The most important person in Ulick O’Connor’s life was his nanny
None could equal Ulick’s ability to capture the atmosphere of the Irish literary revival
Ulick O’Connor on the roof of Independent House in 1964. Photograph: Tom Burke / Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection/ Getty Images
The most important person in Ulick O’Connor’s life was his nanny, Tyrone woman Annie Bell, on whose death he wrote one of his most moving poems. She had been hired after previous nannies departed shell-shocked having had the shins kicked off them by Ulick. When he tried the same on her, she went out into the hall, fetched her umbrella and gave him a hiding. “That’s exactly what we are looking for,” said his delighted mother and Annie was hired on the spot. She remained with the family for the rest of her long life.
Her charge remained into adulthood the same turbulent, boyish figure, an enfant terrible, for ever upsetting the prim and the proper. As a result, he was not honoured as he deserved for the substantial accomplishments of his long, productive and exceptionally versatile life.
Ulick had youthful athletic achievements to his credit as pole vaulter, pugilist and rugby player, his own accounts of which lost nothing in the telling. He was a lifelong stickler for physical fitness and drank little.
He practiced as a barrister, mainly doing criminal cases, for almost twenty years after his call in 1951. Fellow barristers doubted his judgment and wondered if he was wise to give cheek to self-important judges, but he could boast of having averted a serious miscarriage of justice appearing for Mrs Shanahan in the Singer stamps case.
Critics sometimes sniffed at inaccuracies in his much-read biographies of Oliver St John Gogarty and Brendan Behan. But none could equal Ulick’s ability to capture the atmosphere of the Irish literary revival. His history of the movement, The Celtic Dawn, is a classic, portraying that enchanted world in verbal technicolour. His deep feeling for the writers and their work shone even more brightly through his evocative one-man shows. These were much appreciated at home and abroad, especially in America. The past he evoked was to him as real as the present.
He took an almost excessive pride in his Irishness. Few could sell the country better to outsiders. He had strong nationalist convictions and found material for plays in the conflicts surrounding Irish independence. He understood the impulses of those who resorted to violence for political ends and was in awe of the risks they ran and the sacrifices they made. He was a strident critic of British government in Northern Ireland. But various efforts he made to play a role in resolving the situation in the 1970s and 1980s were politically naïve and ran into the sand.
Paradoxically he also enjoyed his access to British high society and its Irish offshoot as part of the active social life portrayed in his diaries published in 2001. While he could be friendly and entertaining at gatherings, he lacked capacity for polite disagreement or the toleration of uncongenial company. He was not above giving women the sharp edge of his tongue. Men who persisted in disagreeing with him on issues about which he felt strongly ran the risk of flare-ups or even of being invited to “step outside.”
Ulick was ambitious to be a national figure and once ran for Seanad Eireann. Later he tried pop journalism and appeared on chat shows. Neither suited him. “Why are you always getting your name up?” said his shrewd Nanny. He was at his best when he concentrated on his plays and poetry where he leaves behind him a worthwhile legacy never as fully appreciated in his lifetime as it should have been.