Troubles shooter – Frank McNally on an encounter with the late PJ O’Rourke

An Irishman’s Diary

The late PJ O’Rourke liked to joke – and did to me in person once – that after emigrating to America at the time of the Famine, his family became “the world’s only Protestant O’Rourkes”.

There was no soup involved, he explained: “My father’s mother died and my grandfather remarried, to a woman who was . . . I think the phrase ‘barking mad’ might cover it. But he couldn’t get an annulment, so he broke with the church and divorced her.”

This may have been an influence on PJ’s own evolution, into a libertarian conservative who loved baiting US Democrats (although not before a 1960s apprenticeship as a long-haired, leftist hippy).

It certainly seasoned his cynicism about such traditional Irish-American heroes as the Kennedys: “They have a vending machine for annulments,” he quipped. “There’s an 800 number they can ring.”


Still, he also enjoyed his ancient Hibernian pedigree, about which he was given a refresher course when visiting Belfast in 1988. Describing the trip in his black-comedy travelogue Holidays in Hell, he summed up, breezily:

"The best thing about the violence in Northern Ireland is that it's all so ancient and honourable. And I'm proud to say it began in the household of my own relative Tighernan O'Rourke, Prince of Breffni, when his comely wife Dervorgilla ran off with Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster."

In between the almost relentless wisecracks, there were occasional notes of despair

That essay was typical of the style that made him Rolling Stone magazine’s “investigative humorist”. He scoured West Belfast for one-liners, noting the high unemployment (“125 per cent if you accept the locals’ figures”), bad housing (the Divis tower was “built in the Sixties before city planners discovered that you can’t stack poor people who drink”) and the locals’ high levels of media sophistication (“so thoroughly journalised that urchins in the street ask, ‘Will you be needing a sound bite?’ and criticise your choice of shutter speeds”).

Driving to South Armagh, he was struck by the contrast between the area's reputation and appearance: "The worst Robert Frost poem couldn't conjure a landscape so tiresomely pretty, so unrelentingly restful to the eye".

He also marvelled at the British army’s ability to stand out everywhere there, thanks to their “jungle camouflage”. To his eyes, rural Northern Ireland was so lush and trim it looked like the work of an American country club designer: “The only uniform that would blend with this war-torn landscape would be orange pants, a purple sweater, white tasselled shoes and a five iron.”

But in between the almost relentless wisecracks, there were occasional notes of despair. His visit to Belfast coincided with the funerals of three young men killed in a Loyalist “spray-job” on a bar, for example.

Attending the funeral of one, Damien Devlin, he wrote: "His mother had already had another son killed, shot by the IRA for 'hooliganism'. She looked as good as dead as she followed the coffin from the church to the cemetery and watched her second boy buried in the same grave as the first".

It was ten years after that, in late 1998, when I met him. Ireland had been transformed in the meantime, and not just because of the Belfast Agreement.

'My gut is shot,' he told me. 'I've done my time in the bathrooms of the world'

O’Rourke had just published his latest globe-trotting book, a treatise on economics called Eat the Rich. The title lampooned the sort of slogan he might once have chanted, but his real free-market beliefs were in the ascendant almost everywhere then, including Dublin. He was delighted, though not surprised, by the embryonic Celtic Tiger: “You had a country that had never been industrialised, with low prices, a high level of education and low wage rates. That’s a recipe for high-tech.”

In person, as others have noted, he was affable and thoughtful, much less the smart-arse of the books. He had recently married for the second time, to a Catholic, and in a near-reverse of his grandfather’s experience, would later describe himself as a “Catholic fellow-traveller”.

But speaking of travel, he had had enough of it by then, at least in trouble spots with bad water. “My gut is shot,” he told me. “I’ve done my time in the bathrooms of the world.” His next book, therefore, would be set at home, a history of America viewed through the microcosm of his underachieving and “rather unattractive” native city: Toledo

Apart from being the scene of the protagonists' marriage breakdown in Kenny Rogers's Lucille, Toledo is not noted for excitement. Another country singer, John Denver – hardly a hell-raiser – once wrote a ballad complaining about its lack of nightlife. It might have been an inspired subject for an O'Rourke satire.

Alas, as it took his death to remind me, the proposed book seems to have been added to the city’s long list of things that never quite happened.