Confessions of a primary school teacher and self-publishing phenomenon

There are serious undertones to humorous tales, says The Irish Times former bridge correspondent George Ryan

‘Can I have a quiet word?”

Bookseller Des Kenny’s heart sank as he knew he had no money on him when he was approached at work one Saturday morning by a man he had never met.

“I was sure he was looking for a loan. He was a writer, he told me – aren’t we all, I thought – and then, to my surprise, he pulled from his pockets three black-covered paperbacks,” says Kenny.

The man introduced himself as The Irish Times bridge correspondent George Ryan, and author of the then smallest bestseller in Irish publishing, Bones of Bridge.

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However, he was also a primary school teacher who had decided to cash in on his experiences through several works of fiction, No Time for Work, Vexed at his own Funeral and Time for a Smile.

The self-published tales were told through the eyes of an “assistant teacher”, who had found himself without a job after “14 headmasters, 17 parish priests and 28 department inspectors, due to an inordinate fondness for drink”.

Such was the character’s passionate about horses that he used the racing pages of newspapers to teach reading in class, while betting odds went up on the blackboard during “sums”. He had a dog called Lazarus, a colleague called Cecil Chuckleworth, and many lady companions with whom he did “short lines and long lines, single lines and double-cross lines” during his various postings.

The late sports journalist Con Houlihan described Ryan as "probably the funniest man at large in Ireland today", while former Irish Times journalist Deaglán de Breadún observed that Ryan "does for first-level education what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did for confidence in the banking system".

Kenny quickly realised back then that he had “three classics of outrageous comedy” on his hands. They took on “cult status”, he says, and more than 20,000 copies were purchased at a time when a sale of 3,000 for a well-known work was considered to be good.

“You can tell all the lies you want!” laughs Ryan now, neither knowing nor particularly caring as to whether he has set any “independent” publishing records. For 43 years, he has driven the breadth, length and width of the island, teaching a card game he loves and writing a weekly Bridge column for this newspaper until his recent retirement.

"I started with Whist at around the age of eight at home in Point Road in Dundalk, Co Louth, " he says. "I got into Bridge in a big way when I began working, and eventually gave up the primary school work to become an instructor and also to write full time."

His guinea pigs for his humour were in the classroom, where, he admits, he would “have the kids in stitches”. He would then give his pupils long essays, and whip out a copybook himself and start to write.

When popping in to D'Olier Street on a Sunday night with his Bridge Notes, he would ask Irish Times colleagues, including sub-editor Arthur Reynolds, to read over his fictional work. His first book was dedicated to Reynolds, who marvelled at Ryan's ability to loads the paperbacks into the boot of his car before Bridge conventions and undertake his own marketing and distribution.

His daughter, journalist Áine Ryan, says when he was on a crusade to sell his books, nobody could stop him, be it “hotel waiters, train conductors, even traffic queues”.

“I remember how much he mortified me when – way back in my 20s – we would be sitting in a hotel dining room eating dinner, and he would walk over to some random couple with one of his books opened at a certain page and say: ‘Just read this paragraph’,”she says.

“Next thing they would be laughing their heads off and he would have sold a copy.”

"Well, it's true," her father laughs. "One man told me that his old mother kept No Time for Work at her bedside and she would read a bit when she couldn't sleep and comfort herself with a good giggle."

“But underneath there was a serious side to it, in that it was also about the completely chaotic life of an alcoholic,” Ryan says. “Most people don’t understand the alcoholic mind, but there is a striving for perfection and a desire to do everything to excess. So when I eventually went to Alcoholics Anonymous, expecting to find a crowd of down and outs and actually finding respectably dressed types like myself, I felt completely at home.”

Bridge has been a passion that took no such physical toll. “It’s a game of intelligence and reasoning, and you have to have good communication with your playing partner,” he explains.

“Most couples can’t play together as there might be too many rows the next day about what went wrong in a game,” he says. “One bank manager I knew when I lived in Tullamore, Co Offaly, took it so seriously that he developed insomnia through worrying too much about his mistakes.”

Des Kenny, who lists Ryan in his own compilation, Kenny's Choice: 101 Irish Books You Must Read, classifies him as an unrecognised self-publishing phenomenon. "We could never sell enough of him, and even after his last reprint in 2008, the books sold out in weeks.

“I once had a man come in looking for a copy who turned out to be a former pupil of Ryan’s, and I asked him if the exploits were really fiction,” Kenny says.

‘“It’s all true,’ he told me. ‘Every single word’.”