Ulick O'Connor: A very cavalier Irishman in every sense of the word

Vincent Browne: It was not my idea to interview Ulick O'Connor. Since the mid-1960s, we have had unfriendly relations


It was not my idea to interview Ulick O'Connor. Since the mid 1960s, we have had unfriendly relations. These date from an incident at his home late one night, where I was believed to have broken a pane of glass in his doorway (actually, I did, but I was provoked by his brother, Donough, your honour). Later, there was another incident in the old Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street in which we came to blows. Ulick rang up afterwards and challenged me to a duel in the Phoenix Park. Then, over a year ago, he was a participant on a radio programme I was presenting. He had a go at a journalist and when I attempted to stop him he railed on and on. He had complained that there was a policy in RTE to keep him off the airwaves. I said that, sadly, there wasn't, but if I had anything to do with it there would be.

There had been a few other incidents as well over the years. One in the Unicorn restaurant in 1981 and, a few years ago, an incident involving the then Supreme Court judge, Hugh O'Flaherty, and his wife, Kay, this time in McGrattans restaurant. Ulick said unkind things to Kay O'Flaherty and I tried to persuade the Supreme Court judge to hit Ulick. I thought it would be interesting but, regrettably, this did not happen.

I read briskly through his recently published diaries (A Cavalier Irishman) before the interview and planned to begin our discussion with the question: how could it be that you were invited to lunch and dinner so often by civilised people given that you are an uncouth and relentless braggart? I was also going to tease him about the Freudian significance of his macho claims to have beaten up so many people and his ludicrous boastfulness of sporting prowess, and more on those lines.

But I was disarmed straight away. When he opened the door (yes, that door), he looked crumpled and vulnerable. His clothes were torn, he was wearing worn sneakers and the house (period Victorian with splendid original features, as Ray Burke might have said when he was an estate agent) had seen better days, very much better days. I expected a tirade over the broken pane of glass; instead, he offered to make me coffee. And, goddammit, he was almost self-effacing. None of the old belligerence or even cantankerousness. I wondered if he, too, had been immolated by feminists - you know the stuff about men losing their self-confidence because women are asserting themselves far too much? Actually, Ulick went on about this later on in the interview. Honest to God! See it below.

At the end of it all I thought I might even get to like him, which maybe suggests that I had lost the plot as well. I also thought there was more to him than I had previously allowed. He has written two biographies, of Oliver St John Gogarty and Brendan Behan, both to critical approval; several plays; books of poetry; and he has done a few one-man shows which were successful. The diaries are blighted by name-dropping and self-importance (the defect of the genre), but they are well written and amusing. The Times Literary Supplement published a rave review of the diaries by another boulevardier, Toby Barnard: "Economical and astringent, his tour of a gallery of eccentrics and individualists provokes much laughter. Unusually reported witticisms remain funny, sometimes uproariously so."

We started talking about his Mammy and Daddy (that is what he called his parents throughout the interview, which also was disarming). I had suspected that the unremitting truculence might be explained by hatred for his father. But no, he got on well with his Daddy, Mathew O'Connor, or he said he did. Daddy was Professor of Pathology and Dean of the Royal College of Surgeons. Mammy, Eileen Murphy, had a degree from UCD in Celtic Studies and German.

There were five in the family. Ulick, the eldest (born in 1929, now aged 72); Noreen, a retired paediatrician; Michael (now dead) was a TV presenter in New Orleans; Gary, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles; and Donough, who is now in business. They were all brought up in the house Ulick now lives in. Mammy died in 1961 and Daddy in 1963.

He was expelled from the first school he went to when he was aged six. Expelled by a nasty nun who was actually in the Nazi party.

"It was ridiculous. I was milking a cow to get a drink, which turned out to be a bull, and a nun was screaming on the sideline, and Mother Margaret locked me up on a Saturday, and at 12 o'clock. I was sick at the time, and I said `You're only allowed to keep me here until 12. After this, the school closes at 12 on a Saturday, and I have my rights and I can't be kept'. And I kicked the door down, broke it.

He went to another school in Rathgar, which was very advanced. He then went down the road to St Mary's College, Rathmines.

"IT was a small day school, old Dublin tradition, wonderful priest teachers; they thought the rugby was more important, and also theatre. They had terrific plays, She Stoops To Conquer, Shakespeare, every damn thing. The idea was that education, our exams, are good and should be got, but there were a lot of other things that were just as good. It was a smallish school, too, and the boys were all from around Rathmines and Rathgar and their fathers had been there and their grandfathers. It was very much the atmosphere of a musical evening, people singing."

Then on to UCD in 1947, where he did an arts degree in philosophy before going to the Kings Inns to qualify as a barrister. Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey were there at the time, but a few years ahead of him.

