MacNamara, a prized Logos contributor, died January 8 at the
age of 89. Mac, as he was known to friends, was one of the
most remarkable people that at least three Logos editors ever
met. This profoundly Irish artist, a sparkling wit and
inexhaustible raconteur, lived in London since 1951 with his
charming English wife Skylla, a film studio script reader. In
Dublin in the 1940s Mac worked as a valued set designer for
the Abbey and the Gate Theaters and as a prop designer on
films, including Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V. Mac
also became the model for the kangaroo-suited ‘MacDoon’ in
J.P. Donleavy's classic novel of post-war bohemian Dublin,
The Ginger Man. His sculpture is on exhibit in the Irish
National Gallery and the Dublin National Writer's Museum.
published books on puppetry, uses of papier-mache in
sculpture, and the art of picture framing. In the 1970s he won
a film award for his work in animation. His Celtic comic novel
The Book of Intrusions, published by Dalkey Archive
Press in 1994, won plaudits in the international press. A
second novel, Confessions of An Irish Werewolf, had
just been completed at the time of the interview and is
available through Ushba International Publishers
farewell, we reprint the 2003 interview and pair it with the
opening chapter of Irish Werewolf (the excerpted third
chapter having appeared earlier in Logos). Readers, we
suspect, will see why he will be sorely missed by those of us
who were fortunate to have known him. His final book review
appears in our next issue.
TO MEMOIRS WRITTEN ABOUT THE 1940S AND 1950S IN DUBLIN, YOU
ARE PORTRAYED AS THE IRISH ANSWER TO GERTUDE STEIN IN THAT YOU
RAN A NON-STOP SALON IN YOUR SCULPTOR’S STUDIO ON GRAFTON
STREET WHERE MOST IRISH NOTABLES – AND SOME NON-IRISH, LIKE
PHYSICIST ERWIN SCHROEDINGER - WOULD SHOW. HOW DID THEY ALL
COME TO GATHER THERE?
that by accident I had a studio in a tall house in the middle
of the city in the narrow ravine of a street and I started
using a pub around the corner, McDaids - and people would drop
in casually. My wife at the time, Beverlie Hooberman, kept an
open house. When pubs shut people dropped in. People dropped
in before pubs opened, people dropped by when the pubs were
open, and people dropped in for a free cup of coffee instead
having to pay for it because there was usually coffee bubbling
sunbathed on the roof. There were three studios on the floor.
One used by John Ryan, one by me, and one by a sculptor called
John Bourke. There was no furniture whatsoever. No living
accommodation. So I furnished it with everything that I had.
Theatrical props. Cows heads. Anything to reduce the room from
the empty barn it was when I first saw it.
HOW DID YOU
COME BY IT?
It was over the Monument Creameries, which is now gone. So
there it was. Up on the Gothic heights opposite Woolworths
where I could watch pigeons fornicating on ledges which no one
else could see from below. That's really all there was to it.
This period of my life lasted only three to four years, but it
was a formative three or four years for me. The end of my life
as a student and my first evasions of the obligation of living
elsewhere or in some other way.
BORN IN DUBLIN?
born in Dublin. Born in a Georgian crescent near Merrion
Square. My mother was Dublin-born, although my paternal family
comes from Kileloo. My grandfather was a bespoke-shoemaker. He
had a small shoe factory which made riding boots, livery boots
and things like that. He was a Fenian
He was out at the rising at Tallaght in 1867.
NABBED BY THE BRITISH?
home in a cab. Buried his gun and came home in a cab. When the
SCULPTURAL MEDIUM SEEMS TO BE PAPIER-MACHE. YOU’VE PUBLISHED A
BOOK ON ITS USES IN ART. YOU BEGAN BY APPLYING IT TO STAGE
PROP DESIGN, DIDN’T YOU?
