The ‘Supervet’: ‘The last time I nearly ran into Bono I peed on my own hand’
Noel Fitzpatrick on his heroes, getting on with animals, and Pringles’ part in his success
Noel Fitzpatrick with his dog Keira, his ’closest friend”.
Noel Fitzpatrick really, really wants to meet Bono. I’m in the hospitality room in Eason on O’Connell Street in Dublin, and Fitzpatrick, better known to the viewing public as the “Supervet” of the Channel 4 programme, is enthusing about the U2 concert he was at in Croke Park the night before.
“I have never met Bono. I would love to meet Bono. The last time I nearly ran into him, I peed on my own hand in the toilets where he came in to have a pee, I got so nervous. I still feel like just a small boy from Ballyfin, and when I am at concerts, I can escape everything in my mind and also everything in life, because I get fully involved emotionally.”
The sofa is really too small for two, so Fitzpatrick is sitting up on the arm at one side of it, his Doc Marten boots on the seat, while I perch beneath with my iPad. He is talking at top speed, which doesn’t surprise me, having read his just-published memoir, Becoming the Supervet. Fitzpatrick seems to do everything in his life at an accelerated rate, aside from performing specialised surgery in his practice, where he has become famous for his pioneering surgery in fitting small animals with bionic limbs.
Take the book, for instance. He wrote most of it in a fortnight, which is unfortunately evident, to this reader at least. It’s a shame, because Fitzpatrick has lots of thought-provoking things to say, and a genuinely interesting life story, which is certainly not the case with all those who become well-known through a television show. More time with the manuscript would have made a much better book.
How long did it take to write?
“Forever,” Fitzpatrick says, and sounds like he means it. “No, in real life it only took a couple of weeks, but I have been writing bits of it in my head and bits of it on my laptop since they told me they were going to publish it, which was early in 2018. So I knew what the narrative arc was, and I had written bits of it when I had a moment or when I had a few hours. I think I wrote the final words in the book three weeks before it was published. I wanted it to be as uncensored as it could possibly be. As it turned out, the publishers took nothing out. I wanted it to be as raw as it could possibly be, as if I was speaking it.”
He missed his deadline a few times. “They expected me to finish many weeks before I did, but I was busy operating,” he explains. “I need to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because the cases that I operate on nowadays are very specialised.”
Self-imposed call 24/7
I ask is it not unusual for someone to be on self-imposed call 24/7 throughout the year?
“Well, you are if you are a farmer, like my daddy was. I am very much my daddy’s son.”
In the book, Fitzpatrick uses the expressions “Mammy and Daddy” throughout his memoir. Considering he is now all of 50, it reads oddly; a form of parental address we’re more used to hear coming from a child. Did he think it might sound strange to a reader?
He is genuinely flabbergasted when I point this out. “Doesn’t everyone call their parents Mammy and Daddy? I thought everyone did. It never even occurred to me, that question; that it would be in the least bit strange. Because my mammy is still my mammy. My daddy is no longer here, unfortunately. But maybe I am an eternal child.”
I can’t help thinking the late Anthony Clare would have loved to have Fitzpatrick as a guest on his radio show, In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, because there is so much to unpack in his life.
He was raised on a farm in Ballyfin, Co Laois. The school he attended has since been converted to the ultra-luxury Ballyfin Demense hotel; a fact that would have probably astounded Fitzpatrick’s fellow students and tormentors. There are some very distressing accounts of how assiduously the Ballyfin boys of the Patrician College bullied the earnest and studious Fitzpatrick of childhood. He was consistently beaten, had his bicycle vandalised, his schoolbooks and copy books ruined. No adults intervened, although it’s difficult to understand how such prolonged sadism could have been concealed for so long.
His one true childhood companion was his dog Pirate, who couldn’t escape either, as he was permanently chained up in the cattle shed when not working. It was Pirate he cried with in the dark of the cattle shed “many nights during those awful years”. It was to the dog, not his parents, that he showed his Student of the Year trophy at the end of his first year of secondary school, before hiding it in the hay, where it remained.
Although he writes with warmth about his parents, it’s evident that “Daddy” wasn’t the most empathetic of people. The closest his father gets to acknowledging his son’s many achievements is in the caption Fitzpatrick writes to go with his graduation photograph. He had just graduated as a veterinary surgeon from UCD, and his parents were present. He writes: “I love this photo because it was the first time I knew Daddy was proud, even though he only said it with his eyes.”
Since those days, Fitzpatrick has moved to England, and built up a hugely successful practice. Aside from his work as a vet, he has always gravitated towards a public platform. He has been, variously, the face of an Irish knitwear company; an occasional actor (Casualty, Heartbeat, The Bill); and for the last few years, the likeable, popular and astoundingly talented “Supervet” of the Channel 4 series, which profiles the seemingly-impossible cases of small animals that need serious mending.
He also does “Live Shows” at immense venues in different cities, and delivers many academic lectures. “I have been writing lectures in the back of a tour bus between cities,” he says. “Probably Bono doesn’t have to do that. (I get the distinct impression he definitely wants to meet Bono.)
He usually sleeps on-site at the surgery, has already told me he was answering work emails in the taxi en route to the interview, and that he will be operating on return to England that evening, after a long day of doing Irish media. But he completely denies being a workaholic. “I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he declares.
Litany of work
I beg to differ. His entire book is a litany of work, work, and more work. He never sees the cities he is in, but he knows how many Pringles there are in a mini-bar can. For example, his routine for writing his US lectures is to work by the “Pringles Clock”. On arrival in his hotel room, he opens a can of Pringles and sets them out, one by one, around the room. There are between 24 and 26 in a can, and he allows himself one every half hour until they are all gone, and the lectures are written. There’s not much time for sleeping or sightseeing after that.
He cries a lot. He tells me the last time was the previous week, again in an American hotel room, exhausted from overwork and lack of sleep. There’s something both refreshing and disconcerting about his honesty and general enthusiasm, or is it naivety? (At the end of the interview, he signs my book, and when I look at it later, it reads: “To Rosita. Thank you for being a beautiful light. Biggest hugs, Noel xx.” )
His own dog is a Border terrier (named after Keira Knightley). “Keira is my little pal, my confidante, my counsellor, my calm in the face of any storm and my closest friend.”
I point out that that is a big ask for one small dog. How, for instance, does his non-verbal dog counsel him?
“For me, counselling is a two-way street of simpatico, that you can get without verbal communication,” he says. I don’t really know what that means, but there’s no more time left, and there are some 175 people waiting patiently downstairs in the bookshop for him to sign books.
Later that same day, en route to another interview, Fitzpatrick rescues a lost swan on a Dublin street. The ad-hoc video of him walking in the rain after the swan, arms outstretched like wings, then expertly wrapping it in his jacket, and putting it carefully into the canal is subsequently widely shared on social media, which is where I saw it. Maybe that’s what Fitzpatrick meant when he talked about simpatico. I do know one thing: I’m sure even Bono would be impressed by that video.
Listening to the Animals: Becoming the Supervet, by Noel Fitzpatrick, is published by Trapeze, £14.99