Tales of the IRA and the Mafia, good wine... then football at 2am
Sophie Gorman recalls Irish-American author JP Donleavy, who died this week
I first met JP Donleavy professionally. I was interviewing him for a production of The Ginger Man in 1999. There was an unexpected accord. I was a (reasonably) young arts journalist and couldn’t help but be taken by this literary giant. I was admiring, but not intimidated; his warmth prevented that. His liking me was more of a puzzle, but he had an obvious natural curiosity.
We kept in contact and he invited me to visit him at his house in Westmeath. Somehow, it became clear that I was going to stay the night. I took the train and he was there waiting for me at the station. A sartorial vision. A well-pressed suit, a yellow silk cravat, a tweed cap. Every inch the country lord.
Our first pit-stop was the supermarket. There was to be dinner and, apparently, I was to make it. JP professed little skill in the kitchen. I chose fish. And we drove to his house on the banks of Lough Owel.
JP showed me first to my room, complete with a Victorian claw-foot bath. I thought I might never leave. The heart of the house, the long kitchen, was bookended with a giant Aga and always filled with dried oranges, the scent like Spain. On the walls of the corridors were JP’s own drawings and paintings; witty and strange dinosaur creatures.
And then we put on Wellington boots from the large selection and went outside to catch the end of the day. JP was very proud as he showed me the stone walls he had built by his own hand. He showed me his cattle and talked of meat prices. He pointed out where he played real tennis and the beautiful, decaying vintage car in the stables.
We walked around the water until dark. And, then, admittedly overwhelmed by it all, I cooked. Dinner was slow and full of conversation. JP was unique in that he constantly kept asking questions. He wanted to hear all my stories. Indeed, he asked so many questions that I remember telling my mother afterwards that I was worried he was stealing my stories.
His own stories were, of course, much more interesting; stories of other writers, of life in rural Ireland, of the IRA. My favourites were about his time in New York, his dealings with the Mafia, all bulletproof cars and high-speed chases.
We sat in his drawing room after dinner until past two in the morning and, possibly helped by the good red wine we had drunk, we went outside to play football. I did not win, but I did not lose — JP was a very generous host.
After that first visit, I returned a number of times. Once, JP brought me with him to the races. He was a regular, the
locals knew him and clearly liked him.
Interestingly, though, for a fan of horse racing, JP
never placed a bet. Instead, he gave me some money and asked me to place whatever bets I liked. There was no beginner’s luck for me, my horses were nags, but we both loyally and loudly cheered them all on right to the end — apart from the one who decided to head for the stables after the second time around.
We were never what you would call real friends, but we did somehow like each other. I did meet some of his friends and they all called him Mike. I never reached that level, but I did once arm-wrestle him.
And he never did steal my stories, although he would have probably told them better.