A literary legend, immortalised by Joyce

 

Oliver St John Gogarty's literary output was overshadowed by his colourful life, but the 50th anniversary of his death gives an opportunity to rectify that, writes Sara Keating.

There must be no worse fate for a writer than to be remembered as a minor character in someone else's masterpiece, but such is the fate of Oliver St John Gogarty, poet, surgeon, senator, cyclist, and Olympic medal winner, who died an exile in New York 50 years ago, on September 22nd. For, while Gogarty's infamous fictional alter-ego makes a historic appearance at the beginning of James Joyce's Ulysses, Gogarty's own literary output has been overshadowed by the colourful life that saw Joyce characterise him as "stately plump Buck Mulligan", the blasphemous joker whose conceit is only just capable of being forgiven by occasional flashes of heroism.

In real life Gogarty and Joyce had famously flat-shared in the Martello Tower in Sandycove where Ulyssesopens. The tower had been leased in Gogarty's name, although at the time he was a poor and poorly performing medical student at Trinity College Dublin and could hardly afford it. Joyce and he were good friends, although Gogarty's garrulous "good-time" attitude to life meant that both budding writers found it difficult to get any work done.

A vaguely documented incident involving Gogarty's gun being used as a primitive alarm clock marked the typically dramatic end of their relationship. The pair were never to be friendly again. However, alongside the unflattering portrait of Gogarty in Ulysses, Joyce was to pay tribute to his former friend by including his 1904 poem, The Ballad of Japing Jesus, in one of the later chapters of Ulysses. Gogarty's blend of profanity and popular rhyme in his poem, which was subtitled "The Song of the Cheerful (but slightly sarcastic) Jesus", perfectly complemented the tone of Joyce's own novel.

GOGARTY'S BAWDY SENSEof humour defined much of his early literary output, but he was admired by Yeats, among others, for the classical aesthetic of his more serious poems, which drew their subject matter and treatment from the Greeks. Despite being the subject of one of Gogarty's hilarious limericks ["What a pity it is that Miss Horniman, When she wants to secure or suborn a man, Should choose Willie Yeats, Who still masturbates, And at any rate isn't a horny man"], Yeats controversially included 17 Gogarty poems to TS Eliot's four when he was editing the 1935 edition of the Oxford Book of Poetry. Meanwhile, Gogarty's 1914 socialist play Blightseems impossibly didactic now, but it was arguably the first tenement play in the English language, and was certainly a key inspiration for the as-then undiscovered Sean O'Casey.

Gogarty's later prose work demonstrated the clarity of observation and razor-sharp wit that many of his contemporaries admired and feared. Padraig Colum wrote that: "He had a defect that prevented him being a companionable man: he had no reserve in speaking about people, even those he had cause to admire, even those who were close to him. If they had some pitiful disability or shortcoming, he brought it right out. It was an incontinence of speech . . . The result was that people gave him licence and kept a distance from him." This unreserved honesty was perfected in his wildly entertaining memoirs Tumbling in the Hayand As I Went Down Sackville Street, but the revealing nature of his memoirs was to initiate two famous libel cases which Gogarty was involved in.

The first of these was in 1937 when Gogarty was sued and financially ruined by Harry Sinclair (Samuel Beckett's uncle) for a comment about Sinclair's grandfather. (Beckett gave evidence at the trial, and was subsequently christened "that bawd and blasphemer from Paris" by the enraged defendant.)

The second trial was in 1938, when Gogarty sued Patrick Kavanagh for a grievance that was even pettier than Sinclair's and was to prove to have even more devastating consequences for the already impoverished Kavanagh, who was forced to withdraw The Green Foolfrom publication. Gogarty was surely still smarting from losing in the Sinclair trial and possibly thought that passing on the humiliation might make him feel better.

IT DIDN'T. NORdid make him any friends, and soon after he left for a lecture tour in America, never to return to Ireland. He appeared to mellow somewhat in New York, and continued to publish prolifically: 11 books between 1940 and his death in 1957, including two further memoirs, fiction, and poetry. His work remained popular throughout this period, even with those who found his personality over-bearing or his auto-biographical revelations somewhat unfair. In fact, even his old adversary Joyce was said to have had a copy of I Follow St Patrickon his bedside locker when he died.

But despite the strength of his literary profile, even posthumously Gogarty never seemed to be able escape his own reputation; his life the stuff of literary legend. When he wasn't breaking Irish cycling records or being banned from championships for swearing, he was organising prison breaks from Mountjoy for 1916 rebels. When he wasn't addressing fellow members in the Senate, he was dramatically escaping IRA kidnappers with the help of the Liffey's strong currents and a couple of swans. And when he wasn't off causing trouble, he was busy performing throat surgeries at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, although even in the operating theatre, it was said, he could not quell his desire for drama, performing party tricks like "toss the tonsils" as he treated patients.

Even in death, Gogarty's life seemed to be defined by a proclivity towards the theatrical, as the closing moments of a 1987 documentary Silence Will Never Do, revealed. As his body was flown back to Ireland for burial, his son Oliver went to collect the coffin at the airport. Upon seeing his father laid out and made up in the coffin, he remarks that he was convinced his father was playing a trick: "That's not my father", he said, "That's Michael Mac Liammóir." Somehow this comparison between the grand dame of Irish theatre and the 'man with the kindest heart in Dublin, and the dirtiest tongue' seems somewhat fitting.

• Renvyle House Hotel, Connemara, Gogarty's former holiday home, will host a literary weekend (Nov 8-11) commemorating the 50th anniversary of Oliver St John Gogarty's death. Speakers will include Ulick O'Connor, Eamon Grenann, and James Ryan. See www.gogartysociety.com