Yes. A lot
of my work was theatrical. Papier-mâché was simply an
accident. I had trained in sculpture and done my diploma at
the National College of Art, as it then was called. I had
always been interested in the theater and I had belonged to
rather a progressive theater group.
people. I can't recall many names. Many are quite well known
in the theater now. An ambassador in Luxembourg, Stockholm and
Delhi, Val Iremonger, was our last producer. The founder of
the Lyric Theater in Belfast was our secretary. Many others
passed into acting. So I took to making theatrical props as
one of my means of - hardly making a living - an existence, a
subsistence, really. It so happened that at the time Hilton
Edwards discovered that I was able to do things that
previously hadn't been obtainable in Ireland or, for that
matter, in London. Certainly not at a cheap price. I started
to reduce the amount of scenery, the amount of painted
backdrops. That was a fashionable thing then. And I
concentrated on huge props like statues of Apollo or Venus or
whatever. And so simply because people knew I was there, they
tended to come to me from the Abbey and the Gate and other
separate productions. And from the odd film when they were on
INDICATED THERE HAD BEEN A SEPARATION BETWEEN THOSE WHO LIVED
UPROARIOUS LIVES AND THOSE WHO DID THE ARTISTIC WORK.
remember any particular distinction of any kind. There were no
separate zones of living that I can think of. I went many,
many times to the Catacombs. On one occasion I lived there for
about ten days, in a most superior room.
AFTER YOU VACATED GRAFTON STREET - ABOUT 1948?
that it was probably 1949. I've forgotten exactly when I left
Grafton Street. I left quite early on because the huge place
had been taken over. It was an entire floor of the most
expensive property in the middle of the city. Grafton Street
district was the equivalent of Bond Street in London or Avenue
Louise inn Brussels or anywhere like that. I was squeezed out
and ended up in a Georgian mews off Baggott Street. It was a
mews off a mews. It was full of hens. You had to pick your way
through them to get to it. And so I moved everything up there
and expanded to fill up the space. You could hardly move
around in it. It was about that time that I met people like
Gainor Crist, the Ginger Man.
HOW DID YOU
COME ACROSS THAT NEST OF AMERICAN STUDENTS AT TRINITY? HOW DID
DONLEAVY, CRIST, AND O’DONOGHUE STRIKE YOU AT THE TIME OF YOUR
remember any first meeting. But I do remember the first time I
talked to Donleavy at any length. It was at Crist's house at 1
Newtown Avenue, Blackrock
He had a little house there with two rooms downstairs and
basically one room upstairs. I was there several times. There
were problems with Gainor who was rather given to the bottle.
I remember one occasion when Petra tracked him down in
Blackrock village waving a dirty nappy.
SO WAS CRIST GINGERY?
ginger hair. Not violently ginger, I’ve known more gingery
people. He was about six feet tall, slender, very well spoken,
a slightly T.S. Eliot way of speaking. I don’t think this was
an affectation. He actually used rather Dickensian phrases
like ‘My good man,’ ‘God's teeth’ and even ‘zounds.’ He would
affect, very mildly, a satiric kind of pedantry but he said
these things in a comic spirit which you were meant to know,
and you were meant to laugh. Many had reservations about it of
a violent kind. Somewhere in this flat I still have his law
notes in an old ledger with half an acre of foolscap. He left
many pages untouched.
EVER SEE HIM STUDY?
But he read a lot. He read everything.
WAS HE RECOGNISABLE IN THE
STAGE PRODUCTION OF THE GINGER MAN YOU SAW IN DUBLIN IN 1999?
He is strangely recognizable.
All the characters in The Ginger Man are recognizable - with
exception of, I think, of Mary.' There were moments in his
life when he became very testy and rather outrageous. These
were usually followed the next day by remorse and apologies.
It was a feature of his character that Donleavy tends to
forget or didn't find convenient to use. He came from Dayton,
Ohio and his next door neighbors were the Wright brothers,
Orville and Wilbur. Gainor's father had been a respected
physician who had been to the South Pole with Admiral Byrd. He
married a second time, Gainor’s mother died when he was quite
young. Some people attribute his slightly necrophiliac tastes
to the death of his mother.
