First encounters

In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE

In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE


is the author of 10 books, seven for adults, three for children. His first children's book, The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas, made him internationally famous. His third, The Terrible Thing Happened To Barnaby Brocket, was published recently. From Sandyford, Co Dublin, he lives in Rathfarnham with his partner

‘STEPHEN AND I first met when we were six or seven, when we were altar boys together in Balally, Dundrum. I grew up in Sandyford, he lived three or four minutes walk away. We took being altar boys seriously but it was fun. We’ve fallen in and out of friendship since then, have gone several years without seeing each other. Stephen was living in London for the past 10 years, and came back to Ireland a year ago. I had a strong desire to rebuild the friendship and we’ve seen a lot of each other since then.

“As kids and teenagers, we bonded over pop music. I was a Kate Bush fan, Stephen was a fan of Simple Minds and Pet Shop Boys. When you’re kids, it always seems that your friends have better stuff than you do, and Stephen had all this cool stuff: he had a double tape deck we used to do song mixes on and a Commodore 64 computer – I didn’t have anything like that.


“At around 14 or 15, our lives went different ways: we were never in the same school and I think he was more sociable than I was; I was shy. As a kid, I really looked up to him; as we got older, I really respected him, thought he was cooler. He went to UCD, I went to Trinity. Just after college, we got back together in a big way. We were both ambitious, wanted to do big things with our lives. He was going off to the States: that was in the 1990s . . . We fell out of touch, although we knew we could track each other down. Then 10 years ago he moved back to London, and I’m there quite a bit, so we saw each other.

“I don’t mind being thought of as a children’s author, although I’ve written seven novels for adults. The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas changed my life, gave me an international audience and financial independence. Now, at book festivals I’ll be part of the adult and children’s programmes.

“I never quite knew what Stephen did, thought he ran a small software business. We were out for a drink some weeks ago and I discovered that his computer company has hundreds of employees and offices all over the world. I nearly fell off my seat. Stephen’s very modest.

“We’ll talk about music, books, we have a similar sense of humour – he makes me laugh more than anyone I know. Now my partner, Con, and myself and Stephen and his wife, Dawn, go out together. I think I laugh so much around him because he is my oldest friend, we have that special shared history. It brings me back to my childhood. I had a great childhood and Stephen was very much a part of that. I was happiest playing with his Commodore 64, with his dad telling us to go outside and play.

"I don't think we've ever had a cross word."


owns an e-learning company, Kineo, which he set up in London with two partners 10 years ago. It has offices in eight countries and employs 200 people. Originally from Sandyford, he moved back to Ireland last year and lives in Ranelagh, with his wife, Dawn, and three children

‘I THINK WE were around eight when we met as altar boys and the first thing I remember is that he told some really filthy jokes. John was always very, very funny, a ready wit and I fancied myself as being similar – we gravitated towards each other as messers. We lived five minutes’ bike ride from each other and always picked the same mass every Sunday so we could hang out.

“It was the golden age of pop music, the early to mid-1980s. We used to buy a lot of records and from the age of nine to 14 or 15, we’d pore over albums, reading the lyrics. We’d buy Smash Hits and read it from cover to cover, analyse how a journalist had made a witty aside.

“I kept a diary from the age of about nine onwards and he looms large in it – flicking through them, there’s a lot of, we went to Funderland, we went on a sponsored cycle to Wicklow. Those days we were in each other’s pockets a lot. We both played guitar, wrote some songs together.

“From that period of closeness, we drifted for quite a long time. I’d studied commerce, then did an MA in drama in UCD. I dabbled in theatre, but we were still in recession and in 1992, I went to work for a bank.

“John and I met on the 44 bus coming out of town. I walked up and re-introduced myself. We got back into a short, intense friendship; we were both planning to leave Ireland. His writing had become serious. I showed him some of my playwrighting, he showed me some of his short stories. Then he went to England, and I went to Chicago.

“I got into theatre there a bit, then taught in high school. Then I saw an ad for people interested in finance, writing and education, and got a job in this new industry of computer-based training that eventually was called e-learning. I moved to London in 2000 and started a company called Kineo in 2005 with two other guys.

“John and I reconnected. Then I moved back to Ireland last year. My wife, Dawn, who’s from Mayo, and I have three children and wanted to bring them up in Ireland. I was at a recent reading of John’s with Aoife, my eldest, who’s eight, thinking, we’ve almost come full circle – she’s the age we were when we met. I read his books to Aoife and Maeve (5). They both think John’s hilarious and it’s really exciting for them.

“It’s true that we’ve never had a cross word. We’re very open and honest with each other. I’d consider myself a confidant, we can talk about practically everything, about the down moments in our lives, and we’re able to support each other.

“For someone so successful, he has an enormous amount of time for his friends. And we don’t just talk about the past – we still spend time talking about pop music.”