Sunday 23 October 2016

The Ginger Man: Sixty years of the book Brendan Behan said would outsell the Bible

JP Donleavy outside Levington Park in 2011.
JP Donleavy outside Levington Park in 2011.
Actor Johnny Depp is to endorse a new men's fragrance

In the impoverished "Dreary Eden" which Dublin's Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, cultivated for his 1950s flock, conformity and rigid respectability seemingly ruled.

McQuaid, however, cultivated the image of himself as a charitable patron of starving artists - or at least of one starving poet - by arriving every Christmastime to Patrick Kavanagh's small flat.

But Kavanagh's hopes of largesse from this prince of the church were invariably crushed. Rather than cash or bottles of whiskey, he almost invariably got fobbed off with black mufflers which old ladies had knitted and sent as gifts to the Archbishop.

But 60 years ago Kavanagh could have got his revenge by presenting McQuaid with an unwelcome gift in return: a copy of the most scandalous book written about Dublin since Ulysses.

The novel was called The Ginger Man, the author was JP Donleavy, and it was first published on this day 60 years ago.

But there were several reasons why Kavanagh was unlikely to have presented a copy to McQuaid.


The first is that even second-hand woollen mufflers are not to be sneezed at when you are poor.

The second is that while The Ginger Man became immediately famous, copies became hard to find because it was instantly banned not just in Ireland, but also in Donleavy's native America.

Indeed, when rejecting the book, one American publisher advised Donleavy that "were we to publish it here in Boston we would be tarred and feathered. There's libellous obscenity in that manuscript".

In the long list of McQuaid's paranoid obsessions - ranging from the evils of tampons to subversive organisations like Muintir Na Tire - Trinity College loomed largest as a bastion of evil controlled, in his mind, by a coterie of Masonic Protestants. If he didn't much like the Irish Protestants who went there, he cared even less for the carefree, liberated, urbane American former servicemen who arrived to study at Trinity when World War Two ended, with their fees and a living allowance paid under the GI Bill.

Ireland had been a censored society during the war, but these brash, free-thinking young Americans were a breath of fresh air. No two stood out more than JP Donleavy and his friend and compatriot, the legendary Gainor Crist, whom Donleavy once called a "saint, though of a Rabelaisian kind". Crist's attitudes, antics and exploits are widely seen as the inspiration behind Sebastian Dangerfield, the hero of The Ginger Man.

Not all of Dublin was cowed by the tyrannical piety which McQuaid tried to impose. Older writers met in The Palace Bar, but younger and freer spirits like Anthony Cronin and Brendan Behan haunted McDaid's.


From here they undertook manic late-night drives at closing time to small pubs in the Wicklow Mountains, allowed to open late for "bona fide" travellers, and wilder and more manic drives back for all-night parties in a maze of Georgian cellars, known as The Catacombs, in Fitzwilliam Place.

Crist and Donleavy quickly befriended these kindred spirits. While Donleavy initially gained a reputation as a painter - he left Trinity without having bothered to complete his degree - he soon turned to writing. From a cottage in Wicklow he began to create an unforgettable (and unforgiving) portrait of post-war Dublin, seen through a prism of the dubiously moral exploits of his character, Sebastian Dangerfield.

TS Eliot's The Wasteland is regarded as a great poem because his friend, Ezra Pound, took a red line and cut the manuscript in half. Something similar happened when Donleavy returned to his cottage in 1951 to find the place so untidy he presumed he'd been burgled.

His supply of drink was considerably depleted, but it was only when he found that the manuscript of his novel left on his desk contained hundreds of handwritten corrections did he realise that Brendan Behan had visited.

Donleavy forgave Behan, not least because the suggestions were frequently helpful and astute, but also because Behan confidently predicted that "this book of yours is going to go around the world and beat the bejaysus out of the Bible".

It may not have outsold the Bible, but it sold millions of copies and has never been out of print.

Tonight, in the Pavilion Bar in Trinity College, a handsome 60th anniversary edition is published by Dublin's Lilliput Press, with a foreword by Johnny Depp - one of its numerous admirers.

It is a far cry from the book's first publication in 1955, when, again on Behan's advice, he sent it to the Olympia Press in Paris. A letter from the publisher asking him if he wanted to use a pseudonym as "my press has a rather scandalous reputation and it might harm you… to publically admit any connection with us" should have alerted him to trouble ahead.

To his shock Donleavy found that his book was published in a series of soft-core pornographic novels called The Travellers Companion with titles like Tender was My Flesh.

Donleavy's battle to retrieve the rights and have it viewed as a serious work of fiction is as entertaining as The Ginger Man itself.

But Esquire magazine was soon calling it "stunning … brilliant" and its fame resulted in a 1959 London stage adaptation starring Richard Harris.

When it transferred to Dublin's Gaiety Theatre it outraged Irish audiences and closed after three nights when Donleavy refused to make cuts demanded by the Gaiety under pressure from McQuaid.

It is about the only failure the book has known in 60 years. The Dublin it describes with verve may be gone, but the writing remains as vibrant as ever.

I know it is summer in Dublin, but everyone at tonight's launch should wear a woollen muffler in memory of that great patron of the arts, John Charles McQuaid. He closed down the stage version but would turn in his grave at that thought of that vibrant book still being celebrated in Dublin - and in Trinity College of all places.

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