MacNamara interjects: Gainor had this wily charm and would get
anything out of you, your background, and whatever you were
thinking about, your whole life history perhaps. This was
truth night. And then`when he had you really flung out, then
he'd borrow money. (laughter)
IT SAYS A LOT ABOUT CRIST THAT
IT IS A FOND MEMORY. WHAT’S THIS ABOUT NECROPHILIA?
hitchhiking to County Down and got as far as Drogheda. It was
a hot day and he entered the large cool Cathedral.and,
slipping off his shoes, would sit in the back pew with his
swollen feet on the cold marble. He fell asleep and was
awakened by childish laughter and saw little girls putting
pennies into a slot which turned on a light which lit up the
mummified head of the blessed Oliver Plunket, now Saint Oliver
Plunkett. Gainor was most taken by this and sent me a
photographic postcard of it. Two or three years later Brendan
rediscovered it and dubbed it the BOP in the box. - B dot., O
dot. P dot. Brendan sent me a beautiful postcard to pass onto
Gainor and scribbled on it - I think it was Brendan's last
piece of verse : ‘The blessings of Ollie, so jovial and Jolly
be on you dear Crist till next we get pissed.’
At Gainor's request I made him a small copy of the BOP fitted
into a match box. He carried it around in his pocket and would
show it. It looked very like the BOP, like someone very dead
with teeth showing. a papier-mâché head. Years later he showed
me a brothel in Barcelona. They'd had a small morgue: a
mortuary chapel and bier awaiting the next customer. I don’t
know if the brothel had any specialities - probably had to
arrange that the day before. Another occasion in Madrid with
Peter Walsh, an ex-IRA man, he took me to see Spanish funeral
hearses with jetblack horses with nodding plumes six feet
high, lined with cut glass windows and velvet linings. Then
was taken upstairs to a hearse garage where there were very
impressive ones with ebony life sized angels - six more small
hearses, pearly white, with weeping angels carved in them.
About half life size. This was for kids, He thought it was one
of the tenderest things he had ever seen. Very impressed by
CRIST UP TO IN DUBLIN?
screw money out of the American government. His wife had
access to his grant before he laid hand on it. That's his
first wife, an English woman, whom he met while in the Navy
during the war. They were just around and I got to know them
better. Mike Donleavy struck me as an appallingly bad painter
which he was and which apparently his then wife M.W. still
believed since she’d barred his paintings from their stately
home in Mullingar.
He had a
house in Kilcool, a cottage surrounded by concrete blocks
which he built for pleasure, I think. Maybe they were abstract
pieces of sculpture. They looked just like tank traps in the
meadow by the sea. He painted pieces on plywood and Swedish
hardboard. He raided the Daisy market and bought off the
frames. If the paintings didn't fit the frames, he'd saw them
down until they did. The borders of the paintings, which were
on scrap pieces of hardboard, were very large. I remember an
exhibition Mike held on St. Stephens Green.
THE SUBJECT MATTER AND STYLE?
them were fruit. They had titles like ‘Three Large Happy
Apples’ or ‘Rich Delicious Tomatoes’ - and there were three
circles. They were rather minimal; they were still lives. Very
often the tomatoes or cucumbers or whatever they were would
just float into space. They were quite naive. Any resemblance
to any school of painting that happened before or since is
quite coincidental. One very avant-garde woman painter went to
the exhibition with me. She said, "We'd better go along and
see what Michael Donleavy is doing." She had previously
slapped him down because of his tendency to ask people sexual
questions about themselves. He never revealed anything about
himself but he'd ask people how many times they'd had it last
week and that sort of thing. So on our way over we met him
standing on the corner of a side street off Grafton Street and
she greeted him with ‘Michael Donleavy! Are you sill in your
celluloid penis stage?’ He said, ‘What's that, Phyllis?’
your apples,’ she said. ‘Your celluloid penises.’
went with her to Mike's exhibition and we walked around this
beautiful Dublin painter's gallery with all the other people.
Though tending to frankness, Phyllis did not want to offend
Mike by saying anything openly. So when Mike asked her what
she thought, she said, ‘Well, some of the color is quite
interesting and indeed quite good.’ And Mike said, ‘So it
should be That Chrome yellow cost me fifteen shillings.’
SOMEONE OF THAT TEMPERAMENT STAY CLOSE ENOUGH TO RECORD THE
ANTICS OF A MAN LIKE GAINOR CRIST?
know. How did Boswell stay close to Johnson. Mike carried a
notebook. I noticed him using it on occasion and I thought he
was writing down an address and I discovered that he had
written down little bits and pieces and, indeed, comments of
mine and John Ryan and other people which he changed in some
way into aphorisms - directed at nothing in particular. They
were rather like the pieces of verse that he used at the ends
of chapters. Gnomic little utterances.
SUSPECT HE WAS WRITING NOVELS?
