Retired Army colonel was one of Ireland's most prolific writers

 

Padraic O'Farrell, who died suddenly last week. was one of Ireland's most prolific writers and a man of many parts: author, arts critic, playwright, historian, newspaper columnist, essayist, biographer, dramatist, songwriter, producer and retired Army colonel.

At the time of his death he had 40 books to his credit, with four due for release in the coming months.

O'Farrell was born in Staplestown, Donadea, Co Kildare, a county he only recently returned to to launch a new book charting its history. He went to Knockbeg College in Carlow and spent a short while at UCD studying engineering and nurturing his love for theatre, before he joined the Army Cadets. He came to Mullingar in 1953 as a young second lieutenant with the 4th Field Artillery Regiment. He subsequently rose through the ranks to become a full colonel.

It was while in the Army that his writings were first published in An Cosantoir, the Army magazine. His humorous historical columns led to his first book, published by Mercier Press, founded by retired Army captain Sean Feehan

As a senior Army officer it was perhaps inevitable that much of his early work would have a military theme. His two editions of Whos Who in the Irish War of Independence, 1916-21 are seen by many as the definitive guide to the roles played by those on all sides of the divides in the birth of the nation. His anti-war stage production Where Poppies Grow... also applied his Army know-how to create a moving and applauded production, songs from which were performed at his funeral Mass.

Predominantly a non-fiction writer, O'Farrell was "a persistent prober" whose skills at presenting fact both entertained and educated. When writing fiction, he wrote with pace and verve; his dialogue crisp and credible and his characters always believable.

His best-selling Michael Collins book Rebel Heart (1996), set in the final three years of Collins' life, is a novel which weaves fact and fiction to create a story of courage and betrayal. Hugh Leonard said of the book: "It has the button-holing compulsion of a man met in a dark laneway. I can't wait to see the film version."

Similar plaudits have been afforded his latest novel Boss Croker. Launched just one day before his death, the novel charts the rise of the charming and corrupt Richard "Boss" Croker, the last great Irish "chief" of New York city. His extensive knowledge of Irish history is manifest in several key works including The '98 Reader: An Anthology of Song, Ballads, Prose and Poetry (1998) - a volume which collects a wide range of accounts of the 1798 rebellion. Green and Chaste and Foolish: Irish Literary and Theatrical Anecdotes (1994) a fine account of the life and times of the great characters of the Irish theatre and literary world.

Theatre was a great love and he contributed news and reviews to dozens of magazines and newspapers including The Irish Times.

He wrote scripts for Maureen Potter, Maureen Toal, Eileen Colgan and Anna Manahan and soon, he and his wife of 40 years Maureen threw themselves into bringing some theatrical magic to Westmeath where they wrote, staged and produced dozens of plays and revues. He also formed his own touring theatre company Lyncairn Theatre which staged popular drama all over the country.

O'Farrell was a tireless campaigner for an all-embracing arts centre and arts officer in Westmeath for years and only recently did his dream come true when Westmeath became the last county to appoint an arts officer.

Deeply contented with his life and that of his family, he married his beloved wife Maureen in 1956 and they had four children - Aisling, Declan, Niamh and Noel, all of whom are involved in the arts world.

His funeral took place at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, last Saturday with full military honours.

Padraic O¹Farrell: March 26th, 1932; November 6th, 2003