The late, great JP Don­leavy can never, ever be re­placed

There was al­ways magic and mischief to dis­cover with the late au­thor, JP Don­leavy, writes Vic­to­ria Mary Clarke

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

‘ISHOULD warn you, he does have a shot­gun. And he doesn’t like tres­passers.” Ma­rina Guin­ness spoke these words to me while we were al­ready tres­pass­ing at Lev­ing­ton Park, the Mullingar es­tate of the late JP Don­leavy.

The year was 2001 and Ma­rina was on a mis­sion to get me writ­ing for the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent. She had drawn up a list of po­ten­tial in­ter­vie­wees and Don­leavy was at the top. Re­port­edly reclu­sive, ru­moured to be a misog­y­nist, and un­doubt­edly a lit­er­ary ge­nius, I was thrilled to be meet­ing the cre­ator of The Ginger Man. The liv­ing leg­end was not at home — but we found him in a pub in Mullingar.

A slen­der, sprightly fig­ure, el­e­gantly at­tired in tai­lored tweeds, with a beat­nik beard, he spoke very softly with an old-money Amer­i­can ac­cent, and had piano player’s fin­gers to match the elon­gated vow­els.

I was later told that his Ir­ish-born fa­ther had trained for the priest­hood at Maynooth be­fore de­cid­ing in­stead to grow or­chids in Brook­lyn — while his mother had left Gal­way as a teenager to work as a paid com­pan­ion to a rich lady, where­upon she got to de­velop ex­pen­sive tastes and went on to amass enough money to be able to lend some to De Valera.

It was ar­ranged that I should visit Lev­ing­ton the fol­low­ing week­end.

That first evening, he opened the door in a track­suit, and by way of a wel­come drink, I was of­fered well wa­ter. He never drank while work­ing, he ex­plained. Not what I was ex­pect­ing from a friend of Bren­dan Be­han.

He was, it seemed quite a health freak. He had stud­ied mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy and was fas­ci­nated by op­ti­mum nu­tri­tion long be­fore pro­bi­otics be­came a thing. He ex­plained that all the veg­eta­bles were or­ganic and home grown, back in The Bronx, where he grew up. He rarely ate any­thing for din­ner ex­cept fish and chopped gar­lic, although for guests he roasted or­ganic beef from his own farm, which would be served in the mag­nif­i­cent red din­ing room with paint peel­ing off the walls and a roar­ing fire in a fos­silised Kilkenny mar­ble fire­place, with the smell of burn­ing or­ange peel which he dried es­pe­cially for that pur­pose.

My bed­room was so quiet that I over­slept, and when I came down­stairs, he was nowhere to be seen. But he had left freshly squeezed or­ange juice for me, ac­com­pa­nied by wheat­germ and mo­lasses (for the iron and the B vi­ta­mins.)

I later dis­cov­ered that he would only break­fast with you on Sun­days when you could ex­pect to find him ex­cit­edly check­ing the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent for tit­bits about peo­ple he knew. News­pa­pers would never be thrown out, in case there was some­thing he had missed.

Af­ter break­fast, Don­leavy ap­peared with a pho­tog­ra­pher for whom he was demon­strat­ing his light­ning-fast punches. “Seven punches a sec­ond, so fast you can’t see them.”

He had been a keen boxer while at Trin­ity, partly he said be­cause of his beard.

“There was no such thing as a beard in Ire­land in 1946. I couldn’t walk into a bar with­out get­ting into a fight. So I train ev­ery morn­ing. Four hun­dred punches with six-pound weights.”

Don­leavy did not con­sider modesty to be a virtue. He dressed like landed gen­try, but he never adopted their self-pity or self-doubt. He was eter­nally en­rap­tured with him­self and his sur­round­ings.

On the Sun­day morn­ing that my in­ter­view with him was pub­lished I waited to see whether he would be of­fended. He told me that it was the best in­ter­view that had ever been writ­ten. He would big up friends so much that their heads ex­ploded. When I gave him my book An­gel In Dis­guise? to read, he wrote, “This book will beat the be­jay­sus out of the Bible”. If he thought you were pretty, you be­came the most ex­quis­ite crea­ture that ever lived.

The kitchen at Lev­ing­ton was, he said “the work of the sec­ond wife”. I was fas­ci­nated by his love life, and of­ten pressed him on the sub­ject of MWP — the sec­ond wife. He kept a photo of her in the hall, strik­ingly beau­ti­ful in rid­ing clothes. He was in­fu­ri­at­ingly ret­i­cent about women.