No I had no
idea until Brendan told me about it. Brendan and I and two or
three others had been at a weekend party in a very hospitable
house up in the mountains near Glendalough. Brendan had a row
with a journalist when they went out for a walk. The
journalist was a very tedious man but Brendan also
overreacted. So Brendan decided he wasn't going back to the
house if so-and-so was going with him. And he set off across
the mountains and walked twenty miles down to Greystones where
he found Donleavy was out. And he broke in and found the
manuscript for The Ginger Man. Donleavy was supposed to have
appeared with a shotgun because Brendan, who had effected an
entry, as they say, left a window open through which he came
in. Donleavy crept up and crept up and looked in to see
Brendan reading the thing. Brendan looked up and said, ‘Put
that away. This book is fucking funny.’ That's all I know.
That's what Brendan told me.
BRENDAN BEHAN WHEN HE WAS IN THE FIANNA [REPUBLICAN SCOUTS],
THE JUNIOR IRA?
time I ever spoke to him he was maybe sixteen and I was
eighteen or nineteen. It was at the end of the Spanish Civil
war. There was an attempt in the crumbling days of the
Republic of Catalonia to get a food ship out to beleaguered
Barcelona. A meeting was held and we were all issued with
banners to carry, ‘Skim Milk for Spain’ and things like that.
I'm not sure what the Spaniards thought of skim milk but
that's what they got if they got it. The person carrying the
other pole of the banner, marching past the General Post
Office where Nelson's pillar stood, was Brendan. He was a very
good-looking boy with a very bad stammer. A young Stewart
Granger in appearance. His personality overpoured.
So I became
quite friendly with him although a youth of nineteen looks
upon a boy of sixteen as very much younger than himself.
Nonetheless Brendan became part of my circle for a while,
mostly connected with the theater group. The he disappeared
and I heard that he had been imprisoned in England. The Second
World War had started by then. A year had passed. Then one
day, coming into my Grafton Street studio on a tram - I had a
flat in Rathgar - someone appeared behind me and tapped me on
the shoulder and it was Brendan who, wherever he was going,
jumped off the tram with me and came down to the studio. It
was then I discovered he had been released. The previous
evening he had enacted the closing scene in his book with the
customs officer greeting him in Irish off the boat in Dun
Laoighaire. Had Borstal Boy been extended another paragraph he
would have said, "Next day on the 15 tram I met . . ." He
went home but he wasn't too well received there. There were
always rows going on in that family.
ROWS? PURE FAMILY ROWS?
imagine both. All mixed together. He spent the night there. I
suppose that's where he was coming from. He didn't go back for
about a fortnight. He stayed with me. No one drank a good deal
at that time although we went into McDaids often. But we
seemed to spend hours over a pint or a couple of half-pints.
There wasn't a great deal of money then. And that was my
meeting with Brendan. Later he shot at the policeman and went
into prison again.
HIS AMBITIONS AT THE TIME?
ambitions were not to do house painting. So far as I know,
they were purely negative.
BUT HE HAD
BEEN WRITING POETRY.
made some infantile effort while in school. Many children do
that. I think his interest was nurtured in prison,
particularly in the Curragh, which was kind of a university
with lectures going on all day by people like Roger McHugh and
many others. People who subsequently took over the Folklore
Commission were interned there. He started writing there and
also in Arbour Hill, the military prison. His reason for
writing poetry, as I wrote in a review of Colm Kearney's book
on Brendan, is that the Irish Gaelic magazine paid very
quickly and they always paid properly in guineas, never in
pounds. Because guineas are for artists and gentlemen and
pounds are for the commonality, you see. So it was two
guineas a poem, which at the time was quite a lot. Many's the
time that I and others waited while Brendan rushed off with a
grubby piece of paper in his hand to come back with the money.
If those two guineas hadn't existed, the poems would not have
YOU HAVE A
HEAD OF BRENDAN DISPLAYED ON YOUR MANTLE, BESIDE MANY OTHER
BUSTS, DID HE ACTUALLY POSE FOR IT?
