with Mary after renting the gate house on the estate.
‘I knew him, but not that well. He was around here and so on. But he was always a gentlemanly figure, always well behaved. He was kindly as well, considerate.’
After everything that has happened between their two families, anyone else would have probably banned it from their house, but surprisingly JP still enjoy the occasional glass of Guinness. ‘I get it but I have it brought back in the house here.’
After almost an hour of talking in his study, JP then takes me on a tour of his mansion to show me his collection of paintings. Since his Trinity days, JP has had many exhibitions of his art, the most recent being the Molesworth Gallery in 2006. His watercolours can fetch several thousand euro.
‘I was doing this along with writing things. I had a lady friend, Phyllis Hayward, who was a painter, and she would come along to my rooms in Trinity and she would declare, “Looking at these pictures I know that they signify you’re in your cellulite penis phase!” I laughed at it.’
After showing me his sauna and an idle swimming pool badly in need of maintenance, we’re back in the main parlour. JP has been described as ‘miserly’ in some previous profiles. I tell him how I heard he was supposedly switching off all the lights in his mansion at exactly 9pm to save money.
He laughs, saying he’d never heard that particular story. ‘I’m not exactly Scrooge-like. You’re walking around this place here and it has a couple of hundred acres. This house alone has 25 rooms. It’s un-Scrooge-like.’
Now that he is getting on in years, JP admits he frequently thinks about death.
‘It worries me often because if you are totally healthy and have no signs of dying, at what stage will I recognise that death encroaches? My mother, for instance, lived to be 96. I am conscious of that. I still drive. I don’t have, touch wood, any infirmities that I could recognise at present. I know that they must come and will come. And so I just go on. I do my exercises every day. I do my shadowboxing.
‘I’m in favour of religion, but I don’t apply it to myself in any way. To me it’s aesthetic at best. Religious ceremonies in the Catholic Church are very impressive things, quite stunning to watch this elaborate thing. I’m in favour of all of that but I don’t believe in any of the Catholic doctrine things.’
‘All my wives were such great beauties’ ‘My principal concern was the children’
Gentleman: JP in 2011 and, inset left, with Mary Wilson Price and the daughter he thought was his, Rebecca
Drinking buddies: JP with Brendan Behan in 1959