A glorious freedom
With the death this week of JP Donleavy and the passing earlier this year of Anthony Cronin, the last living links to an era of Irish literature have been broken. It was an era in which Irish writers were censored, marginalised, generally impoverished, and yet managed an often glorious freedom. Though American by birth and certainly not impoverished, Donleavy was very much a part of the small Dublin bohemia of Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and the writers, actors, publishers and essayists who kept alive a spirit of irreverence, invention and free thought that stopped Ireland from succumbing to complete stultification.
Donleavy is one of those writers whose fate is to be remembered principally for their first book: in his case The Ginger Man, which sold a reported 45 million copies. But it is not a bad fate. The Ginger Man holds its place as one of the best novels of the period after the second World War for reasons that have little to do with the sexual frankness that led to it being rejected by so many publishers and banned in Ireland. It lives, rather, because it is full of life. From the often gloomy and seedy realities of Dublin in the late 1940s, with its frantic drinking and furtive pursuit of sex, Donleavy extracted a picaresque tale that is both vivid and melancholy, very funny and full of unfulfilled yearning. And he animated that time and place in a language that seems inexhaustible in its unruly energy.
Mainstream Ireland didn’t thank him for his pains. When his dramatic version of The Ginger Man was staged in Dublin in 1959, the Irish Independent described it is as “one of the most nauseating plays ever to appear” in the city and demanded its withdrawal “with the greatest possible speed”. After an intervention from the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, it got its wish. But Donleavy eventually returned to spend most of the second half of his long life in Ireland and settled into his own kind of slightly eccentric Irishness. He deserved perhaps more recognition than he got from his chosen country for the service he had rendered in prodding it awake.