Sur­pris­ingly vul­ner­a­ble and ex­pertly bitchy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - ANNE HAR­RIS

TRULYFRANK:ADUBLINMEMOIR FRANK McDON­ALD Pen­guin Ire­land, 320pp, £20

“There is no use pre­tend­ing that Frank McDon­ald is aim­ing at a ju­di­cial and dis­pas­sion­ate tone. He is not. He is in a rage,” said Mau­rice Craig of McDon­ald’s first book The De­struc­tion of Dublin.

Like all great ar­chi­tects, Craig knew that civic so­ci­ety’s equi­lib­rium de­pends on hon­est plan­ning. Jour­nal­ist McDon­ald saw that the city was out of joint and his rage lit a blow­torch which ex­posed the rot that was ex­co­ri­ated at the plan­ning tri­bunal.

So three decades and five books later, has Frank McDon­ald mel­lowed?

This mem­oir finds him sup­ping with Sam Stephen­son, ear­lier la­belled a “pariah”, and shak­ing hands with Char­lie Haughey, at whose heels he had snapped right up to Haughey’s fall from grace at Dublin Cas­tle. McDon­ald con­fessed to PJ Mara that he liked the ren­o­vated Gov­ern­ment Build­ings: “Do you see that man over there,” Mara said, point­ing to then taoiseach. “Go over and tell him that the Man from del Monte says, ‘Yes.’”

It was a back­handed com­pli­ment to McDon­ald’s rigour and right­eous in­dig­na­tion, rec­ol­lected here, at last, in tran­quil­lity. And there is also an un­ex­pected vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Au­den’s lines “Pri­vate faces in pub­lic places/ Are wiser and nicer/ Than pub­lic faces in pri­vate places” could be a work­ing ti­tle for McDon­ald’s life.

Child­hood chap­ters of­ten get skipped – es­pe­cially if juicier chap­ters beckon. To skip here would be, as the late Caro­line Walsh re­marked on dis­cov­er­ing that McDon­ald was gay, a ter­ri­ble waste. Be­cause McDon­ald’s ac­count of child­hood on Dublin’s north­side smashes for­ever the heart-of-the-rowl mo­nop­oly of writ­ers like Peter Sheridan: no longer is the cul­tural rich­ness of Dublin the pre­serve of Lib­er­ties loy­al­ists.

His par­ents were hard­work­ing, lov­ing, mid­dle class and with a sense of fun and fore­sight; they stamped the me­trop­o­lis on their chil­dren’s psy­ches. “Af­ter we got the Ford Anglia, there was no stop­ping us.”

But it is his mem­o­ries of a Catholic boy­hood that linger. Since Catholi­cism’s cul­tural re­treat, much rit­ual ex­ists only in mem­ory. He word-paints a Cor­pus Christi pro­ces­sion of sac­er­do­tal splen­dour in Aughrim Street with Re­nais­sance lu­mi­nos­ity: gold mon­strance car­ried aloft, houses draped in pa­pal pur­ple, yel­low and white buntinged streets, wide cor­net­ted French or­der nuns, green Ir­ish Army rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Knights of Malta – in short, pageantry in full fig.

On Holy Week it was the power as much as the pomp which fed his imag­i­na­tion. It was presided over by Arch­bishop John Charles McQuaid, who was “ef­fec­tive ruler of Catholic Ire­land for over 30 years. With his mitre and crozier, Hud­son limou­sine, pala­tial pri­vate home in Killiney and rustling, princely vest­ments that some­times re­quired a team of al­tar boys to carry the train.” Then there’s pa­pal legate Car­di­nal Aga­gia­nian, who ar­rived for the Pa­tri­cian Congress in 1961 to a wel­come of four Air Corps vam­pire jets and a 21-gun salute.

McDon­ald cel­e­brat­ing Mass in the back gar­den, in colour­ful crepe-pa­per vest­ments, could not last: his life would all too soon collide with the Church’s teach­ings.