Brendan, who was a monstrous egotist or egoist or both,
conceived the idea of having a statue of himself erected in
St. Stephens Green. There were a number of grass bays around
the perimeter of the north side of the Green, some of which
contained statues, some of which didn't. In some cases statues
had been there originally which were blown up during the
Troubles. It occurred to Brendan that if you erected a statue
like that- how long would it be there before people noticed it
hadn't always been there? The idea came to him, I think,
because I had just done a life-sized replica of a statue of
Queen Victoria which originally sat in front of Leinster
It was for the Annual Horse Show Review at the Gaiety Theater.
It was very uncomely.
SO WAS SHE.
The statue was even more so. The monument was quite handsome,
baroque. But she, sitting in the middle of it, was rather
uncomely. It was known as "Ireland's revenge." Anyway, I'd
done this copy complete with dried pigeon and seagull shit.
Very effective. And indeed when taken to the Gaiety Theater in
the back of a lorry was mistaken for the real thing. Brendan
didn't want his own name on the statue. He wanted a statue
erected to Rabelais with Brendan's head on it. This was to be
set up on a plywood base treated to look like stone, with
which I had some skill. He had even gone to the extent of
persuading an engineer to design a retractable trolley so we
could wheel the thing over, press a lever, so it would settle
in the grass as if forever. I had to come, for various
reasons, to London then and later he followed me over and we
started to do it. The important thing was to get a portrait
head of him from which the rest could be fabricated.
ACTUALLY SAT STILL FOR YOU?
still. He fell asleep half way through, no, a quarter way
through. I had to prop up his head with half a dozen books.
didn't go back to Dublin for sufficiently long to do it but
the hoax could have been done. Our mutual theory was that it
would take about three weeks before some gardener mowing the
grass would bump into the base and discover it wasn't granite.
CHANGES DID YOU SEE IN BRENDAN OVER THE YEARS?
change that happened to Brendan is that he was drinking
heavily toward the end. He always drank a lot socially but
towards the end it was very bad, particularly since his visits
to the States and Canada, it began. The chemistry of his body
changed and his soul with it. Well the two are inseparable.5
KAVANAGH’S HEAD IS ON THE MANTLE. TOO. WHEN DID HE ARRIVE AT
started coming into McDaids when Bev and myself and John Ryan
established ourselves there.6
We hadn't much opportunity or domestic capacity for
entertaining. Damp turf fires and all that. So we would just
take visiting people over to McDaids for a ham sandwich and
half a pint of Guinness or porter, very often, at the time.
And Kavanagh was one of the people there. I remember the first
lengthy conversation I had with him, a rather irascible one.
There was an exhibition of paintings by Irish painters. One
was John ffrench. Michael Morrow was another - he was Gothic
even in those days - and I think Beatrice, Brendan's later
wife, was one of the exhibitors in the Grafton gallery, which
was owned by Tom Nisbet and next door to McDaids. There was a
crowd of people at the opening. I was invited but there was no
room to get in at the door. Eve the porch was filled. I'd
thought I would go and have a drink next door and come back in
twenty minutes since I knew most people had come fairly early
and would leave the gallery reasonably soon.
Kavanagh sort of craned over my shoulder, looked in and bawled
over my head past my ear: "FRAUDS! IMPOSTERS! DECEIVERS!" Then
he went into McDaids, ordered himself a small whiskey and he
sat curled up in himself on a stool., not looking at anyone. I
said, "That was rather cruel." He went on at great length to
explain to me why it was true that every phony in the city was
there. To some extent this was true. Every phony in the city
was there. So were several dozen quite reasonable people. So
was Oisin Kelly, who is now a celebrated sculptor. So, you
BRIAN O’NOLAN TOO.7
I got to
know him when a man called George Jeffares, who was doing a
Ph.D on Yeats, was having continuous rows with Nolan. I
attended some of these argumentative sessions and I got to
know him. He wasn't a person one talked to. He talked to you.
He held court. There was little to contribute. Oddly enough,
although Brendan spoke louder and externalized more, he was a
listener and he was a question-asker. He'd ask endless
questions and he'd pick you up on them. In between his
mimicries and fantasies.
SCHROEDINGER WAS LODGED AT THE DUBLIN INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED
STUDIES DURING THE WAR.8
HOW DID ONE OF THE PIONEERS OF WAVE MECHANICS ENTER YOUR LIFE?