"I remember going to the Commerce Society once and he [Haughey] said something offensive to me and I threatened him, to bust him, and he knew I could because he was in the boxing club, and he knew he was in danger, so he exited very quickly. I remember he had a bit of a nose then . . . I went into the Drama Society. I spent an enormous amount of that time in sport. I was Irish champion pole vaulter when I was a schoolboy. I was playing rugby for St Mary's seniors when I was still 18. I was doing cricket for UCD in the summer.

"The centre of my life really was the L & H [Literary and Historical Society of UCD], which met on Saturday nights in the Physics Theatre on Earlsfort Terrace. It was an incredible arena. I remember the first time that I went, and I sat there gaping at these chaps standing up and making long elegant speeches without a single note, making points of order, saying outrageous things, being extremely funny, and all the time in a sort of a gladiatorial context."

He then went on to tell (again) his story of himself and the L & H, when a former Fine Gael minister for finance, Richie Ryan, was auditor. "I had gone to America. I did a post-graduate thing in Loyola University in New Orleans. I came back, and I suddenly found the whole place to be dampened down by this monster, crypto-fascist [Michael] Tierney [then president of UCD].

"He banned me from coming in, that was the year of Richie. He banned me from coming in and I sent a telegram saying that I was coming, got Jackie McGowran in the Abbey to make me up as a woman.

"Tierney panicked, called in the police, police were all around. I got past, sat in there for about two hours, and then Seamus Sorohan [now a senior counsel] stood up and said what will happen if he comes in and Ryan said - Lemass was in the chair - `I'll have him suspended and put out'.

"So I stood up and took off my wig and handcuffed myself to the desk and the whole thing broke up. Tierney actually expelled me from the college for that. I had my BA at the time, I had just got it, but I had my Law lectures to do and he wouldn't let me do them.

"I won the gold medal for oratory in the Law Society that year and he wouldn't allow me to come in to receive it, even though he knew my old man well; and, you know the way [every] old man likes to see their sons get an honour, specially since Daddy had been there and Mammy. It shows you what sort of a fella he [Tierney] was."

He was called to the Bar in 1951 and practised until 1970, doing mainly criminal work and some defamation, acting mainly for plaintiffs.

VB: When did you write your first book? Was it the book on Gogarty? How did it come about?

UO'C: It was commissioned in 1957 by Jonathan Cape. I thought I'd write it in two years, but it took me eight. Jonathan Cape nursed the book through basically, because I hadn't the faintest idea how to write a book, as I quickly found out. At that time, I would go off to America, Spain or some damn place to try and write.

Then it came out in '64 and there was an extraordinary piece of luck about it that I wasn't aware of. Gogarty had worked in Fleet Street and was a big name to [many of the Fleet Street editors]. He lived in New York for the last 15 years of his life, so all the journalists there knew him, so I got enormous publicity.

I mean, you write your first book, you always think of course it'll do very well, why shouldn't it be publicised, but in fact it was miraculous. It was on the New York best-seller list for something like 10 weeks and in London The Spectator gave it a whole special cover. Yet, 10 years later Gogarty was very small, just perhaps remembered for the book. That [book] got me on the TV here and then the Franks thing happened [a series of encounters with actor Denis Franks on The Late Late Show in the mid-1960s]. By '69 and '70 I was very well known in this country without doing anything to merit other than just sitting there and enjoying myself.

VB: The next book was the Behan biography?

UO'C: It was commissioned in America after Gogarty. I didn't want to do it. I didn't like that fella and was not impressed by him. I said I'd go back and read him. I read him thoroughly [and came to realise Behan was] quite outstanding. A true writer, very rare.

These books [the biographies of Gogarty and Behan] had a very important political influence on me. When I went to write Gogarty I had to go around and find out what the hell Gogarty had been through from the people who were with him. So I interviewed half the IRA and went to Bloody Sunday dinners. I accumulated a vast library of information about the period so that I knew that I was talking about the Civil War, and then when I got to Brendan I had to find out what happened from 1922 to the present day. So I collected a very large information source from 1900 to the present day from actual people and, of course, reading books, too.

VB: How successful so far has this book of diaries been?

UO'C: Terrific, it's selling very well. It hasn't got any bad reviews, it's got a lot of very good ones.

VB: Did you keep a diary over all this time?

UO'C: 1970. I started [keeping a diary] when I became a writer. I have 30 volumes now. Most of the things I want to remember are there. I have a vast correspondence, I mean really enormous, because I never learned to type. I always had to have a secretary because I write enormously long letters. The University of Delaware bought half of them (the letters) about 20 years ago. Now the other half has gone out.

VB: Gay Byrne gets very little mention in the book, which seems ungenerous. Were it not for Gay Byrne, you would not have been at all as well known as you have been?

UO'C: Were it not for me and the show. I was well known because I was good at the show, not because of Gay.

