Ulick O’Connor obituary: A man of contradictions, who quarrelled with friends, foes and bus conductors
Writer, historian and TV commentator saw himself as outspoken, courageous and aggressive
The writer and historian Ulick O’Connor at home in Rathgar in 2001. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Ulick O’Connor as Oliver St John Gogarty in his RTE film about the writer, An Offering of Swans.
Ulick O Connor at the Aosdána General Assembly in 2013. Photo: David Sleator/The Irish Times
Born: October 12th, 1928
Died: October 7th, 2019
Ulick O’Connor, who has died aged 90, spoke his mind regardless of the cost to others. Perceived frequently as rude, he saw himself as outspoken, courageous and aggressive.
One could focus exclusively on the positive, rather like his biography of Oliver St John Gogarty. But obituary writers should note the literary advice of Virginia Woolf: choose only those truths “which transmit personality’’.
O’Connor liked to recall that his family formed part of the elite during the first Free State administration. Being a man of contradictions he came to admire Charles Haughey, who as taoiseach would appoint him to the board of the Abbey Theatre.
Describing marriage as a form of warfare, O’Connor admitted he never married because he wanted to do so much with his life which he would not have been able to accomplish had he the responsibility of a wife and family. “Writing is the biggest part of my life,’’ he declared, and “a writer’s life is selfish.’’
O’Connor was born in Dublin in 1928, the first child of Prof Matthew O’Connor, of the Royal College of Surgeons, and his wife, Eileen (nee Murphy).
He was a noted sportsman, winning the Irish pole vault title while still a schoolboy. Two years later he won the British universities welterweight boxing championship. Throughout his literary career, he maintained that physical exercise unleashed intellectual energy.
On leaving St Mary’s College, Rathmines, he studied philosophy at UCD and took his degree in 1949. He was called to the Bar in 1951 and practised as a barrister for 15 years. He completed a diploma in dramatic literature at Loyola College in New Orleans, while attending the law school there.
O’Connor could be a charming companion – he particularly liked the walk around Bohernabreena reservoir – but he sought an admiring audience rather than critical comment. People who fail to control their temper are described variously as emotionally immature or highly strung. He quarrelled with friends, foes and bus conductors. He was indifferent to religion.
Central to all his pursuits was the performer, but he dedicated most of his energy, determination and singlemindedness towards becoming a writer. For a long time he seemed to be everywhere: barrister, broadcaster, pundit, lecturer, star of the one-man show genre, literary critic, writing about sport, and recreating the Dublin of the literary revival through a vividly anecdotal style.
Oliver St John Gogarty – Buck Mulligan in Ulysses – launched O’Connor’s literary career by appointing him his biographer. An appearance on the Johnny Carson show started him on the profitable US lecture circuit.
At home he became the enfant terrible of the Late, Late Show and other RTÉ programmes. When his Gogarty biography was published, he travelled to Monaco to present a copy to Princess Grace. His biography of Brendan Behan appeared in 1970.
As the Northern crisis erupted, O’Connor spoke out on the nationalist side with a passion guaranteed to alienate during the years when republicanism was equated with terrorism. He was proud of his great-grandfather, the Fenian and Parnellite MP Matt Harris.
His verse plays written in the Japanese Noh form, accompanied by music and dance, were performed at the Dublin International Theatre Festival and off Broadway. He published three books of verse.
He was capable of both passion and compassion. In 1979 he wrote a poem about children begging on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin: “Their faces with that weird smile/ Unaware of pain/ Because they have never known anything else.’’
In the same year he described the republican prisoners protesting in Long Kesh for political status as “saintly’’. He said of Bobby Sands: “Any man that will suffer for his principles is a person the human race needs to survive.’’
As the hunger strike crisis reached its tragic climax, he was among those who delivered a petition at the British embassy in Dublin on July 18th, 1981, when a march ended in violence.
In his introduction to Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song, an anthology of the writings of Sands, O’Connor wrote: “Bobby Sands, like [Terence] McSwiney, has by his non-violent sacrifice brought the truth of his people’s predicament before the world. It was the Irish mind against the English one . . . Roy Mason, that bitter Yorkshireman who oversaw the abolition of special category status for political prisoners, could not have been expected to comprehend what he was up against. It was a tradition that went back before the time of Christ – ‘procedure by fasting’.’’
His Civil War play, Executions, was described as “a catharsis on the bloody origins of our State’’ by an Irish Times reviewer. In a penetrating introduction to the published text, O’Connor wrote: “A decolonised people inherit many confused conditioned reflexes from centuries of being governed by an imperial power. The working of these reflexes out of the national mind is a painful process and, it would seem, a long one.’’
Appointed to the board of Abbey Theatre in 1982, he was also a member of Aosdána.
“A biographer is an artist on oath,’’ O’Connor said in one interview. His Celtic Dawn: A Portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance, published in 1984, was an attempt to bring biography into this new realm. Celtic Dawn, which took him eight years to write, portrays the literary revival through the biographies of seven leading personalities.
O’Connor won the Irish-American Cultural Institute’s English-language literary award the following year. He deserves his wish to be remembered, not as a combative personality, but “as having written one good poem or one good book that would outlast me’’.