Hedge schooled: the lure of suburban privet for well-oiled writers

An Irishman’s Diary

Readers may recall that Wednesday's Diary was accompanied by a picture of Patrick Kavanagh, sitting with his friend Elizabeth O'Toole and her children in their garden at Priory Grove, Stillorgan in 1961. This brought back inherited memories for the writer and playwright Gerard Lee, who was born a year later and declared on Twitter: "That's my da's hedge behind - we lived next door."

There has been a pleasing development in the tale since, he tells me. The column inspired the Lees to renew acquaintance, not with the hedge, but with their long-lost neighbours, the O’Tooles, after a lapse of more than 50 years. They contacted them through Elizabeth’s literary agent and spent all day Wednesday swapping old photos and stories. “A wonderful happenstance, and thanks to you,” said Gerry, making my day as well.

Strange to say, this is not the only anecdote I know involving a famous Irish writer and a hedge in Stillorgan. Or maybe the other hedge was in Donnybrook. Either way, it involves Flann O’Brien, who circa 1960 moved from Belmont Avenue to Waltersland Road, the last of his many addresses.

When Maebh Long was compiling what became The Collected Letters of Flann O'Brien a few years ago, she put a call out to Irish Times readers who might still be harbouring missives that had so far escaped the archivists.


One of the replies was from Orla Davin Carroll, who as a child was a near neighbour of the real-life Flann, Brian O'Nolan, a good friend of her parents and a regular visitor. Family lore had it that he had first dropped in when mistaking their door for his. He also wrote them several letters, including one from hospital in his last days, which made it into Maebh's collection.

Orla's memories of O'Nolan were gratifyingly at odds with the picture presented by his biographer Anthony Cronin and others. Cronin recalled a man who, like many great comic writers, never laughed and rarely said anything funny. But on the contrary, Orla insisted, there was always laughter when he visited.

There was often drink too, of course. Hence one night when he left their house to go home and, short as the journey was, didn’t complete it without mishap. Sometime later, the Davin-Carrolls looked out to find that he had crashed into their hedge and was now asleep there. So they sent him on his way again, but the hole in the hedge lingered long afterwards, as a kind of monument.

Not an inapt monument for a man of many pseudonyms, whose real self was permanently elusive. On a related note, the best proposal I have yet seen for a Flann O’Brien statue in Dublin (a still unrealised project) is David O’Kane’s idea of a wide-brimmed hat connected to an overcoat and other items of apparel, but with no body inside. Backlit from below, it would nevertheless project O’Nolan’s unmistakable silhouette on to a wall decorated with his writings.

Attempts to analyse the man and his work continue; the call for papers has just gone out to scholars wishing to address the sixth biennial conference of the International Flann O'Brien Society. Pandemic be damned, it is scheduled to take place at Boston College in April, the first time it will have been held outside Europe.

Keynote speakers include the aforementioned Maebh Long, Kevin Barry, Fintan O'Toole, Catherine Flynn, and myself. I don't know what I'm speaking about yet, but "The Literary Hedges of South Dublin" is an early contender. In the meantime, anyone else who wants to present a paper should consult sites.bc.edu/flannobriensix/ for details and deadline.

Leaving the leafy southern suburbs aside for now, I’m afraid there have been no new leads in this week’s other Patrick Kavanagh column, Thursday’s one about the supposed attempt on his life in 1959 by the shadowy figures in the Irish hay-shed painting underworld.

It must be said that his main biographer Antoinette Quinn was of the opinion that Kavanagh had merely fallen into the Grand Canal that night, and for similar reasons that propelled O'Nolan into the hedge, but then constructed an elaborate story about it from imagination or paranoid delusion.

His expose of the painting racket had, however, provoked genuine anger, which may well have bordered on the homicidal. I have been reminded that Cronin did once confront one of the alleged plotters, whose denial of involvement was somewhat qualified. “I didn’t throw Kavanagh into any canal,” the man said. “But […] I’d like to get my hands on the fellow who pulled the ould b*****ks out.”