I met his
wife. I found her a very charming Austrian woman. She then
invited myself and others to visit over afternoon tea. I met
Shroedinger and liked him very much. He invited me to Dunsink
observatory with him. His ideas were like toys to him and he
liked explaining them to people. I don't suppose I met him
more than two dozen times though most were lengthy occasions.
I remember he had a loom, a shuttle loom which produced
tapestries about eighteen inches in width. He changed the
pattern the whole time. He'd try out mathematical curves and
then arbitrarily stop them and change to another curve from a
different equation. The effect was very beautiful. I wish I
had one of them. He once offered to cut me off a couple of
pieces. They went on and on in very long strips. He had them
running down the walls. Random curves and slopes and colors.
WOVEN FORMULAE ALL AROUND HIS ROOMS?
right. He dropped into Grafton Street a few times, mostly to
hear a singer named Aine Woods, who was a superb Gaelic
singer. My wife was compiling notebooks of traditional songs
and people used to come over to sing. Schroedinger left Dublin
when the war ended.
PEOPLE, LOOKING BACK ON THE YEARS AFTER THE WAR, OR
‘EMERGENCY,’ PORTRAY THE PERIOD TO BE AS NEAR TO A ‘GOLDEN
AGE’ IN THE ARTS AS DUBLIN HAS SEEN SINCE LADY GREGORY.
a golden age. Each age is an age that is dying or one that is
coming to birth. I never thought it was golden. Gilt potato
bread perhaps. It was a clearing of the lungs after the
stagnation of those years of neutrality during the war.
Ireland was spared the horrors of Europe but it did pay a
price. It was pushed back on itself. Became insulated and cut
off from news. Dublin was a city of rumors. Actual news of
events in the wide, wide world was very hard to come by
because there was censorship on both sides. So you couldn't
find out what was happening. I think most people I knew at the
time favored the Allies. Most of the IRA then were more
violently anti-Nazi and anti-fascist than the British
government. Very much so. Many had fought in Spain. At the
time the left was very republican, and a large part of the
Labour party was republican-socialist. It's the rump of this
that you find in the Official IRA.[i]
YOU LIVE IN
LONDON. WHAT’S YOUR RECEPTION BEEN LIKE OVER THE DECADES. AN
IRISHMAN, GIVEN THE ‘TROUBLES’ GOING INTO THE MID-90s, MUST
HAVE FELT QUEASY ON OCCASIONS.
during rather critical times I've found myself rather
embarrassed when going into pubs with plastic bags in my hand.
I've been conscious of the fact. My attention has been drawn
to them in pubs, but mostly where I'm known. The limeys, god
bless them, are a very tolerant people. Harmless and tolerant.
Not very imaginative or talkative. Or rather they do talk but
not about things that interest me very much. They're not
disputative enough. If I were to make an ethnic choice before
going into a previously unvisited London pub, I'd choose a
fellow Celt of some sort. A Glasgow man. An Edinburgh man. A
Welshman. You don't meet many Cornish so I can't judge them.
But the Welsh and the Scots are much closer to us than the
English I now realize. Anyway, in watching international
sporting matches, for example, I am pleased when Scotland
SAY DISPUTATIVENESS IS A CELTIC TRAIT?
appear to be. Years ago I would deny this but I am aware of it
now. Certainly the Welsh are as disputative as the Irish. I
know that if I bump into a Welsh man anywhere, he'd talk the
hind legs off me. About nothing very much. About life, death
and resurrection. From such talk anything can split off.
THE CONTENTION THAT CELTS TALK THEIR BOOKS AWAY.
that. I don't know if there were any books there. I really
don't believe that about writing. Because writing is an
obsessive thing. Important writing is obsessive.
NOVEL, THE BOOK OF INTRUSIONS WAS WELL REVIEWED. IT WENT
THROUGH A LONG PERIOD OF GESTATION.
writing. It's a very pleasant thing to do. It’s a bit awkward
if you're arthritic, leaning over a hard table sitting in a
hard chair. But otherwise it's a very pleasant occupation. It
occurred to me that not only in Europe but over half the new
world as well - Meso-America and South America - that people
built walls. I started to put down an essay, as it were, about
METAPHORS, WALLS AS REAL WALLS?
everything. There were vast areas of western Ireland along the
Atlantic seaboard up to Donegal and the offshore islands where
people built walls in crazy abundance - small walls, tiny
walls, all made of gray stone and well maintained. Since they
were very old walls, it occurred to me that many of these
walls had been repaired down through the endless centuries. As
small peasant farmers marry and acquire a bit more land they
may take out a bit of the wall but usually leave the rest.
