Lee Dunne obituary: A colourful writer of working-class Dublin life

With his banned novels and a BBC sex comedy, Dunne achieved a certain notoriety

Writer Lee Dunne in 2007. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Writer Lee Dunne in 2007. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Birth: December 21st, 1934
Death: April 10th, 2021

Irish author, playwright and scriptwriter Lee Dunne has died in Bray, Co Wicklow, following a long illness.

The Dublin-born writer was best known for his first novel, Goodbye to the Hill (1965), a semi-autobiographical account of a rebellious young man growing up in poverty in 1950s Dublin. It was an instant success and caused great controversy for its frank depiction of sex and alcohol. Paddy Maguire, the lead character was described by one critic as “an ambitious chancer – making up in sex and scheming what he lacked in breeding”.

Dunne was also the creator and chief scriptwriter for the RTÉ Radio 1 series Harbour Hotel. He wrote the first 750 episodes of the long-running lunchtime drama, set in a fictional fishing village in 1970s Ireland. Dunne also wrote for other radio dramas, including the The Kennedys of Castleross, and Convenience Corner.

Dunne’s third novel, Paddy Maguire Is Dead (1972), a graphic account of an Irish man’s descent into alcoholism, was banned in Ireland. In an appearance on RTÉ’s The Late Late Show, Dunne called the censor a cretin, which led to the banning of his next six books. Dunne appealed the decision of the Irish Censorship Board and was represented in court by barrister and future president of Ireland Mary Robinson. After his appeal was rejected, he provocatively handed out free copies of his books to the public on Grafton Street, daring gardaí to arrest him.

Lee Dunne
Lee Dunne

Christopher Lee Dunne grew up in Mount Pleasant Buildings, a block of flats in an area known as The Hill between Ranelagh and Rathmines. He was the fourth of six children of Mick and Katy Dunne. His father worked for the ESB at Poolbeg station. Lee began working on a milk round at the age of five, giving up his meagre earnings to his mother for the housekeeping jar. Later, he got a newspaper round and a job as a delivery boy for a local butcher. He loved the cinema; the American actor, Roy Rogers – known as the King of the Cowboys – was his personal hero.

He left school at the age of 13 and inveigled his way into his first job as a clerk in an insurance company. With money in his pocket, he began drinking while working the club and cabaret circuit in Dublin. This led to a stint with a touring troupe of theatrical players where his love of writing was born.

Jersey boy

He moved to Jersey in the Channel islands to work as a hotel barman, where he met Jean Allison. Following a period working as a steward on a cruise liner, Dunne returned to London, where the couple married in 1959.

Dunne, living first in Fulham and later in East Sheen, worked as a cabbie by day and wrote at the kitchen table by night. He had his first success as a TV scriptwriter for the BBC series The Troubleshooters, and Callan. He sent Goodbye to the Hill to publisher Hutchinson as an unsolicited manuscript and it went on to sell more than a million copies. A planned three-week stay in New York to publicise the American edition of the book turned into six months while his wife and three children remained in London.

He was a charismatic hell raiser, but his alcohol-fuelled lifestyle caught up with him. By 1969 his marriage was over and Dunne moved back to Dublin, where he gave up drinking and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The banning of his novels gave Dunne a certain notoriety, as did the film Paddy (adapted from Goodbye to the Hill) with Des Cave and Milo O’Shea, and the BBC sex comedy Wedding Night, starring Dennis Waterman.

In 1978 he wrote the stage version of Goodbye to the Hill, which was first performed to critical and popular acclaim at Eblana Theatre in Dublin. The play was revived in a function room of the Regency Hotel in Dublin in September 1990, where it ran for almost three years.

Throughout the 1970s Dunne wrote a series of paperbacks about the sexual romps of a London taxi driver. His long-term relationship with Nuala Fitzsimons led to the couple’s marriage in 1979. And although he had kicked the booze, Dunne began smoking prodigious amounts of marijuana, which led to a mental breakdown and time in the Rutland Centre, a residential addiction centre from which he emerged a changed man. Following Fitzsimons to New York, he began working on the Broadway version of Goodbye to the Hill, which never came to fruition due to copyright issues. The couple returned to live in Co Wicklow, where Dunne began writing more novels and touring the country with his one-man show.

Value for money

Throughout the 1980s Dunne was a regular contributor to RTÉ’s Live at Three show and co-hosted RTÉ’s weekly arts show, On the Town. He also wrote the script for Inside, a television prison drama series directed by Gerry Stembridge.

Following the break-up of his second marriage, Dunne moved back to Dublin, where in 1990 he met American woman Maura McCartan. The couple married in 1994 and through Maura’s influence, Dunne began to practise transcendental meditation and to study Greek philosophy. He continued to write plays and novels, including Requiem for Regan in 1990 and his autobiographical works No Time for Innocence and My Middle Name Is Lucky. In his 1970s he completed a master’s in screenwriting at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire.

When asked in an interview in 2004 how he would like to be remembered, Dunne said: “I’d like it if people thought that I was true to the spirit of Dublin in my work, that I told a good anecdote and that I gave good value for money.” A diagnosis of dementia led to the deterioration of his health in later years, during which time he was lovingly cared for by McCaGoodbye to the Hill is now considered essential reading on working-class Dublin life, and a stage production with a new script by best-selling Irish author and playwright Eoin Colfer is expected in 2022.

Lee Dunne is survived by his third wife, Maura, his children from his first marriage, Sarah, Peter and Jonathan, grandchildren and brother Brendan. He was predeceased by his first wife, Jean; his second wife, Nuala; and his siblings, Jimmy, Joe, Rose and Michael.