At univer­sity the non-con­form­ist McDon­ald emerged. A key player in the Gen­tle Revo­lu­tion, he tells of sit-ins, speeches and gifted stu­dents who went on to shine in Ir­ish so­ci­ety. He names them all and they are in­deed il­lus­tri­ous, but I found the con­stant roll-call­ing a lit­tle point­less. Es­pe­cially when it holds up the nar­ra­tive of his cru­sad­ing ca­reer.

At an An Bord Pleanála hear­ing about Trea­sury Hold­ings’ pro­pos­als for the North Wall Quay he bumped into Frank Dun­lop, soon to be a wit­ness at the Flood tri­bunal, who con­fides that there was one ques­tion which, if put to him, he would have to an­swer: “Did any politi­cians ask me for money?”

McDon­ald made a call, the ques­tion was asked and from Dun­lop’s an­swers the truth about plan­ning cor­rup­tion in Ire­land was re­vealed.

Over his ca­reer, McDon­ald stood up to politi­cians and plan­ners, ed­i­tors and ar­chi­tects. On the tough­est chal­lenge – stand­ing up to your own tribe – he didn’t flinch. Early in his Ir­ish Times ca­reer he ex­posed its then prop­erty ed­i­tor as a mem­ber of a prop­erty syn­di­cate. De­spite this, the prop­erty ed­i­tor was pro­moted.

His re­la­tion­ship with ed­i­tor Conor Brady was clouded by his sus­pi­cion that Brady thought he ex­ag­ger­ated the cor­rup­tion in the plan­ning process. He de­scribes Brady as a mas­ter at of­fice pol­i­tics. The mem­oir re­veals that he was no slouch at it him­self.

He re­calls that when the salaries of the ed­i­tor and the manag­ing di­rec­tor of The Ir­ish Times be­came pub­lic as jour­nal­ists were tak­ing cuts, he took di­rect ac­tion, or­gan­is­ing a pe­ti­tion of 80 col­leagues to com­plain to the Ir­ish Times Trust about this “un­con­scionable level of pay”. All the il­lus­tri­ous Ir­ish Times names signed it. A sur­pris­ing sup­porter was Trea­sury Hold­ings prop­erty de­vel­oper Richard Bar­rett, who wrote to McDon­ald: “. . . I think mass ex­o­dus and start a new pa­per [giv­ing] the journos a much bet­ter salary and free eq­uity . . .” He of­fered ¤20 mil­lion to ¤25 mil­lion for this and ad­vised se­cur­ing all im­por­tant jour­nal­ists for the “mid­night raid that stakes them through the heart”.

I’m guess­ing the in­sur­gents pre­ferred The Ir­ish Times safe house. Noth­ing hap­pened.

A mem­oir is a very par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary form. Nei­ther au­to­bi­og­ra­phy nor di­ary, it al­lows for a cer­tain im­pres­sion­ism. The fleet­ing light cap­tured here is of cof­fee house con­ver­sa­tion. There’s gos­sip, a delicious sense of in­dis­cre­tion and an acutely ob­served bitch­i­ness – like how con­ser­va­tion warrior FX Martin, an Au­gus­tinian men­di­cant, wore an Ital­ian tai­lored tu­nic and car­ried Visa and Din­ers Club cards .

All of which might lead to the be­lief that McDon­ald is the quin­tes­sen­tial boule­vardier.

Which would be quite wrong. Yes, McDon­ald has crafted a very dis­tinc­tive pub­lic face, but he cher­ishes in­ti­macy too. He is hon­est and sad about grow­ing old. But there’s con­so­la­tion. A most mov­ing chap­ter is his ac­count of how, un­like in straight re­la­tion­ships, older gay men reg­u­larly be­come men­tors to young gay men while hap­pily mar­ried – as he is. Loves but not lovers.

He ad­mits mis­takes – like rec­om­mend­ing Pool­beg for the in­cin­er­a­tor and a vi­o­lent al­ter­ca­tion with a wo­man man­ager of a noisy Tem­ple Bar night­club.

Anger and al­tru­ism; pain and plan­ning – should a rage like McDon­ald’s ever truly sub­side?

Anne Har­ris is a for­mer ed­i­tor of the

■ In­de­pen­dent

Sun­day

Frank McDon­ald.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.