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

Irish Daily Mail - - News - by Ja­son O’Toole

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

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