JP Don­leavy

A glo­ri­ous free­dom

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters -

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.

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