Considering these things I introduced a couple of characters -
a suggestion of Flann O'Brien on some occasion that it was
quite unnecessary to invent new characters. There were lots of
characters already invented. You could take a lot of
characters from Dickens and put them into a spy story, and you
could have a detective named Nickleby. Out of these frivolous
cogitations you could take entire stories borrowing characters
of a previous generation of writers who are already written
about quite satisfactorily and far better than you ever could.
So I went on from there. It occurred to me that it would be
necessary to write a story to link it to someone who had gone
before. Then there was Limbo. I read something about Limbo
having been abolished by the Catholic Church of Pope John. If
limbo was abolished, I thought what did they do with the
inmates? Did they just turn them loose? All these unbaptized
babies and 'meritorious pagans' like Virgil or Juvenal or
Marcus Aurelius. So I got the idea very quickly of the emptied
Limbo and of squatters. There was a lot of squatting going on
at that time in London. And I started to fill it with
WORKS, ABORTED WORKS?
aborted works. It was great fun.
BACK VERY ROUGHLY UPON THE AUTHOR.
become visible. The tougher ones escape through a fissure. I
pictured Limbo as a very old building made of ectoplasm. The
ectoplasmic tiles were coming off and odd characters manage to
escape. And two of them manage to escape through an early
nineteenth century novel. They invade the writer's psyche and
get into his narrative. It's a roomy warm place into which
they camp quite happily. He discovers to his horror some time
later that they have completely taken him over and use him as
a place to become encorpified. They use the literary notes to
extricate and to free other people. One is an actual creation
by Brendan Behan, a translation of the late 18th century poem
The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman. It's about a revolt of
the women in Ireland who convene a court on the shortcomings
of Irish manhood. Brendan did a translation when he was in
prison. The governor of the Borstal put in a request for
Brendan of the Irish version of the poem. The manuscript, was
handwritten sometimes in pen and ink., and sometimes in
pencil. It was left on a scaffold. He lost the manuscript.
WAS IN DANGER OF NOT GETTING ENCORPIFIED ITSELF. YOU HAD A
GALLING EXPERIENCE WITH A BRITISH PUBLISHER.
connected with them. An agent. Someone I met in Bloomsbury in
a pub near the British museum took it. He was quite happy to
take it to the publisher. Various people at Faber and Faber
decided it was worth having a shot at. They had a final
meeting on a Tuesday evening. An extremely important
super-editor came in rather late. He'd been delayed on the
tube or the train. They went through the business of the day
very quickly. and someone said what about this Irish book. He
said, ‘Don't mention that bloody country to me. No more
Irish!’ At that time Belfast was ablaze. Newspapers were full
of Celtic tedium and blood in the street. So the book was
rejected on the assumption it was about the provisional IRA.
IF THERE IS
SUCH A THING AS A NICE IRONY, ONE IS THAT THE BOOK OF
INTRUSIONS WAS PUBLISHED BY DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESS. YOU HAD
DESIGNED THE DUST JACKET FOR BRIAN O NOLAN'S THE DALKEY
REQUEST YOU SPECIFICALLY?
editor contacted me. At about that time I had modeled and cast
a head of Joyce. One of the few photographs I had was from a
death mask. All Brian said was that it had to be "under
water" No one knew what he meant. When asked, he would say ‘I
told you: Under water.’ He said, ‘You didn't put a miter on
its head.’ I said, ‘Well I meant to. Wasn't it obvious?”’
PRAISED YOUR BOOK FOR MAKING FUN OF ARTIFICAL BOUNDARIES AND
UNNECESSARY BARRIERS, MENTAL AND PHYSICAL.
are composed of lesser aggregations and they tend under stress
to protect themselves, and to some extent to isolate
themselves. That's how it is and that's how it has been
SO YOU PIT
SUBVERSIVE COSMOPOLITANISM AGAINST KNEEJERK NATIONALISM.
FOR THE WEREWOLF NOVEL THAT IT WASN’T LON CHANEY YOU HAD IN
I was taken
by the title. There were a few stories I know from the early
Irish from around Kilkenny, which was a Norman town. It was
famous for witchcraft. There was a story of three werewolf
sisters who slept in a cave who lured passersby and ate them.