“But what did you re­ally FEEL about them?” I would de­mand to know — to which he would re­ply tan­ta­lis­ingly that they were lovely peo­ple.

It was only when I came across a col­lec­tion of au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal pieces called An Au­thor and his Im­age, that some real juice emerged.

“Young, beau­ti­ful women leave old, charm­ing men,” he wrote. “And all you have ever tried to do is make wom­en­folk con­tent. And they will ei­ther kill you or leave you for that.”

Read­ing the rest of that book taught me that while he rel­ished the telling of a great story in per­son, he was more re­veal­ing of his soul in print. He never spoke to me about lone­li­ness, but he wrote that “Now the last of the ladies had left, I was tee­ter­ing over my abyss of soli­tude so deep that it dries up the soul”. And later in the same piece: “In alone­ness you cry out in an­guished pain, where do any of us go to find love. When no one wants any­one who wants to be wanted.”

For the 50th an­niver­sary of The Ginger Man ,we went to New York for a cel­e­bra­tion. That night, Don­leavy was to meet Johnny Depp for the first time. Johnny was in­ter­ested in mak­ing a film of the book.

“I’m ter­ri­fied of meet­ing him,” he told me. “He seems to have an elec­tri­fy­ing ef­fect on peo­ple.”

Don­leavy was child­like in his en­thu­si­asm for the glam­our of Hol­ly­wood and movie stars. When­ever the phone rang, whether for you or for him, he would say “That’s Hol­ly­wood!”

But I got the im­pres­sion that it was a game which he never took very se­ri­ously — cer­tainly never as se­ri­ously as mak­ing sure to eat raw gar­lic. And he was not com­fort­able with crowds.

“Peo­ple like Johnny and Shane are used to it,” he said. “But I like to ob­serve, I don’t want to be ob­served.”

When the two mag­nif­i­cent men did meet, they formed an im­me­di­ate bond. “He is a prac­ti­cal man,” Don­leavy told me af­ter­wards. “You could put him out there cas­trat­ing cat­tle. And he has a tremen­dous in­ter­est in chem­istry, and chem­i­cal mat­ters, as have I.”

Shane had also been ner­vous about meet­ing Don­leavy, whom he revered as a writer — but again the con­nec­tion was im­me­di­ate and un­con­di­tional, in­deed it was de­vo­tional. He de­cided that Shane must play Bren­dan Be­han in the film of The Ginger Man, and took great plea­sure in show­ing him the orig­i­nal man­u­script — with Bren­dan Be­han’s notes all over the pages.

Any time you vis­ited Mike (as he was al­ways known to friends), you were of­fered an Amer­i­can-style tour, which was likely to in­clude the man­u­script and all the other books. You would be given a care­fully cho­sen black­thorn stick for walk­ing the muddy lane to the lake, past the field of bulls (quite ter­ri­fy­ing) and the dry-stone walls which he would pause to ad­mire, and which were, he would re­mind you, made with his own bare hands.

You might visit the al­gae-cov­ered swim­ming pool, the musty sauna, and the rusty old Daim­ler — all of which, in the light of his ap­pre­ci­a­tion for them, you could pic­ture re­stored to their for­mer grandeur. If you were re­ally lucky, the shot­guns might come out and you could be shoot­ing bot­tles off a wall to­gether.

But Mike was es­sen­tially an in­tro­vert, and would sud­denly re­treat to an up­stairs room with a door marked ‘Dan­ger, keep out’. Which re­minded you that you were only get­ting the tour that he wanted you to get.

I ar­rived at Lev­ing­ton that first day ex­cited to be in the com­pany of a writer so bril­liant, so glam­orous, so im­por­tant in the world. But what I dis­cov­ered was some­one much more im­pres­sive. Some­one who could make ev­ery­one feel mag­nif­i­cent, im­por­tant, and en­chant­ing. Some­one who could make you feel that whether you were in Clar­idge’s, in Hol­ly­wood or in Ire­land — “a shrunken teat on the chest of the cold At­lantic” — there was al­ways magic and mischief to be dis­cov­ered.

I do not ex­ag­ger­ate when I say that such a mar­vel­lous man has never be­fore ex­isted nor can ever be re­placed.

‘He was eter­nally en­rap­tured with him­self’

FAIRY­TALE OF NEW YORK: Au­thor JP Don­leavy, Vic­to­ria Mary Clarke and Shane MacGowan in The Shel­ter on Vicar Street, Dublin in 2007. Photo: Tony Gavin

TAKE AIM: Vic­to­ria and ‘Mike’ (JP) get out the guns at Lev­ing­ton. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

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