VB: It was he who had you on The Late Late.

UO'C: Because I was good for his show, I helped to make his show.

VB: In any event, it's very ungenerous, you hardly mention him at all.

UO'C: I did mention him [he quotes from the book]: "His Late Late Show began in 1962 and became the most watched show ever on Irish television. The gifted presenter knew how to get the best out of those he interviewed and created an interesting ambience which would attract viewers from all backgrounds, young and old etc"].

VB: Do you like him?

UO'C: I don't dislike or like him. I admire his talent. I think he's a cold person. I knew him quite well at the time. I remember once he drove back with his daughter and his wife from Wexford, where we had been doing a joint appearance at the time, and he didn't speak to me during the whole journey. We hadn't had a row other than they got some strawberries and there was something over that. But he's a strange person. He dropped me in 1985 completely after a night in which he said to me: "I'd forgotten how really wonderful you were."

VB: You claim in the book that in 1971 Jack Lynch asked you to become chairman of a committee comprised of very senior people in the public service that was to mastermind the public relations campaign in relation to Northern Ireland. You say you were chairman of this committee. Is this believable? What expertise did you have in this area?

UO'C: None, other than I was a journalist with some reputation. I was writing for a leading newspaper and I had been writing journalism since the '50s.

VB: You describe how you found the representative of the Department of Foreign Affairs very unco-operative and you suggested that he was a minor functionary. This was Noel Dorr [who later became ambassador to the United Nations, to London, and secretary-general of the Department].

UO'C: He was a minor functionary at the time, he was third secretary.

VB: You are quite dismissive of Noel Dorr?

UO'C: He was a pain in the neck at the time, he was acting for his masters [in the Department of Foreign Affairs]. There was a big division at that time between Jack Lynch and Hugh McCann, and Noel Dorr was McCann's representative there. I was there in the middle of them.

VB: Paddy Hillery was Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time?

UO'C: I had nothing to do with him at all. I mean this was something that Lynch decided was necessary. I had absolute access to Lynch at that time. I could see him at any time. He may have been wrong in accepting my views; he very often didn't, but he used me in that sense.

VB: You were disappointed that Liam Cosgrave, when he became Taoiseach, didn't use you in a similar way?

UO'C: Not disappointed. I offered my services, which up to that time had been successful. I was never paid for anything that I did there. I was foolish enough to offer them to Cosgrave because Conor Cruise O'Brien had collared that, he had become "Minister for Information", and Cosgrave suggested that I write to him about it, about the job.

VB: Did you?

UO'C: No.

VB: Why?

UO'C: I may have, but I doubt it. I just possibly may have written a formal letter. I wouldn't work under him. Could you?

VB: Have you had a happy life?

UO'C: I would think so, yes. I always have been happy, very content.

VB: Are you happy now?

UO'C: Well, as you get older, I think you get less happy. You recognise too many things that you didn't recognise before.

VB: Like what?

UO'C: I suppose the structures of human nature which you inherited from your past, which you'd been given when you were young. You begin to see human nature in a much purer sense.

VB: Are you referring to your own human nature?

UO'C: No. You begin to see others. You see your own nature, too. You catch yourself on much quicker. You recognise sometimes when you are concealing your motives from yourself even . . .

VB: Are you lonely?

UO'C: No.

VB: Ever been lonely in your life?

UO'C: No. Never been lonely.

VB: Do you regret not having children?

UO'C: No, I don't. I mean the difficulty of handling children at an age when they don't know how to handle children. The whole modern idea of . . . People don't grow up until they are 35 now. That's because they are not brought up properly.

I have one nightmare still, that I got married by mistake, and the nightmare is that I am in a church and I'm at the back, and the priest says to the woman and the man `do you take this woman to be your lawful wife?' and somebody at the back of the church, somebody says `yes', and I'm married by mistake, and this is how I usually wake up, covered in sweat, but in an immense state of relief that it hasn't actually happened.

I think that looking at what's happening today and what has happened to marriage today, and the position of men in regards to the state, and regards the woman, I think I'm lucky. There's a terrible mirage of woman power, injustice perpetrated by the legal system. I think I would have become a drunkard.

VB: Who is the woman in the dream?

UO'C: The woman in the dream is anonymous. Just two people, that's the whole point. I'm in the church at the back. Maybe its a friend or something, but I don't think it is.

I get pulled into this terrible state which, I think, I have spent my life listening to taxi-drivers telling me they are living in bedsitters while their wives are at home with a fancy man and children, and every week they're in hock to their children, they can't get them. They have to pay for all this, and I think the present situation where women - they always have an advantage anyway, because of their sexual attractiveness to men - that, added on to equality and their means of using both together, means that they have an enormous part, and it's appalling. They use it and they don't have the sense . . . It takes a long time to learn fair play.