They were particularly fond of pilgrims. I returned to Bram
Stoker. I knew the Stoker house very well. Then he was a
well-known surgeon. I remember seeing a collection of risqué
slides. Not very dirty.
IT IS A
MURDER MYSTERY WITH THE WEREWOLF PLAYING DETECTIVE.
didn't plot anything out. At one time he was a surgeon in the
early nineteenth century. He sets out to find out what he
suspects - that an artist’s model wasn't drowned but murdered.
But in the course of this he discovers this Sapphic ring,
which published this highly naughty magazine [in order to
support themselves and their cause].
PORN OF ITS TIME.
some of them. They are artful, and rather beguiling indeed. He
goes to Paris at the time of the siege of the Commune. He
hopes to pursue the matter further. He goes to their Sapphic
headquarters and finds them completely guileless and
cooperative. He also discovers, after starting out as a fairly
orthodox werewolf who couldn't pass a day without a chubby
child or a meaty piece of male or female venison, as it were,
that, like society, as the centuries pass, his moral attitude
toward eating has been affected. A degree of enlightenment
begins. Just as in the time of the Crusades, barbaric things
were happening to entire cities, entire populations were
starved, slaughtered, burnt alive. As we came to an age of
more enlightenment this became less acceptable. Similarly he
prides himself on the fact that his taste for blood over the
centuries is decreasing, and is less intrusive. He does not
have to kill. He still does occasionally because that's his
nature. He follows the urges of his palate but never very
seriously. Very often he happily subsists on ordinary fare.
BECOMES A SYMBOL OF A MORE CIVILIZED SOCIETY.
many ways Western society is becoming more civilized. It's
unacceptable to eat each other. It still happens, you know,
but only on extreme occasions.
DO YOU MEAN
THIS NOVEL TO BE A KIND OF COMEDY?
Kavanagh corrected me and said, ‘The real truth lies in
comedy. You wouldn't find much of it in tragedy." I believe it
to be profoundly true - using comedy in Dante's sense of a
happy or a hopeful ending.
OR RESURRECTION: ANY PARTING REMARKS ON ANY OF THESE TOPICS?
I seem to
recall that when old Jack Yeats the painter was nigh unto
death, about three weeks before he died an American critic
wanted to meet him. This was rather difficult because he was
bed-ridden at that time. But finally he consented: Yes, come
along for sherry or whatever. And this rather eager young man
- I've forgotten his name if I ever knew it - sat down
respectfully by his bedside with the sherry and said, "Tell
me, Mr. Yeats, what advice have you got for rising young
artists?" Yeats looked around the room and then out the window
at the mountains and he said, ‘Ah, well.’
all. Just, ‘Ah, well.’ As soft as the end of Ulysses: ‘Yes.
1 John Ryan, born
to a well-off Dublin family, was an Irish renaissance man:
literary editor, theatrical producer, and painter. He
edited ‘A Bash in The Tunnel: James Joyce An Irish View‘
(1970) and is author of several books, most notably,
‘Remembering How We Stood: Bohemian Dublin in the
Fifties’(1975). See my interview in the January 1988 issue
of The Journal of Irish Literature. I regret there was no
room for it in these pages.
2 A Fenian is
a 19th centurty Irish nationalist, of a
particularly vigorous kind.
3 The Curragh
was the County Kildare site of an internment camp.
4 The site of
the today’s Irish parliament.
Kavanagh, born in rural Monaghan, is author of The Great
Hunger and other Poems, Tarry Flynn,, The Green Fool, and
many other works
O’Nolan, aka, Myles naGopaleen, aka, Flann O’Brien
(1911-1966) was a legendary Dublin satirist and wit. He
was an Irish Times columnist and author of The Dalkey
Archive, The Poor Mouth, The Third Policeman and
Schrodinger, Austrian physicist, supplied the mathematical
basis for Einstein’s theory of relativity. He was the
author of ‘What is Life and other Scientific Essays’
[i] The IRA split in 1969 between
the Provisional IRA who waged the nationalist war until
the mid-1990s, and the Marxist-oriented Official IRA who
had called a ceasefire in 1972.